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June 26, 2020

ICS Commencement: Class of 2020 Rises to the Challenge

Mirroring the UCI campus itself, which sat eerily silent on Saturday, June 13, 2020, the 55th annual commencement ceremony, pushed online by the global coronavirus pandemic, began somber and silent. “Join us in a moment of silence for George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and other Black lives lost to police and racial violence.” So read the opening slide of the campuswide commencement. Both the message and its delivery revealed the backdrop against which this class of 2020 is graduating. This unique moment in history was further highlighted as students graduating from the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS) transitioned to their own virtual ceremony.

“Under normal circumstances, I would be introducing our new graduates to a packed Bren Center, with thousands of guests in the audience,” began ICS Dean Marios C. Papaefthymiou. “Circumstances are far from normal, however, and this year’s online commencement will be remembered as the first such event in the school’s history.”

Papaefthymiou said he hoped the commencement would be remembered for more than just its virtual ceremony, however. He talked about how, with more than 1,150 ICS undergraduates receiving a bachelor’s degree and more than 110 students receiving a master of science degree, the 2020 graduating class of ICS is the largest ever.

ICS Dean Marios C. Papaefthymiou addresses students during the 2020 virtual commencement ceremony.

“We hope that this commencement will also remain in your memories as the conclusion and celebration of a journey that gave you much more than an education in computing and information technologies,” he said. “Our aspiration is that you’re graduating from our programs equipped to make a positive impact on our world, use technology to do good, and successfully rise up to future challenges, no matter how great they may be.”

Student commencement speaker Avineesh “Avi” Kompella, co-president of the ICS Student Council and graduating with a degree in computer game science, echoed those sentiments, noting the realities of today’s world. “We’re living in times we would never even have conceived of when we started college,” he said to his fellow classmates. “We have to work with the cards that have been dealt against us: rescinded opportunities, an influx of zoom calls, troubled economy, no more Boba hangouts, and a severe cut in interaction with our friends and families.”

Computer game science graduate Avineesh “Avi” Kompella delivered the student commencement speech.

Kompella, like Papaefthymiou, had prerecorded his speech, so on the day of commencement, he watched the ceremony with his roommate. “With the current circumstances, the lack of a live ceremony and the usual joy around the campus during this time is to be expected,” he says. “That said, I’m immensely grateful to ICS and UCI as a whole for managing to deliver some form of commencement, virtual or not. I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that it means a lot to us that staff and faculty still wanted to recognize our achievements.” One plus of the virtual ceremony? “I ended up ordering a cup of coffee on DoorDash that morning [so] I got to drink Peet’s coffee during commencement. That’s pretty rad.”

Computer science graduate Beini Wang, who plans to work for a year or two before going to graduate school, watched the ceremony with family. Although she was unable to experience the typical graduation experience, she did continue the tradition of cap decoration, creating a fashionable woman inspired by Audrey Hepburn “who knows technology and has elegance” and is looking toward her future. “We have always been told ‘the sky’s the limit,’ but not everyone’s sky is the same,” says Wang. “We must stand tall in its presence for it is ours and it is beautiful.”

Computer science graduate Beini Wang looks to the future with her cap design, blending fashion, technology and elegance.

Decorating the cap also gave computer science graduate Derek Feng a greater sense of satisfaction than the virtual commencement video, which left him with no feeling of “finality.” His cap features the LGBTQ pride flag, the transgender pride flag, and a multicolored version of a fist symbol associated with Black Power. “Through my classes alone, my perspectives have been vastly broadened,” he says. “Besides my coursework here, UCI also exposed me to a network of amazing individuals from diverse communities and backgrounds, and studying abroad helped me meet people from all over the world!” Feng explains how he learned the importance of the different identities we all hold. “I’ve learned how the realities they come with can feel so paradoxical: harrowing, challenging and painful, yet also beautiful, healing and rewarding,” he says. “I wanted to use my cap decoration to showcase another side of what I learned here that goes beyond my major.”

Computer science graduate Derek Feng used his cap to showcase his broadened perspective.

Commencement speaker Rosalva Gallardo Valencia, Ph.D. ’12, senior program manager at Google in Silicon Valley, acknowledged that those watching the virtual ceremony, from Kompella to Wang to Feng, “all represent so many different paths and realities.” Valencia, noting the many first-generation and minority students in the graduating class, recalled her own struggles as a Ph.D. student in ICS who had come from Peru. “My first assignment was to read two books over the weekend,” she recalled. “It took me half an hour to read one page.” She didn’t finish that first assignment, but she did make it through the program and went on to publish two books in English, co-found the Network of Professional Peruvians in Science and Technology in Silicon Valley (PeruSV.org), and lead a Google.org collaboration with Laboratoria to train low-income Latin American women as front-end developers and UX designers. And in 2019, she created the Rosalva Gallardo Valencia Graduate Award in collaboration with the UCI Foundation.

“In difficult circumstances, you do what you can to make the seemingly impossible, possible,” she said. “You are a graduating class which understands how to overcome obstacles and thrive in adversity.”

Valencia went on to tell the students that they now have all the tools needed to help advance society. “The interdisciplinary education you received here at UCI, and ICS more specifically, has put you in a unique position to help the world define the new normal,” she said. “You have all that is needed not only to be successful but to redefine what being successful means.” She concluded by asking the graduating class of 2020 to think about how they can serve others. “It’s the best time to come up with innovative solutions to help people, our family, loved ones and our community,” she said. “I, for one, cannot wait to see what you do, and how you will help make our world a better place.”

Following Valencia’s speech, a slide for each graduating student was presented as the names were announced virtually. And while this wasn’t the graduation the students had hoped for, it nonetheless represented a tremendous milestone given the upheaval faced at the end of their academic journey. “For the current graduating class, ‘rising to the challenge’ became more than a slogan when their resilience and adaptability were tested in the past winter and spring quarters,” says Computer Science Professor Gopi Meenakshisundaram, the associate dean of student affairs for ICS. As he watched the students tackle countless challenges, the true spirit and strength of the class of 2020 became evident. “We are not only graduating the largest ICS class, but also the best prepared to lead a more equitable and just society.”

Shani Murray


ICS Commencement: Class of 2020 Rises to the Challenge

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Media interested in interviewing ICS faculty, students or alumni should contact Matt Miller at (949) 824-1562 or via email at matt.miller@uci.edu.