Commencement speaker

Zena Cardman in astronaut suit

Zena Cardman

NASA Astronaut Zena Cardman ’10, ’14 (MS) will deliver the keynote address to the Class of 2024 at the University’s Spring Commencement. The ceremony will be held at 7 p.m. Saturday, May 11, in Kenan Stadium.

The double Tar Heel is preparing for her first spaceflight. She is the commander of NASA’s Crew-9 mission, a recently announced four-person crew that will launch on a SpaceX Dragon to the International Space Station later this year. The group will join an international crew onboard ISS as part of Expeditions 71 and 72. They will conduct a wide range of operational and research activities during their long-duration mission. Cardman was selected as a NASA astronaut in 2017. Since completing initial training, she has supported real-time station operations and development for lunar surface exploration.

“The work that set Zena up for success as a NASA astronaut started right here at Carolina. Her incredible research portfolio has taken her all over the world and soon, she will venture even further,” said Interim Chancellor Lee H. Roberts. “Her dedication to pushing the boundaries of research aligns with Carolina’s mission of discovery, innovation and the pursuit of excellence. As an exemplary Tar Heel, Zena is well positioned to address our graduates and we all look forward to hearing about her experiences.”

Cardman earned a Bachelor of Science in biology and Master of Science in marine sciences from UNC-Chapel Hill. During her time at Carolina, Cardman was heavily involved in research of microbial systems, particularly in extreme environments like hydrothermal vents and hydrocarbon steeps. Her research took her all over the world, including the Arctic and Antarctic. The people she met and relationships she formed stick with her today.

“The people of Carolina are what I took away from the place, and what I’ve carried with me through my career,” Cardman said. “Service-oriented, creative, genuine, interdisciplinary — these are words I use to describe my former classmates and current students. These are the values and attributes I strive for as an astronaut.”

Cardman returned to campus in 2019 for University Research Week, where she reflected on her student and NASA experiences. She said she’s grateful to join the Carolina community again in celebration of the next generation of leaders. When thinking about the future for the Class of 2024, Cardman hopes graduating students are able to hang on to the present for a bit longer and focus on the experiences and relationships they’ve built during their time as Tar Heels.

“A new class of graduates includes the most incredible talent, hope and energy. I can’t wait to see their impact on the world. The chance to speak to graduates is a huge honor and humbling,” Cardman said. “It can be tricky to stay present while also looking forward to an imminent future, but I’d encourage graduating seniors to think about what’s right in front of them, here and now. Who will you carry with you into this next stage? What do you value? What do you want to improve for others? The answers to these questions can be found in the present and will carry through a lifetime.”

Honorary degrees

  • Michelle Dorrance

    Michelle Dorrance is a world-renowned dancer and choreographer. A MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient, she has been described by The New Yorker as “one of the most imaginative tap choreographers working today.”

  • Deitre Allen Epps

    Deitre Epps is a longtime champion of pursuing equity and community well-being through education, training and technical assistance for health, human services and education leaders.

  • Howard N. Lee

    A highly esteemed North Carolinian, Howard Lee has rendered outstanding service to the state and this University in numerous ways over more than six decades.

  • Richard Y. Stevens

    Richard Y. Stevens is an attorney, a distinguished public servant and a triple alumnus of UNC-Chapel Hill who has served the state and university in numerous ways.