The Resilience of the Class of 2021

June 24, 2021

UCI’s 56th annual commencement, though not unique in marking the university’s now second ever virtual ceremony, nevertheless represented something extraordinary. “The class of 2021 will have a unique place in our institutional memory as the most resilient and responsive class we have ever had the privilege of teaching,” said Chancellor Howard Gillman during his opening remarks. “Under the most extraordinary circumstances, you rose to the occasion, supported each other, adapted and persisted.”

As Gillman lamented the physical separation of the occasion instead of the traditional gathering in the Bren Center, he emphasized that “no matter our physical circumstances, we are right now Anteaters together, marking this great moment in your life.”

Graduates of the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS) heard a similar sentiment from Dean Marios C. Papaefthymiou in his welcome for the ICS ceremony. ICS expects to confer more than 1,200 undergraduate and 100 graduate degrees this year.

“Although the hybrid nature of this commencement is not as gratifying as an in-person live ceremony, the significance of the event remains as strong as ever,” said Papaefthymiou. As the class of 2021 transitioned from students to graduates, joining a network of more than 10,000 ICS alumni, Papaefthymiou spoke of their larger role in society: “Our aspiration is that you’re graduating from our program equipped to make a positive impact on our world, using technology to do good and leading in creating a better future for everyone.”

Four student commencement speakers then recalled their Anteater journeys, starting with Tiffany Kong. Although Kong has already secured a position as an engineer at Qualcomm, she admitted that she had no intention of graduating with a bachelor’s degree in computer science when she first came to UCI. “I never really thought about working in the tech or software industry, let alone majoring in computer science, but I did know three things: I enjoyed math, I enjoyed art and I really wanted to attend UCI,” she told her fellow classmates. “Through computer science, I came to enjoy a variety of topics such as AI and HCI, because they provide a perfect blend between art and design, and math and technology.” She spoke of both the devastation she felt after failing ICS 32 as well as the courage she mustered to successfully retake the course. “For me, failing a class seemed like a nightmare, or even now for us, graduating into a pandemic — it’s hard to get out of that doomsday mindset,” she said. “However, this is what has made us stronger. All these challenges that we have gone through have proven to us that we have never let doubt consume us.”

Similar to Kong, software engineering graduate Jennifer Kwon also found her passion at UCI after taking a project management course. “My time at UCI has brought me invaluable skills and I couldn’t have asked for a better experience here,” she said. She was driven to succeed, taking courses over summer to continue her learning. Her senior capstone class provided one of her most memorable experiences, as she conducted a research study in collaboration with the Children’s Hospital of Orange County to make speech therapy fun for kids. The project was recently highlighted during the ICS Spring 2021 Capstone & Student Design Showcase. Kwon had this advice for her classmates: “Class of 2021, be fearless, kind and optimistic Anteaters!”

Computer science and engineering graduate Ming-Hua Lawrence spoke of the tremendous challenges he faced in his journey to this moment. “Born with autism, I’m so grateful today to receive my bachelor’s degree after studying for five and a half years,” he said, noting that learning algorithms and programming C++ and SystemVerilog was especially difficult for him, requiring more than twice the time needed for other students. Yet he persevered. “I truly feel that any goal is possible if we put our mind, heart and soul into it,” he told his classmates. “My biggest wish today is to encourage you, whether autistic or not, to always have hope, kindness and perseverance so the highest purpose can be reached.”

First-generation, low-income Latino student Francisco Loya spoke of the resilience of this class of 2021 in particular. “A bird sitting in a tree is never afraid of the branch breaking because her trust is not in the branch but in her own wings,” said the computer science graduate. “The students who have gone through UCI before us have passed tough classes, met great people and graduated. Each and every one of us has done the same, but have done so while assisting sick family members, getting internships and job offers rescinded, and fighting for equality,” he noted. “So, yes, we are now graduating with a degree, but the strongest asset we’ve proven that we have is grit and a strong work ethic.”

The Class of 2021 is indeed unique in having overcome the yearlong upheaval caused by the global pandemic. Each graduating student whose name was read, with “Pomp and Circumstance” playing in the background as their slide flashed on the screen, has their own story of overcoming challenges in earning their ICS degree, particularly during their final year in the program. Yet each and every one showed great determination in reaching this moment and will forever share a special place in history as that “most resilient” Class of 2021, now prepared through their experiences and education at UCI to “create a better future.”

Shani Murray