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Securing America’s Future:

The Power of Liberal Arts Education

David C. Hilmers

Associate Professor of Internal Medicine and Former NASA Astronaut
Cornell College (IA), Class of 1972
David C. Hilmers is an associate professor in the departments of internal medicine and pediatrics at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. In addition to teaching medical students and residents, his clinical pursuits have included international HIV, pediatrics special needs, emergency medicine, tropical medicine, international nutrition, and inpatient internal medicine. He devotes a great deal of his time to international and local volunteer service and disaster relief, and he has worked with a number of international research agencies including the United Nations and the Centers for Disease Control. Hilmers is involved in the selection and evaluation of biomedical equipment and countermeasures for long-term manned space flight, including the International Space Station, and he is an advisor to the National Space Biomedical Research Institute. Prior to medical school he was a Marine Corps Colonel, aviator and electrical engineer, and served as a NASA astronaut on four space shuttle missions.
The skies had cleared over the central Philippines where I was serving on a disaster relief team after one of the most devastating typhoons in history. Inexorably, the night sky drew me outside to sit and gaze at the stars. I always marvel at their constancy and how they evoke memories from the past, curiosity about what the morrow will bring, and a desire to make our earth a better place. I thought back to nights over 40 years before as a student at Cornell College sitting on its lovely hillside campus staring at those same constellations. As a young man about to enter the military during the midst of the war in Southeast Asia, I contemplated my fate and the years of service awaiting me. Little could I have realized how well my years at Cornell would equip me for the life that would be mine over the decades that followed.
 

Never before or since have I felt such autonomy to explore, to become a leader, to think independently, and importantly, to work as part of a team.

 
The variety of experiences I embraced at Cornell College made me fearless to attempt new endeavors, even when the odds of success were low. Its small size afforded me the liberty to participate in three sports and to walk on as a neophyte to the wrestling team without concern for failure. The absence of constraints on my course selection stimulated an intense intellectual curiosity and nurtured a capacity to hear different viewpoints without prejudgment, to reject none without due consideration, and to ponder unconventional thought. It was this inquisitiveness and freedom from fear of failure that challenged me to leave behind a career in the military and start medical school at age 42. Personal relationships that I fostered and the full range of human emotions that I experienced, from joy to despair, gain and loss, faith and doubt, led to a life devoted to the service of others. Never before or since have I felt such autonomy to explore, to become a leader, to think independently, and importantly, to work as part of a team.
 
Nights spent looking at the firmament continue to this day. On those evenings sitting on the campus hillside, I never imagined where else I might admire the unchanging constellations. I would see them from warships sailing in remote seas; I would see them from the cockpit of jet planes, dimming the lights to see them all the brighter; I would see them at night from the cabin of the space shuttle, marveling at their infinite expanse. I would view them from the dark skies of Iraq, from the border of Afghanistan, on cold nights in North Korea, from disasters across the globe, and from where people cry for help. Part of my conversations with the stars and He who created them, is always a word of thanks for safety through many a storm, for blessings bestowed on me, and for those who have been put in my path. Yet, there will be one bright star in the heavens that forever reminds me of the formative role a liberal arts education played in shaping the character and future of the young man I once was.
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