Commencement speaker Wally Adeyemo followed a remarkable road to leadership

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Thursday, April 15, 2021

On a solemn late-summer afternoon in 2001, just a few days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, UC Berkeley student body president Wally Adeyemo stood with campus leaders on the steps of Doe Library and offered consolation and hope to the grief-stricken campus community.

Jenny Kwon, his friend since the early days of their freshman year, was among the 12,000 people on Memorial Glade that day, listening to insights that Adeyemo had drawn from the Bible and from history, and to his eloquent appeal that they should rise above anger and the desire for retribution.

“It was just very powerful,” Kwon recalled recently. “It seemed clear, even then — he’s going to be someone.”

Now, nearly 20 years later, Adeyemo is the deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, and he will speak to a new generation of Berkeley students: graduates of the Class of 2021.

University officials announced today that Adeyemo will be the commencement speaker at the 2021 graduation ceremony, scheduled for Saturday, May 15 starting at 9 a.m.

Because the COVID-19 pandemic makes a traditional commencement impossible again this spring, his address, and the entire ceremony, will be a virtual celebration. The celebration will be livestreamed — a fitting coda after three semesters of lockdowns, social distancing and remote learning — and posted for posterity on YouTube.

An immigrant family’s search for opportunity

Adewale Adeyemo was born in Ibadan, the capital city of Oyo state in southwestern Nigeria, and he was a baby when his parents emigrated with their three children to the U.S. His mother was a nurse and his father a teacher, and they instilled in him a commitment to hard work and public service and an understanding that education is a pathway to opportunity.

Those values helped propel Adeyemo to remarkable achievements — and he’s still not quite 40. From his hometown east of Los Angeles and from Berkeley, he made a leap to positions of rare influence and impact: director of African American outreach in California for Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. Senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew in the administration of President Barack Obama. Chief negotiator for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and first chief of staff of the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. First president of the Obama Foundation.

Today, he serves as the No. 2 leader at the Treasury Department, working under Secretary Janet Yellen, a longtime Berkeley faculty member who has served in some of the nation’s most powerful economic policy positions. Adeyemo is known for his ability to understand the span of thinking and values across the political spectrum.

In an interview this week, Adeyemo reflected on his years at Berkeley, saying that they had a deep influence on his career and his service.

He arrived in 1999, just a few years after Prop. 209 ended affirmative action in California. His initial impressions? Berkeley was huge. And Telegraph Avenue was “like another planet” — a planet that worried his parents, at first.

As he settled in, though, a deeper impression took shape: Few of his fellow students or teachers looked like him. Few shared his immigrant experience.

“I had come from a high school where the vast majority of students were people of color,” he said. “As a person who’s 18, you sort of put things together, and you realize that there’s something going on here that’s bigger than me.”

But he began to make friends, and to find inspiration in Berkeley’s academic riches.

“I remember taking Astro 10 (Introduction to General Astronomy) with Alex Filippenko, and … thinking about the nature of the universe in a way that a kid who had grown up east of Los Angeles never would have,” Adeyemo recalled. “I took classes from world-famous professors like Leon Litwak (an eminent historian in slavery and post-slavery Black experience) and sitting there and feeling like you were exposed to something that was truly special.”

From an early age, aware that history is watching

Adeyamo was elected president of the Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC) at Berkeley for the 2001-2002 school year, and in that position, he dealt with student housing and sparred with student journalists, much like ASUC presidents past and future. But the attacks of 9/11 required a more profound leadership, something to reflect the voice and the heart of the student community.

“We cannot let the spirit of terrorism blow out our lights of hope, compassion and love,” he told the crowd assembled that afternoon on Memorial Glade. “If we allow our lights to be smothered by those that promote terrorism, we will have allowed them to take more than our buildings.

“History will not judge us based on how we mourn the dead, but rather based on how we respond after the dead are buried.”

His friend Jenny Kwon — after serving in the UC Berkeley Chancellor’s Office, she’s now assistant chancellor/dean and chief of staff to the chancellor at UC Hastings College of the Law — saw in that speech a harbinger of his future leadership, but Adeyemo says he had no sense of it. He imagined he would follow his father’s footsteps into education, perhaps with a focus on education policy.

But his early thinking about inequities in education led him to think more about economics, and how wealth and poverty lead to gaps in students’ learning and future lives. At the same time, his core values were taking shape: Whether he was in a dorm room debating with friends or focusing on critical issues in student government, he was learning the power of listening.

“Being able to hear — and not just hear, but actually listen to the arguments or the concerns of someone who disagrees with you, both strengthens your arguments and helps you think differently about the outcomes you’re trying to reach,” he said.

A question for graduates: Where do we go from here?

While he felt small and isolated in his earliest days at Berkeley, by the time of his graduation in 2004 he had come to understand that, even as an immigrant and a person of color, he could fashion his own power to engage, act and influence.

His parents had come from Nigeria in search of opportunity, and he knew other students of immigrant families who shared that story. For them, Berkeley was a microcosm where the American idea could come to life.

“Ultimately,” he explained, “it’s an idea about a country where people who look different, who come from different places, can turn into a community, and a country.

Regardless of my last name, or where I was from, or what I look like, I, too, played a role in shaping the community I was in,” he recalls now. “I had an opportunity and the ability to make the place better, to improve the place. And learning that at Berkeley played a real role in me believing deeply that I could do that wherever I was — in law school, or at Treasury or at the White House.”

Adeyemo’s commencement address is still taking shape, but he’s preoccupied with a question: How do we transform the acute challenges of this moment in history into future progress for all people?

We’re exiting — it’s not even a once-in-a-generation challenge, but a once-in-a-millennium challenge, in terms of COVID-19,” he said. “Historically, our country has responded to these challenges by doing great things on the back end. Think about what happened after World War II. And so, where do we go from here?

“People affiliated with Cal have a deep belief in the importance of service. I want to talk to students about what it would look like for them … to provide service in their communities, and what it would look like for them to help change our future.”

Story by Edward Lempinen

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