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Advice from UC Berkeley Commencement Speakers That We All Could Use

“And I encourage you, that whatever you do for the rest of your life, always pursue happiness, and you can start where you are.” —Chris Gardner, commencement speaker, UC Berkeley Class of 2009

April 17, 2019
by Kiley Treacy

The big day is here. The sun is shining bright on Memorial Stadium, and nobody told you how hot you’d get under your black cap and gown. The air is buzzing with excitement, and you feel slightly overwhelmed. Although you sit in uniform attire with your peers, you know how differently Berkeley has shaped each and every one of you.

Sure, you may have had similar experiences: trekking up to the Big C hoping to get an Instagram-worthy photo, only to realize the overcast Berkeley sky would obscure the city-view you’d been hoping for; chasing after the 51B bus; and of course, Top Dog. But you know that you each also had distinct experiences because of the experiences that shaped you: the people you spent your time with, the clubs you joined, and the internships you woke up at 8 a.m. for.

Image: Peg Skorpinski.

“The receptivity to alien, untried ideas defines the greatness of a university. Those (who) are unthinking, unquestioning or indifferent are the biggest threat to our society.”
—Leon Litwack ’51, M.A. ’52

Today, as you sit in the sea of polyester caps and gowns, you know you will always share with your peers the right to say you are a graduate of UC Berkeley. But from this point on, you will pave your own way in the “real world.” As daunting as it may seem to go from the familiar faces, eateries, and routines you had in Berkeley to the unknown world of job searches, graduate-school applications, and moving from the place you have called home for the past few years, think on to all of the amazing accomplishments the Cal alumni that came before you have made in their years after graduation.

What you contribute to the world will become a part of UC Berkeley’s legacy as well as your own. Even alumni that have founded companies, received Nobel Prizes, and have been nominated for Emmy Awards have sat in the seats you sit in today, wearing cap and gown, unsure of the road ahead. So when it all becomes a little confusing, stressful, or overwhelming, remember the advice of the brilliant minds who have spoken at UC Berkeley commencements over the years. We extracted some words of wisdom from these speakers in hopes that they uplift you when you need it and bring back fond memories of your alma mater.

Don’t take life so seriously.

Image: Keegan Houser.

Steve Wozniak ’86: “Some misbehavior at this age in your life is great because fun has got to be a part of your productive life always. You’ve got to have relief, you’ve got to joke with your friends, and play little pranks that are harmless.”1

Janet Reno: “It’s so important to laugh at ourselves…and more importantly, to laugh with each other. Laughter is the great leveler. It puts attorneys general and Will Ferrell on the same level.”2

Welcome all people and embrace diversity.

Image: Keegan Houser.

Leon Litwack ’51, M.A. ’52: “The receptivity to alien, untried ideas defines the greatness of a university. Those (who) are unthinking, unquestioning or indifferent are the biggest threat to our society.”3

Maz Jobrani ’93: “I believe most Americans are good, and if they could only hear the stories of immigrants and what they are fleeing, it would open their hearts to accept those people rather than shun them. If I can drive one point home today—it would be to put yourself in the shoes of the less fortunate and have empathy.”4

Be kind.

Image: Keegan Houser.

Janet Reno: “Turn to the person next to you and smile. Such a simple act can warm people’s hearts.”5

Steve Wozniak ’86: “Be kind to others was another one of my philosophies, and help those in need. It’s hard because a lot of us forget about it. A lot of us get successful in life—we get money, we get wealth, we get fame—like I did. And a lot of people become different people than they were. I like the person I was when I graduated Berkeley. I like the person I was when I attended here and I decided I want to remain that person for life.”6

Embrace challenges and adversity as opportunities to grow your own resiliency and strength.

Image: Keegan Houser.

Sheryl Sandberg: “The easy days ahead of you will be easy. It is the hard days—the times that challenge you to your very core—that will determine who you are. You will be defined not just by what you achieve, but by how you survive.

Image: Nyx Robey.

“And when the challenges come, I hope you remember that anchored deep within you is the ability to learn and grow. You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. Like a muscle, you can build it up, draw on it when you need it. In that process you will figure out who you really are—and you just might become the very best version of yourself.”7

When you feel overwhelmed by obstacles, find gratitude, and you will find peace.

Image: Keegan Houser.

Chris Gardner: “And I encourage you, that whatever you do for the rest of your life, always pursue happiness, and you can start where you are.”8

Sheryl Sandberg: “Finding gratitude and appreciation is key to resilience. People who take the time to list things they are grateful for are happier and healthier. It turns out that counting your blessings can actually increase your blessings.”9

Use your voice and question authority.

Image: Keegan Houser.

Nancy Pelosi: “As you leave this stadium today, as Berkeley graduates, that must be your aim and your mission: to use innovation, to use your daring spirit, to resolve conflict, to seek and find intelligent solutions—to have the courage to be disruptors.”10

Maz Jobrani ’93: “Not everyone has the opportunities that you do so when you come across others in America or around the world who are less fortunate than you, be open to them and try to understand their experiences. Try to help them if you can. Always fight for the underdog.”11

Eric Schmidt M.S. ’79, Ph.D. ’82: “You all have a chance to make an original contribution. Don’t just be a shepherd following someone else’s vision and ideas—new models, new forms, new thinking—that’s what the world needs.”12

Even if you feel lost when thinking about the future, remember you have limitless opportunities.

Image: Keegan Houser.

Nancy Pelosi: “With the knowledge gained here, you can do anything. You may not be aware of the opportunities that await you, but when those opportunities present themselves, be ready. Be idealistic, be pragmatic, be ready.”13

Image: George Stilabower.

Eric Schmidt M.S. ’79, Ph.D. ’82: “I ask each of you…Find a way to say ‘yes’ to things. Say yes to invitations to a new country, say yes to meet new friends, say yes to learning a new language, picking up a new sport. Yes is how you get your first job, and your next job. Yes is how you find your spouse, and even your kids. Even if is a bit edgy, a bit out of your comfort zone, saying yes means that you will do something new, meet someone new, and make a difference in your life, and likely in others’ lives as well. Yes lets you stand out in a crowd, to be the optimist, to stay positive, to be the one everyone comes to for help, for advice, or just for fun. Yes is what keeps us all young. Yes is a tiny word that can do big things. Say it often.”14

Congratulations to the class of 2019. UC Berkeley awaits the success of your dreams as its own.

By Kiley Treacy