Scott Willoughby, ’89, poses with the James Webb Space Telescope, which launched with NASA in 2021. Willoughby is the vice president and program manager for Northrop Grumman’s James Webb Space Telescope program. (Courtesy of Scott Willoughby)

A closer look at this year’s commencement speaker


Scott Willoughby arrived at Lehigh in 1985 as a first-year student without any luggage. With only his clothes packed into a shopping bag, he checked into his dorm room at Dravo House.

Willoughby said he was grateful for the scholarships that allowed him the opportunity to be there and receive a college education. He even wrote thank you letters to his scholarship donors, knowing that one day, he would want to pay it forward.

Now an innovator in space exploration, Willoughby will be the speaker for Lehigh’s 2024 undergraduate class at the 156th commencement ceremony May 19.

He has remained involved in the Lehigh community throughout his career, returning to speak with students and establishing the Sarah and Scott P. Willoughby ‘89 Endowed Scholarship Fund in 2021, among other efforts. But, Willoughby said it is a special honor to be selected as this year’s commencement speaker.

As a first-year student, Willoughby said he was nervous he wouldn’t make friends. So, he looked to his Gryphon, Hank Millner, to guide him.

With Millner’s positive influence and advice, Willoughby said he quickly acclimated. He joined a fraternity, got involved in intramural sports and decided to major in electrical engineering.

Willoughby was drawn to the field of engineering because he was what he would call a “problem solver” early on in college.

However, he said he fell into space exploration by chance.

Willoughby’s first job after graduating from Lehigh was at a space satellite company, now known as Northrop Grumman. His interview was set up by another Lehigh alumnus, Steve Sperry, and Willoughby said his career skyrocketed from that point forward.

Willoughby has been working at Northrop Grumman ever since. Today, he is the vice president and program manager for the company’s James Webb Space Telescope program.

Since starting around 35 years ago, he’s worked on many projects and he said he has a genuine passion for his work.

Before working on the James Webb telescope, Willoughby worked on the Milstar satellite communications system, operated by the United States Space Force, which allowed soldiers to stay in contact internationally without intercepted messages.

While working on the Milstar satellite, Willoughby reached out to the satellite engineers to better understand their work, which he said was an unconventional move.

“Once you start talking with (the hardware builders), you realize you can design something that’s more buildable or more testable,” Willoughby said. “As a team, you’re a lot better off than if everything is a handoff.”

More recently, Willoughby played an important role in engineering the James Webb telescope with NASA. The Webb telescope launched in 2021 and is one of the most powerful telescopes ever created. It orbits the sun and will be used to identify signs of life on other planets.

Willoughby said his biggest advice for graduates is to slow down and learn from their current situation without fixating so much on the future. He attributes his success to his curiosity to learn from his coworkers.

“I just started talking to people, and that compelled my career as far as it is today,” Willoughby said. “I became the engineer who learned how to work with the people who built the things that we designed. Later on, those are relationships that have lasted my entire career.”

Willoughby has given numerous talks to inform academics, scientists and the general public about his engineering work. He said his approach to these talks differs depending on the audience, but his goal remains the same: To ensure everyone leaves with a better understanding of how the work he’s involved with will advance society.

Willoughby said he is currently in the process of putting the final touches on his 10-minute speech to deliver to undergraduate students and their families at the ceremony. He said he wants his speech to be engaging and memorable, and he has put a lot of thought into the messages he wants to convey.

Sebastian Chavarro, ‘24, said he is excited to hear the speech.

“I’m looking forward to hearing from a pioneer as influential as Willoughby to tie a ribbon around my long undergraduate career,” Chavarro said.

For the first three weeks of the speech writing process, Willoughby kept a running page of notes on his phone anytime an idea came to him.

He then sat down to compile his ideas, eliciting help from his daughter, Zoe Willoughby, a class of 2022 undergraduate from the University of California, Los Angeles. He wanted to know if his ideas would resonate with new graduates, and his daughter was able to offer this perspective.

Zoe Willoughby contributed writing knowledge, having copy-edited for The Daily Bruin as an undergraduate.

“I was excited when he said he was going to write a speech, because I felt like I could finally help with something he was doing,” Zoe Willoughby said.

She described her father as both “perceptive” and “humorous,” and helped him make these qualities shine in his speech.

Although Scott Willoughby has given a number of speeches in the past, he said he still feels jitters leading up to this one.

“Once I’m at the microphone, standing on stage, I will calm down in the moment,” Willoughby said.

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