On June 20, 2023, UC Irvine held its final gradution ceremony as students from the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS) started their procession into the Bren Events Center for the ICS Commencement Ceremony. “This is the last but certainly not least of the 11 ceremonies,” said Dean Marios C. Papaefthymiou in his welcoming remarks to the crowd of students, families and friends, and esteemed faculty.
This celebration of the roughly 815 undergraduate degrees, 160 graduate degrees, and 275 professional masters degrees that ICS expects to confer this year began with an inspiring rendition of the national anthem performed by Aerodynamix, an a capella group of UCI students. The Class of 2023 heard from classmate Nadia Etemadi, who spoke of her journey to becoming a software developer, and from featured speaker Julia White, chief marketing and solutions officer at the enterprise software company SAP, who offered words of wisdom from her nearly 30 years in the tech industry.
First, however, Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Hal Stern congratulated the students. “The students that we’re celebrating, especially many of the undergraduates, had a remarkable educational experience,” he noted, “impacted by a global pandemic that changed the world in ways that nobody could have imagined.” He commended the students for their ability to maintain their focus on projects, problem sets, labs and reports, and for their personal growth. “You’ve been challenged in classes, and in your conversations with your friends, to accept, understand and challenge different points of view,” said Stern, highlighting a core element of the college experience. “Society needs more people with the ability to listen, to give people the benefit of the doubt, and to engage in civil conversation with those with whom we disagree.”
Emphasizing that commencement marks a new beginning, Stern challenged the students to “do all the little things you can to make the world a better place” and to “find your passion and pursue it.”
Building on Communities of Support
Dean Marios then introduced Etemadi, an Iranian American graduating with her master’s degree in software engineering. As Etemadi took the stage, she transported the audience back in time. “Imagine, for a moment, that it’s the year 2013,” she started. “I was a nervous wreck of a 14-year-old, sitting in my counselor’s office.” In selecting the last elective for her first year of high school, she had to choose between woodshop or intro to computer programming. She remembered calling her mom for advice.
“Ever the cautious parent, she suggested computer programming. ‘I can’t exactly chop my arm off with a keyboard and mouse,’” said Etemadi, laughing. “That one decision ended up cultivating a love of programming within me,” she said. “Dragging and dropping code blocks in Scratch might have just been another elective course for some kids, but for me, it was a window into a whole new world.”
After high school, Etemadi’s dreams of attending an elite college “came crashing down” when she was rejected everywhere she applied. So, she found another path. She attended West Valley Community College, where she found a community of “incredibly talented, compassionate professors and students.” She went on to study computer science at UC Davis, where she again found a community of supportive classmates — the culmination of which was a zoom graduation in her living room.
As a graduate student at UCI, her initial online connections flourished with the return to on-campus learning, and she collaborated with fellow graduate students and research lab members. With help from her advisor, Andre van der Hoek, she developed a prototype tool that lets people edit videos to attach to bug reports.
Now, as she prepares to find a job as a software developer, she looks forward to meeting yet another community of talented and supportive peers and colleagues. She wishes the same for her fellow graduates, advising the Class of 2023 to carve out a space for themselves that builds on their unique experiences, memories and communities from UCI.
Finding the Constant in an Ever-Changing World
White, who earned her B.A. from Stanford University and MBA from Harvard, and who spent 20 years at Microsoft before joining SAP, acknowledged that commencement speakers often talk of “unprecedented” times. Yet for this Class of 2023, she stressed that “these times are truly unprecedented.” She talked not only of the start of their college journey and the resilience required during the global pandemic, but also of the end of their journey, as they enter the workforce at “the dawn of the next massive revolution in technology with artificial intelligence.”
She assured the students that, “armed with a world-class education,” they are well prepared for the challenges and opportunities that await them. “The Bren School has prepared you with the latest technology skills, the ability to think critically, and hands-on experiences at some of the most innovative organizations in the world.” She also spoke to the first-generation college students, who made up nearly half of the graduating class. “You’re creating a new legacy for your family and community, which is remarkable.”
She went on to share what she has learned from her nearly 30 years of working in technology, which started with launching online banking at Intuit. “Technology is always advancing [but] there’s no technology advancement without people.” She compared today’s angst about AI’s impact on jobs to what she saw back in 2007 with the cloud revolution. As she helped move companies away from their server rooms to cloud-based services, she recognized the importance of retraining IT professionals, providing opportunities for career advancement as well as for further cloud innovation.
“Humanity needs to be at the center of everything we do in technology,” stressed White. “We’re so lucky to have the skills, the know-how, to help the world run better through technology. It’s an awesome opportunity and a massive responsibility.”
Calling on the Class of 2023 to act as “values-based tech-minded leaders,” she acknowledged that it’s a tumultuous time. “Do not lose hope, because today, every company is a tech company — retailers, manufactures, banks, automotive companies, nonprofit governments — all of them are in dire need of your skills. … Every company now competes and differentiates with technology.”
She also acknowledged the power of AI, but insisted it’s “still just a tool … one that you will be at the forefront of guiding and harnessing.” She then implored the next generation of tech leaders to use their knowledge and skills to improve society, prioritizing responsible and ethical development. “Tech will always advance. Let your values and ethics be the constant in an ever-changing world.”
The Strongest Anteater Zot!
To conclude the ceremony, Dean Marios asked all of the family and friends to stand as he recognized their support in helping the students achieve this tremendous accomplishment. Then, after this moment of gratidude, he announced that it was time for the “competitive” part of the event.
“It is a competition among the schools for the strongest anteater zot,” he explained, asking for everyone to join him in three emphatic “zots.” The Class of 2023, with excitement and UCI pride, readily obliged: “Zot, Zot, Zot!”
“I hear that was the best!” announced Dean Marios, offering one final accolade for these ICS graduates before sending them off to start the next chapter of their lives.
— Shani Murray