OREM — Growing up in Iran, Anousheh Ansari said she dreamed of being a science officer on the Starship Enterprise, traveling through wormholes, exploring new worlds and boldly going where no one had gone before.
"I had my head in a cloud when I was growing up in Iran," Ansari told graduates at Utah Valley University's commencement ceremony Thursday. "I wanted to be an astronaut and fly to space. I even prayed for aliens to come and take me with them."
Ansari said she believes that if a person wants something bad enough in their heart, the universe conspires to help them achieve it. In her own life, she moved to the United States as a teenager with limited English-speaking ability, but went on to become a renowned engineer and entrepreneur who, during a self-funded mission to the International Space Station in 2006, became the first Iranian to journey into space.
Speaking of her experience, Ansari said she saw a sunrise and sunset every 90 minutes and was surrounded by billions of stars. She said she saw the Earth as "a beautiful blue ball wrapped in the black velvet of space" and gained a new perspective on life, particularly of the insignificant and arbitrary separations between individuals and nations.
"From up there I saw a world without divisions, just one Earth in this vast universe," she said. "You feel like you can change the world. From up there it doesn’t seem like it would be that hard."
Ansari encouraged students to not abandon their dreams as they transition into practical adulthood. She said that unlike school, the answers to problems in the real world can not be found in the back of a book, but require a person's imagination to solve.
"Imagination is the greatest gift we have as humans," she said. "We can imagine things that are not, we can imagine places we’ve never been to, or perhaps don’t exist. We can design things that never existed before."
This year's Utah Valley University graduating class is comprised of a record 4,682 students earning a total 1,847 associate's degrees, 2,905 bachelor's degrees and 71 master's degrees, according to spokesman Mike Rigert. All 50 states were represented by graduating students, who ranged from the youngest graduate at age 16 to the oldest graduate at age 79.
One of those graduates was Owen Beck, a first-generation college student from Chicago studying biotechnology. For him, the break from school will be short-lived as he is already applying to medical schools on his way to an eventual career as a surgeon.
"There's more to come but it's exciting," he said of graduation day.
Beck said to celebrate he was planning on having a barbecue with his family, but before that he would be commemorating his convocation with a six-foot submarine sandwich.
Lauren Geis, a dental hygiene student from South Jordan, said she planned on celebrating graduation in a more relaxed way.
"I will be sleeping, that's what I'll be doing," she said. "It seems like a really long time. Four years ago I was walking on this campus for the first time and I didn't know anything."
Geis' work is not quite finished. She said she still has to complete her board examination on Saturday prior to earning her license as a dental hygienist. But beyond that she said she felt ready to leave student life behind and begin a career.
"I feel really confident with the skills that I have learned," she said. "It's still a little daunting but in general I feel prepared."
In addition to Ansari, who is also co-founder, CEO and chairwoman of Telecom Technologies, Inc., honorary degrees were awarded to Janette Hales Beckham, a former LDS Church Young Women's general president and a former Utah legislator; David G. Neeleman, founder of JetBlue Airways and Azul Brazilian Airlines; Doris Buffett, a philanthropist and founder of the Sunshine Lady Foundation.
UVU President Matthew Holland, during his remarks, quoted from writer Henry David Thorough and encouraged graduates to live a deliberate life full of aspiration and ambition. He also spoke of the university's achievements during the past year, including it's entrance into the Western Athletic Conference and the planned construction of a new $54 million classroom building.
"It is not until now, this very minute, here at the end of April that we can behold the institution’s true zenith, honoring thousands of graduates of tremendous caliber and reputation before sending them off into a world that anxiously awaits their achievements," Holland said.
Convocations for the eight individual colleges of Utah Valley University will be held across campus throughout Friday.
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