Kindness, service to others resonate as themes of UCLA’s 2023 commencement

Alumnus and actor Randall Park, Chancellor Block and others encourage graduates to make meaningful change in the world
Alison Hewitt and Madeline Adamo | 

In the final moments before thousands of undergraduate students became UCLA graduates, they heard from a fellow Bruin, the actor, writer and comedian Randall Park, who joked that he would give them the obligatory commencement-speech life advice. Although he delivered it between punchlines, the advice was no joke.

“Let’s try to be kinder and more considerate of one another,” Park said in his commencement address. “Treating others with kindness, especially when there’s nothing personal to gain from it, is a small, simple and effective way of making this world a better place.”

Similar messages of goodwill, the value of reaching out a helping hand, and the need to accept and support others rippled through the 11 a.m. UCLA College ceremony — the first of three being held at Pauley Pavilion today for more than 6,000 graduating students and nearly 30,000 of their guests.

A full third of the graduates are the first in their families to earn degrees from a four-year university, and more than a third are transfer students who found their way to their dream school from diverse paths.

Beginning early in the day, family and friends filled the campus, showering graduates with balloons, leis and proud hugs.

“I’m feeling excited and just very grateful and appreciative of everything,” said Karina Montes de Oca, a psychology major standing outside Pauley before the ceremony, surrounded by family members. She translated the Spanish words on her ornate, butterfly-festooned mortarboard: “When you see me fly, remember that you painted my wings. Thanks, Mom and Dad.”

“It feels surreal,” said Reggie Myles, a first-generation double major in African American studies and sociology. “I’m ready for the world. I feel really excited, and I had the support systems that really cultivated and grounded me all my four years here.” Nearby, his mother and grandmother — a big part of that system, he said — beamed with pride.

UCLA’s campus commencement activities, which began in May and which reach their crescendo this weekend, feature speakers like Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, California Attorney General Rob Bonta, California Surgeon General Diana Ramos and Los Angeles City Council President Paul Kerkorian, among others. In all, more than 14,000 undergraduate and graduate students will receive degrees.

Inside Pauley, the UCLA College ceremony began with an acknowledgement of the Gabrieleño peoples as the traditional caretakers of the land on which the UCLA campus stands. For the first time in UCLA’s history, the land acknowledgement was delivered by a Gabrieleño student, Desirae Barragan of the Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians.

In another first, guests at Pauley had the option of visiting a mobile “calming room” arranged by the nonprofit KultureCity, which partnered with UCLA for the university’s first sensory-inclusive commencement, thanks to Park, a KultureCity board member. Volunteers from UCLA’s disability studies program also distributed sensory bags with noise-canceling headphones and fidget toys to anyone who might have sensory needs, including those with ADHD, autism or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Park said his involvement with the program was inspired by his daughter Ruby.

“Today, Ruby is 11 years old, she is on the autism spectrum, and I wouldn’t change a thing about her,” he said. “I used to think that she needed to be ‘fixed’ in order to fit into this messed-up world. But now I see it differently. It’s the world that needs to do better, be kinder, be more inclusive … And looking out at you shining graduates here today, I am confident that she, and this world, are going to be just fine.”

Indeed, having experienced a series of national and global crises over the past four years, the class of 2023 is eager to change the world for the better. Their college years were upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, which began when most were first-year students, followed by the murder of George Floyd.

UCLA Chancellor Gene Block acknowledged that while students have coped with a divisive presidential election, the siege on the Capitol Building and other polarizing events, they have also have grown increasingly aware of issues like racial injustice and climate change and are poised to make meaningful change in the world.

“Crises are also moments of immense possibility, when the traditional order can be shifted and new thinking applied to old problems,” Block said. “Shaped by your experiences and your commitment to the common interest — and with your UCLA degrees, soon to be bestowed — you will be incredibly well positioned to enact this change … Bruins are nothing if not marked by optimism, and it is in our DNA to look at the world and see it as ripe for constant reshaping.”

If the class speakers were any indication, that reshaping is already underway. Faaizah Arshad, who was graduating with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, described her experiences as the daughter of Pakistani immigrants. Arshad relied on mentors to help her navigate UCLA and has co-founded an organization that mentors refugees in conflict-affected regions to assist them in accessing higher education.

“In a world punctuated with uncertainty and divided by polarization, I urge you to use [your] talents and varied lenses to push for social justice, equity, and inclusion in the spaces you inhabit,” Arshad said. “As a part of the College of Letters and Science, and UCLA as a whole, we have acquired the scientific literacy and social awareness to be global change-makers.”

Her classmate, psychobiology graduate Joyce W. Kuo, echoed the call to help others and spoke about how her time at UCLA similarly led her to embrace uplifting others. Kuo cited her mentorship experiences — as a resident assistant, a learning assistant and dance teacher.

“Through all of this,” she said, “I became a better critical thinker, problem-solver and friend. But I wasn’t always a mentor. There were people who mentored me first.”

In his closing remarks, Park spun a tale in which he envisioned himself dying peacefully after a long and satisfying life, only to find himself in hell with Mother Teresa and everyone he loved.

“I’m confused. I mean, I know I’m garbage, but Mother Teresa, shouldn’t you be in heaven?” Park joked. “She responds, ‘I tried, Randall. But that place is just as hard to get into as UCLA.’ For a moment, I’m disappointed, devastated … And just past that sinking feeling of devastation, I find a seed of inspiration of hope for a better tomorrow. So I roll up my sleeves and offer this: ‘Why don’t we all band together and every day put in the work to turn this hell into a heaven?’”

Park described Mother Teresa smiling and offering an emphatic, expletive-punctuated affirmation.

“UCLA’s graduating class of 2023,” he said, “I want you all to go out there, and do the same.”

As the new graduates turned their tassels to signify the completion of their degrees, a huge cheer went up from the crowd, accompanied by a live rendition of “Hail to the Hills of Westwood.”

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