UC Davis Student Commencement Speakers Share Remarkable Journeys

Caroline Williams stands in front of dairy cows at a trough.
Caroline Williams, who commuted to UC Davis from Sacramento, regularly parked near the dairy to have a few peaceful moments with the cows before heading to class. The single mother will graduate with a Bachelor of Science in human development—children and families across the lifespan specialization. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

Just talking about her upcoming graduation had UC Davis student Caroline Williams dabbing tears from her eyes. “I told myself I wasn’t going to cry at commencement,” she said with a smile that acknowledged what is surely a lost cause.

The single mother is one of the five students — including the chair of Picnic Day 2023, the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, a coder dedicated to doing good, and the founder of a community nonprofit — selected to address the university’s undergraduate commencements at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento Friday through Sunday (June 14-16).

We’ll introduce you to all of them: Williams of Winters, Nishi Bhagat of Fremont, Laicee Brown of Pinole, Jesse Goodman of Pleasanton, and Sonora Slater of Grass Valley, all from Northern California communities.

9 a.m. on Sunday, June 16 — Caroline Williams, Bachelor of Science in human development—children and families across the lifespan specialization. 

It will be the first graduation for Williams — but in her case, not because the pandemic canceled so many high school ceremonies in 2020. Now 37, she didn’t do well enough to be included in her middle-school promotion ceremony. She dropped out of high school. And it took her five tries, beginning in 2005, to earn the credits at Sacramento City College, not for an associate degree, but for admission to UC Davis as a transfer student in 2022.

Among the thousands of fellow students and guests listening to Williams will be her 8-year-old daughter, Amelia. “I can’t wait for that,” said Williams. “If I’d done [my degree] earlier, she wouldn’t have seen the work that goes into it and now the payoff.”

Williams had always loved learning, she said, but she thought it was her fault that she didn’t succeed. It wasn’t until her 20s that she was diagnosed as having ADHD, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, which can make it hard to focus and complete assignments. 

Williams said her diagnosis was “empowering,” and that learning to manage her ADHD was the key to her newfound academic success. 

Since coming to UC Davis, Williams has assisted a doctoral candidate with behavioral health research while also working as a coach for others with ADHD and as a freelance writer.

After graduation, she wants to get more lab experience and then apply to doctoral programs related to neuroscience or psychology. That could be a second commencement.

Why did she apply to be a student speaker? “Transitioning to adulthood is scary,” Williams said. “I think I might be able to provide a little comfort and a little inspiration.”

Nishi Bhagat seated with a laptop open in front of her
Nishi Bhagat, who will graduate with a Bachelor of Science in cognitive science — computational emphasis with a minor in computer science, founded the UC Davis chapter of Girls Who Code and serves on the national organization’s alumni advisory council. (Greg Urquiaga/UC Daivs)

9 a.m. on Friday, June 14 — Nishi Bhagat, Bachelor of Science in cognitive science—computational emphasis with a minor in computer science.

Bhagat wants to continue to use her computer coding skills to have a positive impact in the world. She founded the UC Davis chapter of Girls Who Code, an international nonprofit that works to increase the number of women in computer science, and she has served as its president since 2022. Bhagat is also a member of the national organization’s alumni advisory council, which brainstorms innovative programming and represents the organization with industry partners. “It is uniquely uplifting,” she said. “It inspired me to imagine a better tomorrow.”

The senior said she is grateful that UC Davis prepared her for using tech for good. As a research assistant for the Plant Artificial Intelligence and Biophysics Lab, she has done research at the intersection of artificial intelligence and agriculture.

Bhagat is also interested in entrepreneurship and community. Furthering her work in UC Davis Health’s Diversity and Disparities Lab, she built Caregiva, a wellness application to help caregivers find resources and community. In 2023, it won the $10,000 Social Entrepreneurship Award at the Big Bang! Business Competition at UC Davis as well as prizes in other competitions.

Bhagat has served as the president of the Student Alumni Association at UC Davis since fall 2021. “The community and impact through my involvement truly fills my cup,” she said. 

Bhagat plans to work in the tech industry and return to school for graduate studies.

Laicee Brown, with Cienna, her four-year-old daughter, on the steps of the Early Childhood Lab School.
Laicee Brown, who will graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in sociology with an emphasis in social services, said UC Davis provides a wealth of resources for student parents, like the Early Childhood Lab School that cared for her daughter, Cienna, now 4. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

2 p.m. on Friday, June 14 — Laicee Brown, Bachelor of Arts in sociology with an emphasis in social services.

Counting herself among them, Brown said her speech will “give the underdogs a little bit of shine and love.”

After graduating from high school in 2008, Brown worked as a logistics specialist in concert production and as an instructor at a barber college. She earned associate degrees in the humanities and math and science from Contra Costa College in 2020. When the single mother graduated, her daughter, Cienna, was 1.

Brown chose to transfer to UC Davis to pursue a four-year degree because of the resources for student parents, including the opportunity to have Cienna cared for at the Early Childhood Lab School on campus. 

As vice president of the Sociology Student Association since winter 2023, Brown helped other students learn about and access campus resources including tutoring, counseling and basic needs services. With two friends, she started Community Rebirth One, a nonprofit assisting people in Contra Costa and Alameda counties struggling with homelessness and mental health challenges.

Helping others pursue higher education is her aspiration. “I want to take the services and support I received and share that back with students like me — nontraditional students. parents, older people …” she said. “I want to help other students reach their potential.” 

Shot from above, Jesse Goodman lies on a blue picnic blanket beside a picnic basket.
Jesse Goodman, who was chair of Picnic Day in 2023, will graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in economics with a minor in technology management. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis) 

9 a.m. on Saturday, June 15 — Jesse Goodman, Bachelor of Arts in economics with a minor in technology management.

Goodman helped lead Picnic Day, the campus’ annual open house and one of the largest student-run events in the country with about 200 activities and 70,000 attendees. He was the business assistant director in 2021 when the event was virtual, vice chair in 2022 and chair in 2023. He said it was rewarding to help put on an event where he could walk around and see the fruits of his labor in the smiling faces of attendees.

Goodman said his three years of participation in The Davis Consulting Group, a student group that provides pro-bono services to companies and organizations, helped lead him to a consulting career. “The projects we’ve worked on have shaped what I want to do,” he said.

He also completed internships in finance strategy with the American Automobile Association; in external audits with PricewaterhouseCoopers; and in finance strategy, operational performance and process improvement with the consulting firm KPMG.

Goodman said he will be encouraging his fellow graduates to continue to seize opportunities and hold fast to the relationships formed during university. “The people at UC Davis are the best,” he said. “Continuing those friendships through life is important.”

Goodman, who completed his degree requirements in March, is traveling and spending time with family and friends before heading back to KPMG this fall, now as a finance transformation associate. 

Sonora Slater stands beside a large recruitment poster for The California Aggie.
Sonora Slater, editor-in-chief of The California Aggie, will graduate with a Bachelor of Science in managerial economics with a minor in professional writing. Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

2 p.m. on Saturday, June 15 — Sonora Slater, Bachelor of Science in managerial economics with a minor in professional writing.

Slater, editor-in-chief of The California Aggie, wants to share in her speech her love of UC Davis and what her university experience has taught her. “It would be the bow that wraps up my time at UC Davis,” she said. 

Slater was turned on to journalism in high school. The daughter of two Aggies from the class of 1995, she was already in love with UC Davis before she applied. And she knew The Aggie was a good student newspaper — her mother, a professional journalist, had written for it. 

Slater was a copy editor, a staff writer for the science and technology desk and campus news editor before serving in the paper’s leading role this academic year. 

She said that forging agreements on two editorials per week with the editorial board taught her to listen to fellow board members, learn from them and respect others’ opinions. “That has been the biggest gift The Aggie has given me,” Slater said. “If college is the place to practice that, hopefully that’s something we can take with us.” 

Her experience in journalism includes reporting at The Sacramento Bee in the summer of 2023 and reporting for and anchoring Nevada County Now, a weekly web and cable news show, from July 2020 to March 2021. 

Slater is seeking a job as a writer or multimedia journalist in local news in California and is confident she’ll have her opportunity. “I’ve been shown that opportunities arrive when we’re not expecting them,” she said.

Student speaker selection

Graduating students apply to speak at commencement by submitting a draft speech and a video demonstrating their presentation style. A 14-member committee of faculty, staff and students selects the speakers after finalists present their speeches in person.

Other commencements

The undergraduate commencements are among the last of 13 in the spring graduation season, which began in May. The other remaining ceremonies, all on campus, are:

  • Wednesday — School of Education, 4 p.m., Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts
  • Thursday — Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing, 10 a.m., Mondavi Center
  • Thursday — Graduate Studies, for masters students, 10 a.m., University Credit Union Center
  • Thursday — Graduate Studies, for Master of Fine Arts and doctoral students, 3 p.m., University Credit Union Center
  • Friday — Graduate School of Management, 10 a.m., University Credit Union Center


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Commencement press kit with photos of student speakers

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