A colorful beach ball was boisterously batted back and forth at California Memorial Stadium as thousands of graduating students joyfully danced in the stands and chants of “Go Bears!” rang out during the UC Berkeley Class of 2023’s commencement on Saturday morning.
The scene was a fun one, to say the least.
But for the graduates — who had to earn their degrees amid the challenges and uncertainty of a global pandemic — that celebratory vibe was due, in part, to the love and support they received from family, friends and their Berkeley community.
Saturday’s campuswide ceremony, dedicated to the academic achievement of all undergraduate and graduate students, was an opportunity for the graduates to show their appreciation.
“While uncertainty might feel isolating and lonely, remember that we’re never truly alone,” legal studies graduate and ASUC President Chaka Tellem said during his speech at the stadium.
“Each diploma earned today tells a unique story and is a representation of the collective sacrifices made not only by us whose names are written on the diploma … but also by those around us — our loved ones who invested their time and energy to ensure our success.”
At the ceremony, which fell just one day before Mother’s Day, several graduates praised their moms.
First-generation Master of Social Welfare recipient Michelle Gonzalez said her mother worked three jobs and raised her as a single mother so that Gonzalez could realize her academic dreams.
“I would not be where I am without my mother,” said Gonzalez, who plans a career in child and youth services. “Everything I am is because of her. She gave so much and asked for nothing, and I am eternally grateful.”
Materials science and engineering graduate Corey Williams, who plans to delve into machine learning research after graduation, said there were times when he wouldn’t have physically made it to class if it weren’t for his mother.
“She’s had a lot of health problems, but she would still take time to drive me to campus from San Pablo when I needed it,” Williams said. “She supported me in all my years of schooling, so this degree is just as much hers as it is mine.”
Twin siblings Ren and Jes Takeda wore kukui nut necklaces around their necks Saturday, an homage to their great-grandmother, who worked as a farmer in a Hawaiian plantation. As third- generation college students, said Jes Takeda, sacrifices made by the twins’ ancestors made it possible for them to pursue what they are passionate about today.
Ren Takeda, who studied molecular environmental biology, said that the siblings also found support in Berkeley’s LGBTQ community, adding that, “We were able to create a group of friends organically,” he said. “Berkeley has really made us feel included, and we plan to stay in the area because of that. … We’ve been able to be authentically ourselves.”
Haas School of Business graduate Mark Malley found support in Berkeley’s community for students with disabilities. A former competitive athlete, Malley said he became disabled after several surgeries, including a hip replacement that makes it hard for him to walk and a traumatic brain injury.
Malley, who plans to pursue a career in health care, said that, as a disabled student, he has gotten ample support and resources at Berkeley that allowed him to graduate.
“[Berkeley] is way better than other schools I have attended,” said Malley, who despite being disabled was able to play on Berkeley’s club baseball team. “Here, people are much more understanding of disabilities. … It has been very accommodating here, and I’ve really appreciated it.”
Psychology school graduates Melanie Campos, Yancy Cruz and Kattia Suarez said they found support and community with each other. As roommates, they once frequented local bars and restaurants together to celebrate and relieve stress during finals.
But when the pandemic hit, Campos said it became hard to socialize locally, like they used to.
Yet, the bonds they’d made couldn’t be broken. “Being together helped us grow closer as friends, and we made Berkeley like our home away from home,” she said. “That’s what it became for us, and that’s what it will always be.”
In her remarks at commencement, Chancellor Carol Christ praised graduates for their resilience and perseverance through the pandemic’s “unprecedented challenges.”
“What animates Berkeley,” she said, “is our belief in, and commitment to, individual and institutional agency.”
“The notion that through the discovery, development, dissemination and discussion of knowledge, we can make the world a better place,” said Christ. “… As you stand at one of life’s great crossroads, take a deep breath and consider the road you have traveled and all of that you can and will carry with you from Berkeley.”
For Abdul Sidiq, that road has not been easy.
An immigrant from Afghanistan, Sidiq, a data science graduate, moved to the United States six years ago for more academic opportunities. As a father of two, Sidiq said that the pandemic made it hard to balance his family life with his studies. And coming from a war-torn country, Sidiq said, he was very skeptical about creating a community at Berkeley.
“But being here really opened my eyes, and I was introduced to people from many different backgrounds,” said Sidiq, who plans to work as a data analyst. “This place, and this campus, is like no other place I have been before.”
Sidiq said that if his father, who died just two years ago, were still here today, he would “thank him for everything he did to get me here. … You are the greatest father I have ever known. A great man who worked hard every day for us.”
In his keynote address to graduates, Steve Wozniak, a Berkeley alumnus and co-founder of Apple Inc., reminded students to seek happiness over everything else, and to “help others. … and strive for excellence.”
“Be inspired. Use your brain, and think for yourself. Be leaders, and don’t be followers in a crowd. … Life is not a dress rehearsal, you are living it,” said Wozniak. “And always look for ways to make life fun.”
Taking heed to Wozniak’s wise words were graduates Georgiana Estrada and Daniel Ornelas, who at the commencement’s conclusion rushed to dance at the center of the football field, with a beaming sun above, to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”.
Estrada, a psychology graduate, and Ornelas, a civil engineering grad, are both first-generation college students and became best friends at Berkeley — a place Estrada said will always hold a special place in her heart.
“This was a very rewarding moment that I wouldn’t trade for the world,” she said, tearfully, of the friends’ joyous moment in the sun. “We worked so hard through so many struggles, and we made it here. … It was all worth it.”