Blockeley University hosts virtual commencement for UC Berkeley class of 2020

Minecraft Berkeley Commencement
Bjørn Lustic/Courtesy

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Donning virtual caps and gowns, UC Berkeley students logged in to their computers Saturday to celebrate an unconventional graduation ceremony in the Minecraft server popularly known as “Blockeley University.”

Students filed into the virtual California Memorial Stadium, taking to the field as Chancellor Carol Christ, Vice Chancellor for Administration Marc Fisher and other keynote speakers addressed the graduating class. The event was also livestreamed on Twitch for students, families, friends and the public to watch along.

“If you could transport yourself back in time just three months, I do not think you could have imagined you would celebrate this day at home, perhaps in pajamas instead of your cap and gown, watching body avatars float across a computer screen,” Christ said during the commencement.

In late March, after campus officials announced the postponement of the spring 2020 all-campus commencement and the cancellation of in-person classes, students and alumni took it upon themselves to build a virtual replication of UC Berkeley.

The project began March 15 with the intention of just recreating Memorial Stadium, according to creator Bjørn Lustic, who studied at UC Berkeley from 2015 to 2019. After campus freshman Evan Quan made a post on the Overheard at UC Berkeley Facebook page, however, the group garnered a massive inflow of “builder” applications to help construct campus structures.

“Hundreds of people are building on the server, and each person who places a block adds a special touch to the campus,” Lustic said during the commencement ceremony. “Each unique touch represents a memory or a story shared in our community. We want this virtual space not only to look real, but also feel real.”

As the world continues to reel from the social and economic impacts of COVID-19, Christ said the pandemic serves as a “sobering” reminder that “we are not the sole authors of the story of our lives.”

The class of 2020 has exhibited its ability to navigate new struggles presented during these times, Christ continued. Notably, some students have adapted by becoming teachers to younger siblings, taking care of older relatives, making do with poor internet connection and taking classes in different time zones.

“Your efforts to reach this day are nothing short of heroic,” Christ said during her commencement speech. “The class of 2020 will go down in the history books as one that achieved greatness (during a time) of unprecedented turmoil.”

By virtue of the authority vested in her as the president of the “University of Blockeley,” Christ ended the event by conferring degrees. The commencement continued time-honored traditions with the members of the graduating class singing “Hail to California” at the end of the ceremony and throwing their graduation caps, as well as the playing of “Pomp and Circumstance.”

After the commencement ceremony, the group hosted a two-day music festival in the Blockeley University Greek Theater with performances from dozens of artists. Campus senior Elliot Choi said Blockeley registered as a 501(c) nonprofit organization, and money raised from the festival will be donated to Off Their Plate, an organization providing relief to COVID-19 health care workers and impacted front-line shift employees.

While many news outlets and programs — such as ABC News, NBC, KQED, the San Francisco Chronicle and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah — have focused on the novelty of a virtual graduation, members of the Blockeley community say the project is focused on community above all.

As a close friend to Lustic and campus senior Hunter Hall, who helped start the project, campus senior Makena Fetzer was involved since the beginning. Fetzer said she has loved seeing Blockeley grow, describing the server as a place for people to reconnect with campus and, for some, to find their community.

“I think one of the hardest things at Berkeley — and that’s kind of a make or break of the experience — is the community that you find,” Fetzer said. “This is one of those things that’s inclusive … and it’s a community that is very welcoming.”

As an astronomy major, Fetzer said Campbell Hall has been an integral part of her journey at UC Berkeley.

While walking past Campbell Hall one night on the server, she had what she described as an emotional experience, soaking in the beauty of campus again, albeit this time through the lens of Minecraft.

“It’s really powerful in accessing those memories that I didn’t realize were so important,” Fetzer said. “Those mundane things, ‘Oh, that walk home at night at 2 a.m.,’ is now something that I realize meant more to me than I thought it did.”

Campus freshman Nga Nguyen was one of the keynote speakers at Saturday’s commencement. When Nguyen saw one of the Facebook posts on Overheard, she got involved to help create a “memorable” experience for the class of 2020.

Through Blockeley, Nguyen said she has been able to interact with so many people of differing backgrounds, from incoming freshmen to graduate students to people from across the world.

“We were all united by our love of Berkeley and Minecraft, a surprising yet aptly nerdy cross section,” Nguyen said.

Alumna Julie Liu initially wanted to build Eshleman Hall after spending many all-nighters in the building and making many friends there throughout her four years at UC Berkeley. After realizing that Eshleman Hall is an “architectural hellish nightmare to replicate with cubes,” she began working on the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union and Sproul Plaza.

Liu said contributing to the server is her way of staying connected to the UC Berkeley community while also recalling her favorite — and not so favorite — memories on campus.

“Ultimately, we have created a community, one that represents what UC Berkeley stands for,” Lustic said at the commencement. “I hope others will be excited about it and take this opportunity to look back on their memories at Berkeley.”

Contact Kaleo Mark at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @kaleomark_dc.