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Class of 2024 Celebrated at 141st Commencement

Retired Maj. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt, the U.S. Air Force’s first female fighter pilot and a 1990 UT graduate, delivered the keynote address

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Retired Maj. Gen. Gen Jeannie Leavitt

The University of Texas at Austin held its 141st spring commencement ceremony Saturday evening, May 11. Drawing more than 50,000 attendees, the main commencement in Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium was the culmination of individual ceremonies celebrating graduates from each of from 17 degree-granting colleges and schools held on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Some 7,630 bachelor’s degrees were awarded, 2,344 master’s degrees, 343 doctoral degrees, 400 law degrees, and 160 other professional degrees, for a total of 10,877.

The keynote address was delivered by retired Maj. Gen. Jeannie M. Leavitt, the U.S. Air Force’s first female fighter pilot and a 1990 graduate of UT.  During her 31 years of service, Leavitt logged more than 3,000 hours of flight time, including over 300 hours of combat flying in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Remarks as prepared.

Good evening! Longhorn class of 2024 – congratulations!

It is truly my honor to join you as we celebrate your significant achievements! You worked hard to earn your degree from The University of Texas, and you should be proud of your accomplishments! 

I want to thank President Hartzell for inviting me to speak with you tonight. To the Board of Regents, faculty, staff, and the family and friends of our graduates – thank you for everything you’ve done to help them reach this important milestone in their journey. 

Finally, thank you to the graduates. As a December grad here at UT, the only ceremony I attended was with the School of Engineering. I am excited to attend my first UT commencement tonight and to share this special moment with the Class of 2024! 

The motto of this University is “What Starts Here Changes the World.” The fact is that this university has changed you … and whether you realize it or not, you are ready to go change the world. 

Anyone who knows me knows that I love to watch college football. 

Our family started this year in New Orleans on New Years Day where we watched my beloved Texas Longhorns play against the Washington Huskies in the Sugar Bowl. While it was a heartbreaking loss in a game that was up for grabs until the final seconds, it was fantastic to see Texas back in the hunt for the national championship!

I have been wearing the same burnt orange 2005 National Championship t-shirt for more than 18 years… and I am hopeful for a new t-shirt soon!    

When I was asked to deliver the commencement speech, I thought what better way to share my thoughts with you than through a football construct? So my advice for you, as you get ready to change the world, is in 3 broad area: offense, defense, and special teams. 

On offense, my advice is to be courageous. As Mark Twain wrote, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear.” Fear is a powerful human emotion – we cannot eliminate it, but we can overcome it.

As a teenager, I learned about courage from my first horse, Smokie, a completely wild 3-year-old Appaloosa stallion. He had never been successfully ridden, so people thought I was crazy when I said I would train him myself.

A few of my early attempts to ride him looked a bit like a rodeo scene, with Smokie bucking until I was launched into the air. Except there was no 8 second timer … just the jarring impact of slamming into the ground and getting covered in dirt.

The impact would knock the wind out of me, and I could feel the pain of the scrapes and bruises. It shook my confidence, but I realized that if I was scared, Smokie was unsettled. I needed to have courage to be able to calm him. It took all my physical and mental strength to overcome my fear and climb back up in the saddle.  

The lessons in courage paid off early in my Air Force career. When I went to pilot training in 1992, the law had recently changed to allow women in combat aviation, but the Department of Defense (also known as DoD) maintained a combat exclusion policy for women.

Student pilots choose assignments at the end of training based on merit order. As the top graduate, I would get my first choice for assignments … EXCEPT I was not allowed to choose a fighter aircraft.

I received a lot of unsolicited advice from my instructor pilots, warning me that I would ruin my career if I asked for the fighter. Obviously, I did not want to ruin my career … BUT, I also did not want to live with the regret of not asking for what I wanted.

Plus, I knew the DoD policy had to change at some point. During assignment selection, I tried not to show my fear when I stood up in that crowded auditorium and asked for the F-15E Strike Eagle. Making that request took courage because I knew it would ruffle a lot of feathers … and I knew my request would be denied.

As expected, the authorities quoted DoD policy, stated that I was not eligible for the assignment and directed me to make another choice… which I did. Sure, I was disappointed BUT, I had NO regrets!

A few months later – in April of 1993 – DoD changed their policy, and the Air Force honored my first choice of the F-15E. On that day, my career took a rather dramatic turn. 

The takeaway I had from this experience is that sometimes you need to make them tell you “no.” When you see an opportunity, take the shot. Maybe it will work and maybe it won’t… but you will never know unless you try. If you want to be successful on offense, be courageous.  

We all know that you need more than just offense to win a game … so my advice on defense is to develop your grit. What is grit? It is perseverance, determination, and tenacity. In case no one has told you yet, life will knock you down and you will fail.

When this happens, you need the grit to be absolutely unwilling to stay down. You may adjust or change your plan, but you must always get back up, dust yourself off, and try again… with even more determination. 

I had a lot of opportunities to develop my grit when I attended Air Force Weapons School in the F-15E. Weapons School is like the Navy’s Top Gun, but lesser known since there are no movies.

For 6 months, my fellow students and I were in a high-pressure environment with rigorous academics, demanding scenarios, and nearly impossible tactical problems. For every one hour of flying we did, we would spend several hours developing the plan, briefing the mission to include every possible contingency, and then leading all aspects of execution.

It was unrelenting. Because there is no such thing as a perfect mission, there were always things to discuss in debrief after the flight. We identified root causes for what went wrong, and provided instructional fixes for each mistake…

Then it was the Weapons School instructors turn to debrief us, and this was sometimes after 14 or 16 hours of pouring our hearts and souls into the mission. The tough days were when the instructors told us we failed and would repeat the mission.

They would then spend the next few hours debriefing us on what we needed to do differently the next time we flew the mission. The instructors didn’t fail us because we were terrible – they failed us because they knew we could be better.

By learning the lessons from our mistakes, we were far better Weapons Officers when we graduated. Two keys to succeeding at Weapons School were to learn from failures and to have the grit to never, ever give up.  

Don’t be afraid of failure, just be sure you learn from it. Often you don’t know what will work until you figure out what won’t work. Thomas Edison had 10,000 failed attempts before inventing the light bulb.

Maybe these weren’t failures. Maybe he found 10,000 ways that didn’t work before he created what would become one of the most impactful inventions of his time. What if Edison had given up after some of those early failed attempts? 

When you fail or when life knocks you down, having grit will be key to the outcome of the situation. There are many things we cannot control, but there is one thing we can always control…and that is our attitude.

In flying, your attitude literally determines your altitude. If the nose of your aircraft is above the horizon, you have a positive attitude and will climb to higher altitudes. This is true in life as well – a positive attitude can take you much farther than a negative one.

When I was initially told I couldn’t train in the F-15E, I thought I had the world’s worst timing. I could have focused on how life was unfair – to finish at the top of my pilot training class and not get to fly a fighter… But that is not what I did.

Instead, I focused on doing my best at my next assignment. When positive attitude and grit are combined, I call it happy persistence. In this case, my happy persistence paid off because when the policy changed, I was able to go fly the Strike Eagle. 

Graduates – you have already shown both grit and positive attitude. Life tried to knock you down. You are the class who did not get a high school graduation ceremony due to COVID and quarantine.

You are the class who started college in the virtual world. It wasn’t fair, but you persevered through the pandemic. You focused on what you could control, and your happy persistence paid off because here you are at graduation.

The fact that you have already overcome so many obstacles is quite impressive, and I am excited for your future! To be successful on defense, develop your grit. 

While they often do not get as much attention as offense or defense, special teams can be the deciding factor in a game. On special teams, my advice is to be a force that unites.

A team must be united to be effective… and everyone has an important role to play. In the military we rely heavily on teamwork — we call it mutual support. In combat operations, fighters always employ as formations – usually as a flight of 2 or 4 aircraft.

With mutual support, we protect each other, and we are more effective. On one combat mission I flew over enemy territory, I saw anti-aircraft artillery exploding as it was being fired between me and my wingman.

I directed defensive maneuvers for protection and immediately both aircraft evaded the threat. We successfully executed our mission and came back to our base safely that day… together. President Hartzell’s initiative of “Longhorns helping Longhorns” is effectively mutual support here on the 40 acres.

When I was an undergrad student at UT, I had several wingmen, before I even knew what wingmen were. They were students in the Aerospace Engineering department, cadets in Air Force ROTC, and teammates on the Equestrian Team.

They were my classmates, my colleagues, my friends … and we supported each other. Together, we endured hardships and celebrated victories. There is an African proverb I like which says: “If you want to go fast, go alone; but if you want to go far, go together.”

We are more effective together. We all need wingmen. 

So, graduates, take a look around you. Your classmates are your wingmen.

Together you are the team that will lead us into the future. The actions you take can unite or divide our communities.

We need you – class of 2024 – to help reunite our United States. Yes, our country has its challenges, but our democracy represents hope … and we enjoy freedoms not found in many parts of the world.

Those who oppose our country are taking advantage of our disagreements and are actively trying to divide our society. Any discord is amplified and echoed – on countless platforms – until the volume is deafening.

As citizens, we need to discern what is important through all the noise. We have choices to make – we can choose compassion rather than contempt. We can choose to help each other rather than hurt each other.

We can choose to serve others and have a positive impact in our communities. As a society, we need to bring back the ability to discuss difficult issues, to disagree respectfully, and to find common ground.

While we have our differences, we also have shared values like the belief that ALL people are created equal; and ALL people have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

We share the dream that if you work hard, you can make a better life for yourselves and your families. Graduates, we need you to work as a team to reunite our nation and ensure we remain a bright beacon of hope for all the world to see.  

To sum up my advice to you as you depart the University of Texas and embark on your next adventure: 

On Offense: Be courageous. 

On Defense: Develop your grit. 

On Special Teams: Be a force that unites. 

Class of 2024, you are ready! It is now your turn to change the world! 

Congratulations! And Hook ‘Em Horns!