Birgenau Greets Incoming Students at Convocation

By Steven Finacom
Tuesday August 24, 2010 - 01:49:00 PM
The Cal Band, sans formal uniforms, marched in and played to open the
Steven Finacom
The Cal Band, sans formal uniforms, marched in and played to open the event.
After the speeches Birgeneau was surrounded by students. He greeted, in
            this case, a new student he had previously met while visiting China.
Steven Finacom
After the speeches Birgeneau was surrounded by students. He greeted, in this case, a new student he had previously met while visiting China.

Thousands of new arrivals to Berkeley thronged Memorial Glade on the UC campus Monday, August 23, 2010 to participate in a campus convocation welcoming new students. 

Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Harry LeGrande opened the simple proceedings by joking that he was glad the ceremony could occur “under this great Northern California sun.”  

The students sweltered in the hot, slanting, light of late afternoon on one of Berkeley’s warmest days. Temperatures had probably reached into the eighties by the time the Convocation began. 

Chancellor Robert Birgeneau spoke, emphasizing the elite quality and opportunity of the incoming class. 

“There are about 6,000 of you. Just think of the other 6 billion people who don’t have the privilege of being here today”. 

“We expect you to challenge yourself, be inquisitive and, most importantly, be open to change.” He noted that the faculty had 21 Nobel Laureates, but that “25 Cal students have gone on to the win the Nobel Prize.” 

As he has done in the past at similar events, he invited the students to look at those sitting next to them, then recalled his own welcome to college many years ago as an undergraduate where he found himself sitting next to a fellow student who would become his wife. 

“You may have right now just looked at your future soul mate for the rest of your life”, he said. 

“Each of your should feel that Berkeley is yours, that you belong here, but just as important, that Berkeley belongs to you.” 

Birgeneau outlined the demographics of the incoming students. About 4,300 are true freshmen, and 2,300 are transfer students. The youngest is 13 and the oldest 60. And “65 [military] veterans are part of our incoming class”, he said, to applause. 

Eight out of ten of the new arrivals are from California, 11 percent from elsewhere in the United States, and nine percent are international students.  

About one third of the new students, he said, are recipients of Federal Pell Grant financial aid, and one third are also the first from their families to attend college. 

Birgeneau referred to the broader Berkeley community at only one point in his remarks. “Enjoy the campus and the community around you”, he said. But “I must urge you also to be street smart. Endeavor to be safe and aware of your surroundings.” 

He also cautioned the students against binge drinking and alcohol and drug use in general, but concluded on an upbeat note. 

“The air is full of dreams and ambitions here.” 

Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion Gibor Basri spoke next, telling the students that Berkeley “is a community that sees you as both an individual and a scholar.” 

“I see people from all over the world” among the new students, he said. “I see the future opinion makers and leaders of California.”  

He read campus principles of community and said, “This is, after all, the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement. On the other hand, we want to respect our differences.” He called for “free speech of the productive sort.” 

Noah Stern, president of the Associated Students of the University of California, mused that he had trouble coming up with what to say to highly qualified new students. “You were all leaders in high school. You all rocked your SATs. What should my advice be to you?” 

“Going to Cal means waving the flag of change and progressive ideas,” he said. “UC Berkeley is unique because of a collective desire to do the unexpected.” He was the only one of the speakers to refer to the “painful budget cuts” the University had suffered in the past year. 

Hundreds of the student spectators sat on the wide, sloping, lawn of Memorial Glade, while hundreds of others huddled in the shade of the small clusters of trees lining the perimeter berm.  

Mother Nature had played her usual weather trick on Berkeley. False summer arrived just with the new students.  

This past weekend, as the weather turned warm after a cool summer, freshmen were busy moving into the residence halls. 

For days—possibly even weeks—those among them who have never been to Northern California before will mistakenly believe Berkeley has a balmy sub-tropical climate.  

Finally, when they lose track of where they packed their coats and closed toe shoes, the inevitable “offshore breeze” and “marine layer” will educate them about the more moderate character of Berkeley weather. 

For today, however, some astute orientation planner had produced and distributed round, stiff, paper cards with a bear head on one side and campus spirit songs on the reverse. Their wooden handles made them rather effective fans. 

Memorial Glade was a sea of sun-struck people vigorously fanning themselves, a rare sight in Berkeley. The speaker podium was in the deep shade of an awning. 

The Cal Band, quite casually attired, played, and the UC Men’s Octet, natty in white dress shirts and blue and gold ties, sang.  

As the speakers continued, many of the students drifted to the sidelines, lining up for free hot dogs, kettle corn, and cold beverages handed out from tents.