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UC Berkeley Press Release

 Lane Rettig outside Durant Hall University Medalist Lane Rettig in front of Durant Hall, home of the East Asian Library. (Photos by Bonnie Azab Powell / UC Berkeley NewsCenter)

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Top graduating senior a computer whiz kid with social conscience

– If Lane Rettig were a cartoon, he'd be a blur. On any given day, he's got groundbreaking educational software to design, inner city children to mentor, Japanese literature to translate, new languages to master and new countries to explore.

To top it off, the New Jersey small town boy who started his first Internet company at age 14 just landed the highest honor for a graduating senior at the University of California, Berkeley. As the winner of the University Medal, Rettig will speak at Commencement Convocation at the campus's Greek Theatre on May 10 and receive a $2,500 scholarship.

After that, he'll head to Shanghai, China, to study Mandarin.

The University Medal
Established in 1871 by California Governor Henry Huntly Haight, the University Medal honors UC Berkeley's most distinguished graduating senior. Three to five students are also named as finalists.

A computer science and Japanese double major with a 3.96 grade point average and more than 160 units under his belt, Rettig certainly didn't earn the University Medal by holing up in the library.

Since his arrival at UC Berkeley in 2001, Rettig has jet-setted around the world completing three studies abroad in England, Japan and China; worked as a system administrator; mastered Japanese; volunteered at an orphanage and designed software to educate children in developing countries. He also dabbles in theater, karate and a capella, and has been a mentor to 5th graders at a Berkeley elementary school.

Indeed, there are so many sides to Rettig that one can get dizzy trying to sort them out. But in the end, they all seamlessly come together.

"What impresses me about Lane ... is his supreme balance: of numbers and words, of American and Japanese, of intellectual and emotional I.Q, of serious purpose and a sense of humor," said H. Mack Horton, chair of East Asian Languages and Cultures, in his letter recommending Rettig for the medal. Rettig was awarded the Departmental Citation in East Asian Languages and Cultures for the 2005-2006 academic year.

The fact is, whether Rettig is studying medieval history or oceanography, for a pass/fail or letter grade, he cannot bear to give less than 150 percent.

"It's not hard to get an 'A', but if you actually want to take something valuable from that class, to learn something that you are going to use in life, then that's a lot more work," Rettig said. "I'm not happy with shallow involvement."

He credits the Berkeley Programs for Study Abroad for his personal and academic growth and his enormous circle of friends around the world. "The most valuable thing I've gotten from Berkeley was the chance to go abroad - three times," he said.

Rettig says he's thrilled to land the University Medal, the top honor at UC Berkeley for a graduating senior with outstanding accomplishments, including a grade point average of at least 3.96. A couple of years ago, he read the biographies of the medalists and finalists. "I said to myself, 'How can I compare myself to these people?' but I was inspired," Rettig said. "I said, 'Wow, I've got two years left to get my act in gear and accomplish the things these people have accomplished.'" The rest is history.

As a computer mastermind, Rettig strongly feels he has something to offer the world in the realm of technology and social responsibility.

"Technology made me the person I am, gave me the interests I have, the drive I have," Rettig said. "I have this gift for a reason, to use it to make the world a better place."

It all goes back to his childhood.

"I was the kind of kid who wanted to take things apart," he said. "I wasn't happy just to play with a toy. I wanted to know how it worked."

Rettig was born in New York in 1983. His father, who was 60 when Lane was born, teaches psychology at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York. His mother had studied sociology. Between them, they spoke several languages. As a boy, Rettig's father fled Nazi Germany and made his way to the British Mandate of Palestine. He eventually arrived in the United States, where he was reunited with the surviving members of his family.

"He came from next to nothing, and everything I have is thanks to how hard he's worked," said Rettig, who traveled with his father to Berlin last year.

  Lane Rettig
Rettig is a computer science and Japanese double major.

Print-quality photos for download

When Rettig was five, his parents divorced, and he moved with his mother and sister to a rural community in Elmer, New Jersey. He felt isolated until he discovered the Internet and, along with it, a link to the world. Beyond cyberspace, he was a loner who read books and roamed the woods around his home. He didn't have many friends. But he decided to change that when he moved to Millville Senior High School in a New Jersey suburb.

"I guess I got frustrated with being the outcast and started making friends," he said. "It was just a matter of changing my wardrobe, and developing interests in sports and music."

But deep down, technology was his unwavering passion. He took some computer classes at a community college because his high school didn't offer any. And at 14, he and a friend ran a network of computer gaming Web sites, making money from the advertising revenues. He got interested in hacking and attended a couple of conventions, but opted to be a "white hat," which means a good guy in computer security lingo. He got admitted to UC Berkeley in 2001.

In California, he was spellbound by the Asian influences everywhere and signed up for Japanese. "From Day One, I was captivated," he said. "The pretty little characters, the difference in culture. I knew I wanted to go to Japan right away."

He discovered Berkeley Programs for Study Abroad, and in 2003, he attended a summer session in British Theater in London. He followed that with a junior year abroad in an engineering program at Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan.

Rettig was ecstatic to be in Japan, where he was having lots of fun. Then one day while he was on vacation, as he was visiting a memorial museum in Hiroshima, he said something deep inside him changed. An elderly couple who had survived the atom bomb asked him where he was from. He felt bad saying he was from the United States, which had dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the old man assured him it was important that young Americans learn what happened in the spirit of "never again."

"Having that conversation, I realized I wasn't happy being the sideline student observer," Rettig said. "I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to do more than observe."

After that, he threw out a research project that had been frustrating him. He traveled to China and Thailand and visited hill tribes where people were disconnected from technology. He worked at an orphanage in Thailand and taught children English and how to use the Internet.

"I saw the same passion in those kids that I felt myself when I was a kid," he said.

That set his research spinning off into an entirely new direction as he sought to bring Internet technologies to the developing world. He came up with a plan to donate computing power to the Third World - to allow for imaging processing in poor hospitals, for example. He designed a simulator that proved an application would be possible, but learned that the social and economic infrastructure for such an ambitious global project simply wasn't in place.

Pursuing that goal became the "big picture" for him and may require him doing graduate studies in law or economics, he said. For now, he's working on a project with UC Berkeley's Technology and Infrastructure for Emerging Regions to use cellular phones as English language learning tools.

In the fall, he starts a job in New York with a hedge fund called D.E. Shaw & Co., which was founded by a computer scientist. It suits him fine for now. "There's no dress code, no vacation policy - you know, trust the employee." Eventually though, he'd like to get a higher degree.

So what's he lousy at?

"A) I'm a procrastinator, b) I probably have some sort of attention deficit disorder because I have a lot of trouble doing one thing for a long time," Rettig said. "So, I'll study for an hour, and then I'll get distracted by something else - there's friends, there's newspapers to read, there's always something else to do."

And that's his life, in a blur.

 

Check back next week for profiles of the five University Medal runners-up, on the NewsCenter.