Photos: Berkeley seniors celebrate resilience during 13 socially distanced graduations

Berkeley High seniors are walking across a real stage as they graduate this weekend, a joyous celebration after a year at home that seniors described as difficult and bizarre.

Families cheered from the bleachers as eight different graduations were held at Jacket Stadium Friday and Saturday. Five more are scheduled for Sunday. The ceremonies, split up by small school and by affinity group, give the approximately 800 seniors a chance to close this chapter of their lives. The affinity graduations include the Celebration of Black Excellence and an Asian Pacific Islander graduation.

“It’s a tremendous necessity. Graduation is one of the milestones in the life of a young person,” said Marisa Cruz, who watched her little brother Sergio Santos, 17, walk across the stage Saturday afternoon. Santos is the last of his four siblings to graduate from high school, and his family was thrilled to watch him do it in person.

“It didn’t hit me until I was walking up the steps to the stage,” said Santos, who will be joining the Air Force in September.


“It’s a celebration of all we have accomplished throughout our entire lives so far,” said Maya Garcia, 18.

Seniors wear decorated caps during the Academic Choice graduation ceremony at Berkeley High School on June 5, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Seniors wear decorated caps during the Academic Choice graduation ceremony at Berkeley High School on June 5, 2021. In English, the cap reads, “For my parents who came with nothing and gave me everything.” Credit: Kelly Sullivan

It is a milestone that so many seniors did not think they would get to experience. After a year of remote learning, high schoolers returned to campus for a few hours a week April 26, a little over a month before graduation.

Scroll down to read senior class president Charlotte Thornton’s full commencement speech.

“I have witnessed resilience firsthand, in the halls of this high school,” said senior class president Charlotte Thornton, 18, in her speech. “It is resilience to engage in remote learning, let alone succeed, during an international shut down. It is resilience to study for midterms and finals during a racial pandemic and national outcry.”

Thornton gave her speech twice on Saturday, since her small school graduation, Academic Choice, was split into two events due to sizing restrictions. After the first speech, Thornton was emotional: She went home, cried for hours, and brushed her teeth before returning to the stadium to do it all over again.

“To have made it this far, each and every one of us is resilient. Our ability to overcome is our greatest asset,” Thornton told the graduating class.

The graduation had all the signs of normalcy. Students walked, marched and danced across the stage to receive their diplomas, tossed their caps in the air, and, after parading past the Berkeley Farmers Market in Civic Center Park, posed for photos with family and friends.

Still, reminders to social distance blared over the loudspeaker and masks were worn during the ceremonies. Capped at a few hundred people, the ceremonies were unusually quiet. Students wished they could graduate with their friends in other small schools, but mostly, they said, they were grateful to be donning their gowns at all.

“We’ve all endured more than any of us really expected we would in this past year, and now we are sitting in these sits here tonight with our cap and gowns, or sashes,” said senior Suhera Nuru in her speech during the Celebration of Black Excellence Friday evening.”When society tells us that we can’t do something, it makes us want to work even harder to prove to ourselves that we can.”

Marina Cruz, who watched her daughter Alexa graduate Saturday, said the ceremony was particularly special for her. “In our family, not everyone goes to the stage,” Cruz said, thanking the Bridge program for supporting her daughter throughout high school.

After a year at home, the seniors are excited for the next chapters in their lives which, they hope, will be in person. “I’m really looking forward to being in a classroom and really learning again. That’ll be crazy,” said Eliza Grown, 18, who will be attending UC Santa Cruz in the fall. “But I’m glad I got to put a cap on my high school experience.”

Graduates wear decorated caps to the Berkeley High School Celebration of Black Excellence ceremony on June 4, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Graduates wear decorated caps to the Berkeley High School Celebration of Black Excellence ceremony. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Graduates wear commemorative face masks during the Academic Choice graduation ceremony at Berkeley High School on June 5, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Graduates wear commemorative face masks during the Academic Choice graduation ceremony on June 5, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Graduates toss their caps in the air during the Academic Choice graduation ceremony at Berkeley High School on June 5, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Graduates toss their caps in the air during the Academic Choice graduation ceremony. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Family members cheer on graduates at the Celebration of Black Excellence ceremony at Berkeley High School on June 4, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Family members cheer on graduates at the Celebration of Black Excellence ceremony. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Graduates pose for a photo following the Celebration of Black Excellence ceremony at Berkeley High School on June 4, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Graduates pose for a photo following the Celebration of Black Excellence ceremony. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Graduates walk to the stage during the Academic Choice graduation ceremony at Berkeley High School on June 5, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Graduates walk to the stage during the Academic Choice graduation ceremony. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Senior class president Charlotte Thornton’s full commencement speech:

Good morning. Welcome, Class of 2021. It is wonderful to see all of your faces today, here and in person. Welcome parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Siblings who have witnessed the ups and downs of our last four years. Welcome friends, guests, chosen families. It’s a privilege to speak before you all today as we collectively celebrate the successes and challenges of the Class of 2021.

My name is Charlotte Thornton and I am honored and humbled to represent the diverse, boisterous, resilient group of students who are graduating today. I am inspired by the creativity, the ingenuity, and the commitment my peers have demonstrated, not just during these unprecedented times, but the years prior as well. 

I’m grateful to have been surrounded by dancers, debaters, activists and athletes. I have no doubt that the students surrounding me today will be instrumental in creating a more equitable and inclusive future. For we are the next generation of leaders and change-makers. And despite the immense obstacles we have faced both collectively and privately, I’m confident in our ability to overcome. 

Resilience is defined as “the capacity to recover quickly from toughness” and “the ability to spring back into shape”. 

Despite my understanding of this word, I reject these definitions of resilience. Because I have witnessed resilience firsthand, in the halls of this high school, and it does not require speed. Nor does it demand returning to old shapes and retired ways. I believe that, instead, it is a commitment to oneself and to others. To strive for great things, despite the obstacles that challenge us. To pursue the impossible, despite the odds.

It is resilience to engage in remote learning, let alone succeed, during an international shut down. It is resilience to study for midterms and finals during a racial pandemic and national outcry. It is resilience to continue to learn despite feeling unheard or unsafe in one’s community or classroom. It is resilience that unites us today. To have made it this far, each and every one of us is resilient. Our ability to overcome is our greatest asset. 

Although this past year has greatly interrupted our time here at Berkeley High, we must not let it control the narrative. Let’s remember the roaring crowds of Rally Day, the electricity of dance performances, the rush of the breezeway, and Mr. Carton’s wave from his classroom doorway. Let’s remember the moments we’ve shared together and our ability to stay connected, even when we were apart. This may be the last time we are all together. So I’d like to say thank you – thank you for being a part of this community, of this journey, of this chapter. Thank you. 

Congratulations to the graduating class of 2021. 

Ally Markovich covers education for Berkeleyside. Email: ally@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: allymarkovich.