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Graduating student getting a selfie with her dad

Graduating student getting a selfie with her dad

‘Focus On What You Can Control, and Don’t Ever Stop Believing’

Resilience, ‘radical hope’ and resourcefulness underscore Santa Clara University’s two-part weekend graduation.

Resilience, ‘radical hope’ and resourcefulness underscore Santa Clara University’s two-part weekend graduation. 

Standing in a socially-distanced line before a stage in the Mission Gardens draped with Bronco red and white, twin brothers Michael and Matthew Rizzo ’21 were about 20 minutes away from hearing their names read aloud, walking across the platform, and receiving their diploma covers.

“I’m feeling good,” said a calm Michael Rizzo mid-Friday morning. “I’m happy.”

Matthew put it another way: “Today is a bit surreal.”

After a pandemic year that kept them out of physical classrooms, the chance to return to campus—even briefly—thrilled members of Santa Clara University’s Class of 2021 and the handful of their relatives allowed to attend the in-person celebration with them Friday, the first of a two-part commencement weekend.

An inspiring virtual ceremony, featuring keynote guest speaker Jerry Smith, head coach of SCU’s NCAA championship women’s soccer team, followed on Saturday.

Students walking toward the stage for graduation 2021

But on Friday, under blue skies and arches of red and white balloons, around 1,220 of this year’s 1,468 undergraduate students, wearing graduation caps and gowns as well as face coverings, walked the mile-long route to the stage as pop tunes like “Don’t Stop Believin’” and “Walking on Sunshine” blared in the background. Guests were limited to two per student.

“For them to be with friends and have some form of a graduation ceremony is great,” said the twins’ mother Dana Rizzo, standing next to husband Mark and daughter Jordan. “It’s a big achievement in their life.”

Nearby, Catalina Sanchez beamed as she walked alongside Justino Cabrera and their daughter, Neida Cabrera-Sanchez ’21, who wore an array of stoles with her gown: a red one representing SCU, a white one for the Class of 2021, another version for being a LEAD Scholar, and a classic multi-colored stole representing her Latinx heritage.

“I’m glad that I got an opportunity to be here today, especially celebrating with my parents as a first-generation college student,” said the marketing major, who hopes to pursue a career in the fashion industry.

Her parents, immigrants from Guanajuato, Mexico, were elated.

“There were times that she said she couldn’t continue on,” the mother recalled. “But I told her, ‘Of course you can. You can and you will finish.’ I feel such happiness.”

Keep On Keeping On 

Those same sentiments of faith, hope, and endurance were reinforced throughout Saturday's virtual commencement, with almost two dozen Santa Clara leaders, faculty, staff and alumni sending messages of encouragement and congratulations to the graduating seniors who hail from 41 states and 12 countries.

The hour-long celebration that kicked off at noon could be viewed on YouTube and Facebook. During the event, students received prestigious class awards, and degrees were conferred upon the graduates of the College of Arts and Sciences, Leavey School of Business, and School of Engineering.

Highlighting the ceremony was guest speaker Jerry Smith, whose NCAA women's soccer team championship win last month has infused the campus with a renewed sense of optimism and energy, especially after a tumultuous year.

Graduating student high fives line of people

Imparting lessons learned from the victory, Smith told the audience that much of the team's experience over the last year offers parallels to the real world the Class of ’21 will join as they leave Santa Clara.

“In sports, as in life, a lot will be thrown your way. You can prepare, create plays, have plans and playbooks, but will life go as planned? No, it rarely does,” he said. “We all know from this past year, the one constant in life ... is change.” 

So be ready for uncertainty, the coach told them. And when it surfaces, “Think outside the box, be resourceful, collaborate, and be part of the solution,” because your attitude and effort will win the day.

“There are so many things out of our control, and we clearly learned that this year,” Smith said. But “if you focus on what you can control, and don’t ever stop believing, anything is possible.”

Acting SCU President Lisa Kloppenberg, whose daughter Kellen is a member of the ’21 graduating class, also addressed the graduates, praising their energy, passion, drive, and creativity.

Yet she urged them to never forget that struggles, and even failure, are natural parts of life. Just as they learned to creatively navigate hurdles during the pandemic, they can do the same when confronting obstacles in the future.

“As that wise woman Oprah has said, ‘Challenges are gifts that force us to search for a new center of gravity. Don’t fight them. Just find a new way to stand.’ You have found your new center of gravity and thrived despite so many shifting circumstances,” Kloppenberg said. “I hope that when you reflect on this this time, you will be proud of your resilience and strength.”

Valedictorian Haley Howard ’21, a political science and ethnic studies double major from San Ramon, California, continued that theme of resilience, encouraging her peers to forge ahead with a spirit of “radical hope.”

“Radical hope is resilient, and we are already very familiar with resilience ourselves,” said Howard. Embracing radical hope, however, also requires taking action. She exhorted her classmates to rise to that challenge in order to create a more just, sustainable, and inclusive world than any before.

“We are entering into a new phase of our lives. How will you use the knowledge that you have gained as a student at Santa Clara University?” she asked them.

“Will you perpetuate current realities and expectations? Or will you be courageous enough to live from a place of radical hope and help transform our collective communities for the better?”

The School of Education and Counseling Psychology, the School of Engineering, and the Leavey School of Business each held separate ceremonies that also were livestreamed for those who were unable to attend. The School of Law and the Jesuit School of Theology, both semester schools, held their commencement events in late May.

About Santa Clara University 
Founded in 1851, Santa Clara University sits in the heart of Silicon Valley—the world’s most innovative and entrepreneurial region. The University’s stunningly landscaped 106-acre campus is home to the historic Mission Santa Clara de Asís. Ranked among the top 15 percent of national universities by U.S. News & World Report, SCU has among the best four-year graduation rates in the nation and is rated by PayScale in the top 1 percent of universities with the highest-paid graduates. SCU has produced elite levels of Fulbright Scholars as well as four Rhodes Scholars. With undergraduate programs in arts and sciences, business, and engineering, and graduate programs in six disciplines, the curriculum blends high-tech innovation with social consciousness grounded in the tradition of Jesuit, Catholic education. For more information see

Two students hugging during Commencement 2021

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