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As they offered congratulations and advice to Cornell’s graduating seniors, Capt. Mark Kelly and his wife, former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Az.), asked the Class of 2015 to focus on courage, determination, service and second chances.

Giffords, M.R.P. ’96, retired from Arizona’s 8th district after surviving an assassination attempt in 2011. She and Kelly, a retired astronaut and U.S. Navy captain, delivered the Senior Convocation address May 23.

Still recovering from her injuries, Giffords, greeted by a standing ovation, spoke briefly, with Kelly carrying the majority of the remarks. He shared the story of his wife’s bravery, resilience and continuing public service.

“Gabby and I hope and pray that your lives after Cornell will be free of tragedy. But know this – the road ahead will bring you some unpredictable moments. And at times it will challenge you beyond what you ever imagined. So prepare yourself for tough times the best you can. And in those tough moments, I want you to think about my wife, Gabby,” Kelly said.

An “adventurer” who’d spent time in Mexico as a Fulbright Scholar and braved two winters in Ithaca as a Cornell student, Giffords returned to her home state, where she served in the Arizona Senate and House of Representatives before being elected to Congress.

In January 2011, while Giffords was meeting with constituents outside a grocery store, she was shot along with 18 others. During her recovery, Giffords’ “braver moments happened when nobody was there to see them,” Kelly said.

Grieving those lost in the shooting while coming to terms with her new limitations, Giffords had to relearn how to walk, speak and eat, and do everything with her left hand. She “upped the ante” with her bravery: seven months after her injury, Giffords, still a member of Congress, traveled to Washington to cast a vote on the controversial debt ceiling.

With her second chance at life, Kelly said, Giffords has continued serving others, even after she retired from Congress in 2012: she has offered support at domestic violence shelters, testified before Congress and spoken out against bitter partisanship.

Both Kelly and Giffords know that no success can come without the contribution of others, and Kelly urged the Class of 2015 to “take a chance to serve, to help others succeed.”

“You can sign a petition. You can write a letter. You can make a donation. You can tutor another student. You can vote … You just need to do whatever you can to make life in your community, and on this planet, a little bit better.”

Kelly also used examples from his life to encourage the graduates. A Navy pilot who flew 39 combat missions during the first Gulf War, Kelly said that back in flight school, he was not a good pilot; after his first ship landing, a superior asked Kelly if he was sure he’d picked the right career.

“I really believe that how good you are at the beginning of anything you try is not a good indicator of how good you can become,” Kelly said.

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.