Spirit and innovation sound key notes of Commencement

With blue-and gold-flags billowing under slate-gray skies, Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” roused the spirits against the biting cold as 2,500 graduating seniors strode into UC Berkeley’s Edwards Stadium Saturday, May 14, to celebrate scholarly achievement at the 2011 Commencement Convocation.

As the Class of 2011 prepared to move on to pastures new, keynote speaker Paul Jacobs, chairman and CEO of wireless telecommunications technology and services giant Qualcomm Inc., encouraged the graduates to embrace the challenges ahead as an opportunity to lead the world into a new era of innovation.

“I don’t think you came to UC Berkeley to be followers,” said Jacobs, himself a Berkeley alumnus, as he urged the new graduates to push out of their comfort zone, take risks and act with conviction as they make their way in the world.

“I’m confident you are going to solve many of the world’s problems because of the education and experiences you’ve had here at Cal,” Jacobs said.

Drawing from his experience in the telecommunications industry, Jacobs decried those who criticize failure, and encouraged his audience to accept it as part of the learning process rather than allow fear to hold them back.

“At Qualcomm, I tell my staff that it’s OK to fail. Just don’t make a career of it,” Jacobs said.

At every turn, this year’s Commencement celebrated the convergence of spirit and innovation, but none more than the moment when graduating senior Austin Whitney — paralyzed in a 2007 automobile accident — raised himself from his wheelchair with the aid of a bionic exoskeleton developed by Berkeley researchers.

In that instant, the entire stadium seemed to exhale with collective relief — 15,000 bated breaths erupted into a roof-raising roar of approval and a standing ovation as Whitney walked purposefully across the stage to accept his diploma, and a congratulatory embrace, from Chancellor Robert Birgeneau.

“Today we have seen a wondrous example of Berkeley at its finest,” said Birgeneau. “This achievement… embodies the public mission and indomitable spirit of Berkeley that is exemplified by our amazing students and our outstanding faculty dedicated to the advancement of knowledge for the betterment of humankind.

Paul Jacobs

Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs urged the Class of 2011 to act with conviction. Photo Steve McConnell

“We could not be prouder,” Birgeneau said.

Approximately 12,500 family and friends attended this year’s sold-out Commencement as the ceremony returned to Edwards Stadium for the first time in almost 60 years.

The 11,500-seat Haas Pavillion hosted the 2010 ceremony after campus officials moved the event from its spiritual home in the 7,200-seat Greek Theatre to accommodate the larger crowds attracted by Commencement’s new weekend timeslot.

Top graduating senior Aaron Benavidez used his address as University Medal winner to remind his classmates of the public-service obligations that go hand-in-hand with the rewards of a Cal degree.

This is a remarkable gift and a clear invitation to make the world a better place,” said Benavidez.

Approximately 10,000 Berkeley students will receive diplomas at nearly 100 graduation ceremonies staged by individual departments, colleges and units throughout the end of the month. The campus will confer some 7,000 bachelor’s degrees, and 1,000 master’s, 800 doctoral and 1,300 professional degrees.

Maibi Benhorrsfall, a development-studies major, endorsed the University Medalist’s words as he heads to Washington and the nonprofit sector.

“Well, that’s over, now real life begins,” said Benhorrsfall.

For Jane Kim, a nutritional science major, Commencement was a day of many mixed emotions.

“It’s my last time to be with a lot of my friends, but I’m very excited and a little nervous,” Kim said. “I’m kind of scared to be out of Cal, because I’m so used to this place.”

In closing his keynote address, Qualcomm head Jacobs challenged the new graduates to give back to their alma mater and provided a familiar tool for doing just that: texting.

Through May 21, graduates, their families and friends can contribute with a simple text message that translates into $10 toward the senior class gift — the first text-messaging campaign conducted by the university. Any contribution made to the senior class gift will be matched dollar-for-dollar by Jacobs and his wife, Stacy, who also is a Berkeley alumna.

More information on the text challenge can be found at http://seniors.berkeley.edu