UC Berkeley class of 2020 graduates in person after pandemic delay

Photo of UC Berkeley commencement
Christopher Ying/Staff
After the COVID-19 pandemic delayed in-person graduation ceremonies, UC Berkeley's class of 2020 graduates finally walk the stage.

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As the sun set at the Hearst Greek Theatre Sunday, floodlights illuminated the class of 2020. Graduates trickled into their seats to the familiar tune of “Pomp and Circumstance,” while families and friends waved their phone flashlights and called out for their graduates, quickly forgetting the faculty’s plea for silence at the beginning of the ceremony.

The class of 2020’s commencement ceremony came a year and a half later than expected due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic. After a survey of the class of 2020 regarding commencement plans, Chancellor Carol Christ announced an in-person ceremony in August in an email from July 2.

According to Ronald Cohen, a campus professor and chairman of the Academic Senate who attended the final ceremony, around 4,000 graduates made their way back to Berkeley to celebrate their graduation.

To accommodate everyone, campus held three commencement ceremonies on Sunday: one at 9 a.m., another at 2 p.m. and a final one at 7 p.m. Each of them was livestreamed on UC Berkeley’s website.

“Completing an undergraduate degree at Berkeley is challenging enough in the best of times,” Christ, the keynote speaker of each ceremony, said at the 7 p.m. commencement. “Given what you overcame, your presence here is testimony to your remarkable accomplishment, to the true meaning of community, to the profound power of the ties that bind us together.”

Shortly after Christ’s speech, the graduating class, donned in black, blue and gold, lined up to receive their diplomas.

Jenny Jang, who graduated with her bachelor’s degree in political science, said she was “very excited” to celebrate with the people she loves. Her fiancé and sister were in the audience as she walked across the stage.

“I came less for myself and more for my family,” Jang said. “The pandemic made it hard for my parents and grandmother in Korea to travel to the States, so I’m really glad that they were able to watch the livestream and celebrate with me in real time as I walked.”

To Goka Norbana, who graduated with her master’s degree in social welfare, the ceremony was bittersweet, and she said she was very thankful to campus for hosting in-person graduation.

Tatiana Fominyam, who received her bachelor’s degree in political science and is now pursuing a law degree at UC Berkeley School of Law, said she missed her friends who were unable to attend the nighttime commencement.

For Nolan Pokpongkiat, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer science, being back on campus brought back memories of life as an undergraduate. Pokpongkiat also reflected on the importance of the moment for his parents.

“I feel proud that my parents could see their son graduate college,” Pokpongkiat said. “They immigrated here from Thailand, and (my brother and I) are now the first undergrads who graduated from an American university.”

After all the graduates received their diplomas, the faculty slowly made their way backstage. There, J. Keith Gilless, a campus professor and secretary of the Academic Senate who attended the final commencement ceremony, said because of the financial and emotional investments families and friends have made, ceremonies such as commencement are just as important for them as they are for the graduates walking on stage.

Gilless said the world is in “good hands” as a new wave of graduates go on to do “wonderful things.”

Cohen had a message for the graduating class.

“Use that resilience and creativity that got you through in whatever you’re doing with your life and you’ll do well,” Cohen said backstage. “Do us proud, and come back and share your successes often.”

Contact Christopher Ying at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @ChrisYingg.