Graduates of UC Merced’s Class of 2014 savored one of their most-awaited moments this weekend, as nearly 1,100 students walked the stage during the university’s ninth commencement ceremonies.
Merced County Superior Court Judge Paul C. Lo provided the keynote address for Sunday’s ceremony, reflecting on challenges he overcame as a youth, coming to the United States from Laos at the age of 11.
Lo made history in April when he was sworn-in as the first Hmong person to become a judge in the United States. He was appointed to Merced Superior Court by Gov. Jerry Brown in December.
The judge told the graduates how he and his family fled Laos after the Vietnam War with nothing but “the clothes on (their) backs.” After escaping their country, they spent four years in a cramped, impoverished refugee camp in Thailand, “hunting mice and rats” to survive.
He said women were raped, and refugees were frequently beaten by cruel, merciless guards. “Somehow we survived, persevered that ordeal,” Lo recalled.
When Lo and his family came to the U.S. in 1979, he didn’t speak any English, and felt “stupid, ashamed and out of place” because he had the knowledge and skill level of a preschool student.
“I had no ambition to be the smartest student or the highest achiever in class,” Lo said. “I just wanted to be a regular student.”
With hard work and dedication, however, Lo mastered the English language and succeeded academically. He eventually went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from UC Davis and a doctorate from UCLA School of Law.
After leaving school, Lo worked as a managing partner of a Merced law firm, and also opened his own practice.
“However gloomy the situations you may face in the years ahead, keep getting up each morning with a smile. The sun will rise on you again, just like it did for me and the Hmong people,” Lo told the graduates.
Kristina Johnson, chief financial officer of Enduring Hydro LLC, was the keynote speaker for Saturday’s ceremony.
“I’m supposed to impart upon you all sorts of life lessons,” Johnson said. “But, frankly, I think there’s a lot we can learn from the graduates of UC Merced. You define persistence.
“Many of you are also the first generation in your family to go to university, and you’ll be entering the workforce in an economy that’s just coming out of one of its lowest points.
“You are solving problems that are important to society, and that is the role of scientists and engineers,” Johnson continued. “You’re proving that you understand something that lots of folks don’t, which is, big things don’t just happen, you have to make them happen. And that takes hard work, discipline and, above all, it takes commitment.”
Johnson, who served as undersecretary at the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C., recalled when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease at 22.
Early diagnosis and cancer therapy treatments gave her a shot at a normal life with a disease that, in the 1970s, was considered terminal. Some doctors gave her two years to live, she said.
“As soon as I heard there was a chance, I knew I was going to live. I just knew it,” she said. “As I discovered, being positive is a powerful tool and, like your diploma, it can crack open any door. If you combine it with perseverance, and you keep pushing, you can open that door.”
“You’re graduating into a world where bad things can happen to good people,” she said. “And when they do, commit to staying positive. When you find yourself in those dark moments, remember what Martin Luther King (Jr.) said: ‘Only when it is dark enough can we see the stars.’ ”
Johnson closed by reminding graduates that the future depends on them. “More than any new government policy, more than any new technology, it’s young people like you who give all of us hope for the future. It’s you and all that you are about to do.”
Ashley Osormia, 23, who received a degree in developmental biology, shared Saturday’s ceremony with extended family.
“This is very exciting,” she said. “My whole family is here. I even have extended family that came from El Salvador to share this moment with me.”
She plans to return to San Fernando and apply for internships in the Los Angeles area.
Bryan Sagara, 22, also will be returning home.
“These four years went by really fast,” said Sagara, of Alameda. “Everyone tells you that your college years are going to fly by, but you don’t believe it until you actually see it happen.
“I made a lot of friends that became family. I’ll miss them, the campus and even the cows.”
Similarly, Anna Maria Burachek, 21, a human biology major, reflected on friendships. “I met most of my friends during my freshman year, and we just stuck together,” she said. “We’ve created lasting memories, so it’s a little hard having to split up, but it’s also a very exciting time.”
Burachek will return to Sacramento, study for the MCAT and later apply to medical school.
Tina Kuang, 22, one of three physics majors, is the first person to graduate from the UC Berkeley-UC Merced Cal Teach Credential program, a collaboration that aims to produce more teachers in the San Joaquin Valley. She completed her undergraduate studies in 3 1/2 years at UC Merced and is finishing her last semester at UC Berkeley, from where she will obtain her teaching credential.
“To be able to start at the newest UC and finish up at the oldest UC was a really great experience,” she said. “And it made me appreciate my time at Merced even more because you get to compare both institutions, and you see that by going to a smaller campus, you really do get to interact a lot more with your professors.”
Her goal is to teach physics or math at a high school or collegiate level.