Berkeley Medal finalists ready to put promise into practice

Eric Olliff

2012 University Medalist:
Berkeley’s top graduating senior, Eric Olliff, juggles an eclectic mix of passions and talents.

As finalists for this year’s University Medal — the annual award bestowed on Berkeley’s top graduating senior since 1871 — Allison Barden, Zarko Perovic, Whitney Stewart and Sho Takatori exemplify the diversity, drive and dedication of the Class of 2012. The four graduating seniors paused amid the flurry of final exams, frenetic commencement preparations and firming of summer plans to reflect on times past at Cal and survey the road ahead.

 

Allison Barden

Allison Barden

Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.

– Frank Zappa

Inspired to action by the disappearance of unique languages and culture in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, Barden sketched out a five-year plan on a napkin to return to school. Six years later, the 33-year-old anthropology major, who hails from Southington, Conn., is ready to take her vast toolkit of academic, research, documentation and technology skills for a meaningful walk in the real world.

Lesson learned?

The most interesting journeys are not the ones that run smoothly. Frustration and mishaps are not roadblocks, but part of the experience. Accept them, learn and let motivation and determination propel you forward.

Turning point?

When I enrolled in Berkeley, I hoped for opportunities and believed this was where it would all begin. When my trowel hit the dirt on my first archaeological field dig, I knew that I was in the right place.

Breathtaking moment?

Jumping into the arctic waters of Kotzebue Sound in western Alaska definitely takes the breath away. Working at a remote archaeological field site there, I was intrigued by the geomorphology of the unique and beautiful tundra landscape, which inspired me to pursue coursework in physical geography alongside archaeology upon my return to Cal.

Guiding philosophy?

Shun complacency with the desire to know more about everything. Ask questions. Gather information. Play fair. Don’t panic. Inspire people.

Post-graduation plans?

I will return to Antarctica for five months as a field coordinator/research assistant with a biology team that is studying the effects of ocean acidification and temperature change on Southern Ocean fish species. After that, I hope to continue working with UC Berkeley’s Center for Digital Archaeology on multimedia projects that promote the preservation of cultural heritage.

Inspirational figure?

My mother Jean, who has always been accepting, supportive and proud of every endeavor I’ve set out to achieve, no matter how far-fetched it may have seemed at the time. My partner Bryan, who is even-keeled, easygoing and the most encouraging person I have ever met — he has kept me focused and confident throughout this entire journey.

 

Zarko Perovic

Zarko Perovic

Let a crown be placed thereon, by which the world may know … in America the law is king.

– Thomas Paine

Majoring in political science and classical civilizations, Perovic leaves behind a colorful campus legacy in the form of Caliber magazine, which he dreamed up as a freshman. Born in Nis, Serbia, 21-year-old Perovic — a 2012-13 John Gardner fellow — hopes to work at an organization that specializes in litigating war-crimes cases and promoting human rights.

Turning point?

In high school, I signed up for a summer course on the U.S. Supreme Court at UC San Diego. On the first day of class, we were given a casebook of Supreme Court decisions to read for the semester. That night, before going to bed, I decided to flip through some of these decisions. I was so fascinated by the justices’ arguments that I kept reading case after case. By sunrise, having read half of the book, I realized that I had found my future profession — I wanted to be a lawyer.

Guiding philosophy?

Never settle. Most things will be within your reach, sometimes it just requires the proper mentality and a strong work ethic.

Inspirational figure?

My grandfathers, given what they went through to get an education. One had to hike through the mountains every day to get to school. The other had to share one room with eight other people to get his high-school diploma. So for me, it feels quite easy to wake up for an 8 a.m. class or study all weekend for an exam.

Lesson learned?

Almost everyone on campus has an interesting story to tell. It’s just a matter of having the courage to strike up a conversation.

Breathtaking moment?

Listening to Christopher Parkening play the song “Koyunbaba” live. It was probably one of the most moving performances that I have heard.

Proudest achievement?

Being comfortable speaking several foreign languages is something I always dreamed of being able to do, and thanks to the phenomenal language departments at Berkeley, I finally achieved this goal.

Words of wisdom?

Follow your passions. Everything else will fall into place.

 

Whitney Stewart

Whitney Stewart

I am an unpopular electric eel set in a pond of goldfish.

– Edith Sitwell

Born in Poway, Calif., Stewart spent her junior year in Bologna, immersing herself in Italian language and culture through Berkeley’s study-abroad program. Since graduating in December with a double major in molecular and cellular biology and Italian studies, the 23-year-old has dived into the field of translational medicine and is working on cancer research at UCSF as she contemplates graduate school.

Lesson learned?

In everything, there will always be people who are better than you, but you can’t let that keep you from trying your best in all things new. I wouldn’t be where I am today had I been scared off by a challenge.

Proudest achievement?

Becoming fluent in another language. It was the hardest thing for me to develop my speaking skills in Italian because I always had this big mental block. So, when I finally got past it, it was the greatest feeling.

Turning point?

When I first came to Berkeley I was nervous that I would never find my niche or do well. After the initial successes of my first semester, I became more confident in my role here and really committed to giving my all for the next four years.

Guiding philosophy?

Never leave for tomorrow what you can do today. I think procrastination is one of the worst habits a person can have.

Inspirational figure?

My parents, who started their life together far from family, with very little support or funds. They have managed to build a wonderful life together — successful in their careers, family lives and personal relationships. What more could you ask for?

Favorite sound?


The sound an orchestra makes when it tunes before a concert and all the separate instruments prepare to present a unified work of art. There is dissonance, and then just pure music.

 

Sho Takatori

Sho Takatori

All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.

– Walt Disney

A Gates Millennium scholar, Takatori developed a mathematical model that is being used by commercial manufacturers to design better contact lenses. During his time at Berkeley, the 22-year-old chemical engineering student, who was born in Sacramento, Calif., also worked with the California EPA to draft state regulatory policies for green chemistry and nanotechnology products.

Guiding philosophy?

We shouldn’t regret the things that we do in life, only the things that we do not do.

Lesson learned?

Time management — there are so many things to do here at Berkeley!

Inspirational figure?

My family. My father for taking risks in coming to America, despite his stable career in Japan. My mother for following him. My sister for dedicating her life to medicine and to saving the lives of others.

Turning point?

When I realized how to take control over ulcerative colitis. I became stronger and learned to appreciate the power of support and to really cherish the happy moments in life.

Breathtaking moment?

Golfing with my dad at Kapalua, Hawaii — teeing off on the first hole, you play straight toward the ocean.

Post-graduation plans?

Starting a Ph.D. program in chemical engineering at Caltech, where I plan to study fluid mechanics and transport phenomena.

Words of wisdom?

Have something to bring to the table, because that will make you more welcome.