Thousands of graduates, decked out in black caps, gowns and colorful variations thereof, marched onto the sun-drenched field at the California Memorial Stadium to “Pomp and Circumstance” to celebrate UC Berkeley’s May commencement on Saturday.
“It feels great,” said Sumana Al Gharbi, who graduated with a degree in bioengineering and biomedical engineering. “Berkeley was a place where I had to test myself a lot — it was a very competitive place — but I definitely grew up a lot here. I wouldn’t have grown so much if it weren’t for Berkeley.”
Proud families and friends shouted from the stands of the stadium. “You can’t be any prouder than when your kid is graduating from college,” said Dennis Shoen, whose son Colin graduated with a degree in computer science. “They’re not only getting an education, but they’re turning into better human beings. And hopefully, they’ll make our country and a world a better place. We’re thrilled.”
Chancellor Carol Christ delivered the keynote speech to an audience of more than 35,000, including some 5,500 graduates. “Your Berkeley — the years that you have been on campus — has been marked by momentous change in the world,” she said.
Christ noted the strides towards justice and equality that have shaped the time the class spent at Berkeley, from the Black Lives Matter movement challenging institutional racism in law enforcement to the #MeToo movement toppling abusive men in positions of power.
And she acknowledged the setbacks the students have had to weather, from the anti-immigrant sentiment that spread throughout the country in national politics and natural disasters — from the hurricane in Puerto Rico to the wildfires along the California coast.
During her speech, some students in the audience stood with their backs to Christ in protest of the decision to continue the ceremony in the midst of negotiations between the UC system and UC’s employee union AFSCME Local 3299.
Also addressing the crowd was top graduating senior Freja Ekman, a chemical biology major and a champion of neurodiversity.
After her first year at Berkeley, Ekman told the audience, she felt “hollow and empty,” having spent the year trying to achieve what she thought success was — getting the highest test scores or landing a prestigious internship.
It was her brother, she said, who has epilepsy, a hip disease and high-functioning autism, who taught her to reframe her experience at Berkeley by focusing on everyday accomplishments.
“I started becoming more aware of the small things I encountered every day,” she said. “That warm Berkeley sun sitting on the glade, watching people play quidditch, a sport I still can’t wrap my head around… those roommates who listened to you practice your commencement speech 100 times over.”
And, she said, she started noticing the small, but meaningful, moments in her academic life as well, helping her realize that research is a gradual process, each experiment bringing her one step closer to success in the field.
For graduate Myranda Dean, who received a degree in linguistics, the highlight of her time at Berkeley was when she worked with a graduate student to save a dying language in Oaxaca, Mexico. The language —Teotitlán del Valle Zapotec — is spoken by just a handful of people, and is at risk of disappearing.
“It is a defining quality of those at Berkeley,” Christ said to the audience, “that you do not sit idly by when you see an injustice,” she said. “You reflect on the issue at hand, consider solutions and confront problems in all their complexity, and with all the deep and enduring difficulty.”
Sherlyn Wilson, who has been serving in the U.S. Air Force for the past 18 years, said getting into Berkeley was a long journey, but well worth it. “I never thought I’d be here,” she said. “It’s awesome.” Wilson recently accepted a job working as a court advocate for families in abusive situations.
Christ concluded with lessons she hopes the graduates will take with them as they make their way into the world after graduation — the capacity for empathy and moral reasoning, the ability to voice personal beliefs, a sense of confidence and a sense of public responsibility.
“Today, as generations of your families come together, you will be the center, the pivot point of it all, as you look back at the experiences you have had… and as you look forward to what the bright, breathtaking and sometimes daunting future will hold.”
For Bobby Mittal, the proud father of chemical biology major Tushar Mittal, graduation was a high moment. “Oh, I’m on top of the world,” he said. But did he feel relief now that Tushar had graduated?
“I wouldn’t say that because it is a new journey, and real life is harder,” he said with a laugh. “But I won’t tell him that now.”
See a complete collection of commencement 2018 photos by Keegan Houser: https://commencement.berkeley.edu/gallery/may-2018-commencement.