Chancellor Christ to graduates: ‘You must not abandon civic life’

“May your years ahead be richly rewarding and fulfilling, and may you enjoy much happiness,” Chancellor Carol Christ told graduates on Saturday. (UC Berkeley video by Roxanne Makasdjian and Stephen McNally)

Chancellor Carol Christ gave the following address to the graduating class of 2019:

Thank you, Dean Greenwell — and thank you, Monishaa, Danielle and Anthony, for that wonderful rendition of the national anthem.

Proud parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends of our graduates — welcome to the University of California, Berkeley.

Welcome, too, to the many faculty, staff, alumni, community members and other honored guests who are joining us today.

And welcome, especially, to those we have gathered this morning to celebrate: the members of the remarkable, the marvelous, the extraordinary UC Berkeley graduating class of 2019.

And truly, those words fit. Among you are students like Pouya Amin, an immigrant from Tehran who had trouble adjusting to life in American schools and yet today is graduating summa cum laude with a triple major.

And Beatriz Hernandez, an actress and writer who created an organization called Colors of Theater to look at how artists of color navigate the entertainment industry. And Kristine Anigwe, a gifted student of sociology who was writing papers about the bonds that form between college athletes just a week or two before she was chosen as a first round draft pick in the 2019 WNBA draft.

As Berkeley’s 11th chancellor, it is my distinct honor and pleasure to preside over today’s ceremony, as we send these and so many other brilliant young scholars off into the world.

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Chancellor Carol Christ addressed several thousand students at the rainy commencement ceremony. (UC Berkeley photo by Keegan Houser)

I’m sorry that the weather has not been as accommodating as we might have hoped. California was officially declared drought-free just a few months ago but, evidently, the rain gods thought it wise to be extra cautious and give us a few more showers.

Still, rain or no rain, this is a day of joy and of celebration, of friends and family, of achievements and high hopes, of powerful endings and beautiful new beginnings. Graduates, you are no doubt experiencing relief, elation, wonder and apprehension. But in addition to all that, I hope you also hold a keen sense of accomplishment. You have completed a demanding course of study at the nation’s best public university. Today, you join and renew the long line of alumni reaching back 151 years whose lives are forever intertwined with this great institution. Today. you become one of nearly 500,000 living alumni worldwide who can proudly call themselves UC Berkeley graduates.

While today we honor you and your achievements, we can’t let this occasion pass without also recognizing the family members and friends whose devotion and support have contributed mightily to your success. Please join me in thanking everyone who has helped you reach one of life’s great milestones.

For those here who, like me, have been immersed in the seasonal rhythms of higher education for a long time, there is a pleasing familiarity in the customs and traditions of today’s ceremony. Seeing you all today, in your caps and gowns, links you with generations of Berkeley graduates who have come before you … just as the many rituals you’ve taken up over the last several years — from morning coffee dates at Caffe Strada, to afternoon study sessions in Morrison Reading Room, to sunset hikes up to the Big C — are all points of connection you share with Cal students of years past.

But for all the similarity that this gives your college experience to that of previous students, your Berkeley is also colored by the particular set of events that took place here and in the world during your time on campus — events that guided your class discussions that you and your friends debated late into the night, that may have shaped the decisions you made with regard to coursework, internships or even your major.
Indeed, your Berkeley — the time that you have been on campus — has been marked by an absolute litany of historic events.

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Not dampened by stormy weather, these three graduates were all smiles at Memorial Stadium. (UC Berkeley photo by Keegan Houser)

Your class saw the rise of the strongest woman candidate for president that the U.S has ever known ultimately delivered a stunning defeat in an election that upended American politics. You bore witness to the most pitched political battles in decades — over taxes, the economy, Supreme Court nominees, election meddling, trade deals and a border wall — and even saw the government sputter to a halt during the longest shutdown in our country’s history.

You spent your days deep in study at an institution committed to knowledge and truth amidst a climate in which “alternative facts” became acceptable in public discourse and “post-truth” was the Oxford English Dictionary word of the year.

You have been at Berkeley at a time when the national conversation has been framed by urgent and probing issues of race, class, justice and equality as the Black Lives Matter movement challenged institutional racism in law enforcement and as the #MeToo movement toppled abusive men in positions of power and looked to right historical wrongs. You saw people and nations jump into action to respond to humanitarian crises in Syria and Venezuela and Yemen, yet also saw disdain for immigrants and refugees take hold here and around the world, as fear and hatred of “the other” became a dominant theme in many countries’ national politics.

In your time, catastrophic natural disasters — from monsoons in South Asia to a hurricane in Puerto Rico to wildfires up and down the California coast — have motivated national discussions about wealth and power and our responsibility to aid victims and help rebuild their communities, not to mention debates about, I’m sorry to say, the veracity of climate change. A host of man-made disasters, too — including racially and ethnically motivated acts of terror and mass shootings — have heightened tensions between communities, renewed disputes about gun rights and seen thousands take to the streets in protest.

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Graduates search the crowd for friends and family gathered for Spring 2019 Commencement. (UC Berkeley photo by Keegan Houser)

Many of these events — and the intense discussions about responsibilities and privileges that come with them — have directly touched our campus or had analogues here. And that is why I know your class is ready to take on the challenges facing the world because you already have. You’ve embraced opportunities to stand up, to speak out, to advocate, to lean into controversial issues, to participate in public life, to ensure that you leave this place — a world in miniature — better than you found it.

It was your classmates in the Black Student Union who were behind the creation of the Fannie Lou Hamer Resource Center and the ones who helped craft the African American Initiative, which is now working to improve our campus climate for black students on campus. It was the work of survivors and student advocates among you who in 2016 and 2017 helped this university critically examine its policies and procedures for handling cases of sexual assault and harassment and take up the process of improving them. You modeled strength and resolve in support of our undocumented student population, even as these students were villainized by the leaders of our country and threatened by anonymous chalkings and posters on campus. You pushed our campus to put sustainability at the fore, making us the largest university to commit to 100% clean energy and winning us the award for the “coolest” UC campus.

Your advocacy in Sacramento helped legislators better understand the profound importance of higher education in creating a more just society; your work through bridges’ retention and recruitment centers helped bring in and bring up students from backgrounds historically underrepresented on college campuses; your organizing helped create the Berkeley Basic Needs Center, a hub of resources for students with food, housing and financial insecurity. You helped us learn how we might reconcile a commitment to community alongside a belief in the university’s role as a public forum, open even to viewpoints we might find abhorrent, and you joined us in efforts last year to use dialogue, not violence, to bridge the partisan divide.

Now you enter the world at large — and it is rife with even more intractable problems, problems that are pervasive, that have many dimensions, that span national borders, that don’t care about partisan lines. Problems like the need for teachers in under-resourced public school districts — one that today’s commencement speaker, Wendy Kopp, took on just a year out of college.

I hope you will not retreat from those challenges. Even when things seem hopeless or pointless, you must not abandon civic life and a commitment to the public good. Stay aware — stay “woke” even, engaged with the world and its goings-on. Take action, organize, volunteer. Advocate, campaign or enter public service yourselves. Dissent, protest when it is needed.

It will take a firm commitment to civic life to bring grace, justice and beauty to this world.

Let me close by sharing just a few lines from a speech that Robert Kennedy gave at the Greek Theater here back in 1966. He said, “All of us have the right to dissipate our energies and our talents in any way that we wish. But those who are serious about the future have the obligation to direct their energies and their talents toward concrete objectives consistent with the ideals that they profess … You are the most privileged citizens of a privileged nation, for you have been given the opportunity to study and to learn here. You can use your enormous privilege and opportunity to seek purely private gain. But history will judge you, and as years pass, ultimately you will judge yourself on the ways in which you have used your gifts. In your hands, not with presidents or other leaders, is the future of your world and the best fulfillment of the qualities of your own spirit.”

Thank you. May the education you have received here serve not just your lives, but your society well. May your years ahead be richly rewarding and fulfilling, and may you enjoy much happiness. Though I will not say that this is your world to save, it is yours to shape alongside many others in the long, but persistent, march toward progress.

Congratulations, good luck and Go Bears!