A call for “moxie” and compassion marks Commencement

From the traditional to the outrageous, a colorful procession of more than 1,600 graduating seniors – many clutching smartphones and some even tweeting – marched into UC Berkeley’s Walter A. Haas Jr. Pavilion on Sunday to celebrate their hard-earned rite of passage at the 2010 Commencement Convocation.

Few people could appreciate the use of tweets and text messages more than keynote speaker Tiffany Shlain, founder of the Webby Awards and an acclaimed filmmaker, who addressed a sold-out audience of 11,500 people. Shlain noted that the World Wide Web was in its infancy when she graduated from UC Berkeley in 1992.

“The Internet has given the world a central nervous system,” she said, and people have become increasingly interconnected as a result. But it’s a good education at UC Berkeley that provides the context for the wealth of information one finds online, she pointed out.

Shlain put a positive light on the tough economic environment that graduates are entering and challenged students to follow their passion, regardless of the job market. “There are no lucrative jobs luring you away from what you really want to do,” she said, to laughs from the audience. “That’s an opportunity.”

She urged graduates to take risks and tackle challenges in life with “moxie – a mixture of being bold, fearless and a little outrageous,” and recounted times in her career when she was able to get doors to open for her with such an approach.

Sunday marked the first time that Commencement Convocation was held at the 11,500-seat Haas Pavilion. The event, traditionally held at the Greek Theatre, which seats 7,200, was relocated to accommodate a greater demand for tickets. Event organizers credited holding the ceremony on a weekend, and after the completion of final exams, for the larger crowds.

Before the 2 p.m. ceremony began, approximately three dozen protesters, including members of campus labor unions and students, marched outside Haas Pavilion. They rallied for wage increases for the university’s lowest paid workers, among other things.

Inside, the pavilion had a game-day feel to it as seniors tossed beach balls and their guests blew air horns. Thousands of family members and friends filled the sports arena, eager to hear individual graduates’ names called as they walked across the stage. No diplomas were awarded at the event, but graduates received Cal bear pins.

In the sea of black gowns and caps were sequin-studded mortar boards and Muslim hijabs. One graduate had his hair dyed and gelled into golden horns. Few students, even those with sartorial statements about their big day, were immune to the pomp and ceremony: “It’s pretty emotional,” said Alina Hasanain, a molecular and cell biology major.

“It’s going to hit me in four or five days. But right now, the fact that I’m graduating is hard to take in,” said a dazed-looking Stuart Martin, a Near Eastern studies major and a veteran of the Marine Corps.

On stage, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau alluded to the budget challenges the university has faced in recent years, applauding students for drawing attention to the crisis threatening higher education.

He implored the graduates to “please continue to speak for public universities.”

In addition to Shlain and the chancellor, top graduating senior Josh Biddle, an integrative biology major, also addressed the crowd. He is the winner of the 2010 University Medal, considered UC Berkeley’s most distinguished undergraduate award. Biddle, 28, the first community college transfer student to be given the honor, conveyed in his speech a sense of wisdom and humility gained through an unconventional path to his arrival at UC Berkeley, and to becoming a University Medalist.

Biddle dedicated his speech to Bill Sell, clinical director of a therapeutic boarding program for troubled teens in Boulder, Colo., that Biddle attended during a time of struggle in his life. Biddle credited the program for teaching him that “compassion is perhaps the highest human virtue.”

“I know that the real University Medalists are the students who have to sleep on couches because they can’t afford rent, or the ones taking a full course load while they raise their children and work a half- or even full-time job,” he said. “I remind myself to think of this diploma not as a symbol of my accomplishment, but as a reminder to return to the communities who don’t have Berkeley graduates to fight on their behalf.”

With compassion as the foundation, Biddle advised his fellow graduates to speak out against the injustices of the world and to give voice to those who cannot otherwise speak.

Biddle gave a special nod to his 100-year-old Great-aunt Velma Biddle, who took him in six years ago as he was finding his way through life, and who was in the audience to witness how far he has come. Biddle joked that she was so excited about him speaking at Commencement Convocation that she might explode in the stands.

At least 10,000 UC Berkeley students are receiving diplomas this month at nearly 100 ceremonies being sponsored by the campus’s individual departments, colleges and units. Approximately 6,800 bachelor’s degrees and more than 3,000 master’s, doctoral and professional degrees will be conferred.

Individual department graduation ceremonies will be held through the rest of the month. Speakers include activist and scholar Angela Davis; Helen Quinn, professor of physics at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center; Joanna Haigood, dance pioneer, teacher and artistic director of Zaccho Dance Theatre; Brian Tucker, president of GeoHazards International and Sir Michael Marmot, professor of epidemiology and public health at University College, London, and director of the International Institute for Society and Health.