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The Tassel Well Worth the Hassle : UCI Ceremony Takes on Degree of Fun for Beach Ball-Bouncing, Tortilla-Tossing Grads

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thousands of parents, friends and well-wishers flocked to Aldrich Park at the heart of UC Irvine on Saturday to cheer more than 4,000 students at graduation ceremonies that challenged them to tackle the world’s problems and defy the stereotype of twentysomethings as slackers.

“They call us the generation with no heroes, no direction and no style, but do we believe the doubters? No,” said Nguyen-Hong Hoang, UCI’s first-ever Harry S. Truman scholar and the student speaker for the graduating school of social sciences.

“We are the generation that resembles the butterfly, the generation unnoticed in its cocoon. We will emerge from that cocoon and soar higher and more majestically than any generation has done before us.”

Her classmate, David Kesselman, traced the changes the world has undergone since his class entered the university: from the end of the Cold War to a more localized dilemma--the 100% increase in tuition fees.

Kesselman, president of the Associated Students of UC Irvine, called on fellow students to address the “many problems facing this country and this world.”

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Between speakers, students decked out in black gowns and mortarboards flung tortillas in the air (“They’re cheap and fly good,” a campus police officer quipped) and swatted at a beach ball. One waved a sign that read “Free O.J.,” in honor of the football hero arrested on suspicion of murder, and decorated his cap with the words “Damn It’s Hot.”

But the mood was largely reflective as students took the stage in three ceremonies Saturday--one for bioscience, engineering and physical science students; a second for the school of social science; and a third for students of fine arts, humanities, computer science, social ecology and interdisciplinary studies.

Graduates ranged from the 12-year-old Masoud Karkehadadi--a child genius whose lab work may be unlocking the mysteries of Parkinson’s disease--to 72-year-old Margaret Jones, who returned to school for a bachelor’s degree in social science after a 50-year lapse.

Jones started her college schooling in Berkeley, but World War II and the raising of five children interfered.

“I wouldn’t do anything differently, except to tell young people to finish what they started,” said Jones, who belongs to a UC Irvine group of returning students called “The Oasis.”

About 3,400 UCI seniors graduated Saturday, along with 640 graduate students. The 29th graduating class is the most ethnically diverse of any at UCI, a campus spokeswoman said. Campus police estimated that 30,000 people attended the day’s events.

But 22-year-old September Whitmire, an African American political science student from Huntington Beach, said she still found the Irvine campus frustrating at times.

“There were lot of trials, a lot of tribulations. A lot of people are not open to diversity,” she said.

For some students, prospects of a new independence were dampened by the specter of unemployment.

“I think there’s a universal apprehension that you’re not going to get a job,” said Kelly Root, 21, a political science graduate from Hacienda Heights. “I just got a note from my dad’s insurance company saying I’m no longer on his health insurance plan. It’s a bit scary coming out from under Mom and Dad’s wing.”

The thought crossed some other minds as well: Parents returned to their cars to find flyers under their windshield wipers advertising low health insurance rates for their newly independent offspring.

Some students, however, were less concerned with financial stability.

Alex Blank, 22, of New Jersey graduated Saturday with a degree in economics. He plans to take the summer and drive across the country in his 1977 Dodge van, adorned with mounted bullhorns, and peddle the adult videos that helped put him through school.

And when he comes back?

“I’m looking to start my own business--a Philadelphia cheese steak restaurant, probably in Anaheim,” he said.

The day was a milestone for many parents, who waited eagerly throughout the ceremony bearing bouquets of flowers and bunches of congratulatory balloons.

About 30 relatives came from San Diego and the Los Angeles area to watch Asbed Tatoulian graduate.

“I’m proud, very happy,” said his father, the Rev. Datev Tatoulian of St. John Armenian Apostolic Church in San Diego. He also has two daughters, one in junior college.

“It’s not easy financially. We are really sacrificing a lot, but we believe in education,” he said. “It’s a victory and a day of joy--a day to be proud.”

John Forstrom’s family abandoned their spot in the shade for a few quick moments to cluster closer to the stage and whoop for the political science major from Thousand Oaks.

“He got his cheer!” said his mother, Marlene Forstrom. “We were afraid he wasn’t here because we couldn’t find him at first. We were going to be real upset if we came and he didn’t.”


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