Together again! Undergraduate Class of 2020 celebrates belated commencement

Dean Ann Harrison with 2020 Haas undergrads
Dean Ann Harrison celebrates with the 2020 Haas Business School Association (HBSA) leadership team at a reception in the courtyard following commencement. (Photo: Brittany Hosea-Small)

On Sunday,  some 4,250 undergraduates, including about 230 from Berkeley Haas, returned to Berkeley for a promised Class of 2020 In-Person Commencement at the Greek Theatre. 

For many, the outdoor event — held at 9 a.m., 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., depending on one’s major—served as both a joyful celebration and a reunion after the COVID-19 pandemic forced students to finish senior year with quick, if any, goodbyes, as they finished their classes remotely. 

Ishan Sharma
Ishan Sharma, BS 23, (middle) said the commencement brought closure to his time at Haas.

“The small act of walking across the stage, going to a ceremony, getting the Haas gift bag, meant so much to me,” said Ishan Sharma, BS 20, who worked at McKinsey & Company after graduation and just started a new job at healthcare company Athelas. “It probably took 15 seconds (to cross the stage), but it brought closure to over four years of my time at the university.” 

Sharma and the Haas 2020 undergraduate class were invited to walk the stage with the 9 a.m. group. About 231 members of the 376-member class of 2020 signed up to walk.

Robert Paylor’s journey

Dry eyes were hard to find when former Cal rugby player and 2020 Haas grad Robert Paylor’s name was called. (Watch Cal Athletics video below by Laura Furney)

Told he’d never walk again after suffering a catastrophic injury while playing rugby as a sophomore, Paylor crossed 10 yards of the stage on foot, using only a walker, and received a standing ovation.

“I’m so beyond excited to be able not just to receive my degree, but to be able to physically do this,” said Paylor, who lives in El Dorado Hills and is writing a book about his journey. “This is one of the happiest days of my life.”

Tom Billups, associate head coach of the UC Berkeley rugby team and Paylor’s trainer when he was on campus at Haas, walked behind him as six family members cheered him on. His long-time girlfriend Karsen Welle, walked behind Paylor, receiving her degree in social welfare. She held back tears as Paylor rose from his wheelchair and fellow grads clapped and shot photos and video.

As he left the stage, the crowd roared and Paylor, waved, grinned, and offered a “Go Bears.”

Paylor’s mother, Debbie Paylor, said she was both nervous and excited for her son, who has lived and trained at home with her since the pandemic began. “He’s an inspiration,” she said in an interview before commencement. “His ability to overcome this, it’s an inspiration to me. I don’t think there was a time when I thought he’d give up.”

Robert Paylor crosses the stage at commencement.
Robert Paylor, BS 20, crosses the stage at commencement with the help of Tom Billups, Paylor’s former associate head rugby coach at Cal, who has helped him through rehabilitation. (Photo: Tenny Frost)

After the accident, Paylor underwent intense rehabilitation in Colorado before returning to UC Berkeley to finish his business degree, navigating the hilly Haas campus in his wheelchair.

He hit the gym with Billups for hours each day, measuring each week’s walking improvements in small increments. In October 2017, 16 months after the accident, fans cheered him on at California Memorial Stadium when he walked during the first quarter of the football game.

Paylor’s walking has dramatically improved since that game, Billups said. 

If you go all back to the catastrophic injury, he had no movement from the neck down—hands, fingers, nothing. That was pretty bleak,” he said. “When he walked at the Cal/Oregon game, he used a high walker, but the walker supports his forearms. Now he uses a low profile walker… He’s able to take more steps, more clean steps.”

At Haas, Paylor launched a business as an inspirational speaker, although the pandemic quickly pushed his engagements online, where he speaks to employees of Fortune 500 companies. He’s also started writing a book, which is part memoir, part motivational advice, tentatively titled “Paralyzed and Powerful.”

Robert Paylor at commencement.
“This is one of the happiest days of my life,” – Robert Paylor, BS 20, at commencement. (UC Berkeley photo by Keegan Houser).

“The message is that you look at me and see my challenges, it’s not difficult to see that I have a lot to deal with every day, but everyone has challenges,” he said. “I believe that many people are paralyzed physically or mentally and the tools I use to overcome my challenges can help people in their lives.”  

“I believe that many people are paralyzed physically or mentally and the tools I use to overcome my challenges can help people in their lives.”  

For the past year, Paylor has been executive director of The Big C Society, an organization representing 14,000 Cal varsity athletics letter holders. Paylor said he’s honored to be part of the history and tradition of The Big C Society, which was founded in 1908. 

“Coach Clark and Coach Billups came to the hospital after my injury and gave me that Cal letter,” he said. “The meaning of the letter is something I really care about so I immediately said yes.”

For achieving what some believed wasn’t possible, Paylor’s undergraduate community chose him to receive the Question the Status Quo award, one of the school’s four Defining Leadership Principles.

“While many may have treated that prognosis as an insurmountable challenge, Robert chose the path of perseverance, as he can now walk using his walker and graduated from the Haas School of Business,” said Steve Etter, who teaches finance at Haas and mentors student athletes. “His story has inspired thousands and serves as a living example that our limits are not determined by what others say we can do.”

Mia Character and Jordyn Elliot, both Defining Leadership Principles award winners, at commencement.
Mia Character (left) and Jordyn Elliot, both Defining Leadership Principles award winners, at commencement. Photo: Brittany Hosea-Small

Award winners named

At a separate Haas undergraduate reception held in the school’s Courtyard at noon Sunday, Dean Ann Harrison congratulated the graduates and introduced Etter, who served as master of ceremonies, celebrating each 2020 award winner, including: 

Departmental Citation winner (which goes to the student with the most outstanding academic achievement in the field of business): Cubbie Christina Kile, who graduated with a 4.0 while serving as a coxswain for the Women’s Rowing team. She was also a student athlete tutor, managed the Men’s Swimming team and was a member of Sigma Kappa Sorority. An analyst at Altamont Capital Partners, she recently closed her first deal, Intermix, a carve out from Gap, Inc.

Cubbie Kile
Steve Etter, who teaches finance at Haas and mentors student athletes, hands Cubbie Kile the Departmental Citation. Photo: Brittany Hosea-Small.

The Defining Leadership Principles awards followed, including (in addition to Paylor):

Students Always:  Mia Character, whose nominator wrote: “Mia constantly strived to learn from others around race and ethnicity, and challenged herself to re-investigate her own beliefs as a marginalized person of color, striving to dig deeper on intent, while NOT tamping down the impact on her. She shared her vulnerabilities and self-challenges out loud in class, thereby inspiring others to do the same.”

Beyond Yourself: Kiara Taylor, whose nominator wrote: “Kiara made it her mission to make students attending California community colleges feel confident about transferring to Haas. Through the “Envision Haas” transfer outreach program, Taylor invited Haas transfer students with non-traditional backgrounds to speak to prospective transfer students, empowering both parties.”

Confidence Without Attitude: Jordyn Elliott. “Without asking, no one would know that Jordyn was a Soccer Team Captain at UC Berkeley and a graduating senior from the Haas School,” her nominator wrote.  “After watching her lead the case team for the National Diversity Case Competition in Indiana, it was clear she understood the principle of Confidence without Attitude.”

Berkeley News editor Gretchen Kell contributed to this story.

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