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University Medal finalists find inspiration and life lessons at Berkeley

Leslie SheuUniversity Medalist Leslie Chung-Lei Sheu: Top graduating senior is an infectious disease detective with video
– This year, five students — Matthew Johnson, Julia Malkina, Samuel Pittman, Anitha Sivasankaran, and Angelica Zen — were finalists for the University Medal. While they were finishing their semesters and anticipating commencement, they agreed to submit to a questionnaire to give the campus a look at what makes them tick.

Anitha Sivasankaran: Having become "independent and confident" at Berkeley, she hopes to help underprivileged communities in her native India one day

Hometown: Chennai, India
Age: 21
Major: Economics, Applied Mathematics

Anitha Sivasankaran
Wendy Edelstein/UC Berkeley photos
'My parents taught me to value everyone and everything in my life and to do my best to make a difference.'
– Anitha Sivasankaran
Favorite class?
Economics 104 (Advanced Microeconomics) with Shachar Kariv, focused on game theory, an area of economics that I find particularly interesting. Professor Kariv's lectures were passionate and engaging, and even on days that he had to get through relatively dry material, he found ways to make his lectures fun. Because of his attitude and encouragement, I never found myself just simply studying to do well on a test. Instead, I studied to learn the material and tried to push myself beyond the scope of the class.

Proudest accomplishment?
Outside of classes, doing research for Prof. Stefano DellaVigna motivated my interest in graduate school in economics. My experiences with Asha for Education, a non-profit organization that works to provide education to underprivileged children in India, made me passionate about issues pertaining to developing countries.

What thing are you worst at?
Public speaking — I get extremely nervous.

Who has been an inspiration?
My parents. They taught me to value everyone and everything in my life and to do my best to make a difference.

Most important lesson learned?
To value the people you are close to and the relationships you share with them. In the last four years, I have met so many people coming from backgrounds entirely different from my own. I remember being intimidated by the new people I met when I first came here and wondering if I'd ever be able to talk to them about anything. But I've learned to understand people better, and in my years here I have formed friendships I will cherish for the rest of my life.

Turning point?
Leaving India and coming to Cal. I had a relatively protected childhood and had never been used to making my own decisions or doing things myself. When I first decided to come here, everyone I knew was surprised, and a lot of family and friends questioned my decision. However, my parents supported me in my decision— the first big one I had ever made. My experiences at Cal have made me more independent and confident, and have helped me understand myself and my goals better.

Post-graduation plans?
I am going to be at home in India for the summer, spending time with family. Then I'll move to the east coast to start graduate school in economics at Harvard.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I hope to specialize in developmental economics in graduate school. In 10 years, I hope to be back in India doing work that allows me to apply my skills to try and improve the quality of life in disadvantaged communities.

Sam Pittman: His creative and academic work at Berkeley enabled him to break the silence about a painful past experience

Hometown: Bakersfield, CA
Age: 22
Major: Interdisciplinary Studies Field with a concentration in the depiction of identity, and minors in creative writing and disability studies

Sam Pittman
'I've overcome so many challenges in my life in order not just to survive, but to really thrive and succeed.'
– Sam Pittman
Favorite class?
English 203, a graduate course on visual autobiography with my thesis adviser and the mentor I appreciate most, Prof. Hertha Sweet Wong. The course showed me that the hegemonic literary practices that have kept some voices in mainstream literature and other (most) voices out can and have been subverted, thus allowing me to envision and bring to fruition my honors thesis, a visual autobiography about the silencing of my experience of being sexually abused as a child.

Toughest class?
Introduction to Social Theory and Cultural Analysis with Prof. Bob Ehrlich. The readings, including works by psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud, D.W. Winnicott, and Jay Martin, were not only dense and difficult to understand, but also stirred hard-to-handle emotions within me due to their concern with the declining stability of family life in America, and the resultant distrust many people have for their parents or anyone in their lives who should be close to them and readily relied upon. 

Words to live by?
 "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."
 —Martin Luther King Jr. 

Our society silences so many voices that people whose experiences are not reflected in mainstream media, literature, and day-to-day conversations feel invalidated. I know from experience that this invalidation can have detrimental effects on one's self-esteem and sense of belonging in the world. Through my creative and academic work, I've broken my own silence about the sexual abuse I experienced as a child, and it is now my responsibility to remain open — to not become silent — so others with similar experiences no longer feel alone.
 
Proudest accomplishment? 
Learning to properly pronounce the Welsh phrase, "merched mewn pwll mawn."

Who's your inspiration?
Looking back, I've overcome so many challenges in my life in order not just to survive, but to really thrive and succeed, that the one person who I know I can always count on to help me through the toughest times, even when the odds are daunting, is myself.

What's your favorite book?
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's verbal/visual self-narration "Dictee."

Most important lesson learned?
To stand up for myself.

Post-graduation plans?
I'll be attending the University of Pittsburgh in the fall to complete an MFA degree in poetry. This summer, however, I plan on sleeping, eating, and writing!

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
If it takes me three years to get my MFA at the University of Pittsburgh, then five years to get a Ph.D. in either American Studies, Modern Thought and Literature, or English, then two years after that I hope to be teaching poetry workshops and classes on autobiography as a professor in Berkeley's English department. And hopefully by then I'll both have fallen in love with someone lovely, and be able to legally marry him in the United States.

Angelica Zen: She wants to be the kind of doctor who's not only knowledgeable but also "personable and kind"

Hometown: Cupertino
Age: 21
Major: Molecular and Cell Biology (cel and developmental biology emphasis)

Angelica Zen
'At Cal, I've managed my time between work and play, discovered what my priorities are in life, and made friendships here that I know will last a lifetime.'
– Angelica Zen
Toughest class?
Biology 1A — especially the lab. I thought I failed the practical exam when I took it. All the organisms they set out in dishes for identification looked exactly the same — like little white worms. I couldn't write that on my test though!

Words to live by?
Everyone you meet deserves to be greeted with a smile (a lesson I learned in second grade). I think it's important to try to be kind to those around you, even people you don't know, because you never know if they'll turn up in your life again. And even if you never see them again, it's nice to think that maybe you can make someone's day a little bit better by giving them a smile and spreading some good cheer.

Proudest accomplishment?
Graduating from Cal knowing that I've made the most out of my time here and enjoyed every minute of these past four years. I've challenged myself academically and discovered so much about myself through the activities I've been involved in. I've managed my time between work and play, discovered what my priorities are in life, and made friendships here that I know will last a lifetime.

Thing you are worst at?
Directions. I get lost absolutely everywhere I go. I was so happy when they invented the GPS. I hope I get one as a graduation present since I have to start driving again now that I can no longer use my AC transit pass.

Who has been an unexpected inspiration?
Dr. Jim Eichel, the doctor I shadowed here, was friendly and down-to-earth, and taught me so much about medicine. As an undergrad, I expected to be treated as a student who just tagged around everywhere and asked silly questions. Instead, he let me sit in on conversations and observe procedures that I never would have imagined seeing. He's exactly the kind of doctor that I want to be — someone who is not just knowledgeable, but who is also personable and kind — a doctor that patients can trust and confide in.

Favorite book?
"Anne of Green Gables." I know it's a children's story, but it never fails to cheer me up and make me laugh. I love the main character Anne. She's often clumsy and knocks things down, and she likes to study — just like me!

Most important lesson learned?
When life gets really busy (which was the norm at Cal), you should take a step back from everything and just take some time to relax. When I got stressed out about everything I had to do, all it took was a trip home to see my family or a dinner out with my friends to make me sane again and give me some perspective on what was important to me.

Post-graduation plans?
Spend a month backpacking in Europe this summer and then start medical school at UCLA in the fall.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Starting my career in medicine and trying to pay back all the loans I took out during medical school.

Julia Malkina: At Berkeley, this political science major learned "to always ask why and examine all assumptions"

Hometown: I was born in Moscow, Russia and grew up in Riverside, Calif.
Age: 21
Major: Political Science

Julia Malkina
'When I leave Berkeley, I will leave a much better person than when I entered.'
– Julia Malkina
Proudest accomplishment?
I am most proud of being able to honestly say that when I leave Berkeley, I will leave a much better person than when I entered. My time at Berkeley has been characterized not only by the growth of knowledge, but more importantly, the growth of self. I leave this institution having questioned what I truly stand for and come closer to understanding what I believe and value.

Words to live by?
Find balance in life and do what makes you happy. Although academics have obviously been a priority for me in college, they have been far from my only priority. By incorporating everything from mentoring at a local middle school to active involvement in my sorority, Chi Omega, to relaxing with yoga classes at the RSF, I have sought to make my experience at Cal multifaceted.

Thing are you worst at?
Avoiding tripping over flat ground and running into miscellaneous inanimate objects is a constant struggle. Having to write about myself is pretty painful too.

Favorite campus hangout?
The boisterous atmosphere of the student section of Memorial Stadium. The Music Library for the rays of sunshine that constantly remind one of the beauty and possibility that lies outside even in the greatest moments of stress. The basement of Barrows, where I conducted statistical analyses of third-wave-democratization determinants for my senior honors thesis. Despite the lack of natural light and climate control, it will always hold a special place in my heart.

Most important lesson learned?
To question. To always ask why and to examine all assumptions.

Turning point?
Volunteering at a rural orphanage outside of Yaroslavl, Russia, last summer. In many ways, this orphanage was a microcosm of Russia itself. Like Russia, it was mired in structural problems and not always well-run. Yet, amidst it all, some brightness shined through. I saw that there are people who work diligently to try to improve the system, if only little by little. Most of all, I was reminded of how much I hope to become one of these people.

Post-graduation plans?
This summer, in between working at an international business-law firm and volunteering at a progressive-run orphanage in my native Russia, I will be traveling and relaxing with my friends and family. In the fall, I begin my first year at Yale Law School. But before then, I plan on soaking up as much of Berkeley as I can.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I hope to be practicing international business arbitration focusing on the resolution of disputes between countries of the post-Soviet realm and the West. After practicing law for some time, I look to become more directly involved in international relations. In particular, I have a keen interest in the potential of supranational organizations, such as the United Nations and the European Union, to push for democratization. However, no matter where I am in 10 years, I hope to be passionate about what I am doing and in the company of people who inspire me. And one thing I do know is that no matter where I end up, in my heart, I will always be blue and gold.

Matt Johnson: After coming to Cal, "everything clicked"

Hometown: Hillsborough, Calif.
Age: 21
Major: Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences (EECS)

Matt Johnson
'Being a teaching assistant is probably the best way I am able to give back to the university.'
– Matt Johnson
Favorite class?
EECS 126, a class on probability and stochastic processes. That course's probability material, along with Prof. Martin Wainwright, led me to the field of statistical machine learning, which I plan to study in graduate school. I later went on to be the head TA for EECS 126 with the same professor!

If I could sneak in one more favorite class, it would be the introductory course on low-level programming and computer architecture, CS 61C with lecturer Dan Garcia. I took the class in the first semester of my sophomore year, but I never really left it: Since then I have been a TA for the class, and also created an adventure-game project and developed new lecture material on parallelism in computing for it. Even now that I'm graduating, I still find myself brainstorming other demos, projects, and topics for the class. I cannot imagine a Cal EECS experience without Dan Garcia's 61C.

Words to live by?
"I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." — Thomas Edison

"Hakuna Matata" — made popular by Timon and Pumbaa from The Lion King

Proudest accomplishment?
My proudest accomplishment is definitely becoming a TA for my favorite classes with my favorite professors at Cal. Being a TA not only has been personally helpful, since teaching forces me to examine material from a variety of student perspectives, but also is probably the best way I am able to give back to the university and the students in the EECS department.

Who has been your hero?
I've had so many heroes here at Cal, but Dan Garcia has inspired me in pretty much every way possible. He is the perfect model for a teacher, family man, proud nerd, and a sometimes-too-compelling salesman. As a teacher, mentor, and friend he has opened up every opportunity I've had here and driven me to pursue it. Most of all, he helped me find my own passion for teaching.

Favorite campus hangout?
Do Cory and Soda count as hangouts? There have been many weeks in which I've spent much more time in labs than anywhere else. Those might not sound like good hangout times, but all of my EECS comrades were right there with me.

Favorite book?
"Introduction to Probability" by Bertsekas and Tsitsiklis. Just kidding (mostly). "The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy" trilogy.

Favorite blog?
Slashdot (slashdot.org). I, for one, welcome our new Berkeley class of 2008 overlords.

Turning point?
Coming to Cal was itself the biggest turning point I've had. I wasn't such a good student in high school, but after coming here everything clicked, especially with EECS. Berkeley has had such a huge, positive effect on every aspect of my life that I can't stop raving about Cal to friends and family.

What are your post-graduation plans?
In the fall I'll be starting the EECS Ph.D. program at MIT.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I hope to be married to my girlfriend, Lily, and back at Berkeley as a faculty member!