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On June 12, 2022, a sea of black caps and gowns signaled the long-awaited return of the traditional graduation ceremony, as countless rows of students from UCI’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS) stood in a crowded auditorium for the ICS Commencement Ceremony. Dean Marios C. Papaefthymiou welcomed students and their families and friends, along with esteemed faculty members, expecting to confer more than 1,100 undergraduate degrees and 150 graduate degrees. During the ceremony, the Class of 2022 heard fellow classmate Kazeem Salaam speak of roadblocks and resilience, culminating in this moment, while ICS alumna Smita Bakshi, Ph.D. ’96, shared four principles of success to guide students as they embark on their next journey.

“The graduating students this year have experienced too many challenges and have had to successfully transition twice — both into and out of remote classes,” says Gopi Meenakshisundaram, ICS associate dean for undergraduate education. “The Class of 2022, more than any other cohort, is uniquely equipped to handle many more challenges in the real world, and I think they were inspired by life lessons shared by Kazeem Salaam and Dr. Bakshi.”

Students, in a sea of black caps and gowns, celebrate at the 2022 ICS Commencement Ceremony.

Roadblocks and Resilience
“I’m pleased to announce our student speaker, Kazeem Salaam, a first-generation Nigerian American graduating with a B.S. in computer science,” said Dean Marios during his introduction. “With a passion for programming and helping others, Kazeem aims to motivate and inspire future STEM students.” Salaam then stood from his seat on the stage and walked to the podium.

“I would like to start off by giving a huge congratulations to the Class of 2022,” he said, speaking of their trials and tribulations, including learning how to properly use Stack Overflow, dealing with a global pandemic, and — “what some would say was the most challenging — passing the ICS 33 class with Professor Pattis!” He laughed as the crowd cheered in acknowledgment.

He then admitted that when he first applied to UC Irvine back in 2017, he was initially denied his preferred major of computer science and instead entered undeclared, but he remained determined. “I knew the road ahead of me was not going to be easy, and I knew I would face both academic and social challenges,” he said. To build a sense of community, he joined UCI’s National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) and worked in the Office of Access and Inclusion (OAI) as a STEM mentor and a tutor. “Both of these organizations promoted different computer science opportunities for me and allowed me to network and meet new people.” He also created his own YouTube channel to document his journey, and by the end of his freshman year, he was admitted into the School of ICS for computer science.

Student commencement speaker Kazeem Salaam.

“Like every student sitting here today, I was faced with adversity, and my resilience would be put to the test,” he told the crowd. His toughest test came after landing a summer internship at Amazon. “During an extremely pivotal point during my internship, I lost my mom to pancreatic cancer. Overcome with frustration, sadness and grief … I had a choice to make,” he said. “I decided to summon the courage and strength to complete my internship, and upon completion, I received a full-time software engineering return offer.” The crowd erupted in applause at this announcement, exhibiting both a sign of support and a collective sense of understanding of difficulties faced.

“Being a student in ICS requires not only diligence and intense focus, but it requires resilience,” he continued, clearly connecting with his classmates. “Every single one of us … at one point in our career, we arrived at a set of roadblocks, and each time, we made the active choice to persevere and stay resilient.”

He concluded with a heartfelt congratulations, followed by a quick plug for his own product — the true mark of a graduate ready to enter the professional world. “Congratulations again to the Class of 2022. We made it!” he said with a broad smile, before leaning back in toward the microphone. “And last but not least, subscribe to my YouTube channel ZeamTheDream if you haven’t already!”

Empowered to Solve Big Problems
Dean Marios then introduced the featured commencement speaker, who earned her M.S. and Ph.D. from ICS in 1996. “Dr. Bakshi is a high-tech professional with more than 25 years of experience spanning entrepreneurship, education and software technology,” he said, outlining her career as a professor at UC Davis; as a professional in Silicon Valley’s high-tech software industry; and as co-founder of zyBooks, developed to help computer science students be more successful, which was later acquired by Wiley. Bakshi now leads Wiley’s education publishing business as the senior vice president of academic learning. “It’s always a pleasure to introduce alums back on campus, so let’s give a warm welcome to Dr. Bakshi!” said Dean Marios.

ICS alumna and commencement speaker, Smita Bakshi.

“Speaking here is an incredible honor for me,” said Bakshi. “When I stepped foot on this campus about 31 years ago, straight from India, I never could have imagined this day, when I’d be standing here. This is a special place, UCI ICS.”

Bakshi earned a degree in computer engineering from Delhi Institute of Technology before earning a fellowship to attend UCI.

She spoke of many “firsts” while at UCI, from ordering her first sandwich and discovering In-N-Out to meeting her first boyfriend, now her husband of 26 years. Like Salaam, she too spoke of hardships, recalling the struggles her family faced when her father passed away when she was only 8 years old. She also spoke of resilience, and her “iron-willed” mother’s emphasis on education and her journey from India to the United States. “My gratitude to this country and to UCI runs deep. I was paid to come and learn here,” she said, before turning from her years at UCI to her years since and the years ahead for the Class of 2022.

“When Dean Marios asked me to speak at today’s graduation, I asked ‘why me,’ and who turned you down?” she joked. “And he said it was because of the transitions in my career, especially from academia to industry to entrepreneurship.”

She explained that everything came together full circle for her when she combined her education and industry background to co-found zyBooks. She then offered the students four principles to follow as they embark on their own unique professional journeys:

  1. Make decisions from a place of joy, not a place of fear.
  2. Go where the growth is … because with growth comes energy [and] excitement.
  3. When you do get that job, obsess about who you serve, about your user.
  4. Love and nurture your community, your friends and colleagues, and cultivate those relationships.

She also stressed the impact the students would have through their professional journeys, noting the critical role of technology in healthcare, education, physics, finance, epidemiology and design. “Any discipline needs technology,” she said. “You have the power and the ability to solve the world’s toughest problems, to work on smart cities, renewable energy, low-cost healthcare, and greater access to education.”

While acknowledging that she had been warned that no one remembers their commencement speech, she said people do remember the feeling they had at the time. “Today, I hope you feel limitless. I hope you feel empowered and on top of the world, yet humbled and grateful,” she said. “Class of 2022, go forth, create your own path, solve big problems, listen to your inner self, pivot if you need to, and get into the flow of your beautiful lives.”

A Final Zot, Zot, Zot!
At the end of the ceremony, after recognizing the friends and families in attendance for all of their support, Dean Marios had one final request. “Graduates, raise your hands and join me in three strong Anteater Zots!” The Class of 2022 then ended one chapter of their lives and began their next journey with UCI pride and a resounding “Zot, Zot, Zot!”

— Shani Murray

Dean Marios Papaefthymiou raises his hand, leading students in three “Anteater Zots” at the ICS Commencement Ceremony.