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'Be relentless,' new UCLA graduates are told

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​Thousands of new UCLA graduates from ages 17 to 60 reveled inside Pauley Pavilion on Friday with cheers, fist pumping and many, many selfies as they officially received their bachelor’s degrees.

At the largest of UCLA’s nearly 60 graduation celebrations, 5,700 graduating seniors and their families filled Pauley Pavilion for dual UCLA College commencement ceremonies. In all, the university awarded roughly 13,500 bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral and professional degrees over the 2016-2017 school year, including 7,900 earned this spring. Nearly 32 percent of UCLA graduates are first-generation college students and 39 percent come from low-income households.

Some students had officially graduated in winter quarter, while most were still recovering from final exams and at least one had turned in her final paper less than two hours before donning her mortarboard. Graduating seniors from two UCLA dance teams, Samahang Modern and VSU Modern, held impromptu dance parties as they waited with their fellow students in caps and gowns in a snaking line to enter Pauley.

First-generation graduate Courtney Amos, a 22-year-old from Inglewood, Calif. who majored in gender studies and minored in African American studies, described reflecting on her time at UCLA while traveling to graduation by Uber, and her plans to go into social work or clinical counseling.

“I’m pumped,” Amos said. “My parents have been calling me excitedly all day and I’m ready to make them proud."

Michael Baker/UCLA
Anita Ortega.

During the ceremony, the graduates were told that they are the most accomplished class ever to graduate from UCLA — and the best-looking. They heard from keynote speaker Anita Ortega, a former UCLA basketball star, a first-generation college student and the first African-American woman to become a Los Angeles Police Department area commander. “Be relentless,” she advised,both on their own behalf and on behalf of the voiceless.

“I’m not a politician … I’m not a celebrity … I am Anita Ortega. A proud Bruin. A proud Afro-Puerto-Rican from South Central L.A.,” she said to loud cheers and foot-stomping. “I was a girl who had the courage to dream.”

Ortega placed herself in the tradition of Bruins such as Tom Bradley, Los Angeles’s first black mayor, and Antonio Villaraigosa, the first Latino mayor in the city's modern history. Despite both subtle and blatant discrimination, they didn’t give up, and neither did she, she said.

“I was challenged at every level, but you’re going to learn, life is full of challenges,” Ortega said. “Life is a never-ending learning process. As such, you’re all going to be tested.”

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She described her determination to play basketball as a teenager and convincing the boys to accept a girl on the court. That same determination helped her get into her dream school, UCLA; to become a walk-on on the basketball team; and later, to become a police officer and area commander.

“No one thought Anita had a chance of doing anything with her life,” Ortega said. “It was never about proving them wrong – never about proving them wrong –  but it was about proving that I was unstoppable. All of you are unstoppable. Be unstoppable … Be selfless. Don’t lose sight of the national issues impacting all of us: racism, sexism, gender bias, education, immigration, LGBTQ equality. Have a voice and be the voice for those that are not heard.”

Ortega’s call to action followed the recognition by UCLA Chancellor Gene Block that the class of 2017 has already shown a commitment to serving others.

“When you saw a need, you offered a helping hand," Block said. "When you saw a wrong, you made it right. And when you saw injustice, you stood up against it. It’s time for you to take that same spirit of determination, that love of community, that insatiable need to make a better world around you, everywhere you go.”

While the two UCLA College ceremonies are the largest, commencement weekend includes nearly five dozen graduations. Six of the largest commencement ceremonies take place today, when an estimated 30,000 guests visit Westwood. The day began with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti speaking at the Luskin School of Public Affairs graduation. Graduates in the School of Theater, Film and Television heard from UCLA alumna and filmmaker Ava DuVernay, director of the award-winning film “Selma.”  Musician, philanthropist and nine-time Grammy winner Herb Alpert received the UCLA Medal – UCLA’s highest honor – at the inaugural commencement ceremony for the new UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music.

At both College ceremonies, the assembled graduates heard from one of their own. First-generation college student Bridgette Walling, who overcame years of homelessness to attend UCLA and worked full-time throughout college, was scheduled to speak at the 7 p.m. ceremony. At the 2 p.m. ceremony, students heard from Sujith Cherukumilli, who participated in student government, campus committees and the Dance Marathon supporting pediatric AIDS research.

“While UCLA’s 419 acres may seem big, the heart of a Bruin is much bigger,” Cherukumilli said. He quoted alumnus Jackie Robinson: “‘Life is not a spectator sport.’ … As UCLA’s newest alumni, we are poised to be trailblazers. That’s why the words of Jackie Robinson – a champion in sports and civil rights, and a man who broke down barriers and stood up to injustice everywhere – resonate.”

Cherukumilli led his classmates in turning their tassels from the right to the left, shortly before many tossed their caps sky-high. As the university’s fight song played and the graduates poured up the stairs and out of the arena to greet their families for the first time as college graduates, many began chanting the school cheer, the UCLA eight-clap.

“U! C! L! A!” The shouts echoed of the walls of the historic arena. “UCLA, fight, fight, fight!”

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