Xander Young was just a few weeks into his first semester at UC Berkeley in March 2020 when in-person life ended and he, and all his fellow classmates, moved classes, clubs and college comradery online.
But 20 months later Young, who transferred to Berkeley after studying at Orange Coast College, was standing on campus Saturday, wearing his cap, gown and mask and trying to get his head around the fact that he was about to walk across a stage with roughly 1,000 fellow graduates at the winter commencement.
“Time kind of stopped being real for a while there,” Young, 22, said of the past months. “I’m really feeling the weight of all of this being lifted. Today is about what we’ve all done.”
The years Saturday’s graduates spent at Berkeley were marked by turmoil: days-long campus power outages, devastating wildfires that choked the air with smoke, free-speech demonstrations and national reckonings with economic inequality, police shootings, racism and anti-democratic violence.
“Some of (your) most important lessons came from a real-life curriculum no one ever anticipated,” Chancellor Carol Christ told the graduates in her keynote speech.
“We are living in a historic moment when everything is shifting about us in ways that will have a profound impact upon the future,” she added. “This may be a perilous time, but so, too, is it a time of creative ferment and possibility, and that is prime time for this public university and for you, our newest alumni.”
Graduate Olivia Guadalupe Sandoval, 22, felt that sense of possibility with trepidation.
“I’m nervous,” she said before the ceremony. “After this ceremony, I am no longer a student. I have plans for my life and now I have to do them. I won’t be a stressed student; now I’ll be a stressed adult.”
Sandoval, who graduated with degrees in neurobiology and molecular and cell biology, said she plans to attend medical school.
The student speaker, Sahar Formoli, who studied political science and biology, called upon her fellow graduates to use their Berkeley educations for good.
“Every one of us is capable of anything,” she said. “We powered through the pandemic and persevered when it felt like the world was going to end. And now we stand beside our friends, family, and the faculty who helped us along the way.”
“To the class of 2021: You made it here,” she added. “Now go on and show the world what Berkeley students are made of.”