Faculty Share Thoughts on Speaking at Commencement

With a hand in the air, a male graduate strides between two lines of faculty members shaking pompoms and clappers.
Lines of faculty members shake pompoms and clappers to celebrate graduates after they cross the stage at an undergraduate commencement in Sacramento's Golden 1 Center in June 2023. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

Debbie Fetter read the emailed invitation and couldn’t contain her joy. 

“I literally yelled and immediately called my husband,” she said.

An assistant professor of teaching in the Department of Nutrition in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Fetter is one of five faculty members asked to speak at commencement ceremonies this weekend. Nearly 7,000 graduating students and thousands more of their guests are expected to attend five undergraduate commencements at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

“The thought of speaking to such a large audience terrifies me, but I knew I had to do it,” said Fetter, who will address the 2 p.m. ceremony on Friday (June 14). “Graduation marks the end of an era and a new beginning, and I’m excited to share this moment with our graduating students.”

The other four faculty speakers are:

  • June 14, 9 a.m. — Jay Stachowicz, professor of evolution and ecology in the College of Biological Sciences
  • June 15, 9 a.m. — Colleen E. Bronner, associate professor of teaching in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, College of Engineering
  • June 15, 2 p.m. — Russ Hovey, professor of animal science in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences
  • June 16, 9 a.m. — Janine L.F. Wilson, associate professor of teaching economics in the College of Letters and Science

The speakers have hearts for undergraduates, are beloved by their students and have been honored for their teaching. 

Debbie Fetter stands in front of a slide with cartoon images of green vegetables.
Debbie Fetter, an assistant professor of teaching in the nutrition department, says it’s OK for graduates to still be figuring things out. She says life is about experiences and trying new things. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

Debbie Fetter

Fetter, originally from New York state, considers herself a “Super Aggie” because she came to UC Davis in 2008 for her undergraduate degree, earned a doctorate here in 2018, and never left. 

She said she will use her speech to reassure graduates that it’s OK to still be figuring things out. “Life is all about experiences and trying new things,” she said. 

Maybe veggies are among those things? Fetter teaches one of most popular courses on campus, Nutrition 10, and said she is passionate about helping students and others make healthier nutrition and lifestyle choices. Yes, she said about her speech, “There may also be pieces of nutrition wisdom, and I hope to land a joke (or two).”

Because nutrition can have a major impact on someone’s quality of life, Fetter said, she tries to bring nutrition science to life in the classroom and even creates assignments that allow students to make real health-related change.

“The other month a student who took my class five years ago saw me in a parking lot and yelled out that he’s been eating his veggies ever since Nutrition 10 — that sort of thing makes my day!” Fetter added. 

Jay Stachowicz walks in front of a classroom chalkboard
Professor Jay Stachowicz of the College of Biological Sciences is the recipient of the UC Davis Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Achievement in 2023. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis) 

Jay Stachowicz

This academic year, Stachowicz was celebrated as the recipient of the UC Davis Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Achievement.

With some self-deprecating humor and seriousness at the same time, the marine ecologist said he doubts his words will be remembered. “The people are there mostly to hear their student’s (or friend’s) name called and celebrate their accomplishments,” he said. “Hopefully, I can deliver some remarks that in tone and voice reflect the pride of the faculty and the university in our graduates and their accomplishments.”

Stachowicz, who has taught at UC Davis since 2000, noted the occasion for honoring graduates is called commencement because it is a beginning and not a conclusion. “In five years, many of them will be in jobs they’ve not heard of right now, and in 15 years, they will be in careers that don’t even currently exist.

“There is a world of opportunity out there,” he continued, “and bright, creative hard-working people will always find their way.

“So don’t stress too much about what that first job is. Just get yourself started in something and always be on the lookout for new opportunities.”

Like Fetter, Stachowicz said it is rewarding when graduates reach out years later and let him know the impact he has had on them. “It reminds me why this is (in my view) the best job in the world.”

Janine L.F. Wilson stands behind a glass learning board with turquoise graphs on it.
Janine L.F. Wilson, associate professor of teaching economics, said the class of 2024 is “a group of strong, resilient, passionate graduates.” (UC Davis photo)

Janine L.F. Wilson

“There are so many thoughts I would like to share with the graduates, but I will do my best to keep it to the five minutes allotted,” Wilson said about her upcoming commencement speech.

She said she wants to communicate how happy she is for this year’s graduates and how thrilled she is for the world that they are joining the workforce. “This is a group of strong, resilient, passionate graduates, and UC Davis is so lucky to have had them participate in the shaping of our institution,” she added.

Wilson, who earned her master’s and doctoral degrees at UC Davis, has taught here for nearly 20 years. She strives to create a productive and positive environment for undergraduate education in the economics department. She works with faculty to develop curriculum to prepare students for their chosen field, and she advises student clubs. She also co-chairs the committee that puts on an annual university-wide conference for scholarship in teaching innovation.

About the class of 2024, she said they are particularly engaged in creating communities of support for each other. “It is exciting to think about how this network will help each of them find and create opportunities for themselves and their fellow Aggies in the future.” 

LeShelle May presents award to Colleen Bronner.
LeShelle May presents Colleen E. Bronner, associate professor of teaching in the College of Engineering, with the 2023 Women and Philanthropy Impact Award in November. (José Luis Villegas/UC Davis) 

Colleen E. Bronner

Bronner, who serves as vice chair for undergraduate studies in her department, is passionate about recruiting and retaining historically underrepresented groups in engineering as well as strategies for improving learning. 

In November, she was presented with UC Davis’ 2023 Women & Philanthropy Impact Award for advancing opportunities for women and significantly benefiting local and global university communities. More recently, she received an award for outstanding teaching from the Pacific Southwest Section of the American Society for Engineering Education.

Bronner, who has been at UC Davis nine years, said her speech will ask students to use both the academic and nonacademic lessons they learned at UC Davis to work on problems of social injustice and climate change. “By facilitating dialogue on difficult, sensitive topics and celebrating how diversity makes us stronger, our students can practice what they have observed at UC Davis beyond campus borders,” she said.

Bronner said she understands that graduation time can be overwhelming for students. “I want them to know there is always room to change their path or take a new detour,” she said. “I see students put so much pressure on themselves to make the ‘right’ decision, but in reality there are many ‘right’ decisions.”

Wearing an academic gown, Professor Russ Hovey is seated atop his Morgan horse, Red.
Professor Russ Hovey rode his horse onto the front steps of Mrak Hall to open a virtual ceremony celebrating the graduates of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences in 2020. (UC Davis photo)

Russ Hovey

Will Hovey have his dog at his side when he speaks at commencement? Wait and see.

The animal science professor features Sunny The Wonder Dog in his Dog ’n Doc videos, designed to help students in his introductory course on domesticated animals. Sunny also accompanies Hovey to classes, where students are challenged to teach her new tricks while appreciating that they, too, can learn new things with a positive growth mindset.

It was Hovey’s Morgan horse, Red, that carried him to center stage — onto the steps of Mrak Hall — for a virtual, makeup ceremony for Agricultural and Environmental Sciences when the pandemic cancelled in-person commencements in 2020. Organizing the event is one of the things he’s most proud of. “I couldn’t bear the thought of having students not have some sort of ceremony and recognition of accomplishment,” he said. 

Noting it is both an honor and responsibility he is taking very seriously, Hovey plans to speak on “seeking inspiration” and “being inspirational.”

Known for inspiring students, Hovey received the 2023 Excellence in College and University Teaching Awards for Food and Agricultural Sciences, presented by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

For Hovey, undergraduates are a form of his family. He is the lead faculty advisor for about 1,400 students in the animal science major. He also teaches the large introductory animal science class and a senior course on lactation physiology as well as having some undergraduates work in his Laboratory of Mammary Gland Biology.

“Oftentimes, I have shared all four years of their degree with students, not only as a professor but also as an academic advisor,” Hovey said. “Graduation is very much the moment when students spread their wings and leave the nest.”

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