2020 UCLA College Virtual CelebrationSpeech
Hello Class of 2020! You made it. Congratulations!
I know this is not the commencement you expected. It is taking place at a very difficult moment when we are all reeling, once again, from the pain of racial injustice. And when a global pandemic has upended our lives and prevented us from being together today. One day you may return to campus for a hug from a classmate, a smile from a professor, or a selfie at the Bruin Bear statue. We hope to have an in-person celebration when it’s safe to gather. For now, on this special day, I hope you feel all the pride and joy that you have earned. May you, your family and friends celebrate your hard work, talent and accomplishment!
I hope you join me in admiring how the UCLA community has met the COVID crisis. Some Bruins have treated patients, others made masks. Staff provided resources to help people manage stress, faculty documented COVID-19’s disparate racial and economic impacts. And you, Class of 2020, have demonstrated extraordinary resilience in completing your studies under challenging circumstances.
This pandemic has taught us hard lessons about our vulnerabilities and frailty, but also about our adaptability and compassion. The horrible killings of unarmed African Americans have reminded us of our society’s inequities and strengthened our resolve to address them. This year has stirred our fears, and ignited our courage. Amidst tragedy we are inspired to ask how we can create a better world.
History demonstrates humanity’s remarkable ability to do just that. In the New York Times, historian and UC alumna Rebeca Solnit recently wrote that “Every disaster shakes loose the old order. The sudden catastrophe…demands new and different responses…” and “shift[s] people’s sense of…what matters and what’s possible.” She reminds us that sometimes the result can be “deeper and more lasting change.”
The global pattern Solnit describes has recurred throughout history. Catastrophic events — including pandemics — have repeatedly exposed the failings of the status quo and spurred reforms that made it possible to take steps, even imperfect ones, toward a better future.
The imagination to envision better times — especially in hard times — is vital. 1960s America saw war, assassinations and polarization. Yet, in that same decade, Americans found the vision to create Head Start, Medicare and a space program that affirmed the power of science and ingenuity to lift humanity to new heights. Following the heartbreaking devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans updated its evacuation plans, adopted more ecologically sound water policies and improved its infrastructure. Dire times call on us to face our challenges and to work even harder to nurture a sense of what is possible.
During those turbulent 1960s, the writer and racial justice activist James Baldwin wrote that “not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
It is now, once again, time for us to face what is, and imagine what can be. How we deliver health care, organize our criminal justice system and structure our economy may require significant changes so we can build a society that is more resilient , more compassionate and more just. That won’t be easy. Big things never are.
Now is your time to envision the role you will play in changing our world and creating a new one. Bringing that vision to life will take all of your ingenuity and imagination, all of your compassion and courage. And all of your love.
I understand that graduating right now is challenging. The combination of a virus we cannot yet cure and racial wounds which have not yet healed may seem too much to overcome. But have faith in yourself. Remember you have overcome challenges before. I think you will find that the values UCLA has championed — collaboration and respect, equity and inclusion, the importance of accurate information and evidence-based decision-making — will serve you well as you face the challenges ahead.
May the skills you have learned here, the friendships you have formed, the alumni association of which you are now members, all be sources of strength and inspiration as you move forward.
Stay safe. Stay strong. Good luck and congratulations again!