Interviews with Commencement’s 2020 Senior Speakers

Julia Caterson, Edward Kuperman, Curran Seth and Dylan Sunjic discuss their writing process and advice for the senior class 


Bright and early on May 31st, elected speakers of the 2020 senior class delivered speeches on the Dickey Field stage. Student Forum president, Edward Kuperman ’20, introduced the senior class and welcomed friends and family. Dylan Sunjic ’20 presented the class gift to the Endowed Alumni Scholarship Fund and Julia Caterson ’20 read her Commencement poem. Lastly, class president, Curran Seth ’20, delivered the Commencement Oration. Through advice and shared experiences, each speaker celebrated the senior class and looked towards a bright future. The Fanfare interviewed each senior speaker to learn about their writing process, central themes and adaptations to COVID-19 circumstances.


Q: How was your writing process? Did you have any set goals for how you wanted to write or deliver your speech?


A: (Julia) Honestly, I wrote the poem very last minute so I didn’t have the most traditional writing process. I basically threw my ideas down on the page the hour before submissions were due. I knew I wanted to design my poem around a Hemingway quote that I had written an essay on in Honors English 11, which focuses on the gradual and sudden nature of life. As I worked with Ms. Alexander later in the revision process, we focused on shaping the poem in a way that would revisit the most entertaining and influential aspects of each year of high school at Berkeley.


A: (Edward) I would say it was actually fairly straightforward. It was a little bit different than what I usually write such as my address in the yearbook that had a more personal touch and was more directly from me. But in the speech for commencement, I wanted to capture the spirit of our class and just give a positive message for this time period. It was almost easier to tap into that and write from the perspective of what we’re all feeling and hoping for moving forward than spending time searching for the perfect anecdotes.


A: (Dylan) Yeah, so I was chosen by my classmates, which was really an honor. Honestly, I didn’t really expect it, but [I] was just so happy getting pulled into the office and being told that I was going to give the class gift graduation speech. And so I was planning on writing it before spring break, and I procrastinated. Then I thought about writing it during spring break and I procrastinated. After spring break, I had a few ideas but I mostly wanted it to be influential because I’ve looked at certain speeches from the past, especially class gift speeches and they’re very generic, and they don’t give a lot of substance and [it seems] not a lot of time was put into them. So I really wanted to make mine a bit more special for my class, especially because we’ve been through these unprecedented times. So, my goal in my speech was for it to give a takeaway that people didn’t really think about and the kind of a perspective that people didn’t really focus on prior to it. And really, I just wanted to meet the deadline and give the best speech that I could within the four hundred word limit.


A: (Curran) Well, my first draft I completely scrapped. I had a lot of thoughts that I wanted to share without even knowing fully what they were myself. So my first draft ended up being this sort of rambling nonsense advice page where I couldn’t find a central theme. And then after talking to Mrs. McLean, I sat down and I thought about not just what I wanted to share but what I really wanted everybody who was sitting there to listen to that day. I no longer wanted them to learn anything; I just wanted them to listen to something and be motivated moving forward and that’s kind of where I settled and found the theme of the final draft. 


Q: Graduation speeches both celebrate past successes as a unified senior class but also address letting go and moving on to the next stages- How did you balance these themes within your speech?


A: (Julia) The theme of the poem explores how the last four years seem to have flown by, but in order to face the suddenness of life we must focus on the gradual meaning that has brought us to this “sudden” point of graduating. The poem then advises the audience to hold on to this perspective of focusing on the gradual in the future, as the future always seems so suddenly impeding, but we must focus on the many gradual experiences that make up our life.


A: (Edward) My speech focused on how high school is our foundation, and it’s always going to be with us and unshakable, especially because of the experience that we’ve had in Berkeley. However, it’s really just four years and although it will always play a role, it’s not going to be determinative of everything that we’re going to be able to do in the world, especially this last semester with all the challenges of adapting to Coronavirus. I think the success that we’ve had in adapting to these unknown circumstances is an example of how highschool has given us the ability to adapt and to prepare and to accomplish so many things that we’ll be able to do outside. My speech is really focused on welcoming us all to the idea that we’re going to be beyond Berkeley now  and that the foundation and our friendships are going to be there forever, but they’re really just the precursor to more amazing things that we’re all going to be able to do.


A: (Dylan) A lot of these speeches start off like a song, where it’s reflective and then changes to be a bit more optimistic throughout the course of it. I felt like mine was similar in that way, as it started off reflecting on certain experiences that we’ve had and became more optimistic near the end or more grateful. I didn’t want to do the common theme of remembering the past and getting excited for the future, as I wanted us to appreciate the present and spend less time just trying to remember the past because I feel like everyone will since it’s a big part of everyone’s experience at Berkeley. It was important for me to remind everyone how special the Berkeley community is and how we have an opportunity to change our story and be the unique class that is undergoing this, since most likely no other class will have some sort of outbreak that’s going to stop their senior year. I wanted to be more focused on the present and make sure everyone appreciated it for its value.


A: (Curran) It was interesting, as there was a lot I wanted to say and a lot that I felt like my peers deserved to hear. But in the end, I wanted one message that was like a ringing of the bell at the end of a race—something to signify that it is the end of this adventure but the beginning of a very much bigger one. I got there by sitting and talking to myself until it became a coherent narrative. Working with Mrs. McLean, I made it into a legitimate speech that could voice my message.


Q: With the current situation of COVID-19, there is a pressure and expectation to address its setbacks within your speech. How can we maintain an optimistic tone despite current circumstances and how did you accomplish that within your speech?


A: (Julia) Ms. Alexander and other members of faculty and administration worked with me to determine whether or not I should manipulate the poem due to recent events. The poem was written in January, so it holds a certain nostalgia for the senior class. Ultimately, we chose to only make minor adjustments in order to uphold the upbeat tone of the poem and prove the point that the recent pandemic does not define all the great memories of the last four years for the class of 2020.


A: (Edward) That’s tough right now, especially because a lot of things that we have to celebrate are not going to address Coronavirus, since we are trying to maintain a normal graduation environment despite circumstances. Also, I think that it’s important to acknowledge coronavirus and take coronavirus as a unique phenomenon. I wanted to convey how this graduating class is different and how we can use this experience as something that makes us uniquely capable of making a positive difference in the world. 


A: (Dylan) I love to write and I take a lot of pride in my writing, so I knew I wanted to talk about what I’ve been thinking about and believe in. You can ask any senior right now and they would tell you that these times are really tough because you just think about all the activities that you’re missing and you realize that you won’t get a second chance when it comes to this. This is kind of like your one and done . . . senior year, but I felt like it was important to think about all the things that Berkeley has done for us throughout this process because it really wasn’t necessary for them to take all these steps. I know because I have a lot of friends in the public school system and their schools didn’t really do anything, and here we got all these yard signs and we got all these events, even a graduation. It’s important for us to stay grateful for this opportunity and at the end of the day it is what it is. You can’t really change the nature of the situation, but you can try to improve yourself and your outlook on it. I think the best way to overcome these challenges is to stay positive throughout the entire process.


A: (Curran) When I sat down to write, the first thing on my mind was that at some point I’m going to have to mention the pandemic and how it affected me. If I had full autonomy, I probably wouldn’t have ever mentioned it. As important as it is here, I feel like the lessons that are learned from COVID-19 or online school are the same lessons you learn every single day. You are constantly learning what to do yourself as an individual when you are in a situation with no control or unpredictability. It’s how you react that matters, and it’s how you learn to react in these moments. That’s a very important part of not only high school but also growing up in general. I didn’t actually have to work very hard to make a point out of that, as I felt like I could very briefly address COVID-19 in the situation and everybody would understand that my real universal point is about perseverance no matter the circumstance.


Q: Do you have any last words of advice for the Senior class, their family members or any other students?


A: (Julia) Every member of the class of 2020 understands the importance of taking advantage of each day in high school. Our days were cut far too early. We will never experience our senior prom or senior kindergarten picnic, but the class of 2020 has not let the last couple months define us and has continued to take advantage of the last days of our senior year. This has truly shown our grade’s resilience. No one wished our time at Berkeley would end this way, but it has shown us how strong we are as a class, and I hope we take that strength into our future.


A: (Edward) My mom  always jokes with me how coronavirus for us has been fine because I’ve been spending more time with family. Obviously, it’s a huge tragedy but you have to look on the bright side of things and see where you can find silver linings. For me, it’s been spending time with my family. Staying socially distant, doesn’t always mean that you should sacrifice the things that are important to you .We have a unique job in navigating that’s been harder than other other years but greatness is born out of adversity. I’m super proud of my class and of everyone at Berkeley for finding ways to do greater and greater things, even under changing circumstances.


A: (Dylan) It reminds me of a quote I saw on Instagram from a really good book. The quote is from a disabled runner who was running in the Paralympics and he said how the only disability in life is a bad attitude. I really think that quote can carry us through this because what we’re experiencing as both parents and seniors, is something unprecedented. It’s something challenging, but if we shouldn’t view it as a negative point in our lives for then we won’t understand it as a growing experience; it won’t help us to improve as individuals. I think what we’ve gotten from this whole coronavirus situation is something to learn from and improve from and something to take to our college years and beyond that. I want people to understand that the best things come through adversity. The toughest and most valuable lessons you learn from the craziest scenarios and the craziest situations. I feel like this time period can teach us a lot about ourselves about the world around us and we can use that to improve.


A: (Curran) One thing I wish I could’ve included was to keep an open mind to other people’s perspective. I mean having an open mind to understand other people’s perspectives. I feel like a lot of the time, there is just a real lack of understanding with another person. Things get blown out of proportion a lot and watching it makes me sad to see people get very worked up over things that could very easily be fixed in my opinion. I think that part of that is just putting yourself in other people’s shoes, as best as you can. I mean legitimately trying to understand their thinking and not dismissing them as being annoying or any other reason. Trying to understand other people will make the world a lot less harsh and a lot more tolerable. But yeah, this message didn’t really fit with the speech’s theme, and I didn’t want to keep everyone there for hours. 


WHAT IS BERKELEY: Curran Seth ’20 calls the class of 2020 not a grade, but a community and a family. (Photo by Rachel Mintz)


WHAT AN EXPERIENCE: Class of 2020 announces that their senior gift will be the Berkeley Experience itself, donating their funds from break sales and other savings to be put towards scholarships for students who cannot afford Berkeley’s cost otherwise. (Photo by Rachel Mintz)


Links to Speeches:


Class of 2020 Welcome

Class of 2020 Poem

Class of 2020 Gift

Class of 2020 Oration