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Davis, California

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Spring commencement speakers include CA Surgeon General, College District Chancellor, NASA Astronaut

Distinguished alumni announced as speakers

Among the many distinguished UC Davis alumni, three were announced as speakers for the campus’ undergraduate commencements in June. Nadine Burke Harris, California’s first surgeon general; Francisco Rodriguez, chancellor of the Los Angeles Community College District and Tracy Caldwell Dyson, a NASA astronaut, will speak to the thousands of graduates and guests at the UC Davis Health Stadium on June 12, 13 and 14 respectively. 

Traditionally, seven commencement ceremonies were held each year at UC Davis: three for the College of Letters and Science, two for the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, one each for the College of Biological Sciences and for the College of Engineering. The seven commencements have been condensed into three – with the distinguished speakers each speaking at one – and majors from each of the four colleges will be represented at each of the ceremonies. 

The selection and invitation of these prominent speakers are among the university’s changes to spring undergraduate commencement announced in April to celebrate UC Davis as a whole as a leading public university.

“A committee of students, faculty and staff made recommendations to the chancellor based on the suggestions that came from a variety of sources,” said Julia Ann Easley, a news and media relations specialist for UC Davis. “The chancellor then made a final decision based on the top recommendations.” 

The selected speakers have made strides in the fields of public health, education and engineering. 

Burke Harris earned her medical degree from UC Davis in 2001 and was appointed Surgeon General of California in Jan. 2019 by Governor Gavin Newsom. As a clinician, researcher and author, Burke Harris advocates for educating people on how Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, negatively impact patients’ health. In 2018, she released her first book The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity. 

She has helped to pioneer the treatment of toxic stress through projects such as the Center for Youth Wellness, which focuses on risk screening, care coordination and multidisciplinary treatment. As surgeon general, she has worked to implement a California law in partnership with the state Department of Health Care Services that offers reimbursement to MediCal providers for ACE screening, including abuse and neglect, to promote further research on toxic stress. 

While in medical school, Burke Harris also served as co-director for UC Davis’ student-run Imani Clinic. 

Rodriguez earned a bachelor’s degree in Chicano studies in 1985 and a master’s degree in community development in 1997 from UC Davis. He currently serves as a chancellor of the Los Angeles Community College District, the largest community college district in the nation. In his 30 years of experience as an educator, faculty member and administrator within the California public higher education system, Rodriguez has dedicated his career to championing diversity, outreach and equitable education policies for underserved groups such as undocumented students and student-veterans. He has also been involved with many boards and committees such as director of the Board of Higher Education; Workforce of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine and the California Association of Latino Community College Trustees and Administrators Association (CALCCTA), to name a few. 

Additionally, he served as a past president of the Cal Aggie Alumni Association and director of the UC Davis Foundation Board. Rodriguez said he was honored for the opportunity to return to UC Davis to share his words to graduating students on his experiences.

“I am deeply appreciative of Chancellor May and the university for extending this invitation [and] I am looking forward to returning to campus to connect with students,” Rodriguez said. 

As far as the content of the commencement speech, Rodriguez said he plans to incorporate general themes that are both practical and inspirational, drawing from his perspective as a first-generation college student from an immigrant family with no history of higher education. 

“I also initially struggled to find and embrace my calling, my profession – that is, how I could understand and use this powerful tool called higher education to do good work and to make an impact in this world,” Rodriguez said. “I believe that one of the most important leadership traits that one can achieve is resilience, so I will give some reflections on this purposeful act and necessary determination to overcome obstacles and to always move forward.”

The final commencement speaker is Dyson, who earned her doctorate in chemistry from UC Davis and recognized by the university as the outstanding doctoral student in chemistry in 1997. She was selected as an astronaut for NASA in 1998. She was part of two spaceflights – serving as a mission specialist in 2007 and flight engineer in 2010, with three spacewalks the latter expedition. Her work included designing, constructing and implementing electronics and hardware in the study of atmospheric gas phase chemistry and presenting papers on chemical ionization. She was awarded the NASA Go the Extra Mile (GEM) Award in 2001 and the Distinguished Service Medal in 2010. 

Easley expressed excitement on having these speakers to introduce the university’s new commencement structure. 

“They are very accomplished alumni who are making an impact in our world – and beyond!” Easley said. “They will help launch these new ceremonies in a wonderful way as new UC Davis traditions begin.”

Written by: Graschelle Fariñas Hipolito — campus@theaggie.org


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