Campus leaders and faculty bid farewell to UCLA’s class of 2010 on Friday and paid tribute to Coach John Wooden, who symbolized the highest values in life these young graduates can aspire to uphold.
Tears, resounding cheers and colorful pageantry marked UCLA’s largest commencement ceremony of the year. Nearly 5,000 students from the College of Letters and Science walked into Drake Stadium before a crowd of 9,000 admirers — family members, friends and guests bearing cameras, cell phones to find their graduates and flowers of all fragrances. Circling high above the stadium was a plane tugging a banner: "Congrats, UCLA Class of 2010 – Go Bruins – Way to go Terrence!"
The 45-minute procession was led by a flowing mass of graduating students, one of the largest groups to participate in a UCLA commencement ceremony in recent years. In a moving salute to Coach Wooden, 99 graduating student-athletes and scholars in caps and gowns solemnly carried blue and gold flags as photographs from Wooden’s career flashed on huge screens. Wooden was 99 years old when he died a week earlier, on June 4.
Among the student flag bearers was Mustafa Abdul-Hamid, a popular basketball player known for his sportsmanship and dedication to hard work in his studies and on the court.
"Carrying in this flag is the least of what we can do for Coach," Abdul-Hamid said. "It’s our way of honoring someone who honored us with all that he did. He carried the whole weight of this university for many years. He is and always will be our role model."
The spirit of the coach who won 10 NCAA basketball titles for UCLA and started a college basketball dynasty that remains unrivaled was pervasive as speakers alluded to Wooden’s life of grace and integrity.
"Graduates, your achievements as scholars have prepared you to begin careers or pursue advanced degrees," Chancellor Gene Block told students. "Your accomplishments as engaged citizens have prepared you to become leaders of your generation. Your experiences on our dynamic campus have prepared you to excel in the ever-shrinking global community.
"As you take on those great responsibilities, I hope you will always remember Coach Wooden’s words: 'It is what you learn after you know it all that counts.'"
Block urged students to treat one another with dignity, to act ethically and "make decisions that respect your environment. Find your way to make a positive impact on this world."
In the keynote address, alumnus Gustavo Arellano, a journalist whose incisive, well-read column in the OC Weekly, "¡Ask a Mexican!" has won him awards and renown for his candid take on issues of diversity and ethnicity, told students that Wooden, in his youth, was also a college graduate who nervously faced an uncertain future.
"A turbulent country greets you with uncertainty, vitriol and a hole in the Gulf of Mexico spewing black sludge like some Freudian wound," Arellano told the students. "But there is hope… Know that others have trod the same bleak road now before you."
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Arellano recalled that after graduating from college, Wooden went to his bank to withdraw some money the day before his wedding and found it shut down, his life savings gone. But that didn’t keep the 22-year-old from marrying his high school sweetheart and going to work immediately.
"I am sure he’d be the first to say that if an Indiana farm boy could make his life a masterpiece and better us all in the process, then so can you," he told the students.
Acknowledging a controversy surrounding his selection as a commencement speaker, Arellano gave special thanks "to those of you who didn’t want me here. I only regret that the Facebook group created against me didn’t have more members than the one created last year against James Franco," he said as the crowd roared with laughter.
What he will remember of the Class of 2010, he said, was that many of them worked two jobs to keep up with rising tuition, and, in the case of an undocumented student who was his intern at the newspaper, worked hard to improve himself despite "the threat of repatriation to a birthplace he barely knows."
"Think what you will of our current immigration wars, but don’t dismiss their courage as weepy-moany propaganda," he said of UCLA students who have advocated on behalf of the Dream Act, federal legislation that would open up a pathway to citizenship for undocumented students.
One graduating student who became a nationwide leader in that movement was Flavia de la Fuente, chosen as the student speaker from the graduating class for the ceremony.
A first-generation American of Chilean heritage, she, like many of her fellow students, embraced the chance to work on such issues as pediatric AIDS, homelessness and human rights violations while at UCLA, which is home to more than 800 activist student groups. "So while other universities may tell their students now they’re ready to change the world, we’ve been ready. We’ve been doing it," de la Fuente said. UCLA asks students to be leaders "from the moment we step on campus," she said.
UCLA’s best message to students is everywhere – on campus websites, posters, agendas, even notebooks, de la Fuente said: "Nobody at UCLA keeps score on who you are. They just want to see what you do … UCLA wants to see what we can do, what challenges we take on, problems we solve." She urged her fellow graduates to think creatively and take on challenges one day at a time.
She spoke passionately about the achievements of undocumented students who had struggled courageously to make it to this commencement ceremony without government help and financial aid. And while many of the graduates will move on to jobs now that they have their degrees, undocumented graduates, without papers, have no place to go, she said.
After the speeches were given and student honors acknowledged, after the chancellor conferred their degrees and the last eight-clap faded away, it was time for families to celebrate their achievement in reaching this milestone.
"I am thrilled beyond measure," said Audrey Torres of her daughter Theresa’s accomplishment. Sitting with her was Theresa’s proud grandfather, John Rose, who had helped put her through school. "She’s the first granddaughter to graduate from college," said her mother. "And she did it in three years. This is a great day for all of us."