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UC San Diego rises out of pandemic with big, joyous commencement

UC San Diego graduate Lisa Nicole Flores Chandler celebrates onstage during the Muir College commencement ceremony June 12.
UC San Diego graduate Lisa Nicole Flores Chandler celebrates onstage during the John Muir College commencement ceremony at UCSD on June 12.
(Denis Poroy / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The first ceremony June 12 was delayed 30 minutes to let in the crowds.

UC San Diego, one of the first campuses to broadly test students for the coronavirus and help develop vaccines against the pandemic, celebrated its work and sacrifice with a weekend of in-person commencement ceremonies that hardly seemed possible last winter.

It was a cathartic moment for a school that had largely turned into a ghost town the past 16 months because of a virus that few saw coming.

Upward of 3,000 students and their guests streamed onto RIMAC Field on June 12 for the John Muir College graduation part of the program, which had to be delayed about 30 minutes to give everyone time to reach their seat.

To be allowed in, people had to show their vaccination card or proof that they had tested negative for the coronavirus in the previous 72 hours. It was part of a stringent enforcement program that has kept the campus infection rate below 1 percent for most of the pandemic.

In awarding at least 7,800 degrees in its 60th year, the university held a total of 10 in-person commencement exercises through June 13, collectively drawing about 10,000 people. Everyone had to wear a mask.

UC San Diego graduate Alex Rodriquez (left) cries after speaking at the Muir College commencement ceremony on June 12.
UC San Diego graduate Alex Rodriquez (left) cries after speaking at the John Muir College commencement ceremony at UCSD on June 12.
(Denis Poroy)

In December, it was unclear whether UCSD would be able to hold commencement in late spring. The national vaccination program got off to a slow start, and no one knew whether it would be well-received by the public.

But the program proved popular, enabling UCSD to greenlight this year’s ceremonies.

The Muir College crowd expressed joy and appreciation as one speaker after another talked about the courage and resiliency exhibited by students, not just in coping with the virus but with the other vagaries of life.

People seemed especially touched by the words of Alex Rodriquez, a senior from East Los Angeles who spoke with raw candor about his difficult path to a degree in literature.

Rodriquez said his mother died when he was 2 and his father abandoned him a short time later. He lived in poverty, eventually getting involved in gang activity, which led to problems with the law. He briefly went to a community college, then dropped out, but later found his way back. He then earned his way into UCSD.

UC San Diego graduates and family members wait for the John Muir College commencement ceremony to begin June 12.
(Denis Poroy)

He told The San Diego Union-Tribune before his speech that he became so depressed by the pandemic and other pressures in April 2020 that he considered suicide. He was saved by mentors and friends at the university, and prospered, compiling a 4.0 grade point average.

“I’ve got to show that if I did it, they can do it, too, and go further,” Rodriquez said.

He focused on his classmates’ accomplishments during his speech.

“I want to start out by congratulating the UCSD class of 2021 ... for not only achieving this enormous accomplishment, graduating from one of the best, top schools in the world ... but also for maintaining resilience through the pandemic,” he told the crowd to cheers.

A similar message was delivered by keynote speaker Alicia Garza, a UCSD graduate who co-founded the international Black Lives Matter movement.

“Celebrate your accomplishments. Celebrate them and savor them and really be present for them, as they are hard-earned and hard-fought,” Garza said.

Evelyn Delgado of Hemet, who majored in general biology, didn’t expect to experience such a moment.

“I had hopes that the graduation would be in person, but I wasn’t sure,” she said before the pomp and circumstance began. “I’m just thrilled and excited that it’s happening.

"[This past year] was very different. There was a lot to get used to, especially as a student with remote learning. There were ups and downs. But I got the hang of it.”

Cynthia Rodriguez of Chula Vista stood near her son, Cesar, who was about to receive a degree in clinical psychology.

“I am sooooo proud,” she said. “It was a lot of work. He was so dedicated to the school.”

Her husband, Augustin, nodded in agreement and said, “He worked so hard to get here.” ◆