Kim Cotton, 48, started earning her UC Berkeley degree in the early 1990s. She withdrew in 1995, a few credits short of graduation, resigning herself, she said, to “live my life as a perpetual senior at UC Berkeley.”
But Cotton didn’t want to stay a senior. She said that getting her degree was “unfinished business,” a task that was eating at her, demanding to be completed.
On Saturday — 27 years after she first left Berkeley and 14 hours after she turned in her final paper — she crossed the stage at Berkeley’s winter commencement ceremony. Her name rang out in Haas Pavilion, recognition that she was now an American Studies graduate of the world’s top public research university.
Cotton, was one of hundreds of Berkeley graduate and undergraduate students who participated in the commencement exercise.
Alina Wang, 22, was in high heels, hustling to line up for the procession when she paused to reflect on her time studying computer science — both the top moments and the hard ones.
“You name it,” Wang said, when asked to name her memorable moments as a Berkeley student. “The strike, COVID, wildfires, power outages, Zoom. It was really a lot, when you think about it.”
Annie Nguyen, 22, an art practice and Japanese language double major from San Jose, remembered when an instructor in one of the first drawing classes called her sketch of a friend “holy.”
“To have someone call my work ‘holy,’ I mean, wow,” she said, pausing to appreciate the moment even years later. “I don’t think I ever expected to receive positive feedback about my work at a place like this.”
Carlos Lopez-Tenorio, 22, a data science and cognitive science major who calls Tijuana home, said he was feeling both “nervous of all the adult things to come” and “satisfied” by his time on campus, even if “every semester there’s been something major that happened.”
Chancellor Carol Christ encouraged graduates to make the most of those major events, from the pandemic to climate change-driven wildfires to nationwide racial justice movements.
“Behavioral and social science teach us that unsettled times of change and transformation have the potential to facilitate personal and societal learning, growth and adaptation,” she said in her remarks. “So, while this may be a perilous time, so, too, is it a time of creative ferment and possibility — and that makes this prime time for you, our newest alumni.”
Student speaker Chelsea Gomez-Moreno, who earned a degree in economics, recalled how her classmates made the most of the turmoil.
“We often learned with classmates in different time zones while catching up over Netflix’s Tiger King and looking forward to when we didn’t have to use the words ‘unprecedented times’ ever again,” she said in her remarks. “Looking back, I am incredibly grateful for the Class of 2022. We continued to connect, despite never taking a class in person. We became friends over remote club meetings.”
English professor Poulomi Saha, an expert on cults who gave the keynote address, reminded the graduates that, while they should recognize this moment of celebration, there is work to be done.
“I feel so comforted by the idea of the future being in your hands,” she told the graduates. “You’re kinder, more capacious, more compassionate and more curious than any students I’ve seen in my ever-longer time here. You’re making a world that is already better because of your solidarity with things beyond yourself.
“You’ll go on, I’m sure, to cure disease, you’ll invent tools that make people’s lives better and easier, you’ll discover new approaches to crises of climate change and global inequality, you’ll create art and literature that bring new beauty into the world.”