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A sunny afternoon, a long holiday weekend just around the corner, and a degree from UC Berkeley in hand — what's not to smile about? (Steve McConnell/UC Berkeley NewsCenter photos) Smiling graduates at the Greek

A sunny day for graduates — and the many who helped them

The local climate was ideal for speechifying, much of which focused on the economic and moral climate of the world the Class of '09 is about to enter

| 26 May 2009

'My fellow graduates' audio slide show
Audio slide show excerpts from '09 student commencement addresses
The weather gods smiled on Berkeley's 2009 Commencement Convocation Friday, even as the uncertain economic climate — and other unpleasant facts of life — hovered just beyond the campus and an otherwise upbeat, often jubilant Greek Theatre.

Clear skies and comfortable temperatures set the mood for this year's event, beginning with the reading of the names of students in the Class of '09 during the hourlong procession, and right through the traditional singing of Hail to California and the joyful hugs and handshakes between grads and well-wishers.

Chris Gardner delivers the keynote addressAn upbeat Chris Gardner recalled his days as a homeless man sleeping on the Berkeley campus as he encouraged graduating seniors to keep pursuing happiness. Gardner, now an entrepreneur and philanthropist, said dire predictions that "the sky is falling" just don't recognize that it's really "pennies from heaven."
Keynote speaker Chris Gardner, whose story was dramatized in the 2006 film The Pursuit of Happyness, told the large, celebratory crowd he'd opted not to address "the state of the economy, Wall Street bailouts, or the job market." But social and economic realities found their way into the festivities in the remarks of Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, top graduating senior Emma Shaw Crane, and Gardner himself, who brought the issue of homelessness especially close to home.

"A lot of folks don't know this, but there was a point in time when being a working single parent with a 14-month-old baby tied on my back, that my son and I slept on this campus," revealed Gardner, an entrepreneur and philanthropist who went from soup kitchens in San Francisco's Tenderloin district to success on Wall Street. Though Gardener may never have earned a college degree, that didn't keep him from claiming Berkeley as a kind of foster alma mater.

"For me to go from where I was to giving this address to you today, I kind of feel like it's my graduation, too," he told his cheering "fellow classmates and graduates."

"Everybody got here today because somebody helped them," Gardner said, noting the presence of families and, especially single parents — "all the fathers who had to be mothers, and all the mothers who had to be fathers." He added, though, that "there was somebody else who's not here today who helped you get to where you are."

Graduates with individually decorated capsMaking a statement is part of every graduate's dream; these grads let their caps convey the message as they posed for a photo op at the Greek Theatre.

"I don't know whether that person was a high-school teacher, a counselor, or maybe it was someone who just worked in the school, who saw in you something that maybe you didn't see in yourself," he said. "And I want to ask you today to reach out to that person. Don't call them. Go see 'em. Don't e-mail 'em. And whatever you do, don't Twitter, tweet, or whatever that stuff is. All right? Don't do it. Go see 'em, shake their hands, hug 'em, laugh with 'em, cry with 'em, and say thank you.

"And to all the folks who said you couldn't do it, to all the folks who said you wouldn't make it, you are perfectly justified to say, 'How do you like me now?'"

His message for the Class of '09, he said, was that "amidst all this chaos and turbulence, there's an opportunity to create a new vision of the American dream," in which "achieving balance in your life is more important than the balance in your checking account" and "what you do does not define who you are."

For too long, said Gardner, "a lot of us have been living in exile in a place called 'things,' and it's time for us to come home to friends and families and folks."

"A lot of other folk will tell you that the sky is falling," he concluded. "I will say that those are pennies from heaven. You know why I say that? Because I have seen this movie before, and I know how it turns out."

University medalist Emma Shaw Crane speaks at commencementEmma Shaw Crane, the 2009 University Medalist, called on her fellow graduates not to settle for comfort and privilege, but to call out the injustices around them and work to make the world and the neighborhood a better place.

Shaw Crane, this year's University Medalist, invoked the spirit of the late Berkeley professor and poet June Jordan in urging the Class of '09 to remember those less fortunate, from political prisoners to neighbors coping with everyday violence and poverty.

"We have the power to look away," she said, "[but] looking away compromises the heart of what makes us human. … I believe we celebrate best with our eyes wide open."

"We will go on to become powerful lawyers, engineers, policy writers, educators, doctors, professors, researchers. As June Jordan would say, we are now on the shooting side of the target range," said Shaw Crane, an interdisciplinary-studies major who posted a perfect 4.0 GPA and earned a Fulbright scholarship to do AIDS research and education in Colombia. "But I believe we also have the power to begin to construct the democracy that we want to live in. And I believe this kind of democracy starts when those of us with university degrees, those of us of privilege, are unafraid to name the quiet violence that we observe and experience, even though it may benefit us to keep silent."

Even a buoyant Chancellor Birgeneau, who eagerly accepted a gift of $85,831 from the senior class — an amount, he happily announced, that will swell to more than $200,000 thanks to matching funds — was unable to keep the clouds entirely at bay. He observed that "some of you may be worried about your job prospects in this economic climate," and encouraged everyone to "speak out for public universities" in the face of severe, ongoing funding cutbacks.

In keeping with the positive mood, though, Birgeneau, too, stressed the permanence of family and community over the vagaries of the marketplace. "You may not know where the future may take you," he advised the departing graduates. "But know… we will be there with you."