Virtual Commencement Celebrates the UCLA Ed & IS Class of 2020

Video messages from Wasserman Dean Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, UCLA Ed & IS grads Tunette Powell and Liza Mardoyan highlight achievement and hope.

This year’s virtual commencement ceremony of the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies on June 13 was not the traditional event in Wilson Plaza, with graduates receiving their degrees while surrounded by family and friends. However, the GSE&IS traditions of excellence, social justice, and equity were celebrated as usual, while the Class of 2020 and their loved ones shared the occasion around the world remotely, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wasserman Dean Marcelo Suárez-Orozco expressed his wishes for the health and safety of all in attendance, and saluted first responders in health and emergency fields, as well as teachers, farm workers, and others who provide basic necessities for all during the pandemic. He underscored the value of the new graduating class of teachers, school leaders, researchers, librarians, archivists, data scientists, and other professionals who he charged with becoming agents of change.

“New beginnings are marked by uncertainty in the midst of great suffering and much loss,” said Suárez-Orozco. “The world needs your energy, your enthusiasm, and your commitment to the common good. The obscene gaps in resources and opportunities along class, race, gender, ethnic, linguistic, and immigration background is now a clear and present danger to the basic fabric of our nation. The problems we face… are grave and urgent.

“In the face of such assaults on fundamental human values, we here and now reassert an education and information studies agenda, animated by an ethic of care and solidarity, an ethic of dignity and rights, an ethic of engagement and service of others, an ethic of truth and of science.”

Tunette Powell, who graduated with her PhD in Urban Schooling, summed up what many graduates might be feeling this year, in her  pre-recorded speech as the representative from the UCLA Department of Education.

“Over the past four years that I’ve spent at UCLA, what got me through those long days, all of those papers, and all of the days that seemed they’d never end, was the hope of a graduation surrounded by family and friends,” said Powell, who is the mother of three sons and a first-generation college graduate. “I had flights booked, venues were being reserved.

“For a moment, I lost hope. And I would have stayed in that hopeless state, had I not given myself time to reflect on what I’ve already overcome, and where I’ve already been. While it might not be like we imagined, and while we may be overcome with emotions of many kinds, the fact that we are graduating in a pandemic reminds me of an old saying that was remixed by rapper Kendrick Lamar: ‘We gon’ be alright.’

“We could have folded, we could have given up, we could have quit,” said Powell. “We could have shut down, and it would have been warranted. But we didn’t. The fact that we are graduating in this moment is a reminder that we have already overcome some struggles, that we are overcoming a pandemic in this moment, and that no matter what is ahead us, we are ready.”

Liza Mardoyan, who graduated with her MLIS, represented the UCLA Department of Information Studies during the virtual ceremony with her pre-recorded message. A native of Beirut, she expressed her gratitude for the virtual presence of family and friends, with the “ability to [Zoom] through our pomp and circumstance.” She also highlighted the resiliency of her the Class of 2020, who have achieved advanced degrees in an environment of unprecedented local and global challenges.

“The past few months gave all of us the opportunity to reflect upon, think, and exercise the virtues of empathy, humility, and acceptance to a greater degree,” said Mardoyan. “Acceptance that health is our greatest asset; acceptance that we neither can predict nor can control what is coming next. But what we can do is to choose how to respond to a crisis. And we, collectively – the students, the staff, and the faculty of the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, passed the test with flying colors. Each one of us responded to our new normal differently, but we did not become paralyzed by it. We came together as a community, and helped each other move forward.”

Mardoyan thanked GSE&IS faculty and staff, “… who put their own circumstances and challenges aside and supported us in every way possible. They listened to our needs and delivered. We are grateful to you for this one final life lesson: how to be leaders with compassion and humility in a crisis.”

Dean Suárez-Orozco shared the history of UCLA – the origins of which include the founding in 1862 of the State Normal School, which trained teachers for the growing city of Los Angeles, and exhorted the graduating class to return to their alma mater, saying that, “As you face new challenges and struggles, know that you will always have the Bruin family to come back to. 

“We are UCLA’s mitochondrial DNA. We are the energy that bought about UCLA… and more importantly, we are at the emotional center of the world’s great public research university,” he said. “As you move forward, know that yours is a unique place in this, our country’s premier public research university.”

Suárez-Orozco noted that the Class of 2020 have a great responsibility to society. 

“Make no mistake – science, facts, information and what the great Algerian philosopher Albert Camus once called ‘the generous heart,’ will finally defeat the pandemic, not the uninformed gibberish of charlatans in low and high places. The 21st Century is a century of information, of data, of education. What the pandemic has taught us is that in an ever more miniaturized, interconnected and fragile world, inequality kills.

“Your responsibility as GSE&IS graduates, is considerable. In the age of pandemics, of unchecked climate change, of unsustainable development [and] consumption, education and information, libraries and archives, data and argumentation, science and facts – are more important than ever before in humanity’s history.”

Anousheh Shayestehpour, who achieved her EdD from the Educational Leadership Program, had her acappella performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” recorded for the virtual program. In addition, Mardoyan performed the UCLA alma mater, “Hail to the Hills of Westwood,” which was also recorded for the occasion.

The video remarks by Dean Suárez-Orozco, Mardoyan, and Powell were recorded prior to the national protests. In recognition of the Graduate School’s commitment to social justice and equality, the decision was made to omit “The Star-Spangled Banner” from the 2020 Commencement. 

To view the 2020 Commencement of the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, vist the GSE&IS YouTube channel.