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Robert Reich delivers words of wisdom to graduating seniors during 'Last Lecture'

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Jessica Rogness/File


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APRIL 24, 2014

About 5:30 p.m. Wednesday evening, a line as crooked and maze-like as Dwinelle Hall itself stretched across Dwinelle Plaza toward Sather Gate.

Seniors, known for skipping classes and just generally taking it easy in their last semester, gathered in 155 Dwinelle for the “Last Lecture,” put on by the Class of 2014 Senior Class Council. What’s more, many seniors were more than an hour early for a lecture scheduled for 7 p.m., lining up about 5:40 p.m.Last_lecture

When the seniors were finally seated, former U.S. Secretary of Labor and UC Berkeley professor Robert Reich took the stage to address the most pressing issue of the night: What do we mean by a “last lecture?”

“This is not my last lecture, and it’s not your last lecture,” Reich said, “so why are we calling this a last lecture?”

“It’s almost a last lecture … so I can open up right?”

In order to open his message to seniors, Reich went through the usual motions of what most grown adults love to tell college students: the story of all the jobs he had before he was the Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor and beloved UC Berkeley professor.

“So here’s what I want to talk about — jobs,” Reich said, eliciting a groan from the audience. “It won’t be painful; I’ll just talk about them.”

Reich’s first few jobs weren’t too great. He shared stories about being the all-important pooper-scooper to his first boss’ German Shepherd and also his internship for Robert Kennedy, during which he stuck the senator’s letters into the signature machine.

“You’re wrong, but you’re going to feel overqualified,” Reich said, referring to the first jobs seniors will take, remarking that he too felt overqualified for his first job.

Reich also touched on typical words of wisdom given to seniors about going out of your way to know people and how much of life, even getting a job, is really just about luck.

“You are going to fail — you think that’s funny,” he said, as some laughed nervously. “You’re going to fail big.”

But after working through the typical theme of many graduation speeches that tell seniors to learn from failure, Reich transitioned from every other graduation speaker into professorial mode, the Robert Reich who teaches “Wealth and Poverty” and documented “Inequality for All.”

In order to work on inequality, Reich recommended working toward undoing what he calls “work avoidance mechanisms deep in the hearts of people,” the things people use to avoid solving problems: denial, escapism, scapegoating and, worst, cynicism.

When discussing denial, Reich said, “The best way to learn is to talk with someone who disagrees with you.” He remarks that he often tells students to “go forth and change the world, and they say, ‘But we want to stay in the Bay Area.’ ”

Reich assured his audience that he loves Berkeley too, but he advised getting out of “the bubble” if social problems are really going to get solved.

“Most of all though,” Reich said, “my wish for you is that you find real joy in what you do.”

During the 10-minute Q&A session following his speech, Reich brought back some of the typical truisms that seniors are given before they go out into the world. One of the most important for UC Berkeley seniors was probably, “Don’t burn yourself out, because you’re not going to do anyone any good if you burn out.”

Even with all of the messages about working through failure and combating inequality though, Reich did want seniors to remember to step back from planning too far beyond graduation.

“If you try to be too strategic about your life, you’re going to blow it.”

“It would be absurd to think that you could plan,” he said as he answered his last question. “I’m not suggesting be passive … Opportunities are going to come along that you could never imagine … Don’t over-plan. Please. But have fun while you’re doing it.”

Jessica Rogness is an assistant blog editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @jessarogness.

APRIL 25, 2014

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