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Dr. Oden’s Commencement Speech

Dean Flanagan and Rev. Dr. Clyde Oden, Jr.
Dean Flanagan and Dr. Oden.

About the Speech

Class of 2024 Commencement Speech: “A Commitment to Justice.”
By Clyde W. Oden, Jr., OD, MPH, MBA, M.Div. (Class of 1968)

May 17, 2024
Hertz Hall, UC Berkeley
Herbert Wertheim School of Optometry & Vision Science

This School has been fortunate to have Dean Flanagan as its leader for the last decade. On behalf of all Alumni of University of California Herbert Wertheim School of Optometry and Vision Science, we appreciate you for your contributions and the excellence of your service. We owe you a debt of gratitude for all you have done.

This is a special moment not only for the graduates, having met the exacting standards set by this university, but also a time to acknowledge their families, loved ones and friends who prayed and shared good thoughts to get to this moment in their lives.

TO THE GRADUATES: You reached the finish line despite unprecedented challenges to normal student life in the last four years. Let me name a few things that have happened outside of your classroom and research laboratories that demanded your attention:

1. THE COVID-19 pandemic: No one, absolutely no one, could have anticipated nor imagined the worldwide destruction caused by this virus and its impact on your studies and clinical development four years ago, but you made it!

2. THERE WERE CIVIL AND POLITICAL DEVELOPMENTS: In the wake of the George Floyd killing, you witnessed and experienced the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement.

3. A COUP ATTEMPT: You had to look up from your studies on January 6, 2021 to watch the attempted coup against our government.

4. The Supreme Court of the United States overturning the Roe v. Wade decision. That action is taking away fundamental rights for women to have agency over their own bodies.

5. THE naked aggression by Russia in its war against the people of Ukraine. In early 2022, the invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing war made the world less safe.

6. Finally, eight months ago, on October 7, 2023, the militant Palestinian group Hamas attacked the people of Israel killing some 1200 Israelis. Those actions ignited an open war involving Israel and the Palestinians who live in Gaza. There have been at least 30,000 Palestinian deaths as a consequence.

All of these issues have made learning more difficult, yet you have completed your studies, concluded your research projects and are being honored with a Doctor of Optometry degree or Ph.D. in Vision Science.

Your journey, however, is not complete. There is more work to do. The areas of justice, the issues of inequality, the stubborn existence of poverty and health disparities, and the glaring underrepresentation of certain racial and ethnic populations at this university and even at this school continue to be challenges that you will need to grapple with as you move forward in your careers and lives.

Nearly 60 years ago when I was graduating from Berkeley, Eldridge Cleaver said to my generation: "There is no more neutrality in the world. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” This principle remains true today. Therefore, as you embark on this new chapter in your lives, you must ask yourselves, what will your legacy be? Will you be part of the problem or part of the solution? There is much work to be done. You are a Herbert Wertheim School of Optometry and Vision Science Graduate. That means a whole lot. You have gravitas. How will society benefit from your new status, doctors? Your voice matters.

The Challenges:
1. Don’t let society define you or put limits on what you can do – and what you can say. Be a fighter, especially for justice. You have a right, if not an obligation, to take a stand – especially for those who cannot speak for themselves.

2. As a clinical practitioner, you are a primary care provider and a front-line health care expert. You have an obligation to engage and treat your patient as a whole person – mind, body, and spirit. You know that you are treating more than just their eyes and their systems of vision and perception – give
your best to all aspects of the individual!

3. When you treat or encounter young people, especially those from an underrepresented population, please encourage them to explore career opportunities in vision care. I would not be standing here today if my personal optometrist did not challenge me, as a high school student, to consider looking into his profession and his alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley. I had never seen, met, or heard of an optometrist who happened to be African American, until he told me about the first African American to graduate from the UC Berkeley’s School of Optometry – Dr. Marvin Poston. His revelation to me changed the trajectory of my life. There is an expression that has much truth to it: “You can’t be what you have never seen.” My optometrist helped me to see something that was beyond my young imagination. You now have the power to do the same

4. YOUR VOICE MATTERS. As either a clinical practitioner or as a vision care scientist, when you see something wrong, say something. In professional circles with your vision care colleagues, in interdisciplinary healthcare – speak up. Let the class of 2024 be known for their commitment for fairness, excellence, and justice.

5. WHEN IT COMES TO ISSUES OF JUSTICE IN HEALTHCARE, LET YOUR VOICES BE HEARD. YOUR VOICE MATTERS. Will you advocate for fairness, equity, inclusion, and bridging the gaps that exist today in healthcare, economics, and power? Will you be a drum major for positive changes in our society, this country, and the world? On February 4, 1968, just three months before I graduated with my OD – I along with the rest of the world heard the last sermon of Dr. Martin Luther King. He talked about what motivated him. I share some of thoughts with you:

“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a
drum major for justice.
“Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for
He went on to say:
“But I just want to leave a committed life behind.”
I am challenging you to become a drum major for justice in health care; a
drum major for equity, fairness, inclusion, and belonging. As a Berkeley
grad, you have a voice – use it!

In Dr. King’s last sermon, and just days before his assassination, he left a challenge that I pass on to you:
“If I can help somebody, as I pass along,
If I can cheer somebody, with a word or song,
If I can show somebody, they are travelling wrong,
Then my living shall not be in vain.
If I can do my duty, as a “BERKELEY GRAD” ought,
If I can bring back beauty, to a world up wrought,
If I can spread love's message, as the Master taught,
Then my living shall not be in vain.”

Class of 2024, go and be a blessing to all humanity. Live a life committed to justice and let that be part of the solution and your legacy. Congratulations and Go Bears!

– Reverend Dr. Clyde W. Oden, Jr.

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