Crossing and Zooming: A joyful 2021 commencement

Taking a step back toward normalcy, a spirited 'hybrid' commencement ceremony blended in-person celebration with intimate virtual festivities

View the Slug Crossing 2021 Highlight Reel. Go Slugs!
A joyful moment in the sun for new graduates and their families. Photos by Carolyn Lagattuta.
Graduates had a chance to walk across a stage set up on the East Field and pose for photos while loved ones cheered.

This year’s UC Santa Cruz commencement festivities blended online ceremonies with jovial, in-person gatherings, including “Slug Crossings,” a chance for graduates to cross a stage on campus with their caps, gowns, and tassels while loved ones cheered them on. 

The result was a spirited virtual-analog hybrid that felt like a cautious step toward normalcy. 

Graduates reserved blocks of time to have their names read and photos taken in an outdoor venue. The audience was strictly limited for safety reasons, with each student allowed only two guests, but the modest crowd had oversized enthusiasm. 

Spirited onlookers cheered on each graduate, even those they didn't know. “Go, Abby! Well done, Michael. You rock, Caitlin! Woo, woo, Justin!” 

Bright spirits, brighter costumes 

No balloons were allowed, nor were there exploding confetti bombs, ear-piercing noisemakers, pets, or buzzing drones, but some of the loud, brash outfits more than compensated for the peacefulness. 

Karla Soto Bravo (Porter '21, business management/economics) wore a graduation gown festooned with folded-up two-dollar bills for good luck, interwoven with yellow and blue paper showing off UCSC's school colors, and some purple flowers thrown into the mix for good measure. 

Clearly, Bravo was making the most of a grand occasion. This was understandable, considering that Bravo, a transfer student, had a mere six months of college living and in-person classes before the pandemic disrupted everything. 

Though her time as an in-person student was brief, it ranks among the best experiences of her life, Bravo said. 

“I’ll never forget it," she said. “It was so calming to walk through a forest as I had to go take a final.”

Besides, COVID’s arrival was an important reminder of life’s unpredictability, Bravo said. “It’s true—you never know what is going to happen.” 

Claire Egan (Merrill '21, molecular, cell and developmental biology), another participant in Slug Crossings, attended her final semester of classes remotely, yet she maintained a strong in-person connection to campus. 

Since the fall, Egan has been working at UCSC’s COVID testing station at Merrill College, testing fellow students, staff, and faculty members for symptoms and walking them through the process of self-testing. 

Even Egan’s laboratory work, which went from in-person to virtual this year, pivoted to focus on COVID research. 

It felt good for Egan to do her part in combating the pandemic, but now it’s time for her to contemplate the next steps. 

“No big plans right now," she said. “I’m moving back with my family to San Diego. Then I’m starting a job search.”

On the sidelines, students were taking advantage of the perfect weather, with less glare and heat than usual. Enjoying a nice crossbreeze from the ocean, they posed for photos in front of the Monterey Bay, whooped it up, and jumped around on the hillside. 

Online ceremonies showed the strength of the human spirit

The UC Santa Cruz Virtual Commencement Ceremony also had a disarming, personal touch. Many of the students taking part in the festivities made sure to include a slide with special thanks and greetings.

“I’d like to thank my parents, my professors, and my friends for supporting me in my college journey over the past five years (including one gap year!”) wrote Ivy Chen (College Nine '21, cognitive science). 

“It’s been a truly difficult year,” wrote Joel Stephen Moore (College Nine '21, politics and theater arts), “but I couldn’t have chosen better people to go through it with!” 

The Cowell College commencement ceremony began with lovely views of forests and the sound of birdsong. Alice Folkins, college academic manager for Cowell, had “deceptively simple” words of wisdom for graduates:

“My advice is to give a damn,” Folkins said. “Give a damn about yourself so you can advocate for yourself, even if you are full of doubt. Care about the people you surround yourself with so spending time with them nourishes your soul, and the work that you do grabs the attention of others, and together you impact the people around you.” 

Such a focused commitment “means constantly being engaged,” even when you are feeling weary, Folkins noted. “It means constantly pursuing the truth or truths whatever they may be. Perhaps the isolation, the uncertainty, the unrest of the past two years have taught you how difficult it is to give a damn, but I hope that you have also learned how important it is when you give something or someone your love and attention.” 

Maya Iverson-Davis (Ph.D. '21, sociology), the Black Grad commencement ceremony’s student keynote speaker, disarmed the crowd with her candor, directness, and wise counsel. 

“This year has completely changed the way we lived,” Iverson-Davis said. “Here we are graduating through all this uncertainty, stress, and mess. I keep asking my friends, ‘How do we do this? How do we turn feeling overwhelmed into determination? How do we stay focused and coherent when the world feels impossible and incomprehensible?'

“The answer is usually a variation of ‘We had to do it’ and ‘It was just time,’ followed by silence and laughter,” Iverson-Davis continued. “Now I wonder if the silence and laughter were also answers.” 

Maybe those responses, said Davis, were a way of acknowledging “everyone who ever believed in our lives as exuberant and wondrous. I want you all to feel why we are here. Take a moment to gather the sacrifices, triumphs, and mischief. Let those memories flow through you like a current of love. Take what is helpful, leave behind what is not. Embrace everything good and spirited and the people who helped you get to this moment.”

Memories of commencements past 

In virtual presentations, celebrated alumni had words of encouragement for the roughly 2,800 undergraduate students and 260 graduate students who had applied to graduate this spring. Just over 5,000 students earned undergraduate degrees from UC Santa Cruz this past year. 

In his keynote remarks at the Oakes College ceremony, Forrest Stewart (Oakes ‘04, politics), associate professor of sociology at Stanford University and recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, said that being an Oakes graduate is one of the proudest achievements of his life. 

Stewart’s work focuses on the societal underpinnings of poverty and criminalization across disciplines and has been influenced both by his childhood and the formative experiences of his undergraduate education. 

“So much of my journey began at Oakes, alongside brilliant friends and faculty,” Stewart said. “Whether it was designing federal lawsuits to fight police brutality in Los Angeles, or whether it’s launching after-school programs in Chicago to help young people process violence and trauma, or maybe it’s writing books that celebrate the voices of long-neglected communities, I can trace all of these to the conversations I had and the lessons I learned at Oakes." 

In her keynote remarks for Rachel Carson College, Molly Harriss Olson (Rachel Carson '82, economics and environmental science), CEO of Fairtrade Australia and New Zealand, beamed in from Melbourne, Australia, right in the middle of her country’s fourth lockdown. 

“We are lucky to have only a few cases, but when it gets out of the bag, we really do lock down!” said Olson.

Olson works for a member-based trade organization with chapters that support systems of fair trade across the globe. She credited her time at UCSC with giving her a “really full, integrated view of the world.” She said UCSC students who have lived through a year of challenges, including distance learning, received a crash course in complex global relationships. 

“A pandemic can influence our perception of what is possible," she said. “The world faces some very great problems right now. The world needs you more than ever, with a clear understanding of the systemic solutions we all need.” She urged graduates to work toward a more habitable planet. 

Baskin Engineering grads listened to life advice from marketing specialist, author, and Silicon Valley venture capitalist Guy Kawasaki, a Santa Cruz resident and committed surfer. Kawasaki’s latest passion is his Remarkable People Podcast.

“I bet that many have advised you along the lines of ‘pursue your passion,’” Kawasaki said. “In my humble opinion, that theory is overrated because very few things start immediately as a passion. How many of you developed an instant passion for Python, debugging, or user interface?”

Kawasaki said it made far more sense to “lower your expectations and your standards and just look for things that interest you, little murmurs that rise above the noise. This lower bar has lots of positive effects. You get exposure to far more things and it works out well because right now you have an abundance of time. 

“Pursuing one’s interests is not always fun,” Kawasaki continued. “In fact, it could take years. The process is almost guaranteed to be difficult and time- consuming, but what I found is that it is easy to love something you are immediately good at, and hard to love something that you [don’t do well at first]. But this second kind of love is longer lasting and ultimately more rewarding.” 

In closing, Kawasaki advised: “When your friends tell you you are working too long and too hard at something, you are probably on the right track.”