‘Tell Your Story in Your Own Words, So That No One Tells It For You’ A commencement message of empathy and resilience for UCLA Luskin’s Class of 2024

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, let’s go together.”

Paco Retana, a leading voice in community mental health, invoked this African proverb as he called on UCLA Luskin’s Class of 2024 to embrace a spirit of compassion and collaboration as they set out to put their educations to work.

“In a world increasingly divided by conflict, inequality and environmental crisis, love and respect are more essential than ever before,” Retana told the gathered graduates at two commencement ceremonies on June 14.

“Together, you have the potential to create a tapestry of positive change that is richer and more vibrant than anything you could achieve alone.”

Retana spoke to public policy, social welfare and urban planning scholars earning master’s and doctoral degrees at a morning ceremony at UCLA’s Royce Hall. Later in the day, he addressed students awarded the bachelor of public affairs at the Grand Ballroom in Ackerman Union.

“The superpower you all have — resilience, corazon, heart — has been the key to navigating life’s inevitable challenges and setbacks,” said Retana, who shared his own background to underscore the point.

Born in Pico Rivera to working-class parents who emigrated from Mexico and Costa Rica, Retana was labeled an underperformer in school. But he went on to become the first in his family to attend college, earning two UCLA degrees: a bachelor’s in psychology in 1987 and a master’s in social welfare in 1990.

For more than three decades, Retana has served Los Angeles’ vulnerable youth and marginalized communities and is now chief program officer at the nonprofit Wellnest. He mentors graduate students as part of UCLA Luskin’s Senior Fellows career leadership program, and he will soon become president of the UCLA Alumni Association.

Retana credited his family for their unshakable support and thanked all the loved ones who were present to cheer on the graduates. “Families are the quiet towers of strength that support us in ways we often take for granted,” he said.

Like many of the day’s speakers, Retana acknowledged that the Class of 2024 pursued their degrees during an often painful era.

For the undergraduates, this included beginning their college careers in 2020 as COVID-19 took lives, strained finances and kept people apart. Political polarization, a reckoning with racism and labor strife followed, and the schisms grew deeper this academic year with the devastating loss of life in the Middle East and protests that have divided campuses across the country, including UCLA.

“Today, we gather to celebrate the achievements and the bright futures of our graduating class. Yet we cannot ignore the recent conflicts and violence that have affected our universities, including our beloved UCLA,” Retana said.

“These events remind us of the critical importance of fostering environments where respect, empathy and dialogue are important.”

Students chosen by their peers to deliver commencement remarks also spoke of this difficult moment, calling for moral courage and solidarity. At the graduate ceremony, members of the audience were invited to leave the ceremony to join a pro-Palestinian rally outside.

Retana urged the entire Class of 2024 to “tell your story in your own words, so that no one tells it for you.”

“Your resilience and your heart not only help you to survive hardships, but also to thrive and reach your full potential, turning life’s trials into stepping stones for success.”

View photos of the graduate commencement

2024 UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs Graduate Commencement

Watch the graduate commencement ceremony

View photos of the undergraduate commencement

UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs 2024 Undergraduate Commencement

Watch the undergraduate commencement ceremony


1 reply
  1. Jolie Greiff
    Jolie Greiff says:

    Great! In the spirit of compassion, how about taking a stand against hatred, violence, and anti-Semitism at UCLA? Shame on UCLA for tolerating this current situation where Jewish students do not feel safe on campus. Had someone told me when I was a grad student at UCLA that the future would bring such anti-Jewish hatred on campus I would not have believed it.

    Jolie (Lewis) Greiff, MSW


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