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Chancellor Leland's Commencement Address

May 21, 2019
Note: The following is Chancellor Leland's commencement address from Saturday, May 18.
Chancellor Dorothy Leland delivered the keynote address at UC Merced's commencement ceremonies May 18 and 19.
Chancellor Dorothy Leland delivered the keynote address at UC Merced's commencement ceremonies May 18 and 19. It was the final commencement for Leland, who announced her retirement on May 13.

It was not my intention to be your commencement speaker this morning, and you were no doubt looking forward to having California’s First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom share her wisdom with you today. I am sorry that she could not be here, but I understand and respect her decision not to attend this ceremony, as the University of California system continues important contract negotiations with one of its labor unions.

In Ms. Siebel Newsom’s stead, as your chancellor, it is my great honor to formally address the UC Merced graduating class of 2019.

The union called for keynote speakers to boycott commencement ceremonies at UC campuses, and those speakers faced a difficult decision — one that I do not envy.

The speakers had to decide whether to honor the union boycott or not; to have the unique opportunity to speak to our students and their families, or to honor the hardworking workers that this union represents — workers who are so essential to student life and to the operation of the university. These decisions are complex, full of ambiguity, with long lists of pros and cons, and many shades of gray.

Each of you made a very big decision just a few years ago, when you decided to pursue a university degree. The seeds of that decision were planted years before as you made other decisions – what classes to take, how hard to apply yourself to your studies, what extracurricular activities to pursue, or what peer pressures you decided not to succumb to.

Making decisions — big and small — can be hard, because they aren’t made in a vacuum. Our conditioning and life’s circumstances shape our decisions.

Maybe you decided to believe the teacher or family member who was convinced, long before you were, that you had the talents, smarts and skills to make it in college. Then, at some point, you made that most important and life-changing of decisions: to believe in yourself.

For many of you, the decision was complicated by the fact that many of you were forging entirely new territory as the first in your family to go to college.

And then there was the decision to attend UC Merced. You no doubt had other options — other universities, in California or out of state. Yet you chose this small, young campus in the middle of the Central Valley, surrounded by farmland and with cows grazing on the campus borders, with limited student facilities and with so few classrooms that many of you had to attend classes or labs well into the evening. On top of all that, you chose a campus that would be a full-fledged construction zone for much of your time here.

Perhaps you chose UC Merced for the opportunity to study with some of our amazing faculty. Perhaps you chose Merced for the opportunity the live and learn with other students who share your cultural and ethnic heritages. Perhaps you were attracted to Merced’s unique geography and proximity to wetlands, wildlife refuges, and national parks and forests. Perhaps you were drawn by the opportunity to create your own experiences.

Whatever the reasons, it was because you chose Merced that you sit here today, surrounded by your friends and proud families.

This is a joyful moment in a journey propelled by your decisions, big and small. It took courage, determination, long hours and sleepless nights to get here. But here you are at last, poised to become a proud graduate of the newest campus in the world’s most respected public university system.

Let me repeat that: You are graduating today from the newest campus in the world’s most respected public university system!

Take a deep breath and feel the pride of your accomplishment.

But as you do so, also feel the new weight of responsibility that comes with your education at UC Merced, for it has prepared you to make significant contributions to a world that desperately needs your ideas, your problem-solving skills, your compassion, and your willingness to question, explore, create and innovate.

And just as the path that brought you here was paved by the myriad decisions and choices that you made, so too will the ones you are about to make determine the future that you will create for yourselves and for future generations.

By our choices, we can live lives of selfishness and self-aggrandizement. Or, as Cesar Chavez once said, “We can choose to use our lives for others, to bring about a better and more just world for our children.”

Over time, our choices create the character of the life we lead. Or, as someone else once said, life doesn’t just happen.

My hope for each of you is that you choose lives that will contribute to a world with less hate and more love, with less intolerance and more compassion, with less greed and more generosity, with less despair and more hope, and with less inequality and greater social justice.

The World Economic Forum estimates that by 2030, most of the world’s poor will live in regions suffering from some form of “fragility,” characterized by extreme poverty and hunger or rampant violence. This means that the magnitude of the current global migration crisis will continue to increase, with millions of displaced persons struggling to find a new home in countries that are unable or unwilling to help them.

How will you, the 2019 graduates from UC Merced, decide to respond to this challenge?

Climate change is well documented, and almost all scientists believe that human activities are major contributors, in particular greenhouse gases from fossil fuel combustion, deforestation, and land-use changes. We also know that some effects of climate change disparately impact low-income communities and impoverished regions of the world — and, in particular, women, children and the elderly. Most scientists see climate change as a global crisis that should demand our attention and action.

How will you, the most recent graduates of UC Merced, respond to this growing threat to our planet and its inhabitants?

Here in the United States, housing options for low and middle-income families have become increasingly scarce, forcing more and more people to live in substandard and overcrowded dwellings or on the streets. In rural America, the shuttering of hospitals and specialty health services is threatening millions with lack of access to quality health care.

How will you, the 2019 graduate from UC Merced, decide to respond to homelessness and health disparity challenges?

Based on what so many of you have already demonstrated during your time a UC Merced, I am confident that collectively you have the talent, spirit, and commitment to create the kind of profound changes that our country and world so desperately need. I am confident, because you’ve already demonstrated it.

To combat climate change and its impacts, you’ve participated in campus recycling efforts, substituted plastic water bottles with reusable ones, and reduced water usage in our residence halls — and in so doing, you have helped make UC Merced one of the most sustainable campuses in the nation.

To address food insecurity, you’ve fought for and helped sustain a campus food pantry for those who are in need, right here among us. You have participated in research on health care disparities, and worked in clinics that serve low-income populations.

To address hate and intolerance, you’ve marched, signed petitions — and even held me to task when you didn’t think I’d done enough.

And to address immigration policies you believe unjust, many of you have advocated for and supported the undocumented students who were offered safe haven to pursue their studies here at UC Merced — and then, with a single election result, became the innocent victims of politics.

I’d like to take a moment to recognize the undocumented students who are receiving their degrees today. During your time here, your lives and the lives of your families and friends have grown less certain and more precarious. And yet you decided to take risks and preserved through hateful rhetoric and fear. You have much to offer our nation — courage and talent — and I applaud the drive and resiliency that will culminate in your walk today across the commencement stage.

Decisions matter. As a graduate of UC Merced, you are now better prepared for the life decisions that lie before you. You have honed your intellect and know-how to question, research, analyze and synthesize. You have grown in your abilities to handle interpersonal relationships and to use emotional information to guide your thinking and responses to others. You have become more confident in yourselves and more skilled in overcoming fears and hesitations. And finally, but importantly, you have demonstrated the grit and determination needed to fight through hardships in order to make great things happen.

Michelle Obama once said: “Remember that you are blessed. Remember that in exchange for those blessings, you must give something back. You must reach back and pull someone up. You must bend down and let someone else stand on your shoulders so that they can see a brighter future.”

She said that ten years ago — right here at UC Merced, in her first commencement address as First Lady — to our first full class of students in 2009. She was speaking right behind you, in a grassy expanse that is now filled with new research buildings, classrooms, housing, and a new dining facility. These are all marks of a growing and thriving research university.

When asked why she would choose Merced to make that first speech, Mrs. Obama said the answer was simple: “You inspired me,” she said. “You touched me.”

The Class of 2009 — a small but mighty group of 500 students — had launched a lobbying effort that spring. They peppered the White House with letters, videos and hundreds of Valentine’s Day cards. And it worked. As the First Lady said: “There are few things that are more rewarding than to watch young people recognize that they have the power to make their dreams come true. And you did just that.”

Class of 2019 — you, too, have recognized your power to make your dreams come true.

Anna Ocegueda, who is graduating this weekend with bachelor’s degree in psychology and a minor in Spanish, also recently made a decision: She took a photograph of herself with her parents, who are migrant farmworkers from Mexico. In the photo, she is wearing her graduation robes; they are wearing their work clothes, including the large bags they drape across their bodies to collect the oranges they pick in the winter, and the grapes and blueberries they harvest in the summer.

The contrast is striking — and that was Anna’s intent. She sought to inspire, and inspire she did. She posted the photo on Twitter, and in just two days it received 16,000 likes and nearly 4,000 retweets.

A seemingly small decision to post a photograph, but one that has given hope to other and helped them to believe that they too can follow in Anna’s footsteps. Anna’s decision was uniquely her own, but each of you has the capacity – each in your own unique way – to lift up others.

So now is the time for you, the Class of 2019, to make new decisions that will not just determine the next chapters of your lives, but also impact the lives of others and the future of our nation.

The momentous decision points in your life are likely to come in times of uncertainty; and when they do, think of those who, confronting similar uncertainty, made the right and just decision, paving the way for you.

These decisions will often require sacrifice; and when they do, think of those who sacrificed for you — and in so doing, made possible this day.

These decisions will often come in times of setbacks and fear. When they do, think of the laborers and the immigrants, the pioneers and the slaves, the persecuted and the outcast, who, with far less than many of us have, summoned just enough hope to overcome their fear and to decide to keep on going, believing that tomorrow would be a better day — if not for them, then for the generations that would follow.

Generations like you, the UC Merced Class of 2019, full of new promise, new hope, new opportunity. Godspeed on the journey that lies ahead, and congratulations to each of you.