At the Dornfelds’, commencement is an international affair

By Marguerite Rigoglioso

05 June 2002 | Every year, after their commencement ceremony is complete, and sore feet and ravenous hunger set in, newly minted mechanical engineering graduates head to a quieter venue for the afternoon — the home of David Dornfeld, a professor of mechanical engineering and engineering’s associate dean of interdisciplinary studies, and his wife, Barbara.

There, in the airy surroundings of the Dornfelds’ elegantly appointed Berkeley house, graduates, their families and a handful of returning alumni feast on gourmet finger food and celebrate the day.

The stand-up affair has become something of a tradition. “I guess my wife and I have been hosting this get-together since about 1980,” said Dornfeld, who was in his kitchen cracking open another bottle of wine for his guests when the Berkeleyan caught up with him.

“It’s something we really look forward to every year. The students work hard, and we enjoy honoring them in a way that puts a personal touch on their professional accomplishments.”

Among the more than 40 people at this year’s gathering were the five who received mechanical engineering graduate degrees, working with Dornfeld: PhDs Andrew Chang, Borlin Shyu, Zhoujie Mao and Sankee Min, and master’s student Amit Bansal. Several doctoral alumni living in the area also came back to help celebrate.

For Andrew Chang, the luncheon marked the culmination of eight years of work with Dornfeld, first as an undergraduate lab assistant and then as a graduate student. “Dave has been a wonderful adviser and mentor,” Chang said. “That spirit really comes through in these parties. I’ve been to about seven of them and they’re always a lot of fun and a great way to meet my labmates’ families.”

Students, parents, wives and children gathered in small clusters in and outside the Dornfeld abode to enjoy skewered sea bass, chicken and tofu, while getting to know one another — that is, where common languages permitted.

“Only about 25 percent of the research group is American, so this is truly a cross-cultural gathering,” said Barbara Dornfeld. “In fact, this party is the first opportunity for many of our guests be in an American home.”

This year’s partygoers hailed from many countries in Asia, Europe and Central and South America. The parents of graduating student Sankee Min, for example, flew in all the way over from Korea. Serving as translator, Sankee persuaded his reticent mother, Myungja, to comment on the occasion: “I’m just so honored to be here,” she said, as tears sprang to her eyes.

Special entertainment was provided by the department’s European contingent. Visiting student Arnaud De Grave, from Grenoble, France, broke out the juggling balls in the yard, while Paul Junkerman from Aachen, Germany, played Capriccio, by Heinrichon, on his clarinet. Afterward, Dornfeld toasted the new graduates.

“I’m very proud of these students,” Dornfeld said later. “I’ve set high standards for them in everything they’ve done, and they’ve come through brilliantly. I’ll be sad to see them leave, but what’s gratifying is that most students remain in our lives forever. They’re really our family.”

Meanwhile, as long as the Dornfelds have the finger power to peel pounds of shrimp, their home will no doubt continue to serve as a popular post-commencement meeting place. Indeed, with all of the cross-continental anticipation the event seems to generate each year, Dornfeld laughs, “I think canceling it would prove to be a grave international incident.”


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