Commencement 2011: Our Undergraduates

Commencement, I just can’t quit you. This week we honor the fantastic graduates who spoke at the department’s commencement ceremony a couple weeks ago. It continues to be true that the longer I am at Cal, the more sure I am that we get to teach the best students in the country.

Today’s spotlight shines on Maadhevi Comar ’11:

Maadhevi Comar was born and raised in Los Angeles. As a teenager, her family had to transfer her to public school to lower household costs. The change in environment coincided with her being given more freedom at home. As a result, she says she “ignored academics and found myself in a state of addiction for most of my late teens to early twenties. But life allowed for a second start, and I pursued a career in the fashion industry after attending The Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising.” Comar found a job after graduating but still felt like “there was something missing.” Although she kept working, Comar returned to junior college to figure out what it was. Five years later, Comar was accepted to Cal and “found [her] calling in literature.” She is applying to MFA programs this fall to pursue her interests in the personal essay and poetry.

Of her time at Cal, Comar says she “savored his experience…every small morsel” and “digested all [he] could.” She is especially grateful for the large community of transfer and re-entry students, who made her undergraduate experience feel completely organic.

William James once wrote that “life is in the transitions as much as in the terms connected.” I first heard these words of wisdom in my third semester at Cal. I had finally settled into a tempo, keeping my eye on the prize – my diploma. Professor Donald McQuade stood in front of our writing class and encouraged us to look at our own writing, our own transitions, and to look at the life existing between the various components of our narratives. As I prepared for my last semester James’s words of wisdom lingered in my consciousness. How do we students transition from our first semester to our last?  How do we define our Berkeley experience?

First, I would have to start with my transition to Berkeley. I attended Los Angeles City College at night while working full time during the day in the small and incestuous fashion industry. I discovered that I wanted more out of life, that my passions were awaiting me in other fields. Junior college allowed me to dabble in several avenues before finding my love in Literature and the artfulness of language. LACC counselors advised most students against applying to Berkeley. It was a long shot, they said. But it was MY dream.  I soon found myself seated in Wheeler auditorium amongst a myriad of transfer students during the CALSO orientation. Despite being here, I waited in my chair for a faculty member to pull me aside and in a regretful tone apologize for the awful mistake.  There was a mix-up in the paper work and this was all a huge, horrible accident and that I was not supposed to be here. The notice never came and there was no mistake. I was meant to be here.  The first semester was the hardest as it was filled with self doubt. I had entered into a higher level of academia without having the bearings of both a freshman and sophomore year. I kept referencing one of the warnings spoken at CALSO: “if you were the star student at your junior college, you will have to work harder because that is the norm here.” Petrified with the fear of failure I struggled through. As semesters progressed, so did my confidence. I had finally found my own rhythm within the confines of academic life. Now, near the end of my journey I looked back upon my own personal experience, my encounters with brilliant professors, and the evolution of my academic career at Berkeley.

My first joys were found sitting in front of Professor Muhkerjee as she spoke of national identity in literature and how she gave me my first opportunity to join Berkeley’s prestigious groups of creative writing workshops.  Enrolling in Janet Adelman Shakespeare class produced fearful prospects but became one of the most spectacular courses encountered at Cal. To have the honor of sitting through her final lecture in The Tempest and Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage will mark an unforgettable milestone in my own academic life. I fondly look back at our classes’ standing ovation and her tender words of encouragement of following our dreams, not knowing that we were giving our own goodbye with the help of our good hands. I will always remember Professor McQuade’s famous maxims including “relax into your eloquence” and “reading in slow motion.”  His guidance and his belief in the readiness of being surprised.  I will find joy in the memories of my metaphysical journey into Kafka, Hemmingway, Borges, and James Joyce led by Professor John Champion and his challenge of expanding my own process of literary investigation.  When asked about the 1890’s, I will smile and thank Professor Kent Puckett for exploring the edges of modernity, conducting some of the most interesting  seminar discussions, and how apocalyptic anxieties are inevitable in any decade.  Whenever I hear the word “sugar” I will remember Professor Cecile Giscombe, his exclamations and prepositions, his confidence in his students, and our afternoon talks of the glory of poetry. I will reminisce on my dive into modern poetry with Doctor Cecire, my fear of Ezra Pound, and how I was able to finally digest the great poets of American modernism under her guidance. There were tough times as well. Times in which I thought I would never make it to the end. Times I wanted to drop everything and run as far away from Cal as possible. All of these memories along with the friendships, the everlasting bonds, and unforgettable experiences were formed within my transitions here at Berkeley. And it is within the good the bad, the intolerable setbacks, and the momentous occasions that create the foundation of our experiences here at Cal.

I will hold great admiration for the journey itself and not the end result.  Today marks a transition in our lives. A tangible change from our first steps onto campus to who we are now at this moment. Some will continue to graduate school, others might spend some time searching their souls, but all of us seated in front of you today are embarking on a new journey – a  new transition to a new term.

Thank you