UC Berkeley News
Web Feature

UC Berkeley Web Feature

University Medal finalists shaped by a world of experiences

–This year, four students — Elaine Castillo, Amar Kishan, Joel Portillo, and Betty Sousa — were finalists for the University Medal. In the midst of wrapping up their semesters, they agreed to submit to a questionnaire to give the campus a little insight into what makes them tick.

Amar Kishan: Forget luck; this MCB/Public health double major 'believes in hard work'

Hometown: Davis, Calif.
Age: 21
Major: Molecular and cell biology/public health (double major) and minor
in chemistry

Amar Kishan
'[My family] have inspired me to value my opportunities in life, to work hard, and to be a good person.'
- Amar Kishan

Favorite class at Cal: History of Art 51 (Introduction to Medieval Art) and Chemistry 3A (Organic Chemistry). The former introduced me to an entirely new subject of study, one which I had not appreciated before. Having a longstanding interest in history, politics, and religion, I found it very satisfying to see how all of these elements combine to imbue art with specific emotional power. As a result, I value and enjoy works of art much more.

The latter, Chemistry 3A, was the first lecture I had at Cal. The instructor, Steven Pedersen, emphasized "thinking outside the box" and using "chemical intuition" over rote memorization. Learning how to think about the "whys" of any given process not only influenced my interests in research, but also motivated me to pursue a minor in chemistry.

Toughest class? History of Art 51 was the most challenging class I took at Cal because the instructor, Jacqueline Jung, always presented art and the elements that influenced its creation at the highest possible level of analysis and detail. Moreover, she always motivated students to delve deeper and deeper into their own analyses and interpretation of art, willing us to challenge our own beliefs.

Proudest accomplishment: My proudest accomplishment is that I was able to explore many of my interests by taking advantage of Cal's opportunities. I was able to serve as co-editor-in-chief of the Issues Berkeley Medical Journal, found a chapter of the Foundation for International Medical Relief of Children, lead the Hindu Students Council on campus, and conduct neuroanatomy research on the cat auditory system.

Thing I'm worst at: Dancing

Who has been your inspiration? My immediate family — my older brother, father, and mother — have all inspired me. My older brother, Arun Kishan (a computer scientist working at Microsoft, Inc.) is to me an exemplar of accomplishment through hard work who also demonstrates that it is possible to work hard and lead a balanced life. My father, Shrinivasa Upadhyaya (a professor of agricultural engineering at UC Davis), embodies the spirit of learning, education, and humility. My mother, Jayashree Upadhyaya (a homemaker), demonstrates resilience and perseverance beyond anyone else I know. They have inspired me to value my opportunities in life, to work hard, and to be a good person, and I owe 100 percent of my success to their efforts.

Favorite campus hangout: Recreational Sports Facility

Post-graduation plans: I will be pursuing an M.D. through the Health
Sciences & Technology program, a collaborative initiative between Harvard
Medical School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years? I see myself happily married and (hopefully) settled in a career in which I can both practice medicine and perform clinically oriented research.

Elaine Castillo: From Walter Benjamin to Barbara Guest, she explores texts with 'critical joy and wondrous inquiry'

Hometown: Milpitas, Calif. Currently Santa Rosa, Calif.
Age: 22
Major: Comparative literature

Elaine Castillo
'The only plans I have are to read and read and read, and to write and write and write.'
- Elaine Castillo

Favorite class at Cal: That's a difficult question, but to make it a bit easier, I can point to particular discoveries in various classes that have been important for me: The wonder of ancient Greek with Ron Stroud. Discovering the strangeness and narrative tension of "La Princesse de Clèves" by Madame de Lafayette, in Nicholas Paige's French 119 course was a joy; I re-read the book often. The romances of Chretien de Troyes — and particularly, reading Old French — through David Hult's French 112 course were also a revelation, such that I decided to write an honor's thesis on one of the romances.

Finally, absolutely the class taught by Robert Kaufman on 20th and 21st century poetry and sociopolitical engagement, which was extremely important for me, in helping to further explore and develop my thoughts about the relationship between poetics, aesthetics, and ethics. The class had a brilliant and wide-ranging syllabus, a truly comparative scope: Walter Benajmin to Laura Moriarty to Paul Célan to Theodor Adorno to Charles Baudelaire to César Vallejo to Barbara Guest. I am always happiest reading a variety of writing forms, in order to constantly refresh my idea of what writing is.

Proudest accomplishment: I am honored to have received the Eisner Award three times, particularly because the awards served as the only signs of my writing life on campus, as I never took creative writing courses or participated in the English language literary journal (though I was an editor for the multilingual literary journal on campus, "Vagabond").

Who has been your inspiration? My father was not my inspiration; he was my absolute best friend and teacher for most of my life. He was a surgeon, as well as an eccentric bibliophile with a generous and adventurous readerly eye. He encouraged me to read everything — poetry, philosophy, fiction, religious texts, scientific texts — with critical joy, with wondrous inquiry. Because of him I was raised not merely on the established canon of American or European literature, but also to seek the random, the unknown, the so-called "minor," and especially the translated. He encouraged me to read widely, to explore literature as a field, to explore the matrix of work, and to not limit myself to fiction, or otherwise. Especially, to read the different, and the seemingly difficult. I would not be the reader I am today without him; and it goes without saying that I could not be the writer I am without being the reader I am. My father died last October. If there has ever been a turning point for me, his loss is it.

Things I'm worst at: Sports! (Surprise, right?) Guessing a person's age. Relaxing, when it comes to things related to my studies. Getting around to taking driving lessons.

Favorite book: Predictably, it would be impossible for me to choose a favorite book, but I am happy to point people in the direction of writers that I have been reading for the past couple of months: Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Blanchot, Thomas Bernhard, Roberto Bolaño, Clarice Lispector, Sawako Nakayasu, Juan Rulfo, Laura Moriarty, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Anne-Marie Albiach, Suzanne Doppelt, Fleur Jaeggy, Javier Marías, Inger Christensen.

Post-graduation plans: I am currently working on a book of novellas, entitled "Postcard from the Volcano," as well as a book of poems. I am also writing — for myself — essays on poetry, philosophy, and film. Really, the only plans I have are to read and read and read, and to write and write and write.

Joel Portillo: Making the journey from El Salvador to a psychology major at UC Berkeley, he 'shatters all the stereotypes'

Hometown: I was born in El Salvador and came to live in Los Angeles, Calif. at 11.
Age: 23
Major: Psychology major, Spanish literatures minor

Joel Portillo
'What lies "within" me is a passion to create change and impact the lives of many minorities who do not come from strong academic traditions/legacies.'
- Joel Portillo

Favorite class at Cal: Sociology 3ac with Mary Kelsey offered me an alternate way of looking at various issues (gender, sexuality, education, race), mainly by making me see the great influence that class, race, and society as a whole have on an individual's life even from the moment of birth.

Toughest class? A definite tie between Psychology 101 (Statistical Analysis and Methods) and Statistics 2. I remember walking out of the class midterms with teary eyes and questioning: "Have I been attending the right class? Where did those questions come from?"

Turning point: There are so many factors in my life that influenced who I am today. College was never really in my plans during my early high school years. However, many things brought me to reflect on the importance of education. My father never had formal schooling, my mother only reached second grade, my brothers dropped out of high school (one of them is now in prison and the other passed away in a car accident). College counselors, teachers, and mentors throughout high school saw potential in me and encouraged me to attend college. All of these factors more or less equally influenced me and my identification as a scholar.

Quote (words to live by): "What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us." – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Many people question how I have done so well in school even though I am the only high school (and now college) graduate from my immediate family. One of the answers is because of what lies "within" me. And what lies "within" me is a passion to create change and impact the lives of many minorities who do not come from strong academic traditions/legacies and simply need an extra push and support in order to achieve their true potential.

Proudest accomplishment: I am very proud of the fact that I can look back to my university years and know that I did not only devote my time to academics but also managed to do what I love: volunteering and promoting college awareness in those groups that are often expected to fail and are therefore "tracked" into failing.

Things I'm worst at: I am a horrible singer (though I try). I am very competitive and so I sometimes come off as too confident or rather cocky (which I am not). I am too opinionated and love to stir (constructive) arguments, both in academic settings and with my friends. At times, I can't help arguing for things that I don't even believe in, just to make things fun and interesting.

Who's your hero? My parents are my heroes. Although neither of them received any formal schooling, they have stressed the importance of education. While my parents sometimes don't understand how difficult it is to handle school and the many responsibilities it entails, I know that they try their best to understand a school system that they never had the chance to experience.

Most important lesson learned: I always doubted myself coming into this university. I always felt vulnerable because as an ESL Latino student from an inner-city school, I wasn't expected to do very well. I have to admit that at times I almost gave in to those expectations. But then I remembered what I "stand" for: I am not only Joel. I am Latino. I am ESL. I am an immigrant. I am Salvadorean. I am from "the ghetto." I wanted to shatter all the stereotypes that are associated with the different aspects of my identity. I am now graduating and can honestly say that I have learned to be confident and to feel good about myself.

Favorite movie: I am a scary movie fan. The first thriller I ever really liked was "Scream."

Favorite book: "Savage Inequalities" by Jonathan Kozol

Favorite campus hangout: Student Learning Center (SLC). I work there as a study group leader and love spending my time studying and socializing at the Atrium.

Post-graduation plans: I will take a year off to work and gain some experience. I am looking into doing something to promote college awareness.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years? I will definitely be in graduate school or some form of schooling, or hopefully be done.

10 years? I can see myself as a professor, running for local office in Los Angeles, publishing books. Options are unlimited and I love that!

Betty Sousa: Making the connection between public health and the environment

Hometown: Davis, Calif.
Age: 23
Major: Nutritional science: physiology and metabolism

Betty Sousa
'It is my responsibility to utilize those privileges [I have] in order to work towards greater equity for those whose access to such privileges has been denied.'
- Betty Sousa

Favorite class at Cal: My Sustainable Gardening seminar in the fall of my freshman year, for letting me get my hands dirty and providing me with a solid grounding to begin studying and wondering about the environment and food, and the things that tie it all together. Organic Chemistry for really changing the way I look at the world around me. The Human Diet and Earth Resources and Society for connecting so many different ideas and putting them into such a relevant and essential context; Medical Anthropology for providing me with a new way of thinking about the role all of the science I've been studying plays in our world. I could go on to talk about so many more — there have been too many great classes to pick just one.

Turning point: A year and a half after the levees broke in New Orleans, relief organizations in the city were still calling for volunteers to help with recovery and rebuilding efforts. Though I could only spend two weeks there this winter, I was moved by the amazing people I met and the tireless work they have undertaken, and continue to undertake, there. However, I also came to more fully comprehend the violence of government inaction and the importance of continuing engagement between local communities and organizations/individuals everywhere. This network of cooperation is even more vital when the media and government officials allow such continuing atrocities to go unnoticed.

Latest accomplishment: Last Friday night, some of the 6th graders at camp (for the Diabetes Prevention Project) taught me the dance moves to one of their favorite songs, "Walk it Out." I finally gained their approval, reaching a level of semi-reasonable competence with the footwork.

Thing I'm worst at: Filling out questionnaires about myself!

Most important lesson learned: The ever-evolving understanding of the many privileges I have, that they are not shared by everyone, and that it is my responsibility to utilize those privileges in order to work towards greater equity for those whose access to such privileges has been denied.

Favorite campus hangout: Slacklining by the Campanile, watching the ships on the bay and the neighboring construction cranes from the fifth-floor balcony of McCone Hall, eating figs in the Student Organic garden, or lately (and all too often) working away in the VLSB computer lab.

Post-graduation plans: This summer I'm very much looking forward to traveling around the southern and northeastern United States with a good friend, exploring new places and working in/talking to people about the food-ways and health-ways of places I've never been before. And next year: hopefully traveling around other parts of the world, doing more of the same.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years? Likely back in school, hopefully working excitedly on something related to public health and climate change, and in a place with good company, where I can grow and eat fresh vegetables on a regular basis!