Top graduating senior is an intellectual superstar
| 12 May 2009
BERKELEY — Emma Shaw Crane spent her teens riding horses and making mischief at her Waldorf school in Santa Rosa, Calif. She filled out her application to the University of California, Berkeley, while recovering from typhoid on a beach in southern Mexico. Growing up among activists and anarchists, Shaw Crane said she never expected to be admitted to a top research university.
But like her thick, tawny hair, Shaw Crane's life is full of twists and turns. Today, she has landed a coveted prize as UC Berkeley's top graduating senior, selected to receive the University Medal and address thousands of her peers at Commencement Convocation on May 22. She also will receive a $2,500 scholarship.
Shaw Crane has a perfect 4.0 GPA and a resume packed with research, community projects and awards - including a Fulbright scholarship to work on AIDS research and education in Colombia. Her major is Interdisciplinary Studies with a concentration in race, gender and political economy, and her minor is Global Poverty & Practice. She speaks fluent Spanish and conversational Arabic.
A native of the tiny farming town of Graton, Calif., she has worked with political prisoners and alternative high school students on poetry and radio essays. Tall and glowing with health, Shaw Crane practices the Brazilian martial art of capoeira. While an omnivore, she lives in a vegan cooperative called the Mango House.
"Here, in short, is a young woman who is not only an intellectual superstar, but a deeply generous and committed activist who will make a very real difference in the world," wrote geography professor Gillian Hart, chair of the Development Studies Program, part of International & Area Studies, in her letter recommending Shaw Crane for the University Medal.
A self-described child of privilege, Shaw Crane was born to Tom Crane, a physician, and Susan Shaw, a social worker and community organizer, in the fall of 1985. Her younger brother, Adam, is a rock climber who scales the world's peaks. From preschool through the 12th grade, she attended Summerfield Waldorf School & Farm in Santa Rosa, where she frequently ran wild, but managed to keep up academically. She met her high school sweetheart while in after-school detention.
At age 8, during the 1994 indigenous uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, she accompanied her father and a forensic team with Physicians for Human Rights to investigate the military torture of indigenous people in the rural highlands. At 12, during a school trip to El Salvador, she heard testimony from women whose children had died or disappeared during the 1980-92 civil war.
"One of my early memories is of dead bodies on a basketball court," she said.
In high school, she volunteered to help day laborers negotiate jobs with prospective employers: "It was my introduction into the double world in my hometown, which is 40 percent white, upper-middle class, organic wine, Whole Foods crowd," she said. "But underneath that, in spaces that aren't visible publicly, is a destitute immigrant labor population that drives the whole economy."
After graduating from Summerfield, she took a "gap" year off, and returned to Central America where she interned for a local organization called COMPPA (Popular Communications for Autonomy) giving workshops on community media at indigenous people's organizations in rural Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras.
The women she worked with convinced her to use her privilege to get the kind of top-notch education that they could never obtain. And so she applied to UC Berkeley and Oberlin College, a private liberal arts institution in Ohio. She was accepted to both, but chose UC Berkeley because she wanted to be close to her family in Graton.
For someone who had graduated with a class of just 12 students in a farm town, the UC Berkeley campus was crowded and overwhelming, but it felt less so when she moved into the Sherman Hall women's co-op and made close friends. Academically, she was drawn to African American Studies and found her home there. She was also inspired by Ananya Roy, a city and regional planning professor, and enrolled in her class, "Global Poverty: Challenges and Hopes for the New Millennium."
Roy was similarly impressed with Shaw Crane, and urged her to join a discussion section restricted to graduate and Ph.D. students: "She produced a graduate paper that earned her an 'A' in the class. But to end the story here captures only one dimension of Emma, her academic rigor and brilliance," Roy wrote in her nomination letter. "Emma combines such gifts with a lovely modesty and grace ... her undergraduate and graduate colleagues never knew that she was in fact doing double the work - all with a big smile on her face."
While Shaw Crane excelled academically, she also sought out community work: "When I came to Berkeley, I was very clear I was not going to be a weekend, once-a-year activist," she said.
During her freshman year, she was hired by Prison Radio, a project of the Redwood Justice Fund in San Francisco. There, she produced radio essays and even traveled to Peru to interview political prisoners who were members of the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement. In the spring of 2008, she studied abroad at the American University of Beirut, in Lebanon, where she took courses in environmental design, archeology and Arabic language. During that semester, she visited refugee camps and witnessed Hezbollah's occupation of West Beirut.
She returned to UC Berkeley and plunged into her Global Poverty & Practice minor, which is offered by the campus's Blum Center for Developing Economies. While other global poverty minors traveled abroad to do their "practice," she bused a mile south of campus to Berkeley Technology Academy, an alternative high school attended mostly by African American and Latino youth who have been expelled from mainstream high schools.
At "B-Tech," she coordinates a poetry and media program, producing CDs and a book of the students' poems and essays. She has also served as a health educator to the school's young women, a task that has sensitized her to the sexism, racism and violence in these students' daily lives: "The teachers and students at B-Tech are like family. I know students' parents, siblings, aunties. It's a beautiful community to be a part of." she said. "That's why I choose to work locally."
Also part of her extended family are the student poetry teachers in the Poetry for the People program in the campus's African American Studies Department, where she teaches an upper-division poetry class in American Cultures. Of course, not everything comes easily to Shaw Crane. She counts math and statistics among her challenges.
"I have a 4.0 GPA because I have tremendous sense of responsibility," Shaw Crane said. "If I'm here, I need to be busting ass and doing as well as I can because there are a lot of people who deserve to be here, but are not."