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History major is University Medalist
New to Berkeley, Dubcovsky 'took the plunge' to find out who she was - a self-paced scholar who never skips a prof's office hour

| 27 April 2005


Alejandra Dubcovsky (Bonnie Azab Powell photo)
Alejandra Dubcovsky has spent long hours teasing out the nuances of letters written by American slaves. That work, her high grades, and a range of extracurricular activities that include helping the homeless and teaching Spanish to local youngsters have earned her the 2005 University Medal, the highest honor for a graduating senior at Berkeley. The medal honors a candidate with outstanding accomplishments and a GPA of at least 3.96.

As University Medalist, Dubcovsky will speak at Commencement Convocation (which this year takes place at the Greek Theatre on May 11) and receive a $2,500 scholarship.

Dubcovsky, a history major who will start studying for her Ph.D. in history at Berkeley in the fall, says winning the medal was "overwhelming."

"I think Cal is all about learning who you are as a person," Dubcovsky says. "You just have to go for it - you have to take the plunge."

Dubcovsky, who emigrated to Davis from Argentina with her family when she was in the ninth grade, did just that at Berkeley. As soon as she arrived here, she started volunteering.

"It wasn't an option," she says. "It was, of course, something I should do."

In her first year, she started tutoring students in Spanish at Emerson Elementary School in Berkeley and working with the homeless at People's Park. Over the course of her studies, Dubcovsky's jobs started to dovetail with her history major. She has had various internships and jobs at the Bancroft and Moffitt libraries; joined the Berkeley Historical Society; and helped revive Clio's Scroll, the campus undergraduate history journal. She also teaches "Immigration and Identity" through DeCal, a program that gives Berkeley students the chance to initiate and facilitate their own accredited courses.

Dubcovsky's academic acumen was honed during the last two years doing research into unpublished letters by American slaves as a Haas Scholar and a McNair Scholar. The support from those two programs allowed Dubcovsky to travel to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Louisiana State University to analyze unpublished slave letters.

"Some of the things about Dubcovsky that impressed the committee were the level of engagement with her research on American slave letters, her contributions to the revitalization of Clio's Scroll, and her overall energy," wrote math professor Bjorn Poonen, chair of the campus Committee on Prizes.

Dubcovsky says her interest in slave letters stemmed from her junior thesis, which was based on slave narratives. "When I finished my thesis, I felt that my questions were only beginning," she wrote in her essay to the prize committee. "Slave letters, a complicated and largely overlooked body of sources, portray slaves as both active agents of change and passive participants of bondage."

Coffee and 194 letters

Dubcovsky says the letters reveal that the slaves, usually writing or dictating letters to be sent to absentee owners, did not represent themselves as slaves, but as individuals. Her work, which will result in another thesis, will show that the letters both created and complicated relationships between slaves and masters.

"I was so moved by these sources, these first-person accounts," Dubcovsky says. "I ventured into it knowing very little."

Even now, she says, when she gets discouraged or overwhelmed, she grabs the 194 letters that are the basis of her work and heads to Café Strada. She gets her coffee and, intentionally leaving behind paper or pencils, just reads through the letters. They remind her, she says, of why she is doing this work.

"They just speak to me. They are so powerful," she says.

Dubcovsky, who has a friendly, almost carefree air about her, is quick to thank the people in her life for helping her succeed. It starts with her family - "the base of my life," she says - which includes her parents, who both teach at UC Davis; her brother, a second-year student at UC San Diego; and her fiancé, Ryan Joseph, who graduates from Berkeley this year and starts his Ph.D. in genetics at UCSF in the fall. She also credits her mentor, history professor David Henkin, with encouraging her to pursue the slave letters and apply for various scholarships and the University Medal.

The single best thing about her Berkeley experience has been the people she's met these last few years, says Dubcovsky, who eventually would like to teach or become an archivist.

"The soul of Berkeley lives and moves with its people - its faculty, students, and staff," she says. "I've met the people who challenged me the most here."

'Not all fun and games'

She particularly remembers how intimidating her first few weeks on campus were. "Right after my first class, I went down to Sproul, and I was like, 'Oh, my gosh, all these people!'" Dubcovsky says. A few days later in her dorm, she and a few students realized they were all "top of the class" at their respective high schools. "Here, that just doesn't matter," she says.

"It hasn't all been fun and games at Berkeley, but I've learned from all of it."

As for how she maintained a grade-point average high enough to qualify for the University Medal, Dubcovsky is like the supermodel who eats french fries at every meal. "I stopped caring about grades my sophomore year," she says, adding that instead of taking on a crushing workload, she made a point of taking fewer classes and putting more energy into the ones she had. And she showed up at nearly every office hour her history professors held.

"They couldn't get rid of me!" she says with a laugh.

Henkin, her mentor, praised Dubcovsky's work in a letter recommending her for the University Medal.

"Alejandra stood out almost immediately as a young woman of extraordinary academic seriousness, prodigious intellectual energy, and endless curiosity," Henkin wrote. "That she has distinguished herself in the classroom and in the community while dealing with the linguistic and cultural barriers that come with immigration is in some ways unbelievable."

Dubcovsky is modest about her many accomplishments: "I have guardian angels, I think," she says.