Campus & community, Events at Berkeley

Student commencement speaker: We are ‘capable of anything’

Graduate Sahar Formoli congratulates her fellow students

a woman in a cap and gown speaks at a graduation ceremony podium
UC Berkeley graduate Sahar Formoli (UC Berkeley photo by Keegan Houser)
“We are part of a university that led the Free Speech Movement, a university that didn’t back down from a fight for justice, a university that, regardless of what the world said, marched forward for equality and justice,” student speaker Sahar Formoli told her fellow graduates. (UC Berkeley video)

UC Berkeley graduate Sahar Formoli gave the student address at the 2021 winter commencement. Her prepared marks are below. 

Hello and welcome friends, family, staff, faculty, alumni and the illustrious class of 2021. I am incredibly grateful to stand here with the rest of my class after the journey we have been through together —and what a journey it was. When I applied to universities, I thought of how difficult it would be to go to a new place with harder courses. But I looked to my parents, who came to this country with few prospects and little money and now own a business in Sacramento just a few doors down from the governor’s office. With their support, I mustered up the courage to apply to the best public university in the world, UC Berkeley.

When I got my acceptance letter, I didn’t immediately open it. I was ready for rejection. But after a few days, I thought I might as well delete one more email from my inbox —and there it was. Do you remember the virtual confetti falling across the screen — changing the trajectory of our lives? I never read the entire acceptance letter, only the part that said “Welcome.” And that is what I have felt throughout my entire time here— welcomed.

While the campus, faculty and my peers are the most kind and accepting people, that didn’t stop me from feeling like an imposter. I couldn’t accept the fact that I was wanted, that I deserved to be here. Sitting in classes next to those who seemed to know more than I ever did or could — and who were so far ahead of me — made it hard to feel like I belonged here. It wasn’t until I took a genetics course from a professor who was also from Sacramento that something changed. During office hours, she asked me what my goals were, and I said, “to graduate.” She waited for a moment, as if reading my existence, and said, “You know you are capable of anything.” I didn’t want to cry during office hours, but I pondered that for days. I can do… anything. She went on to give me the best advice I had ever received: “The only limitations that exist are the ones you allow to.” At that moment I remembered my parents, and how they did not allow their lack of language, limited understanding of U.S. culture and other perceived limitations to stop them from thriving.

At that moment I became acutely aware that I am here because I belong here. I wasn’t given this opportunity, I earned it — just as we all did.

With my newfound sense of belonging and encouragement from my advisor, I joined a film club of students who are just as obsessed with films as I am. One of my favorite films we watched was Lady Bird, about a girl from Sacramento, written and directed by Greta Gerwig, another girl from Sacramento. I related so much to the characters, emotions, and small references — and to the story about a girl who thought she would never go to the cultured colleges she longed for because of where she came from. She literally lives on the wrong side of the tracks that split Sacramento nearly in two, a symbol of the separation of wealth and privilege — a place where many people find their limitations lie.

But in the film, Lady Bird’s mother never let these tracks hold power over her.

This reminded me of my mother. Like Lady Bird, I had accepted rejection before it came to me, and my mother was my cheerleader who sent me to a school to find role models and mentors. Little did she know that she was the one I looked up to most, a woman who didn’t let limitations stand in her way and who never made me feel that there was something I couldn’t do.

At the end of the film, as Lady Bird is walking away from the screen, she asks her mother, “Did you feel emotional the first time that you drove in Sacramento? All those bends I’ve known my whole life, and stores, and the whole thing.” She saw that those obstacles were in her head and that life’s twists and turns made her who she is. We are an incredibly diverse class of students from every background. Our life experiences made us who we are and have proven time and time again that we can do anything.

We are part of a university that led the Free Speech Movement, a university that didn’t back down from a fight for justice, a university that, regardless of what the world said, marched forward for equality and justice. Those students before us did things that the world told them was impossible. That is who we are and what we represent.

Knowing the history of the people before me, both of those close to me and the historical figures that fought to create the school that I am in now against the odds, I went on to be a part of faculty research projects, I pursued a second major, I did multiple internships all because I recognized I — like Lady Bird, like my mother, like the students before me, and my peers that I stand side by side with today — am capable of anything.

Every one of us is capable of anything. We powered through the pandemic and persevered when it felt like the world was going to end. And now we stand beside our friends, family, and the faculty who helped us along the way. Like Lady Bird, coming out of our hometowns to follow our dreams in spite of the bumps in the road. To the class of 2021, you made it here. Now go on and show the world what Berkeley students are made of.