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  January 20, 2004

More Than 650 Graduate At
First December Commencement

More than 650 seniors who graduated in December will go down in the annals of University history as the first mid-year Commencement class.

Image: Snow falls as students walk to Jorgensen Center for the December commencement.

Snow was falling as students walked to Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts for the December graduation ceremony.

Photos by Peter Morenus
Image: The interior of the Jorgensen Center..

A view of the winter Commencement ceremony inside the Jorgensen Center.

With snow falling on their black caps, the students marched into Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts on Dec. 14 to cheers from their families and friends.

Keynote speaker Franklin Chang-Diaz, an astronaut who has walked in space and is one of UConn's most celebrated alumni, offered sage advice to the graduating class.

"The world we inhabit today is every bit as exciting as when I lived in your shoes, said Chang-Diaz, who graduated in 1973. "There's a whole universe out there to be discovered.

"The first human to walk on Mars is already living and may be sitting in this auditorium," he added.

"The University opened doors to me and an awesome future," Chang-Diaz said. "I hope that's true for you."

He said he came to the United States from his native Costa Rica at the age of 18 with $50 in his pocket and "a suitcase filled with dreams."

Astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz

Astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz '73 gives the Commencement address.

Photos by Peter Morenus
President Philip E. Austin, Franklin Chang-Diaz, and Provost John Petersen.

President Philip E. Austin, Franklin Chang-Diaz, and Provost John Petersen share a laugh during the winter Commencement ceremony at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts.

Captivated by space and the Soviet-built Sputnik, he had written to NASA about becoming an astronaut and received a letter back suggesting that he first needed to come to the United States to pursue his dream.

He enrolled at Hartford High School, where he learned English and earned a state-sponsored four-year scholarship to UConn.

There was a glitch, however. "The scholarship was only open to United States citizens, and someone confused Costa Rica with Puerto Rico,"

Chang-Diaz said, to laughter. But the University's administration and the Connecticut legislature made an exception and gave him a scholarship for one year. That was the start he needed.

"No one gets anywhere without someone's help," he said.

He became a U.S. citizen in 1977.

Chang-Diaz, who is now director of NASA's Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory in Houston, watched the moon landing from the Student Union during his freshman year at UConn. He said the historic event brought his dreams of going into space into greater focus.

Chang-Diaz received a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from UConn in 1973 and earned a doctorate in applied plasma physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1977. While there, he learned of his acceptance to the astronaut corps.

"I received a phone call on a spring day in Boston that I had been accepted. I'll never forget that day, and I was so excited I almost got run over by a taxi cab," he recalled.

An astronaut since 1981, Chang-Diaz has logged more than 1,600 hours in space, including nearly 20 hours in three-spacewalking missions.

He said he hopes multi-nation collaborative ventures in space will bring together people around the world.

Graduating students said they welcomed the opportunity to graduate mid-year.

"I can now go looking for a job," said Derek Schilling of Bethany, who received a bachelor of arts in history and wants to work in a museum.

The mid-year ceremony afforded Mati Chandiwana an early return to Zimbabwe, where he'll work in a family-owned business. Chandiwana, who earned a bachelor of arts in economics, flew home the day after Commencement.

Shaun Gruenbaum of Woodbridge, who earned a bachelor of science in psychology, said he is applying for a research job. "It seems to me that December is the best time to get a diploma. I plan to go to medical school and hopefully it will be UConn. I loved my undergraduate years here."

Both Chris Bruno of Greenwich and Shawn Mangar of the Bronx said their December graduation will afford them a head start on job-hunting.

Bruno received a bachelor of arts in economics and is looking for a job in finance; Mangar, who earned a bachelor of arts in political science, hopes to find a job in politics.

During the formal ceremonies, University President Philip E. Austin conferred the 25th University Medal on Connecticut insurance giant and community activist Thomas J. Wolff of Vernon.

Wolff, who graduated cum laude in economics from UConn in 1956 - also on the Jorgensen stage - was introduced by Austin as a "generous friend" to the University who "embodies the concepts of excellence, ability, intelligence, integrity and loyalty."