Carol Christ to new students: ‘Shape Berkeley, even as it shapes you’

Chancellor Carol Christ welcomed the classes of 2021 and 2023 to UC Berkeley during the convocation ceremony in California Memorial Stadium. (UC Berkeley video by Stephen McNally)

Chancellor Carol Christ gave the following remarks during the 2019 convocation ceremony to welcome new students to UC Berkeley:


Welcome to the transfer students, the Class of 2021!

Welcome to the freshmen, the Class of 2023!

My name is Carol Christ, and as chancellor it is my great pleasure to welcome you all to the University of California, Berkeley, and to the next chapter of your lives.

Each of you has a different story about how you came to this place at this moment in time, and your lives and experiences add so much to Berkeley’s rich mosaic. So I’d like to begin today by telling you a little bit about yourselves.

Meet Berkeley’s new students

Learn more about the incoming classes

First, there are roughly 9,000 of you joining our campus this fall—about 6,400 freshmen and 2,600 transfer students. The youngest of you is 15; the eldest is 72…making clear that it is never too late to invest in your education.

Members of your classes come from nearly every county in California, 50 U.S. states and territories, and 70 countries from around the world.

Eighty percent of the new undergraduates in your class join us from public high schools. 94% of new transfer students come from California’s exceptional community colleges.
119 of you come here having served your nation in the armed forces.

Nearly a third of you are the first in your families to attend college.

Among those sitting in this room today are:

  • A student who won a host of engineering awards for inventing a device that helps people perform CPR more effectively
  • A person who co-founded a non-profit organization dedicated to providing more enriching science education for young people
  • A student who has traveled to Turkey annually over the last few years to help give Syrian refugees dental and medical treatment
  • A rock climbing national champion
  • A person who founded a software start-up that helps those with learning disabilities build their social circles
  • A person who was homeless for the first 12 years of life, but who went on to intern in a public defender’s office and then win a fellowship to work in state senator Nancy Skinner’s office before being admitted to Cal
  • A student from Oakland who created a popular app that educates users about the amount of sugar in various drinks, as well as the effects of excessive sugar consumption; and
  • A student who led his national team at last year’s Rubik’s Cube World Championship

In sum, you are an extraordinary, as well as an extraordinarily diverse, group. And we are so thankful to have you with us.

‘A few pieces of advice’

As you settle into your lives here, I am sure your new friends, resident assistants, GBO coordinators, and others will have many pieces of advice for you…and I hope you’ll hear them out. I too have a few pieces of advice that I’d like to share with you today.

First, I want to offer some thoughts on navigating Berkeley. I don’t mean literally getting around campus…although when you start spending time in the labyrinths of Dwinelle Hall, you might look back and wish I did.

No, I mean considering how to get the most out of a research university like this one.

a woman talks at a podium

Chancellor Carol Christ spoke to thousands of new students during the convocation ceremony. (UC Berkeley photo by Keegan Houser)

I sometimes compare different colleges and universities to different kinds of communities. Some colleges, for example, are like small towns, in which everyone knows everyone else. Berkeley on the other hand is a big city. More than 40,000 students are enrolled here, and we have scholars studying every subject under the sun…from gentrification to genetic engineering to the works of Graham Greene.

In this way, Berkeley responds to city skills. It rewards those who can survey the vast resources in front of them, ask themselves what they want to get out of their time here, and then chase those goals. No matter what you are interested in or care about, we have someone – perhaps an entire academic department – sharing that interest. But you should be proactive in finding your intellectual neighborhood, if you will, within this big city. You should knock on doors and make your interests and hopes known. People are eager to help, and we have services to support you, but you must have a degree of personal agency to get the most out of Berkeley.

cal band plays on the field

The Cal Band welcomes new students during the 2019 convocation ceremony. (UC Berkeley photo by Irene Yi)

Tied to this, with such a cornucopia in front of you, my second piece of advice is to make time to explore. There are incredible people to meet and resources for you to take advantage of here, and I hope that you’ll use them to expand your interests, broaden your horizons, and grow your understanding of the world. Heed the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, who once said that “The purpose of life, after all, is to live it, to taste it to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”

Berkeley is a place where, even if you know for certain that you want to be a doctor…you can still take a class with the former Secretary of Labor, or a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, or the world’s foremost authority on earthquakes. You won’t truly be able to uncover your full range of talents without exploration, and you never know when an activity you take up on a whim might change your life. Steve Jobs often told the story of how he took, simply to fulfill a course requirement, an introductory class in calligraphy while he attended college in Oregon. He later said that it was the most important learning experience of his life, because it made him see the value of clarity, elegance, and simplicity in design. That course in calligraphy was foundational to what he hoped to accomplish with his company, Apple.

students stand with hands over their hearts

Students stand for the national anthem in California Memorial Stadium. (UC Berkeley photo by Violet Carter)

I might add, of course, that Berkeley graduate Steve Wozniak – who designed the first Apple computers alongside Jobs – helped out more than a little bit.

Explore the ‘richness’ of Berkeley

Beyond classes, you can explore the richness of Berkeley in so many ways: by participating in undergraduate research, joining one of the country’s top-ranked debate teams, becoming a member of the largest student housing cooperative in the nation, founding a company at one of our startup incubators, performing in one of our music or theater or dance groups, and much more. Maybe your experience here will take you far past the edges of our campus itself—to Greece for a study abroad program, to Washington, D.C. for an internship on Capitol Hill, maybe to Puerto Rico for a service-learning alternative spring break trip. Don’t miss the opportunity for such powerful and eye-opening experiences.

students march on the field

New students march onto the field during the convocation ceremony. (UC Berkeley photo by Irene Yi)

Outside of Berkeley’s academic and co-curricular ecosystem, your thirst for discovery should extend to the kinds of people you surround yourself, engage, and interact with. For many of you, this place will be the most diverse community you’ve ever experienced. The people you meet and perspectives you are exposed to will stretch you intellectually and, at times, emotionally…but I urge you to be open, to listen actively, to allow the validity of your beliefs to be tested and challenged while you build connections with people who are far removed from those you know now. Allow yourself to be surprised by discarding stereotypes…by developing your capacity for empathy…by learning to see with different eyes and putting yourself in others’ shoes.

This need is closely connected to an issue that has been in the news the last few years, and that is our campus’s commitment to free speech. I’d like to close with a few comments about that.

A few words on free speech

Free speech—the constitutionally protected right to believe what we wish and to express ourselves as we wish—is fundamental both to our democracy and to our mission as a learning institution. It has a special meaning at Berkeley, home of the Free Speech Movement, in which students in the 1960s united to fight for the right to advocate political views on campus.

A commitment to free speech involves not just defending your right to speak and the rights of those you agree with, but also defending the right to speak by those you strongly disagree with. This is not easy. You may feel that some speech attacks your very identity. However, rather than seeking to shut down or shut out those we disagree with, the right response is to question, contest, debate. Universities exist in search of truth – we must embody and model a community that responds to things like hate speech with more speech, with rebuttal, with counterpoint.

students wave a flag

Members of the Rally Committee welcome new students to Berkeley. (UC Berkeley photo by Violet Carter)

Still, I understand that our lived experiences are not the same…that some forms of speech and expression can be immensely difficult and feel personally damaging. I understand that there can be an inherent tension between our absolute commitment to diversity and our unwavering commitment to freedom of expression. A diverse community means we see diverse and often widely divergent reactions to, for example, expression in support of a particular political ideology. Yet, if a community is strong, respectful, inclusive and supportive we, together, have created the necessary conditions to engage ideas of every sort.

You do have the right to expect our university to keep you physically safe, but we would be providing you less of an education, preparing you less well for the world after you graduate, if we tried to protect you from ideas that you may find dangerous or frightening. We have classes on the rise of nazism in World War II so that we understand what allowed such a regime to gain power. Next week we’re hosting a symposium on the 400th anniversary of the first Africans in this country to be sold into slavery, in 1619 at Jamestown, because it is a painful but important chapter in our history, one whose effects have rippled out into the modern era.

students raise their hands in celebration

New Berkeley students celebrate during the 2019 convocation ceremony. (UC Berkeley photo by Irene Yi)

That inherent tension is what makes community, and a true sense of belonging for all, so extraordinarily important. When strong ties bind us together, we feel supported and it becomes easier to take risks, to move past stereotypes, to open ourselves to learning and exploration. Nothing, therefore, is more important than our shared responsibility to ensure everyone – everyone – in our community feels safe, respected, and welcome.

Thank you. Now, let me now end my remarks by simply offering you my warmest welcome to Berkeley—a place where we readily take on and examine thorny issues like free speech in the modern era…just as we extend the boundaries of science, seek a more profound understanding of history, create and critique art, rethink societal norms, develop new ideas, found new companies, and cultivate our own best selves so that we can go out and change the world.

‘Shape Berkeley, even as it shapes you’

After a long and competitive admissions process, you may feel that you are lucky to be here. We feel as a university we are lucky to have you. You are bringing to the Berkeley community remarkable intelligence, energy, ambition, resilience, creativity, curiosity, and an eagerness to challenge the status quo and reimagine the future. You will stimulate and energize our entire university, and we are thrilled to have you shape Berkeley, even as it shapes you.

Thank you, and thank you as well to all of the Golden Bear Orientation advisors and orientation leaders, new student services team members, GBO steering committee…everyone who has been hard at work to make sure you get a great start on campus. Take care of yourselves, take care of each other. We couldn’t be more excited to be a part of the great journey of personal and intellectual discovery that awaits you.

Fiat lux, and Go Bears!