Praising the value of youthful idealism, State Sen. Maria Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles) urged the members of the Class of 2022 not to lose touch with their younger selves after graduation at Occidental College’s 140th Commencement ceremony on May 15.
“You see, the person who will inspire you all your life is sitting in your chair, wearing your graduation gown,” Durazo, one of the country’s leading labor leaders over the past four decades, told the 489 graduates and more than 3,000 family members and friends who filled Remsen Bird Hillside Theater under sunny skies.
“The younger version of yourself is who needs to go with you when you march out of here with your diploma,” she said. “Your irreverence, your disregard for the way things have always been done, your unrealistic dreams, your impatience and even your anger. Embrace the impossible because you can make it possible. Cherish your impatience and channel your anger just long enough to succeed.”
Durazo used her own life story as an example of the value of not losing touch with your younger self, telling of how she grew up picking crops with her parents, turning to activism in college, and becoming a union organizer who, by her own account, failed in her first effort at organizing garment workers.
“She didn’t succeed, but that young woman’s failure is what inspires me 40 years later to carry on the fight and win what we won last year”—the passage of Senate Bill 62, the Garment Worker Protection Act, which eliminated piece rates, strengthened safeguards for wages and dignified working conditions, and expanded liability for wage violations.
“Do not grow out of who you are today,” she continued. “Walk away today with a commitment to keeping your unrealistic dreams. … Use your younger selves to make our world better. Use your younger selves to make our world freer. Use your younger selves to make our world more hopeful.”
Durazo, whose speech prompted a standing ovation, was one of two honorary degree recipients at the ceremony. Dr. Kimberly Shriner ’80 also received an honorary degree in recognition of her work as “the San Gabriel Valley’s Dr. Fauci” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A separate ceremony was held in Hillside Theater after the main program for 16 seniors who tested positive for COVID-19 just before the Commencement. “We are delighted to be in the position to make sure that every member of the Class of 2022 is able to walk across the stage in Hillside Theater today and receive their diploma—the symbol not only of academic achievement but of so much hard work, perseverance, and resiliency in the face of unprecedented challenges,” Elam said.
Another unanticipated twist occurred during the main ceremony just before seniors began to walk across stage to receive their diplomas when someone in the audience shouted out,” Happy Birthday, Harry!” In response, seniors spontaneously sang “Happy Birthday” to the president.