Festive winter commencement puts a focus on justice, public service

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Han Na Choi stood before an audience of thousands, including her fellow UC Berkeley graduates, and told a story about her work last summer in Afghanistan, connecting with a new community, making new friends. She went there with a Berkeley Christian fellowship group to help an underserved community, but she said the experience changed her, too.

“I thought I would be educating the people about Western social values and ideologies,” Choi told the audience at the 2019 winter commencement ceremony. “And yet I gained so many experiences that have given my life clear direction. I discovered my career path in public health, the importance of service and equity and the beauty of living amongst strangers in a different land.”

Since the age of 15, Choi — “Hanna” to her friends — has traveled seven times to do public service and Christian mission work ­in countries such as Iraq, Egypt and Morocco. She said the work reflected the values and engagement encouraged in her time at Berkeley ­— and it reflected a recurring theme at the ceremony at Haas Pavilion Saturday morning for 650 graduates and their families and friends.

“It is a defining quality of our students that you do not sit idly by when you see struggle or injustice, whether in the larger world or locally,” Chancellor Carol Christ said in her opening remarks. “You reflect on the issues at hand, consider solutions and confront problems in all their complexity, and with all their deep and enduring difficulty.”

Keynote speaker Robert D. Haas, a 1964 graduate who became a leader in international business and philanthropy, urged students to maintain these ideals long after they leave the university, and to prepare for the challenges that are inevitable on the road to justice.

“Working for lasting social progress takes time,” said Haas. “There will be days and months and years when you wonder if it’s even worth it. But if you persevere, stay focused on the result you are trying to achieve, and join with partners who share your belief in the need for change ­— well, anything is possible.”

For Haas, the Berkeley experience was “transformational.”

“From the moment I stepped on campus,” he recalled, “I encountered sharp debates about the issues of the day. I was forced to consider different points of view. I learned to listen closely to people whose circumstances and life experiences were very different from my own. And I learned the value of questioning the way things are.”

After graduation, Haas served in the Peace Corps, got an MBA and worked as a White House Fellow. He joined his family’s business, Levi Strauss & Co., in the early 1970s, and rose to become president, CEO and chairman of the board. In those years, the company took the lead on critical business and cultural issues: pioneering rigorous standards to protect overseas workers; joining in efforts to raise AIDS awareness and protect and support HIV-positive employees; offering benefits to unmarried partners of Levi’s employees.

Haas also has served as a trustee of the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, which has donated millions of dollars to UC Berkeley, including $1 million in 2012 to fund scholarships for undocumented students.

The 2019 winter graduates and their families brought a spirit of excitement and pride to Saturday’s commencement. The graduates now count among nearly a half-million alumni worldwide, part of a lineage dating back 151 years. After the ceremony, on the expanse of Spieker Plaza, they mingled with classmates and families, embracing, talking and taking photos. They celebrated the moment, but for some, thoughts were already turning to next steps and new goals.

Robert Joseph was celebrating his new master’s degree in education ­— and imaging how he might make a difference in a classroom, or a school district, maybe in the realm of education policy.

Joseph is a native of the East Bay, and already he’s worked at both the elementary and middle school levels in Oakland and San Francisco. “These have been very rewarding, very gratifying experiences — just an opportunity to serve,” he explained. “That’s a main motivation behind getting the master’s degree — to be able to give something back. I want to be more directly impacting schools and school districts.”

So, too, with Juliet Peña, a media studies and legal studies double major who was taking photos with her family. She was born in Peru and lived there until she was 6, and then grew up in San Francisco. She’s already doing communications work with East Bay Community Law Center, which serves low-income communities, and now she’s looking for a job in marketing.

The biggest takeaway from her time at UC Berkeley? “Be compassionate with other people,” Peña said. “That’s what I learned the most — to care about other communities, how to live with other people. And I’m going to take that into the world.”

Her vision, like that embraced by Choi, Joseph and others, reflected the advice offered by Chancellor Christ. “May the education you have received here serve not just yourselves, but your society, well,” she told the graduates. “The world is now yours to shape ­— make it a place of grace, justice and beauty.”

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