Campus & community, Campus news, Events at Berkeley

Accompanied by protests, UC Berkeley graduates celebrate a milestone

The class that missed its freshman year on campus because of COVID gets a rousing send-off

By Robert Sanders

a young man in robes with hands raised in joy

The celebratory mood was evident as graduates basked in the sun during commencement ceremonies in California Memorial Stadium.

Brittany Hosea-Small for UC Berkeley

Despite persistent chanting from hundreds of graduates protesting the war in Gaza, UC Berkeley's annual campuswide commencement proceeded as planned on Saturday, with speakers sending the graduating students out into the world with sage advice and heartfelt wishes.

Nearly 8,000 students receiving bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees turned out in sunny, warm weather wearing black gowns and colorful stoles, with additions ranging from leis and strands of blue and gold beads to glitter-decorated mortarboards and even a feather headdress. About 20,000 guests joined them, sipping lemonade and water in the heat.

As the ceremony began, however, scattered chants of "Free Palestine!" could be heard from the section set aside for graduating students, accompanied by displays of Palestinian flags and black-on-white letters spelling DIVEST. The disturbance morphed into a slow migration of students from their seats to an unoccupied bleacher section, ultimately filling it with more than 500 chanters. The din threatened to drown out Chancellor Carol Christ, who was hosting her final graduation ceremony before stepping down at the end of June.

gray-haired woman in cap and blue robe walking across green football field
Chancellor Carol Christ strode to the podium to host her final commencement ceremony before stepping down at the end of June.

Brittany Hosea-Small for UC Berkeley

Praising students in the Class of 2024 for their response to recent events and the COVID epidemic, which forced their first year at Berkeley to be virtual, Christ urged the graduates, "as you stand at one of life’s great crossroads, take a deep breath … pause … reflect … and consider the road you have traveled, and all of that you can and will carry with you from Berkeley into your personal and professional futures."

The program was halted at one point when the protesters' chants reached their zenith, but it quickly resumed for keynote speaker Cynthia "Cynt" Marshall, a Berkeley alumna who is the CEO of the Dallas Mavericks — the first African American female CEO in the National Basketball Association.

Marshall rallied the crowd with her story of coming to Berkeley from the "projects" in Richmond, California, and becoming the campus’s first Black cheerleader. She delivered sports-related advice to the graduates, and at one point engaged them in a call-and-response, telling them to "look at someone and tell them, 'Neighbor … the ball … is in … your hands.'"

black woman in blue robe and glasses gesticulating at a podium
The keynote speaker at commencement was Cynthia “Cynt” Marshall, a UC Berkeley graduate who went on to become CEO of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team, the first African American female CEO in NBA history.

Brittany Hosea-Small for UC Berkeley

Marshall's message soared over the chants, which dwindled as the protesting graduates returned to their seats in time to hear her final exhortation: "You tell the story. You tell the whole darn world this is Bear Territory."

In the end, the protests didn't dampen the crowd’s spirits, as happy grads reunited with their families afterward for photos and hugs. There were no arrests at the event.

"It was the best of both worlds. It's their ceremony as much as ours," said Dominic Cedillo, an ethnic studies and political science major, referring to the graduates who chose to protest. "Props to the administration for allowing them to protest long enough to get their message across."

A mortarboard decorated with Cal logo, 2024 and a figure of DNA
Decorating mortarboards is a classic form of self-expression for graduates.

Brittany Hosea-Small for UC Berkeley

Before the event, students gathered on Witter Field, adjacent to the stadium, for refreshments and last-minute photos. Among them was J.P. Piña, who was wearing a blue-and-orange-feathered headdress in celebration of the day. A transfer student who majored in anthropology and minored in Native American studies, she is a member of the Coahuiltecan tribal community of the Texas and Mexico borderlands and hails from San Jose. She is a first-generation college student, a student parent, disabled and formerly incarcerated.

"I've overcome a lot of barriers to get here, but I'm glad I'm here. My experience was amazing," said Piña, who was excited about upcoming community work and applying for doctoral programs in archaeology. "I met a lot of people, I expanded my network, I was able to interact with people who were on the same path as me. If you find yourself in a community with other Indigenous and Native folks, it can feel very comfortable and welcoming here. The Native American and anthropology departments are doing a lot of amazing work to expand on their inclusion of Native and Indigenous people."

Many students expressed relief that Berkeley's graduation was going forward, since other campuses, including the University of Southern California (USC) and Columbia University, canceled their university-wide commencement ceremonies due to anti-war protests. Most of the Class of 2024 missed their high school proms and graduations because the COVID pandemic hit in early 2020, just as they were completing their senior year and, incidentally, getting their college acceptance letters.

two women smiling with mortarboards and gowns

Graduation speakers encouraged graduates to make the world "Bear Territory."

Keegan Houser, UC Berkeley

"I didn't have a high school graduation, so I am really looking forward to my college graduation," said Zaina Shaik of Irvine, a computer science major in Berkeley’s relatively new College of Computing, Data Science, and Society, who was with her friend and fellow computer science graduate, Madeeha Khan. Both wore Palestinian keffiyehs in support of the protesters.

"These past four years have been the best four years of my life, and I'm really excited about graduating with my best friend,” she said, noting that she has been accepted into a master’s degree program in computer science at USC.

"It's been good, despite starting from COVID and Zoom learning and changing to in-person in the fall of our sophomore year," agreed Carolyn Lu, a business major and public policy minor. "Getting in line for graduation, it seems like we've come full circle."

two smiling women in robes, leis and stoles

Sorority sisters graduating on Saturday, May 11.

Brittany Hosea-Small for UC Berkeley

Many graduates, frankly, were glad the hard work was behind them.

"The best way to describe it (Berkeley) is very hard and very rewarding," said mechanical engineering graduate Abhinav Subramaniam, who is from the Philippines and will be a speaker at his departmental graduation on Tuesday. "I learned a lot, forgot a lot, did a lot of exams, but I made it, finally. Persistence is a true virtue to have when you're going to Berkeley, but I think it's something everyone here has in common. One of the great things is there's a lot of community, at least in MechE, especially. Yes, there's a lot of competition, but everyone wants to help each other."

As the graduates trickled out of the stadium, some to party, others to celebrate with family, future plans loomed large, mixed with appreciation for the formative years they spent at UC Berkeley.

"I'm glad to be done, and excited for the next chapter of my life," said Nix Bukus, a history major who transferred to Berkeley two years ago. "I love Berkeley. Thank you for giving me the opportunity."

a smiling man in a blue robe between his mother and a younger woman

About 8,000 graduating students attended commencement, cheered on by some 20,000 family and friends.

Keegan Houser, UC Berkeley

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