New students at the University of California Berkeley—both incoming freshmen and junior transfers—flocked to the venerable blue and gold balloon festooned Hearst Greek Theatre on the late afternoon of August 22, 2011, to receive an official welcome to the campus in the form of the annual New Student Convocation.
They heard welcoming remarks, encouragement, and exhortations to both personally aspire and contribute to the Berkeley community from the Dean of Students, ASUC President, and keynoter Professor Robert Reich.
The Cal Band, casually attired for practice, opened the event with a vigorous performance.
The new student attendees—thousands of them—filled the orchestra and spilled into the upper diazoma, nearly to the top of the Theatre. A relatively small contingent of faculty and staff occupied seats at one side, and a few others were scattered in the crowd.
The day was warm and cloudless, and at any given time probably a quarter of the audience was fanning itself and another quarter was consulting various pocket electronic devices.
Many of the students sat in the late afternoon sun, shading their eyes to see the stage. Berkeley weather has this way. When floods of new freshmen arrive from Southern California, Berkeley typically tantalizes them in their first week or two with warm, sunny, conditions. Then, once the semester begins, it’s back to fog and evening chill.
There were many Southlanders at the Convocation. More than 50% of the incoming freshmen that are California residents are from Southern California, and they gave themselves a big cheer when master of ceremonies and Vice Chancellor for Student Services Harry LeGrande announced that fact.
35% of the freshmen come from the Bay Area, LeGrande said, and another 10% from elsewhere in Northern California, with the remaining 5% from the Central Valley.
The Californians represented 70% of the new students. “We’re a global university”, Le Grande told the crowd. An additional 19% of new students come from other states in the United States, and 11% from foreign countries, seventy-four overall.
He also noted that 103 of the new students are “military affiliated”, either as veterans, reservists, or active duty service members. They received warm applause, as did the small contingent of current UC faculty and staff who attended the event.
LeGrande added that the youngest new freshman is 12 years old, and the youngest transfer student is 16. The oldest incoming student is 63. 26% of the new students earned 4.0 grade point averages in high school. “Everyone here deserves to be here, you’ve earned a place at this great university”, LeGrande said.
“We place a higher priority on teaching undergraduates”, he said. “We are a campus with a rich history of critical thought, vital research, and critical activism.”
After the obligatory dorm food joke—a caution “about the chili cheese fries at Crossroads”—the next speaker, Vishalli Loomba, President of the ASUC (Associated Students of the University of California), told the new students “we all bring something unique and special to the table.”
Loomba noted she is the first Indian-American to be ASUC President, as well as the first President “to be an active member of a Panhellenic society” (she belongs to Delta Delta Delta sorority).
“You made the right choice. UC Berkeley with undoubtedly change your life like no other.” “We have a long standing history of commitment to creating change across the globe”, she told the students.
“UC Berkeley students are known for setting the standard in all areas”, she said. “We are all proud Golden Bears.”
“My message to you is simple—say ‘Yes’,” Loomba concluded. “Say yes to trying something new.” “Challenge yourself each day, and make your time here worthwhile.”
“You are the global citizens of the next generation”, and “college is a chance to invent yourself.”
She added that she remembered a piece of advice that Steve Jobs had offered during a talk she attended at Cal when she was herself a new student. “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”
LeGrande introduced the keynote speaker, Professor Robert Reich, with a mention of the premier quality of the Berkeley faculty. Looking at the periodic table of elements, LeGrande joked, “you won’t find a Stanfordium, or a UCLAium…none of those things exist”, but there is an element named for Berkeley and discovered here.
Reich, who is now the Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy in UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, served as Secretary of Labor under President Clinton, and is a frequent commentator on economic and political issues.
After taking the microphone, the diminutive Reich walked around the podium, which was nearly as tall as him, and spoke to the students from the lip of the stage with a combination of low-key wit, insight, and avuncularity.
“I guess I’m the first member of the faculty you’ve actually seen, in life, right?” he joked, to laughter. “I’m fairly representative. Everyone on this faculty is under five feet tall. It’s a small faculty.”
“We are so excited you are here”, he said, promising to tell them “a secret faculty keep to themselves…don’t mention that I’m giving it away.”
“We believe that the reason that Berkeley graduates, Cal graduates do so well, contribute so much to the world, are successful in every possible way…the reason that happens is because of what we, the faculty, give you,” he began.
“But, I’m going to give you a secret,” he went on. “This university is so selective…We only take the cream of the crop, the cream of the cream, the very best, and then we put you together with others who are the very best.”
“You learn so much from each other, are so inspired by each other, and do so much for each other that you graduate from here, and the secret is you learn more from each other than you do from us.”
“Don’t ever repeat that, particularly to a member of the faculty”, he cautioned with mock seriousness.
He then spoke about “what community means.” “I used to teach in a large university whose colors are crimson and white on the Cambridge River in Massachusetts”, he said. “I liked it very much, but there was not nearly the degree of community or diversity that we have here.”
“This is the best public university in the world,” he continued to applause. “It’s a public university because we are not only diverse in terms of race and ethnicity and backgrounds, but we are also diverse because of our economic backgrounds. Much more diverse than at every private university.”
“We learn from each other because we respect each other,” he told the students. And “the best way to learn is to find people who disagree with you and talk to them, and get to know them…It is that ferment between you and people who see the world slightly differently…that actually is the essence of the learning experience.”
“Reaching out beyond that comfort zone and finding people who are different. I urge you to do that. You will do that.”
“You see a little blue card you got when you came in?” Reich said, holding up a statement of community values that had been given to the attendees. “Read that card. Not right now, because I’m talking to you,” he added with mock exasperation, to laughter, as many in the audience obligingly started reading.
“Read that card and think about it, because this is the essence of what we mean by community.”
He told the students that among their classmates “a few of them might get into some trouble.” “And you, as part of this community have responsibility to help them help themselves.” Help them get campus services, he said. “Make sure you are alert and take responsibility for the health and well being of others around you.”
“Some of you are going to automatically do very well here. Some of you are going to find this a breeze. For example, those of you who got here early and got into the shadiest chairs, you are almost by definition ambitious and foresighted. It’s those people I’m worried about,” Reich pointed to the hundreds of latecomers sitting in the sun, as laughter washed through the crowd.
“Do not be anxious about your ability to succeed here. Nor should you be too calm and apathetic about that,” he continued.
He related his own first exposure to Berkeley, recalling that he had been an undergraduate at Dartmouth College, “a small college up in New Hampshire. It was actually, in those days, more like a monastery in Siberia.”
So coming into Berkeley after my senior year of college, as a research assistant, it was just extraordinary…it was like I was let out of a cage.”
“I first came to Berkeley years ago. I came in a little beat up VW bug. I drove up University Avenue, it was 1968, and I remembered that aroma, that first smell I got. It was a cross of eucalyptus and tear gas and marijuana, all mixed up. It was extraordinary. I thought, ‘I have arrived at Paradise’.”
As the cheers and laughter died down, Reich added, “As I look at your faces I realize I’m not taking in anything I’m saying. Because so many people are talking to you today, and there’s so much going on in your heads. Most of you—and because I’ve been teaching so long I can actually read minds—most of you are here about 30%. 40%? 60%? you’re actually here 60%,” he said, pointing to various students in the crowd.
But what I want to say is when I got to Berkeley, even as a research assistant, I was so excited by being let out of a cage is that all I could think of was the freedom I had,” he continued in a more serious vein.
Berkeley…also relies on you to handle your freedom responsibly and well. Nobody is going to be looking over your shoulder. Nobody is going to be telling you what to do. It is up to you to make the most of what you have here….Just remember that last point. It is up to you to both make this a community, and to make this the best learning experience in your lives. And it will be.”
The addresses included brief remarks from Mary Catherine Birgeneau, wife of the current Chancellor. The Chancellor wasn’t able to attend because he is recovering from a knee operation, LeGrande said.
“I just wanted to add my greetings to this great group of people”, the blue and gold clad Mrs. Birgeneau said. Each year “we can hardly wait until the end of August and our freshmen come back.”
“We really regard all of you as our wonderful big family”, she added, reminding the students that they were each invited to attend one of two evenings of receptions this week for new students at University House, the official Chancellor’s residence on campus.
Jonathan Poullard, the Dean of Students, concluded the speeches with an impassioned exhortation to the new students to get to know people unlike themselves.
You should be “engaged and engaging”, he said. “That means you are not sitting on the sidelines.” “You will not be on the sidelines, you will be on the field.”
Poullard said that students are told to respect others, but “respect is difficult”. “What happens when our value systems…are in direct conflict?”
He told a story from his own life, as an openly gay undergraduate student at Jackson State, where he decided to limit his contact with straight men because some had harassed him. “Since they didn’t like me, I wasn’t going to like them,” he said, and he began to associate primarily with other gay men.
Later, though, at graduate school he was befriended by a straight man who remains one of his close friends. The experience taught him to reach across boundaries and not to assume that only people like him could be his friends. “Just because someone is your people, does not mean they are your kind.”
He exhorted the students “to be open to the possibility that someone who is not like me might have something in common with you.” “Community is a participating act. It’s not sitting on the sidelines.”
“How am I going to move beyond myself to figure out how to create community here?” was the question he posed for the newcomers. “Think hard about how you are going to give back.”
“You are the chosen folk”, Poullard concluded, noting that only 30% of Americans have college degrees. “How are you going to use that chosenness to be engaged? “If you do not (engage), then I say shame on you.”
The official event concluded with five members of the UC Men’s Octet singing “Hail to California”. LeGrande then invited the students to join a picnic dinner being served on the lawn above the seating tiers, and the seats swiftly emptied out as students headed for the food.