February 15, 2015

Astronaut and education advocate John B. Herrington, PhD, Commander in the U.S. Navy (retired), will provide the commencement address to graduates of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. The ceremony will be held at Carmichael Arena on Saturday, May 9 at 1 p.m.

Dr. John Herrington

Dr. John Herrington

Herrington, a member of the Chickasaw tribe, was the first Native American in space. After serving as a Navy aviator and test pilot, he was selected for NASA’s astronaut training program. Among his activities at NASA was shuttle mission STS-113, during which he logged more than 330 hours in space and engaged in three spacewalks totaling nearly 20 hours outside the shuttle.

“Space is an extreme environment, and it appealed to me in so many ways,” Herrington said.

That is why, when he retired from the Navy and left NASA in 2005, he wondered whether he could find an “earthly” passion to inspire him as much as being an astronaut had.

Herrington talked to the governor of the Chickasaw Nation, and an idea was formed.

“I decided to ride a bicycle from Cape Flattery, Washington, to Cape Canaveral, Florida, and speak to Native communities about the benefits of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education,” he said.

Native Americans are the least represented minority in math and science.

Herrington subsequently earned his doctorate in education from the University of Idaho. His dissertation was titled Investigating the Factors that Motivate and Engage Native American Students in Math and Science on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation Following Participation in the NASA Summer of Innovation Program.

“While I miss the rigor and excitement of a space mission, I’ve found an opportunity to visit with and talk to students who are unsure about their opportunities,” he said. “Challenge is something we must all embrace – and I pass along my academic and professional experience in the hope that a student will become motivated to fulfill his or her own dreams.”

Indeed, the topic of challenge is never far from Herrington’s mind.

“I’ve met and spoken to a number of administrators, professors and business owners who are actively hoping to recruit Native students into their programs and professions,” he said. “However, many Native students are anxious about the changes these opportunities may mean for themselves and their families.”

Herrington’s approach is to encourage them to “reach for the stars.”

John Herrington is the brother of James Herrington, PhD, executive director of the Gillings School’s Gillings Global Gateway™.

More information about the Gillings School commencement is available online.


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Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or dpesci@unc.edu.

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