Chancellor Carol Christ gave the following address during Saturday’s virtual commencement ceremony in a student-built version of the UC Berkeley campus called Blockeley University. The ceremony happened in a virtual version of Memorial Stadium and included “Pomp and Circumstance,” Christ’s remarks, the conferring of degrees and “Hail to California.”
Members of the remarkable and resilient graduating class of 2020, let me offer you my deepest and most heartfelt congratulations.
While this is a day to celebrate your achievement, let us also take a moment to acknowledge and thank your parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends—everyone who has helped you arrive at one of life’s great milestones.
If you could transport yourself back in time just three months, I do not think you could’ve imagined that you would celebrate this day at home, perhaps in your pajamas instead of a cap and gown, watching boxy avatars float across a computer screen. And I don’t think you could’ve fathomed that your college experience would come to a close without the laughter-filled last meals with friends, the warm embraces and tearful goodbyes, and the exuberant parties that typically mark the end of the school year.
But graduating in 2020 is anything but typical. As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, we face both the dangers wrought by the virus as well as the massive societal and economic upheaval that is accompanying its spread. These are sobering reminders that we are not the sole authors of the stories of our lives. We share that credit with a capricious collaborator called circumstance.
In the first book of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, the protagonist, Frodo, laments that a great evil has come to Middle Earth and wrenched him away from his tranquil existence. “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” he sighs.
His friend and mentor, the wizard Gandalf, responds with tenderness and wisdom: “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
The pandemic and its effects have been thrust upon us all, and the only thing in our power is how we choose to respond.”
– – Chancellor Carol Christ
This, of course, is the test that lies before you, your peers, your loved ones, even me: The pandemic and its effects have been thrust upon us all, and the only thing in our power is how we choose to respond. We can let these weighty circumstances hold us down, or we can decide to pick ourselves back up, to adapt, to push onward. Trials such as this are opportunities to cultivate habits of mind that will serve us for all time: courage, ingenuity, resilience, patience, humility, grace, and gratitude.
Already, these traits have been on full display as your class has navigated the monumental transformations of the last several weeks. Some of you kept up your studies even as you took on the role of full-time teacher to younger siblings, as you cared for elder relatives, as you struggled through the suddenly dire challenges of a poor internet connection, or as you woke at 5 a.m. for class in a different time zone. Given the circumstances, your efforts to reach this day are nothing short of heroic. The Class of 2020 will go down in the history books as one that achieved greatness in the face of unprecedented turmoil.
This very celebration, the Blockeley commencement, is a testament to how you have sought out light within darkness. When our campus decided to postpone an in-person spring commencement ceremony, Bjorn Lustic – on a break from his studies at Cal – saw a social media post jokingly asking for someone to build a campus in Minecraft so that students could receive their diplomas digitally.
Well, he thought … why not try? Recruiting a friend and their siblings, Bjorn got to work on the re-creation of California Memorial Stadium that we’re standing in today. As the group shared their progress, excitement grew, and soon hundreds of Berkeley students and alumni were working hand-in-virtual-hand to construct the entire campus from the ground up.
Ultimately, they created something exquisite, detailed, and beautiful. More than that, though, they gave Cal students who had been scattered across the globe a way to vividly experience Berkeley. They offered these students a chance to reconnect with the places they cherished: the magnificent beaux arts buildings like Doe Library and Wheeler Hall, the bustling student union, shaded bridges across Strawberry Creek, a sunlit memorial glade, the stately campanile towering over it all.
In his book In Search of Lost Time, the author Marcel Proust finds that memories are often triggered by our senses, by what we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. A bite of a madeleine cookie brings rushing back to Proust childhood trips to see his aunt, who would give him a piece of her own madeleine on Sunday mornings before Mass. Other experiences are reawakened within him when he sees steeples on the rural horizon, or feels uneven paving stones beneath his feet.
Returning to campus – whether virtually today, or in person at a later date – stirs up these kinds of memories within each of us. Walking around Berkeley, or Blockeley, you encounter the backdrop of your college career. The episodes that spring to mind are both shared and deeply personal, for each of us fills in the details, and colors in the figures, according to our own experience. As you pass Moffitt, you may recollect certain moments with friends as you studied late into the evening, or walking by Haas Pavilion, remember the roar of the crowd as you cheered for the Golden Bears in a game against Stanford. Perhaps you’ll recall the way a partner smiled on a first date in a Bancroft cafe; or think back to the crunch of your own footsteps on a quiet walk through Tilden Park on a moonlit evening.
This very celebration, the Blockeley commencement, is a testament to how you have sought out light within darkness.
– – Chancellor Carol Christ
For the poet William Wordsworth, memories like these are powerful sources of pleasure that can carry a person through the most troubled of times. His poem “Tintern Abbey”, describing a visit to a countryside on the banks of the River Wye after many years away, is in some ways a somber reflection on the loss of youth and the passage of time. Yet he finds that memories of his life are also emotional bastions, the bearers of “tranquil restoration” in moments of turmoil. He claims: “I have owed to them, / In hours of weariness, sensations sweet, / Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart.”
Though your college career is reaching its end, I hope you will carry Berkeley with you – in the connections you’ve made, in the lessons you’ve learned, in the memories you feel in the blood and along the heart. I hope that this institution can remain a source of peace, calm, and hope for you in troubled times – and a place to which you will return often, both in person and in your mind’s eye.
Members of the class of 2020, as you enter a society that is facing unprecedented tumult, these places of solace will have even more meaning for you. Find in them the strength that will allow you to face a world that has been torn apart, and to re-envision and reshape it into one that is more just and more beautiful.
May the education you have received at Berkeley serve not just your lives but your society well. May your years ahead be richly rewarding and fulfilling, and may you enjoy much happiness. We are immensely proud of what you have done, and even more, of who you will become.
Fiat lux, and Go Bears!