After more than a year of virtual and hybrid classes that most students experienced remotely, UCLA welcomed the class of 2021 back to campus to celebrate an important, albeit distanced, milestone.
Starting June 10, UCLA’s graduate celebration began bringing more than 9,000 students back to campus over the course of six days to have the iconic graduation experience of crossing a stage in cap and gown while their names are announced and their families cheer. With the returning students came the buoyant communal atmosphere so missed at 2020’s virtual commencements. Graduates came carrying babies or pushing grandparents in wheelchairs; draped in flower garlands and holding flags from countries all over the world; wearing mortarboards — and masks — decorated for the occasion.
After walking across Drake Stadium with her parents, and then crossing the outdoor graduation stage as they watched, graduate Diana Reyes considered her first visit back to campus since April of 2020. The first-generation college student, draped in two sashes — one blue for UCLA, and one a multi-colored celebration of her Mexican heritage — said she didn’t miss the commute, but it was important to her to have this moment with her parents.
“I’m the only one of their kids to graduate, and it was a struggle these last four years, so to have them here as I cross the stage means a lot,” Reyes said. “It would feel like my graduation weren’t real if it weren’t in person. Walking across the stage makes it feel official.”
More than 9,600 undergraduates are expected to earn degrees this year, from this year’s youngest graduate, an 18-year-old neuroscience major, to the oldest, a 77-year-old music major – that is, Oscar-winning “I Love L.A.” composer Randy Newman, who returned to UCLA to complete his music degree.
Across campus in a mix of more than 40 in-person and virtual ceremonies, roughly 14,000 undergraduates, graduate students and doctoral candidates received their degrees from the number one public university in the nation. Nearly a third of the undergraduates are the first generation in their family to graduate, and more than 35% come from low-income families.
This evening in a virtual ceremony streamed in English, Spanish and Mandarin, the UCLA College undergraduates were invited to turn their tassels and become alumni. They were greeted by Professor Andrea Ghez, winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics, and Adriana Galván, the dean of undergraduate education. Alumnus and social justice advocate D’Artagnan Scorza, a community leader and Navy veteran who founded the nonprofit Social Justice Learning Institute, delivered the keynote address. Scorza, president of the UCLA Alumni Association, is also the inaugural executive director of racial equity for Los Angeles County.
The defining events of their college experience — the combination of civil unrest protesting racism and the brutal coronavirus pandemic — shaped their lives, Scorza acknowledged. They’ve learned that “normal” was unequal, and that they can use their voices to upend inequity, he said.
“You are the class of justice. You are the class that is uniquely forged to bring about more justice. You are a class shaped by the fires of this past year and equipped and ready to help us heal as a society and as individuals … and you’re not on mute,” Scorza said, turning the familiar refrain from countless virtual classes on its head. “I hope each time you hear that phrase you remember that you have an important voice that needs to be heard, loud and clear. That you remember these years and the responsibility and the role you have to play in shaping our world.”
Much as they were shaped by the world, they were also shaped by UCLA, said Chancellor Gene Block. The pandemic hammered home the importance of a well-rounded education, such as science classes and critical reasoning skills to evaluate scientific innovation and reject conspiracy theories and xenophobia.
“Science literacy, information literacy and global literacy — all of them are essential even now, as we continue to fight the pandemic. But they will also be necessary as you go on to build a more equitable society in the face of other crises,” Block said. “If you continue to sharpen these skills, draw on your broader UCLA education, and look inward to the tenacity and creativity and boldness and empathy you’ve developed here, you will have everything it takes to surmount any challenge and to create a more resilient, more just and more beautiful world.”
The first of three student speakers, first-generation college student Rachel DuRose, called for a moment of silence to honor the lives lost too soon. She acknowledged the lesser but valid pain caused by losing part of the college experience, and also what students had gained.
“In the last year we have learned a level of compassion that I hope every Bruin will carry with them,” DuRose said. “The mentorships and friendships we formed across campus — and from our laptops — will last a lifetime.”
Graduating psychobiology major Isobel Tweedt followed, interpreting a section of National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s inauguration poem to inspire her peers to use their education to make a difference. Graduating transfer student Michelle Garabetian described having only six months in person at UCLA, but falling in love with the university thanks to the classmates she connected with virtually.
“The most special moments and experiences in life are created with the people you’re with, rather than where you are,” Garabetian said, “and this year made that clearly evident.”
In a year that wore out the word “unprecedented,” Scorza suggested another perspective.
“The words ‘unprecedented times’ are most often used to convey uncertainty and the sense that we’re not sure what will happen next because we’ve never seen this before. But instead of you looking at this past year as unprecedented, you could see this past year as something you’ve never done before,” he said. “You’re going to go on to do things that have never been done before. … Sometimes it’s when societies meet their greatest challenges, that’s when change and opportunity is possible.”
Ghez, who shared in the Nobel Prize for her discoveries about black holes, noted that her work, much like the past year, requires looking for light in the darkness. But even when she couldn’t see campus, she said, there was a medley of Zoom lectures, virtual office hours and online student research conferences.
“To find black holes, we have to watch the way things move around them,” Ghez said. “You were our active, vibrant community — you were the brightness that continued to pierce through. May your futures be extraordinary, and may your light shine powerfully and embody the change our world needs.”
That UCLA is a place that where a Nobel winner like Ghez teaches, and a social justice advocate like Scorza graduated, and also welcomes first-generation students like Denise Jauregui, makes it no surprise that UCLA was her top choice. And it’s also why it meant so much to come back to Westwood with her mom to walk across the stage at Drake Stadium.
“UCLA was my Disneyland, my dream school, and I wanted my mom to be with me for this,” Jauregui said. “It would have been heartbreaking to lose this recognition. It would have made graduation just a regular day.”