UCLA’s class of 2024 has faced a number of hurdles that at times seemed insurmountable, starting with a pandemic that robbed them of their high school graduation ceremonies.

But on Friday these resilient Bruins carried the day. Beginning in the morning, scores of jubilant graduates-to-be and their families and friends began gathering outside Pauley Pavilion for the first of three UCLA College commencement ceremonies that together hosted some 6,700 graduating College seniors and more than 26,000 guests.

One of those guests, Joslin Herberich, from Oakland, held up a long pole topped by a pizza-sized photo cutout of her graduating son, Charlie Herberich.

“Charlie’s graduation from high school was drive-through — at the end, you got out of your car and got your picture taken,” she recalled. “I think especially for this class, it’s very meaningful to have a full graduation. I just think their perseverance has been impressive, and I think they’ll have a lot of resiliency having been through this experience.”

Josephine Ruiz, a Los Angeles native graduating with a major in sociology and minor in digital media, described the experience as “mind-blowing.”

“I come from South-Central, so coming here was like a dream come true,” she said. “I was discouraged from applying because of my background. My high school counselors didn’t want me to ‘waste an application’ for UCLA. But I know that I worked so hard. Anything can happen. And now it’s finally happening.”

Two graduates in stands at Pauley Pavilion
David Esquivel/UCLA
The Pauley Pavilion ceremony was the first proper graduation for many in the class of 2024, who finished high school just as COVID-19 hit.

Ruiz and Herberich are among 10,000 undergraduate students — and 15,000 students overall — receiving degrees this UCLA commencement season, which kicked off in May and reaches its crescendo this weekend. In all, dozens of units, departments, professional schools and clubs are honoring matriculating Bruins with ceremonies.

Among this year’s undergraduates, who hail from across the nation and beyond, one in five are the first in their family to earn a degree from a four-year university. A third began their college careers at a community college, and three-quarters attended public schools before coming to UCLA.

After hugs, a few tears and some final words of praise and encouragement from their loved ones, students made their way into Pauley. The joy was palpable as the soon-to-be graduates, bedecked in gowns, flower leis, blue-and-gold sashes and creatively festooned mortarboards, smiled broadly and waved to the cameras capturing their entrance on the arena’s jumbotron, with many throwing up the “fours-up” hand symbol signifying the four letters of UCLA.

David Esquivel/UCLA
“You are surrounded by people with a shared experience, one that you will carry for the rest of your days,” actor and alumnus Sean Astin told the graduating Bruins in his keynote address.

Inside, keynote speaker Sean Astin, the award-winning actor, mental health advocate and UCLA alumnus, spoke about the tough road the newly minted graduates had traveled.

“You are a storied group, the ones who came of age during the most extraordinary time, when so much of the planet seemed to slow to a near stop. The COVID pandemic … stole from you a proper sendoff from your high school experience,” he said. “You deserve today, you have earned today, today is your day … This is your moment, and I am so happy to bask in it with you.”

Astin, a Westwood local who graduated from UCLA in 1997 with a double major in English and history after attending Los Angeles Valley College, went on to talk about his deep connection to the campus, where he rode his bike as a child, where his aunt and uncle were longtime professors and where he and his wife studied, often with their infant daughter, born during Astin’s junior year, in tow.

Mortarboard with message: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
David Esquivel/UCLA
“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

His life, Astin said, had “been animated by this place, by the values of excellence and compassion and learning and intellect.” Acknowledging recent events on campus, he stressed the importance of togetherness, understanding and mutual respect.

“You are surrounded by people with a shared experience, one that you will carry for the rest of your days,” he said. “Look at each other. You are together. We must protect each other. We are a team, whether it’s hard to remember at any given moment because we are filled with moral outrage or political animus. We are a family.”

Student speaker Lauren Kobashigawa, graduating with a degree in communication studies, spoke of the turmoil the COVID-19 pandemic had wreaked on the class of 2024, both in high school and college. “This may be your first time donning a cap and gown and walking across a stage to receive you diploma,” she said. But she echoed the importance of the sense of community she ultimately found — and the strength she and her classmates developed through difficult times.

“UCLA students come from all around the world but are unified through this special Bruin community,” she said. “There truly  is no other school or community like this place.

“We are a class that has learned how to adapt and handle any obstacle thrown our way; we are pioneers, changemakers and innovators,” she added. “While we may not have had a traditional college experience, we have created our own narrative.”

Laura de Beer, also a student speaker, who was earning her bachelor’s in business economics, likewise mentioned the pandemic but said that amid the challenges, there had also been remarkable achievements, from sustainability efforts and fundraising for AIDS research to the launch of the campus’s disability studies major. She urged her fellow students to continue learning from setbacks in life, emerging stronger and wiser than before, and to focus on what is important.

“Success is not measured solely by accomplishments or accolades,” she said. “It is found in the lives you touch and the values you uphold. As you pursue your goals, never lose sight of the importance of empathy, compassion and integrity. Use your talents not just to advance your own ambitions but to serve a greater good. Be a voice for those who are silenced, a champion for those who are marginalized and a force for positive change.

Large crowd of graduates on floor of Pauley Pavilion
David Esquivel/UCLA
Neary 15,000 Bruin undergraduates and graduate students are receiving degrees this commencement season.

Astin, channeling his “Lord of the Rings” character, Samwise Gamgee, struck a similarly positive note — one that drew a lesson of resilience and positivity from the world’s trials.

“How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad has happened?” he said. “But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass, and a new day will come. And when the sun shines out, it’ll shine out the clearer.”

After a student vocal group sang the alma mater, “Hail to the Hills of Westwood,” and students, their degrees conferred, switched their tassles from right to left, the new graduates moved outside, reconnecting with their proud families.

Shahid Lowcher-Ray, who had just earned his degree in sociology, reflected on the roller-coaster of a day. “Before graduation, I thought I'd be a little more nervous and shy. But going in there, I just walked in with confidence,” the Berkeley native said.

Asked about his best memory of the day, he replied, “Probably the car ride on the way here. I was playing ‘Congratulations’ by Post Malone. That was my warm-up song.”