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University Medalist to graduates: Look beyond the label.

By Public Affairs

Christopher Ying, the 2024 University Medalist, delivered a brief commencement speech to graduates on Saturday, May 11. (UC Berkeley video)

Christopher Ying, who was awarded the 2024 University Medal as the top graduating senior, delivered the following address at UC Berkeley’s 2022 commencement:

Thank you Chancellor Christ for the introduction.

Good morning professors, family, and hello class of 2024. I am humbled and honored to stand before you today. For all of us, Cal surprised us by challenging our idea of what college would be like.

Today, I’d like to share one of my surprises. Last summer, I was teaching algebra 1 at a junior college. When a student asked me about the real-world application of parabolas, I stood on a chair and threw a marker across the room. As it flew through the air, it traced the shape of an upside down parabola. My students loved this, and continued to bombard me with questions, eager to learn more algebra.

This was no ordinary classroom. This was behind bars deep in the heart of the state’s oldest, largest, and most infamous prison: San Quentin. My activities at Cal led me to volunteer at the prison. During the rigorous volunteer training, the prison authorities tell you what you can and cannot bring … what you can and cannot wear … who you can and cannot speak to … and that if you are ever taken hostage, you are on your own. To get to the classroom, you go through three security checkpoints before the gate slams shut behind you.

young man in mortarboard and robes at podium
Christopher Ying, a double major in math and history, was named the top graduating senior based on grade point average, recommendations and an essay.

Brittany Hosea-Small for UC Berkeley

The first time I went inside, I was terrified. I was keenly aware that I was surrounded by murderers, gang members, bank robbers, even a hitman. During roll call, each inmate identifies himself by the last 2 digits of his prison ID number. So I was first introduced to the inmates through two labels: their crime and their number.

But as I spent more time with them, I learned to look beyond their labels. I met a grandfather who has never seen his grandchildren but wants them to be proud that he finished college in prison. … I met a basketball superfan who calls the family of his victim every day to heal and build a relationship. … I met a computer scientist who got married last fall after he got out of prison …and guess who went to the wedding? My students asked nonstop questions, never shy to admit what they did not know. Students from rival gangs helped each other factor quadratic expressions. They were ecstatic to learn and grateful for help.

San Quentin taught me to look beyond the label toward the individual. It taught me that every person has their own story, filled with their own joys, heartbreaks, failures, and dreams. The people around you, even those with whom you may disagree, do not fit neatly into categories and should not be defined by one thing.

When you walk through those gates into the world, I hope you will treasure and respect the individuality of others. Do not reduce them to labels. Do not judge them or shut them out just because they look different from you, because of something they did in the past, or because they have different opinions. Have the courage to stand up for what you believe in, but also have the strength to be kind. Be passionate to fight injustice, but patient to understand those who disagree with you. Look beyond the label.

But there is one label we will all share after today: we are proud Cal grads from the Class of 2024. Congratulations to each and every one of you, and Go Bears!