On Behalf of the Class of 2023 - Alexia Salazar-Biagini

Good afternoon graduates, family, friends, and esteemed faculty. It is an honor to be here and speak with you all today.

When I was 20 years old, I had this really weird feeling that I was going to die young. I didn't know where that feeling was coming from, and I just couldn't shake it. Eventually, that feeling got so strong that I emailed my family my death wishes. Burial versus cremation, organ donation, things like that. Less than a week after I sent that email, I was admitted to the Kaiser emergency department because I was having difficulty breathing.

My lungs were shutting down, I was going into septic shock, and the doctors decided they would need to perform an emergency intubation to get me on a ventilator. I remember crying and telling the doctors that I didn't want them to do it because I had heard horror stories of people who were put on a ventilator and never came off. Knowing that I was terrified of what was about to happen, the Doctors sent my mom into the room to try and reassure me. I remember her telling me it was going to be okay and that the machine was going to help me breathe for just a little while so that my lungs could rest. And that she loved me so much. Now, normally when someone is intubated they are given a sedative and then given a paralytic so that a tube can be inserted into their throat. But something went wrong with my IV, and I wasn’t given the sedative first. So I was fully conscious when they injected the paralytic. I remember laying there, unable to move, unable to speak. I was trying so hard to breathe, trying to inhale, but I couldn't. And the very last thought I had before I went unconscious was: I am dying. Something is wrong, and I am dying.

But I woke up. I woke up a day and a half later in the intensive care unit on a ventilator. And I stayed there, on life support for eight days. Now what got me to that point, was my addiction to alcohol. And I wish I could tell you that being on that ventilator was enough of a wake up call for me to make a change in my life. It would certainly make for a better story. But it wasn't. It wasn't enough. I was released from the hospital and I went right back to drinking. And it was constant. I couldn't stay sober long enough to drive myself to community college so I dropped out later that year. I managed to keep a job, but every other waking moment was spent drowning my sorrows and my traumas with alcohol. And that's how I lived for years. But then, after a lot of pushing and prodding from my therapist, I decided to try going back to school. So I enrolled in one class at my community college. Intro to Business - I know, a horrible, horrible choice. I ended up getting an F. I never went to class because I was too busy drinking, and because, let's face it, it was intro to business.

But the next semester I decided to try again. I took one class, and I actually enjoyed it. I liked being back in the classroom and engaging with professors. And I liked how I felt when I learned something new. So I just kept doing it- I baby-stepped my way through my general ed courses, semester after semester. Coming back to education made me feel like the world was opening up in front of me. I felt like maybe my life did have meaning, maybe, somewhere, I had a purpose, and maybe there was a reason that I didn’t die that day in the emergency room. And that gave me the strength to put down the bottle. Finally, at the age of 25, I stopped drinking. And I got sober just in time to apply to college as a transfer student. But I knew, I just knew there was no possible way I was going to be accepted to Berkeley, so I almost didn’t apply. My transcript was a mess and frankly I was still sort of a mess, and I just knew the admissions office would take one look at my application and say no, she does not belong here. But I was wrong.

So when I got that acceptance letter from Berkeley, I decided that was the moment I was going to stop telling myself no. I was going to stop self-selecting out of opportunities. And that has been the theme that I have tried to carry with me throughout my time here at Cal.

The summer before my senior year I had the opportunity to apply for the honors thesis program. On the inside I was telling myself no. No, I can’t do this. I am not smart enough to write a thesis. But I applied anyway, and guess what happened? Yael Plittman and the late Professor Edelman told me yes.

When it came time to apply for an internship with JusticeCorps, that voice inside my head tried to convince me yet again that I shouldn’t even bother. But I did it anyway. And do you know what happened? They told me yes.

Next I was invited to apply for the University Medal. An award bestowed upon the most distinguished graduating senior at UC Berkeley. And again I told myself there’s absolutely no way I’m going to win this award. There is just no way. But I applied anyway. And do you know what happened? They told me no. The selection committee read my application and said thank you very much, but no thank you. And that’s okay, that is going to happen. There are going to be people in your life who sometimes tell you no. But you should never be one of those people. Because the truth is, you will never know who is willing to tell you yes, if you tell yourself no first. Whether it’s an internship, or a job, or a graduate program, I hope you will tell yourself yes. I hope you will chase the opportunities that scare you, and that you will remind yourself that you are strong and capable and worthy, even when you’re feeling the opposite.

And as we enter this new chapter of our lives as college graduates, and we face new obstacles, I hope you remember that adversity is your power, it is your magic. We’ve all walked a different path to get to where we are, right here in this room today, but I know it hasn’t been easy for many of you. I know some of you have white-knuckled your way through college, just trying to keep your head above water. I know some of you have had to balance your education with your family obligations. I know some of you are reentry students who had to step away from your education, and maybe you never thought you’d actually get to experience this moment. I know some of you are struggling with economic instability; maybe you haven’t always had a roof over your head, or maybe you don’t always know where your next meal is coming from. I know some of you have battled mental health issues and personal tragedies. And I know some of you have struggled with addiction, and maybe you feel like you’ll never be free of it.

But despite it all- despite the obstacles you’ve faced and the pain you’ve endured - you made it here. You are about to graduate from one of the most prestigious universities in the world. So, I hope you see all that you are capable of, all that you are worthy of, and I hope you remember to tell yourself yes.

Congratulations to the Class of 2023. This is truly a momentous achievement. Go Bears!