New graduates get their day in the sun at UC Santa Cruz

Commencement weekend at UC Santa Cruz was a time to celebrate, reflect, take in inspirational speeches and pay tribute to friends and mentors.

During the Oakes College commencement festivities, celebrants held oversized photos of graduating seniors to show their pride.  Photos by Stephen Louis Marino.
Hats flew through the air at Oakes College.
Jubilation was in the air throughout commencement weekend.
Artfully personalized graduation caps, including this one, were out in force.

Hand-decorated and lovingly accessorized graduation caps were out in force during UC Santa Cruz’s commencement activities held June 16-18 on campus.

Festooned with family photos, slogans, and decals shaped like flowers and balloons, these hats stood out on a bright and sweltering weekend, when three thousand people donned heavy black robes in spite of the 80-degree weather. “In the end she persisted,” read the message on the cap of an Oakes College undergraduate. Other hats said “Education, not deportation” and “Thanks for loving me.”

These DIY adornments added a personal touch to the ceremonies.  More than 4,800 UC Santa Cruz students were set to receive undergraduate and graduate degrees for work completed during the 2016–2017 academic year. A total of 4,170 students were candidates for bachelor degrees for work completed in the arts, engineering, humanities, physical and biological sciences, and social sciences.

The personal is political

The caps, like many of the weekend’s keynote addresses, perfectly blended the personal with the political. Graduate student Marguerite Kalhor (digital arts and new media), lining up on Friday to receive her MFA, rocked a cap that had a piece of Iranian currency, a photograph of her parents, and an image of the artist and provocateur Marcel Duchamp fixed to her hat.

Kalhor, a fourth-generation American whose ancestors hail from Japan and Iran, emphasized that she used no glue to fix the decorations to her cap. “It’s a rental,” she explained. “I’ve got to keep it pristine. That’s why I used binder clips instead.”

Alexandra Goncharova, in the moments before she lined up to receive her masters of education on Friday, explained the Latin phrase on her cap: “Factis Non Verbo,” which means ‘facts, not words.’ 

“To me, if you are a teacher, words mean a lot, but the deeds that come with those words are even more important,” Goncharova said. “The social community-building aspect of the classroom—teaching students to be kind, hard-working people—is essential.”

Respect, quirk, and intellectual heft

One of the weekend’s emotional highlights was the Merrill College commencement address by Kris Perry (Merrill ’86, psychology and sociology), the plaintiff in a lawsuit that challenged, and eventually overturned, Proposition 8, a 2008 California constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages.

Perry’s speech touched again and again on the lessons she learned at UC Santa Cruz, and how inspirational professors helped prepare her for the political fight of a lifetime. “When it came time to register for classes, I rushed to enroll in Candace West’s Language and Gender class, Bettina Aptheker’s Feminism 101, Elliot Aronson’s Cognitive Dissonance and later Bill Domhoff’s Political Power. I was intellectually challenged in ways that still cause me to feel great awe, but back then gave me more than one moment of anxiety."

Perry closed with a bit of wisdom that doubled down on the personal-is-political theme: “I hope your personal beliefs and passions will be hopelessly intertwined with your careers and vice versa. … Life is work and work is life. And never forget to make love a part of both. Love was the driving force behind the decision my wife and I made to sue the state of California to overturn Proposition 8 in the spring of 2009.”

On another personal note, Perry mentioned she was delivering her remarks just a few hours before watching her son, Elliott Perry, receive his bachelor’s degree from Rachel Carson College.

Crown College students heard from John Laird (Stevenson,, ’72, politics) secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency and former state assemblyman, who was honored to address the crowd during Crown’s 50th anniversary year.

Laird gave students advice that applied to their lives and careers. “Start saving for retirement now,” he said. “Interview your parents and grandparents about family stories. They won’t always be here, and you will thank yourself when it matters more to you later in life.  They have amazing stories—some about their parents and grandparent’s lives—that won’t survive unless you interview them.”

He also urged them to take big risks, recalling his time as the mayor of Santa Cruz. “You won’t get to success by always playing it safe,” Laird said. “In 1983, I became one of the first openly gay mayors in the United States. I knew I was right by being clear about who I was, and I was hoping to change things by making that statement.  But I didn’t know if I was on the right side of history. In 2013, I got an award at the White House for being a champion of change. I was on the right side of history.  But it was a big risk in the early 1980’s, and I am now glad I took it.”

Nicole Lee (Oakes, ’98), executive director of Urban Peace Movement, a youth development program dedicated to transforming the culture and conditions that lead to urban violence, fired up the Oakes crowd during her commencement remarks.  She described her time at Oakes as a kind of awakening. “This is the place where I started to become a critical thinker and where I started to understand the world outside of Oakland, where I grew up,” she said. “It was here that I began to find my voice.”

Lee was heartened to see the diversity of the crowd. “I’m so moved,” she said. “When I started here at Oakes in 1994, my class was not as diverse as yours is. Every day here in California and in this country, we become more and more diverse. This country is wrestling with what to do about that. Should we go boldly toward the future or try to turn the clock back to a different time? But here in California we can see that the train has already left the station. It left a long time ago.”

Lee ended on a note of perseverance.

“Black, White, Latino, Trans, LGBTQ, all living together, struggling to figure it out, sharing and exchanging, and learning from each other, scares some people,” Lee continued. “But, my fellow Californians, we are the writing on the wall. We are the future that is already here, and there is nothing anyone can do to stop it. They will try but it’s too late.”

Time for reflection

During the build-up to commencement, UC Santa Cruz undergraduates reflected on the ways they had changed and grown since arriving on campus as first years.

For some students, the 2016-2017 academic year felt like stepping into a time warp; how had the four years passed so quickly?

“I didn’t realize that I was suddenly an upperclassman—one of those people,” said Krystin Pahia (Crown, bioengineering, ’17) during the Alumni Welcome Barbecue, a special send-off for seniors that took place a week before commencement. “Uh oh, it’s time to grow up. I’m an adult now!”

The first in her family to receive a college degree, Pahia found her major overwhelming at first. But soon she came to an important decision: “If I didn’t challenge myself now, I would not challenge myself later on.”

Pahia decided to push herself because she was fascinated in her topic of study: developing antibodies to fend off the viruses that afflict flowers.

Pahia described the flavor of her emotions as a fourth year about to receive her diploma: “Sweet and sour,” she said. Knowing she is about to graduate was “a slap in the face” because it seemed so sudden. Then again, “It also feels like a slap in the back because I’m proud. It’s a sweet feeling, but it’s also sour, like the Sour Patch Kids Commercial: First they’re sour, then they’re sweet!”

As graduation neared, seniors found themselves drifting back to their first moments at UC Santa Cruz, taking it all in, feeling a little overwhelmed. Karla Martinez (College 9, molecular, cell and developmental biology) grew up in San Francisco, and admits to a bit of “culture shock” when she moved from a good-sized city into “the woods.”

“It definitely took a minute” to get used to her new surroundings, Martinez said. “I would walk out of the dorm and see deer, raccoon, foxes, no mountain lions.”

Ethan Greene (Stevenson, politics and legal studies, ’17) remembers finding his academic niche after switching majors. He felt a bit out of place as a computer science major.  Many of his classmates already had extensive programming experience dating back to their high school years. At first he resisted the idea of switching majors. “It felt like quitting on something,’’ he said. But when he took an aptitude test at the UC Santa Cruz career center, “counter-terrorism and government/legal jobs kept coming up.

His schedule was grueling at times, but Greene thrived, earning A’s, honors and awards. He found that he enjoyed a vigorous debate in which people challenge each other “but without getting mad at each other and disliking each other for the opinions they hold.” The discipline and focus of debate has not changed Greene’s political opinions, “but I have a much better understanding of why I hold them.”