Reno speech highlights Commencement Convocation 2001
Historian, University Medalist offer parting thoughts to graduates

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs



Janet Reno addresses the Class of 2001.
Peg Skorpinski photo

10 May 2001 | Don't forget to laugh at yourself, former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno reminded graduating seniors at commencement convocation May 9.

At a sun-drenched Greek Theater, the usually staid Reno told graduates and guests of her brief stint as a comedian during a "Saturday Night Live" appearance, in which she was "spoofed as a frumpy, old lady" by actor Will Ferrell.

"It's so important to laugh at ourselves," said Reno, "and more importantly, to laugh with each other. Laughter is the great leveler. It puts attorneys general and Will Ferrell on the same level."

Reno was the top vote getter for commencement speaker by the estimated 10,000 seniors eligible to graduate this year. The event marked the first commencement since 1969 in which a majority of graduates marched in a cap-and-gown procession. No diplomas were awarded. Instead, degrees are conferred at individual graduation ceremonies that some 50 schools, colleges and departments hold throughout the month of May.

The nation's first female attorney general, Reno said she has maintained a sense of humor despite criticism lodged at her for her handling of such cases as the burning of David Koresh's religious compound in Waco, Tex., and the return of Elian Gonzales to his father in Cuba.

After leaving the Justice Department and returning home to her native Florida, she told the audience, Reno found Elian protesters camped out on her property. She said they called her "every name in the book.

"Based on what they were saying, free speech is alive and well in this country," said Reno. When then asked by reporters for a response to the protests, Reno responded that it was their right. "These people left Cuba to enjoy the freedoms we have to offer, and we need to protect those rights," she said.

She called on the graduates to safeguard the liberties of all Americans, including minorities, the elderly and immigrants.

"Ours is a nation of immigrants; it's our tradition," said Reno, whose Danish father faced discrimination when he arrived here as a young child. "When we no longer embrace immigrants is when I start to worry."

Reno challenged the seniors to provide "affirmative action" for all children early in their lives, giving them "a firm foundation on which to build."

Reno also told students it was important to learn how to lose.

"Don't duck. Just stand and take it," she advised. "Then dust yourself off, move ahead and learn from your mistakes."

The ceremony included rousing comments by Professor of History Leon Litwack, speaking for the Class of 1951. Litwack told of the activism of his fellow students in the late 1940s, when the campus environment was more conservative.

At the time, protests concerned abolition of the university's loyalty oath and the ROTC program. Although student dissidence was then seen as threatening, Litwack said it makes the institution stronger.

"The receptivity to alien, untried ideas defines the greatness of a university. Those (who) are unthinking, unquestioning or indifferent are the biggest threat to our society," said Litwack to a round of applause. "Mario Savio means as much to Berkeley as our benefactors, Nobel laureates and fabled coaches."

Chancellor Berdahl recognized Christine Ng as the University Medalist, the distinction given to the top graduating senior. In her comments to fellow graduates, Ng said she had been warned that the campus would be "impersonal and competitive" compared to her small, all-girl's Catholic high school in Southern California. "But I found the professors to be enthusiastic and the students friendly," she said.

A student in civil and environmental engineering, Ng has worked to encourage more women to enter this male-dominated field. At the same time, she volunteered for numerous community service programs, while maintaining a stellar 3.992 grade-point average.

As she looked out at her classmates, sweltering in their black robes and fanning themselves with programs, Ng predicted that many would go on to head successful businesses, write best-selling books and become world-class researchers. But, she said, it's the little things that can have the biggest impact on the world.

"Turn to the person next to you and smile," she said. "Such a simple act can warm people's hearts."

Commencement convocation capped off a week of spirited activities by graduating seniors. The Californians, Class of 2001, brought back Senior Week after a 40-year absence. The week included a variety of events aimed at improving spirit among seniors. Graduates also gave one of the largest senior class gifts in Berkeley history — $36,117 — as a parting present to the university.


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