Commencement throng celebrates with Class of 2014

More than 21,000 well-wishers crowded the stands of California Memorial Stadium for Saturday’s campuswide commencement, which included a keynote address by the U.S. House Democratic leader and a rousing rap by one of the Class of 2014.


U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi referred to the spirit of the American Revolution and Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement of 1964 — citing their “disruption” of the status quo as something to be emulated today on a “planet under siege” and in “an economic system with growing inequality.”

“Free speech — new modes of communication — make it easier to be disrupters when necessary; to network, to communicate, to organize for change, to address the challenges of our time,” Pelosi told thousands of students seated in rows on the field, most of them wielding cellphones to capture photos and communicate with supporters in the stands.

Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, speaking at his first Berkeley commencement ceremony, reminded the new graduates that they were joining a “long line of alumni reaching back to 1868,” and some 465,000 living alumni worldwide.

“Today you reap a significant reward,” he said, for “sleepless nights, the cramming in the library and hastily eaten meals of ramen noodles too numerous to count.”

Dirks noted that students’ “rigorous education” at UC Berkeley has “always been focused on and informed by the centrality of the idea of the public good.” Yet “there is abundant evidence that the very idea of the public is in serious trouble.”

decorated mortar boards

Cap art on the field (Peg Skorpinski photos)

As beneficiaries, now, of public higher education, “you have a significant stake… in the success of our efforts to preserve not just access and affordability,” he said, “but also our excellence in research, teaching and service that supports the greater good.”

The top graduating senior, Rebecca Peters, accepted the University Medal. Noting that the FSM “gave UC Berkeley its distinct institutional personality,” she asked graduates to “bring Berkeley values” with them into their future lives.

Consul General of Mexico in San Francisco Andrés Roemer, who earned his doctorate at Berkeley in 1994, accepted the Elise and Walter A. Haas International Award, in recognition of outstanding public service. Roemer dedicated the award to his Ph.D. adviser, the late Suzanne Scotchmer, who taught him the importance of a “critical mind,” he recalled. “She passed away” in December, he said. “But not her ideas.”

Graduating senior Kaila Love brought students to their feet with her highly relatable rhymes:

“… I’m sick of writing papers/ I’m trying to get some paper/ I got this piece of paper/ That certifies my major/ Says I’m educated/ Is authenticated/ By this university/ Of California Berkeley …” (Listen to her “Senior Anthem 2014” on SoundCloud.)

The class of 2014 also gave up several standing ovations to parents and family members — who sent the love right back.

‘A big day’

During the initial procession into the stadium, Rishabh Singhal waited for the better part of an hour at the edge of section G, near the field, for his son Raj, an industrial-engineering major, to pass nearby.

“He’ll be coming now. He just called me!” shouted Singhal at last. “It’s a big day for our family,” more than six of whom had come from Singapore and India to witness this moment, he said. “My son’s graduation is a big achievement.”

graduate and many relatives

(Peg Skorpinski photo)

Standing nearby, a family from Fresno anticipated a sighting of Blair Rotert — who graduated in three years and, as a CalTV reporter, “agitated the student body with her political views,” her dad said with pride. Rotert’s grandfather, seated in the stands, played football under the legendary Cal coach Pappy Waldorf, in the late ’40s, he added.

Rotert is about to start an internship in Washington, D.C., with Republican congressman David Valadao. “She wants to make good use of her political-science major. She loves Cal; she chose it over some pretty good schools,” said her father.

The payoff

“Years of hard work solidified and gratified,” is how psychology major Roshanda Onyiah — whose parents, siblings, cousins and aunts all drove up from Southern California to celebrate her graduation — summed up the moment. “I’ve worked so hard and it’s paid off.”

Onyiah was eager to show her family something she’ll sorely miss at Berkeley — the view of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge from her residence-hall window — and then to spend at least a month just “basking in the joy of graduating.”

Anthony Beron, 51, transferred to Berkeley in the the early 1980s, against his family’s wishes.  “My mind was blown,” he recalled, as he stood in the stadium’s north tunnel, clad in cap and gown, with his 12-year-old daughter, Mary Anne. “I’d never seen that many cultures under one roof… or so many people willing to argue, in a good way.”

Father and daughter exchanged admiring smiles. For months he’s been toiling away, in a backyard cottage, on his interdisciplinary-studies thesis. “She’s been with me the whole way,” he said. “She kept my spirits up.”

At latest count, UC Berkeley’s May 2014 graduates number 7,729: 5,247 undergrads and 2,481 masters and doctoral students. Degrees this year were conferred collectively via a ritual that involved campus deans, each imploring the chancellor to grant much-deserved degrees to students in his or her college, “along with all the rights and privileges hereto attached.”

“I humbly beg, beseech, implore you … to release them into the loving arms of our development office,” Tyler Stovall, dean of the undergraduate division, joked.

On a more somber note, Dean of Public Health Stefano Bertozzi petitioned the chancellor to award a posthumous degree to scholar-athlete Ted Agu, who died suddenly during football practice this year, along with degrees for other graduating public-health students.

Two seniors presented the Class of 2014 gift to the campus: $111,900.48 – up from $48.10 collected by the Class of 1874, when the tradition first began.