Speaking from the heart

Commencement speeches offer words of advice, insight, humility, and humor as 2019 graduates prepare for their next steps

Virginia Espino (Merrill ’87, psychology) had wise words for Merrill College graduates  about identity, pride, strength, and individualism, and the lessons she learned on campus. Photo by Anastasiia Sapon


An array of speakers fired up the crowds throughout this year’s UC Santa Cruz commencement weekend.

Here are a few highlights.

The gifts of her ancestors

Virginia Espino (Merrill ’87, psychology) delivered a rousting talk for Merrill College’s commencement about identity, pride, strength, and individualism, and the lessons she learned on campus.

Born and raised in northeastern Los Angeles, Espino, a lecturer of Chicana and Chicano studies and working class history at UCLA, started out at UC Santa Cruz as a transfer student from Pasadena City College.

“My life decisions, up to that point, had been hasty and erratic,” she said. “My journey to an undergraduate degree was not an easy nor direct path … My adolescence was filled with endless moments of insecurity and self-doubt. Only later would I realize how much institutional racism and sexism had thrown me off center.

“My heritage, my culture: the gifts of my ancestors were not valued in 1970s America,” she continued. “The push to assimilate was strong and sometimes violent. It was an English-only world…”

But at UC Santa Cruz, she had a life-changing experience with Elba Sánchez’s class, Spanish for Spanish Speakers, and Aída Hurtado’s Psychology of Bilingualism, and worked a Summer Bridge program with administrator and counselor Rosie Cabrera.

“These women launched me on a journey of self-recovery,” Espino said. “They saw the ancient one in me. They saw my gifts. They saw my beauty. … They were independent women who valued themselves and honored their heritage as Chicana feminists.”

Espino serves on the Board of the California Latinas for Reproductive Justice and the Southwest Oral History Association. In 2018, she and her husband, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and author Hector Tobar (Oakes ’88, sociology and Latin American studies), received the UC Santa Cruz Division of Social Sciences’ 2018 Distinguished Alumni Award.

Overcoming obstacles to thrive at Apple

In his Crown College commencement keynote remarks, Rick Vargas gave a fascinating look at the inner workings of Apple. Vargas, a creative director at Apple, works at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts. One of his earliest projects was to give marketing muscle to what was then code-named Jupiter—a product that went on to become the iPod.

His main takeaway for the graduates was this: “Don’t be afraid to voice your ideas. The more you work that muscle, the easier it will be to draw on … Ideas have the power to change the world.”

He also urged them not to let obstacles get in the way. Vargas spoke of his parents, who never graduated from high school.

“We lived in a small trailer in Watsonville,” he remembered. “My mom picked strawberries and my dad worked construction. My parents made it through the sheer force of hard work … And the idea of hard work should not be lost on you.”

He faced other challenges including dyslexia, but all along, Vargas’s mother said, “Mijo (my son), you can do anything!”

At Apple, Vargas proved his mother was right. He talked about a “very intense” meeting with Steve Jobs in the fall of 2000 about launching the iPod into the world. In the room, there were hundreds of ideas about the launch. All of these ideas were written out on cards pinned to the wall.

Suddenly, Jobs walked over to Vargas, zeroing in on his pinned-up launch idea. “I thought he was going to let it fall on the floor and step on it,” Vargas said. “Instead his face became child-like. He cradled it in his hands like a baby. He turned to me and, in a caring voice, said, ‘Can I take this with me?”’

Compassion, doing well, and doing good

John Brown Childs, UC Santa Cruz emeritus professor of sociology, moved the crowd at the College Ten commencement ceremony, drawing deeply from his experiences doing volunteer work with the civil rights movement in Alabama in 1965, when he experienced a seemingly small yet powerful act of unexpected compassion.

Childs recalled a hot, humid day when he was marching with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, an activist group known as the SNCC. The threats to this group were very real.

“Along our way, there were many people, all white, mostly young males, yelling that they were going to kill us,” said Childs.

As the group moved down a residential street in a white neighborhood, the door of a house swung open. Childs was afraid.

“I expected to see a shotgun come out, business end first,’’ he remembered. Instead it was a white woman, offering a jug full of ice water and paper cups to sooth the marchers “on that sun-blasted day. She had a lot of heart, a lot of courage, to do that in her own neighborhood.”

“That moment lasted about two minutes … It was a small moment in a small space. But her action challenged broad, sweeping, reality-based generalizations about the all-too tangible presence of hatred. Her action helps to guide me in my work in the prisons, as a lesson about the complexity of human existence.”

That woman’s kindness was a touchtone in a speech on the ways that graduates might fit themselves meaningfully into various social movements, from #MeToo to Black Lives Matter and environmental groups.

“I do not have an answer as to how to become both a citizen of the world and earn a meaningful income,” Childs said. “(But) there is one word that helps me, and I hope will help you. That word is compassion. This caring for others while being aware of your own distinctive self-identity reflects our diverse yet common humanity.”

Childs is the author of the book Transcommunality, from the Politics of Conversion to the Ethics of Respect, which discusses ways for diverse communities to engage in positive interactions. He has been volunteer-teaching courses on transcommunal peacemaking at Soledad Prison for 13 years, in conjunction with the community organization Barrios Unidos.

Engineering success

Michael Hilton (Crown ’86, computer and information science, and math) urged graduates at the Baskin School of Engineering commencement ceremony to pursue their dreams and not to be scared of risk.

“In my early career, I switched jobs four times in my first two-and-a-half years out of school,” said Hilton, who is the chief product officer at Accolade, a health technology company providing personalized health and benefits solutions to employers, health plans, and their members. “Some changes were because the company was terrible, some were because I was unhappy and knew the work wasn’t for me—in the end, I was figuring out what I wanted to do with my life. And that uncertainty—that trying different things and not settling for jobs that I knew I wouldn’t be passionate about—all of that turned out to be absolutely critical in my journey.”

Before he took his current job “pursuing a dream … to make healthcare better for all Americans,” Hilton and two friends founded a company called Concur, which was a pioneer in cloud computing, travel, and expense management.

They ran it for 22 years, and ultimately built it into a billion-dollar business that later sold for $8 billion.

“And we stayed friends the whole time. And we didn’t forget to have fun and be silly along the way. And all of that is basically my second set of advice to you today. Don’t be afraid to dream the most gigantic of dreams—they’re the ones that matter.”

The weekend's other featured speakers were: 

College Nine—Deana Slater

Deana Slater has dedicated more than 30 years to working in higher education with an international and multicultural focus. As senior director of student life at College Nine and College Ten, she is responsible for the oversight and development of the student affairs side of the colleges.

Porter College—Joel R. Leivick (’73)

Joel Leivick taught photography and history of photography in the Department of Art and Art History at Stanford for 34 years, beginning in 1981. In addition to his teaching, he has served as curator of photography at the Stanford University Museum of Art, now the Cantor Center for Visual Arts, from 1986 to 2000.

Kresge College—Nick Mitchell (’11, History of Consciousness Ph.D.)

Nick Mitchell is an assistant professor in the Department of Feminist Studies at UC Santa Cruz and core faculty in the Critical Race and Ethnic Studies Program. 

Stevenson College—Tyler Stovall

Tyler Stovall joined UC Santa Cruz as dean of Humanities in 2015. Prior to that, he was a professor of French history and dean of the Undergraduate Division of the College of Letters and Science at UC Berkeley.

Black Grad—Paul Simpson (Kresge ’02, business management economics)

Paul Simpson is chief executive officer and founder of SageTel International, which provides comprehensive consulting services for major mainstream wireless carriers and telecommunication companies. He recently served on the UC Santa Cruz Alumni Council.

Rachel Carson College—Steve Blank

Credited with launching the lean startup movement, Blank changed how startups are built; how entrepreneurship is taught; how science is commercialized, and how companies and the government innovate. He is the author of The Four Steps to the Epiphany, The Startup Owner’s Manual—and his May 2013 Harvard Business Review cover story defined the lean startup movement.

Cowell College—Nayomi Munaweera

Nayomi Munaweera was born in Sri Lanka. She grew up in Nigeria and immigrated to Los Angeles with her family in the early ’80’s. She is the award-winning author of the novels, Island of a Thousand Mirrors and What Lies Between Us.

Chicanx/Latinx Year-end Ceremony—Carlos Alemán (’02, history and Latin American and Latino Studies)

Carlos Enrique Alemán is the deputy director of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama (HICA), a community development and advocacy organization that champions economic equality, civic engagement, and social justice for Latino families.

Oakes College—Samantha Perez (Oakes ’08, sociology)

Samantha Perez is the director of education initiatives with the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. In this role, she leads the chamber’s educational initiatives. She ensures deep business and industry engagement for students in Nashville’s career academies and in the STEAM-focused middle schools.