Courageous, skillful, successful. Those are words that define achievement. Couple those with words such as inspirational and trailblazer, and you have the most fitting description of this year’s William E. Morgan Alumni Achievement Award recipient, Mary Cleave.
It goes without saying that Cleave’s life and career embodies the true essence of the Morgan award, the highest honor given by Colorado State University’s Alumni Association. Named for CSU’s eighth President, the award recognizes a CSU graduate who has attained extraordinary distinction and success in their field and whose achievements have brought credit to the university and benefit to their fellow citizens.
However, it’s when Cleave talks about some of her most favorite memories at CSU — like riding around Horsetooth Reservoir on her motorcycle doing field research – that she reflects the land-grant university mission that CSU strives to deliver each day to its more than 30,000 global students.
“My early education interest was in veterinary medicine, and I initially received a Regents Scholarship to Cornell,” recalls Cleave. “But because it was before Title IX, they wanted me in something else. They didn’t want me in veterinary medicine. But that’s not what I wanted.”
So she researched other programs and that’s when CSU caught her eye.
“CSU had such a breadth of programs,” she said. “They had a great veterinary medicine program, and they accepted women. Plus they had beautiful mountains and skiing. Even with my scholarship, it was still more affordable for me to attend CSU.”
She completed CSU’s then two-year pre-veterinary medicine program, then changed her major to biological sciences after realizing she would have to return to Cornell for vet school. She also preferred dissecting plants more than animals.
After receiving her B.S. in biological sciences from CSU in 1969, she went on to earn her M.S. in microbial ecology and Ph.D. in environmental engineering at Utah State. But it was when she was working as a research engineer at the Utah Water Research Laboratory that things changed — again.
“My co-workers in the lab encouraged me to move to engineering because they saw I was more of a problem solver than a scientist,” Cleave said.
Keep an open mind
Those same co-workers noticed that NASA had posted an “Astronauts Wanted” sign in the local post office.
“My colleague handed me the flyer because he said I was the only one crazy enough to pursue it,” Cleave laughed.
And she did. Was it crazy? Not exactly. Courageous? Definitely.
Cleave went on to be one of the first women to complete NASA space flight training, to fly in a T-38 training jet, and to complete two space shuttle missions as flight engineer and operate the shuttle’s robotic arm. She has logged a total of 10 days, 22 hours, 2 minutes, 24 seconds in space, orbited the earth 172 times and traveled 3.94 million miles.
So, as she receives this year’s William E. Morgan Achievement Award, what advice does she have for future CSU graduates?
“Keep an open mind,” she said. “Because when you have an open mind, you run into stuff that you wouldn’t normally consider. And take advantage of opportunities that position yourself to do what you love.”