Promise kept: UC Berkeley’s Class of 2020 gets belated commencement

A photo of the Greek Theatre shows a capacity crows on a sunny, warm day at the Class of 2020 In-Person Commencement, a belated event for the class, which had to forgo an in-person ceremony in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A belated Class of 2020 In-Person Commencement, promised to students when COVID-19 canceled their graduation event last year, filled the Greek Theatre three times on Sunday, Aug. 29. To accommodate all the students and their guests, there were ceremonies at 9 a.m., 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. (UC Berkeley photo by Keegan Houser)

A year and a half ago, as COVID-19 raged, UC Berkeley’s Class of 2020 was forced to finish senior year with remote instruction, quick, if any, goodbyes and no graduation ceremonies.

But on Sunday, some 4,250 members of the class returned to Berkeley where, as promised, campus officials threw a belated Class of 2020 In-Person Commencement at the iconic Greek Theatre. For many, the livestreamed outdoor event — held at 9 a.m., 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., to accommodate the crowds — meant much more than regalia, cheering parents, “Pomp and Circumstance,” bouquets, photos and hugs.

“It gave me closure I didn’t know I needed,” said Dhruv Kathuria, a 2020 electrical engineering and computer sciences graduate, originally from New Jersey, after the morning ceremony. “I sometimes have wondered, ‘Am I a student? Am I a graduate?’” Now, he said, “I have a new word to use:” alumnus.

Waving to their son, Sam, as he processed into the 118-year-old amphitheater for the 9 a.m. ceremony, Jeri Rochman Eisner and her husband, Alan, of Los Angeles, felt strongly that the event “was worth the wait,” she said. “We’re very grateful to Cal for doing this. It means the world to us and our son.”

Last year’s cancellation of the annual undergraduate commencement was “devastating,” added Alan Eisner, a 1982 Berkeley graduate. He admitted getting choked up hearing “Pomp and Circumstance,” which played in a lengthy, continuous loop to suit the 1,450 graduates filing in.

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Dry eyes were hard to find when Robert Paylor’s name was called. Told he’d never walk again after suffering a catastrophic injury while playing rugby as a sophomore, Paylor, with a 2020 degree in business administration, crossed 10 yards of the stage on foot, using only a walker, and received a standing ovation.

“I’m so beyond excited to be able not just to receive my degree, but to be able to physically do this,” said Paylor, who lives in El Dorado Hills and is writing a book about his journey. “This is one of the happiest days of my life.”

It also was tough to spot an empty seat at the packed venue, where Chancellor Carol Christ was keynote speaker. She also helped hand certificates to graduates — most of them in regalia, others in a mix of casual shorts and sneakers, formal wear and creatively-decorated mortar boards. One graduate attended carrying a giant bear stuffed animal.

“It is simply wonderful to see you again, to be with you, to say hello,” Christ told the crowd, dubbing the festivities “Commencement, Take Two.” She commended the recent graduates’ resilience during the pandemic, saying it reflected the vitality and tenacity of the entire campus.

“That resilience is why, in so many ways, our university is emerging from this extraordinary year stronger than ever,” she said, “and I believe the same will hold true for you.”

Cal Athletics video by Laura Furney

‘A beacon of hope and light’

Paylor’s tenacity in the wake of his 2017 spinal cord injury was palpable at the event.

At that fateful national rugby championship between Cal and Arkansas State, an opponent wrapped his arm around Paylor’s neck and didn’t let go as a formation of players with interlocked arms crushed down on the 6-foot-5-inch, 235-pound student-athlete, who hit the ground paralyzed below his broken neck.

The sport’s governing body, USA Rugby, was criticized by Paylor’s parents for not disciplining the opponent; Cal Rugby’s head coach, Jack Clark, called the hit preventable and illegal under the laws of the game.

Paylor then caught pneumonia, which lingered a month. He was unable to eat or sit up for more than 10 minutes without passing out, and his muscles began to atrophy. “I was broken physically and mentally when I first got hurt,” he said. “My prognosis was terrible.”

Chancellor Christ, wearing regalia, claps for former Cal Rugby player Rob

Chancellor Carol Christ applauds Class of 2020 grad Robert Paylor, a former Cal Rugby player who suffered a catastrophic injury at a tournament in 2017. After his name was read, he walked on the stage using a walker and support from Tom Billups, Cal Rugby associate head coach. Once told he would never walk again, he received a lengthy standing ovation from the entire crowd at the Greek Theatre. (UC Berkeley photo by Keegan Houser)

He later underwent intense rehabilitation in Colorado, then returned to Berkeley, navigating the hilly campus in his wheelchair. Each day, he hit the gym for hours with Tom Billups, Cal Rugby associate head coach, who said that, “early on, he and I set a goal for him to walk at a home football game.” In September 2018, Paylor got a standing ovation at California Memorial Stadium when he stepped onto the field, navigating with the help of a walker.

“As he continued to work his tail off with me, we said, ‘Let’s walk at graduation,’” continued Billups, who walked alongside Paylor on stage on Sunday. “Of course, that got canceled, so I know he’s incredibly grateful for the chance he was given at the Greek Theatre.”

Today, Paylor, who attended Berkeley Haas, is executive director of the Big C Society, a UC support organization that represents varsity athletes who earned letters from Berkeley, and he’s started a career as a motivational speaker. The tentative title of the book he’s writing is Paralyzed and Powerful.

“It would have been easy for Robert to approach his injury and his life afterward differently, but he’s really a beacon of hope and light as a young man,” said Billups. “He’s ready to take on the world, and it’s nothing less than awe-inspiring.”

Jules Means, a 2020 graduate, touches her niece, Elletra Meeks, on the shoulder after Meeks placed a lei around Means' neck at the belated Class of 2020 Commencement.

Jules Means (left), who graduated in 2020 at age 67, spends a special moment with her niece, Elettra Meeks, after Meeks placed a lei around her aunt’s neck. Means, who kept her regalia hanging by her front door for 13 months, after commencement was canceled last year during the pandemic, took part in Sunday’s 2 p.m. ceremony at the Greek Theatre. (UC Berkeley photo by Keegan Houser)

Worth the wait

Like Paylor, Jules Means also was told she’d never walk again, following a series of strokes. But in 2020, at age 67, she graduated from Berkeley with a sociology degree and honors. Means is now a graduate student at Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare.

“Going back to school saved my life,” the Brentwood resident and great-grandmother said. “I wasn’t happy having strokes, but the strokes made me say, ‘Get up on your feet. Get up and get going.’”

She also defied the odds. “For a young Black girl in the ‘50s,” she added, “getting a college degree was unthinkable, something that would never happen.”

Yet, learning she’d graduate without a ceremony, without family and friends witnessing her milestone, was painful and unthinkable. Then, when Christ announced the Aug. 29 event, “I just danced around the house,” said Means.

She’d kept her regalia hanging by the front door for the past 13 months. And she finally could keep a promise she made to her doctor: that she’d wear high-heeled shoes someday. “I love being beautiful,” said Means, posing for photos on campus earlier Sunday. “For four years, I couldn’t wear heels. I would fall. Look at me now!”

UC Berkeley graduate and U.S. Army veteran Rodrigo Ramirez smiles behind his sunglasses and wearing regalia at the Class of 2020 In-Person Commencement at the Greek Theatre.

Rodrigo Ramirez was a mix of smiles and tears of gratitude following his participation in the 9 a.m. Class of 2020 In-Person Commencement on Sunday. This was the U.S. Army veteran’s first graduation ceremony, as he joined the military at 17, a month before his high school graduation, and he feared last year’s canceled one might never happen due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. (UC Berkeley photo by Keegan Houser)

Sunday’s event also meant the world to Rodrigo Ramirez, an Army veteran from Lincoln, California, who served in the 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan directing artillery strikes, but eventually left to pursue a college degree at his “dream school,” Berkeley. Last spring, he received his political science degree.

When he left high school for the Army at age 17, Berkeley seemed out of reach. He joined the military just one month before the end of his senior year and missed his high school graduation. Last year, he figured he’d lost his chance for a college graduation event, too.

After the 9 a.m. ceremony on Sunday, a tearful Ramirez — grateful to experience his first commencement, heavy-hearted about the recent deadly attacks in Afghanistan and proud to be serving the Department of Veterans Affairs as a project analyst— said he was reflecting on the blessings in his life.

“I feel very privileged to be here,” he said.

Kim Girard from Berkeley Haas contributed to this report.