University Medalist 2002

By Janet Gilmore, Public Affairs


Shayna Parekh

University Medalist Shayna Parekh plans to use her Berkeley degree to improve the lives of people in India.
Peg Skorpinski photo

08 May 2002 | Sixty years ago, Shayna Parekh’s maternal grandfather left India for a better life in Tanzania. Her parents, who grew up in East Africa and England, also left their home — to pursue opportunities in America.

And now Parekh, born and raised in sunny Southern California, plans to purchase a one-way ticket to India. She will graduate this month with a bachelor’s degree from Berkeley and an intense passion for improving the lives of others.

A political science and interdisciplinary studies major, Parekh has been selected to receive this year’s University Medal, the campus’s top honor for a graduating senior with outstanding accomplishments, including a grade point average of at least 3.96.

The medal will be given to Parekh on Friday, May 17, at Commencement Convocation. As University Medalist, she will give a speech at the ceremony, which honors all graduating students.

Parekh plans to use the knowledge she gained at Berkeley to improve the lives of individuals living in India.

“I’ve learned that individuals can change the world by helping one person at a time,” she said. “Teaching just one illiterate parent to read is something that touches that entire family.”

Parekh, 21, grew up with a deep appreciation for her family’s aspirations for a better way of life. She also was raised with a respect for the teachings of Jainism, including the tenet that states, she said, that there are unlimited sides to every issue, and that human beings, limited in their knowledge, should try not to judge or act before pursuing their own independent investigations of the truth.

When she visited the campus as a high school student, Parekh was immediately attracted to the vast array of viewpoints, people, organizations and activities that she found here.

As a student here, she applied that same appreciation for a multitude of viewpoints to her studies.

With a 3.96 GPA, there is only one “B” on her college transcript. The rest are all “A” or “A+” marks.

Parekh earned these grades, she says, by taking courses that captured her interest and writing papers when she felt truly inspired to do so — which usually occurred between 2 and 4 in the morning, she says.

In recommending Parekh for the University Medal, Beth Simmons, an associate professor of political science, wrote that Parekh’s paper on the international Convention to End Discrimination Against Women is one of the best individual papers she has ever read.

A Berkeley summer session in Africa, followed by internships and study abroad sessions in India, cemented Parekh’s interest in international issues.

During her trips to India, she helped care for abandoned babies at the Mother Theresa’s Children’s Home in New Delhi, supervised volunteers for an American Embassy program to vaccinate families against polio, and initiated a literacy program.

Parekh was one of 20 volunteers chosen nationwide by the America India Foundation, chaired by former President Bill Clinton, to supervise an earthquake rehabilitation program in Bhuj after an earthquake devastated the region last year.

Parekh also worked as a project coordinator with a Bhuj-based organization called Veerayatan, gaining her first opportunity to take on administrative fieldwork for a community service organization in a developing country. She earned high praise.

“Shayna organized and supervised evening reading and writing courses, inspiring these laborers to start on their journey to literacy,” administrator Sadhvi Shilapiji wrote in his recommendation for Parekh. “Shayna also worked tirelessly to break the gender barrier as she, through many days of discussion, convinced fathers to allow their illiterate daughters to attend reading and writing courses.”

After graduation, Parekh plans to spend a year in India working with Veerayatan. Later, she hopes to enroll in the London School of Economics and pursue a graduate degree in social planning in developing countries.

“It is really amazing!” said Parekh, as she reflected on her grandparents’ journey and her life.

“My grandparents left India so that their children would have an opportunity to get a university education,” she said. “Now, two generations later, their college-educated grandchild is returning to the home they left to try and use her knowledge for the benefit of others in that society.”


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