Packing your trunk: The journey after college

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The Roman god Janus is the god of gates, transitions and doorways; he has two faces, one looking backward and one forward. This is a Janus-like moment for those of you who are graduating from UC Berkeley and preparing for that big unknown life after college and for me as I prepare to become UC Berkeley’s next chancellor. It’s an exciting moment, and it’s also an anxious one. I learned long ago that the worst question you could ask a senior is what they were planning to do after graduation. The question Mary Oliver asks in one of her poems “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” has a particular urgency for you right now.

For the past several weeks, a conversation I had some 15 years ago has been resonating in my mind. A short time before I became president of Smith College, I visited with a Smith alumna, Marilyn Carlson Nelson. We talked about life’s transitions. She told me about her grandparents, who were immigrants from Sweden, and she vividly described the trunk in which her grandmother had packed all that she was bringing to the new world. Marilyn was struck by how small it was; she told me how much it moved her to think of her grandmother’s choosing only those things to bring to the new world that would fit in that one small trunk.

She said the trunk had since become a metaphor for her of life’s changes, those times when we confront questions about what is truly important and precious.  When Marilyn began a new and much more difficult job some years before, she asked herself what she would take in her trunk and what she would leave behind. What qualities, what experiences would she take with her? Which would not serve her well and should be left behind? She encouraged me to ask myself the same question, and the metaphor resonated in my mind for weeks as I prepared to move from UC Berkeley to Smith College, and it is resonating in my mind once more as I prepare to assume the chancellorship.

I would like you, too, to think about packing your trunk, about what you will take from UC Berkeley, and about what you will leave behind. For all of you, this will be a deeply personal question, for you’ve each had your own journey in your years here. But I hope you take with you some of the values that I believe are at the very core of our community and our purpose.

Whatever the particular subjects you have studied, I hope that you will take a love of learning and that you continue to to be deeply curious about the world around you.

I hope you take from UC Berkeley a commitment to social justice. We now inhabit a world in which it is harder to feel the confidence that many others share that commitment; it is therefore even more imperative to hold it dear and to act on it.

I hope you take from UC Berkeley the commitment to open and vigorous debate and respect for difference of opinion. We are the home of the Free Speech Movement; this semester has tested that identity as no other time has before. I personally believe that the ultimate test of free speech is giving space to points of view you find abhorrent. We have much to do as a campus and as a nation in creating a space for civil discourse about serious matters on which we can and will disagree.  

Finally, I hope you take from UC Berkeley a sense of public responsibility. The University of California is the greatest public university system in the world, and UC Berkeley is the world’s greatest public university. All of us here are beneficiaries of the public good.  In whatever path our lives take us, we need to support the public good, by being well informed about public issues, by being active citizens, by thinking carefully not just about our own interests but the interests of the community, by maintaining standards of ethical conduct, and by giving back, in money and in time, to organizations and interests in which we believe.

When you graduate, you will become alumni. UC Berkeley will have a place, I trust, in your heart and in your soul. At Smith College, the day before commencement was Ivy Day, in which seniors joined the end of an alumnae parade, beginning with the oldest classes women returning for their 70th or 75th reunions to those who had graduated two years before. I always found this ceremony deeply moving because of how it represented the college not as a physical place, but as a community of graduates through time. UC Berkeley has no similar ritual, but I still imagine you in such a virtual community of UC Berkeley graduates who have shaped our campus and been shaped by it. Congratulations, graduates. Welcome, alumni. Go forth and do good. Make time in your life for laughter and for love. Fiat Lux. And go Bears.

Carol Christ is UC Berkeley’s executive vice chancellor and provost. She will begin her term as chancellor later this year.