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UC Berkeley Press Release

Student wins $200,000 Canadian scholarship

– As a high school student studying abroad in Germany, Canadian Sonali Thakkar found herself with an unexpected front row seat to the nationwide controversy over how the country would memorialize the Holocaust. That debate inspired her to pursue an academic path that has led her to a $200,000 Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Doctoral Scholarship - the largest scholarship in Canada for doctoral students in the social sciences and humanities.

Sonali Thakkar
Sonali Thakkar. (Photo courtesy the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation)

Thakkar, who soon will complete her master's degree in rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, said she was "stunned" to recently learn she'd been selected for the scholarship. The amount awarded is in Canadian dollars and equal to approximately $162,500 U.S. dollars, based on the current exchange rate.

"It's such an amazing opportunity," said Thakkar, who is back in Germany this summer for intensive language classes and more research. "I was really stunned."

Thakkar plans to pursue a Ph.D. in English and comparative literature at Columbia University in New York starting this fall. She wants to write her dissertation on how societies that have gone through political conflict and genocide come to terms with that history, not just through legal means, but in collective memories or through literature, presentation in museums and memorials.

"I think the specific intersection of the cultural and the political is really important. A lot of attention is paid to the huge body of literature from the Holocaust - the literature of witnessing. It's becoming a genre. My question is that at the intersection, there is this deeply subjective element," she said.

"I'm just starting the real work," Thakkar said.

She said it was her high school experience in Germany in 1997-98 that inspired her studies. At the time, the German Parliament - and citizens throughout the country - were passionately debating whether to put a Holocaust memorial in central Berlin.

"Issues of how to remember and grapple with the memory of WWII and the Holocaust are hugely contentious," she said. "Even young people, everyone, had an opinion on it."

Thakkar received an undergraduate degree with honors in international relations and English from the University of Toronto.

As one of 14 Trudeau Foundation scholars selected this year, Thakkar will receive $35,000 (Canadian) per year for up to four years, plus up to an additional $15,000 (Canadian) annually to support research-related travel. As part of the program, she will eventually be paired with a mentor and work with the other scholarship students.

"We strive to find the students who show the greatest potential to influence and promote public policy debate at home and on a global scale, and this year's Trudeau Scholars are poised for astonishing success," Roy L. Heenan, chairman of the board of the Trudeau Foundation, said in a prepared statement. "Trudeau Scholarships are about more than money; they're about supporting and fostering Canada's future leaders."