STEM activist, Ph.D. candidate wins 2015 Yamashita Prize

Accepting his Foundations for Change: Thomas I. Yamashita Prize on Thursday, Sepehr Vakil confessed he’d once been “skeptical about the ability and the willingness of the academy to really be a force for social change.”

Sepehr Vakil, kihana miraya ros,s  Chris Woodland

Sepehr Vakil, left, with Berkeley Ph.D. candidate kihana miraya ross and Chris Woodland, a 9th-grader at Oakland Tech and former OSMO student

But Vakil, a Ph.D. candidate in UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, proved to be a force for change himself, both in and out of the academy. That was the unmistakable message conveyed by supporters and admirers during an afternoon ceremony at the Berkeley City Club, where he received his $2,500 award, bestowed annually upon a California activist whose work “alters the social landscape, often in subtle and previously unappreciated ways.”

For Vakil, that landscape sits at the intersection of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education  racial and social inequities and U.S. foreign policy. After moving to the Bay Area in 2011 from Southern California, where he studied engineering at UCLA, he co-founded Oakland Science and Mathematics Outreach (OSMO), a STEM-focused after-school program based in that city’s Boys and Girls Club.

In nominating Vakil for the prize, Maxine McKinney de Royston, a postdoctoral fellow in the Graduate School of Education, described how OSMO “aims to develop students’ critical digital literacy by (1) fostering students’ awareness about the power and privilege of technology, and (2) developing their technological skills and the use of these skills for social change.”

“From creating his own after-school STEM outreach programs to organizing youth action hackathons to teaching technology and social-change classes at a high school, Sepehr is the scholar-activist our millennial youth need in their lives,” she concluded.

At Thursday’s reception, Na’ila Suad Nasir, an associate professor of education and his graduate adviser at Berkeley, recalled her first meeting with Vakil, who told her about his program and expressed a deep desire to “do something for education.”

“I thought to myself, ‘Oh, what a nice young man, he’s going to have to change all that,’” said Nasir, eliciting ironic laughter from a room filled with social justice-minded researchers, teachers and students. “’What wonderful, lofty goals. We’re going to get him in here, we’ll socialize him into the academy, and he’ll leave that stuff alone and really become a scholar.’

“Little did I know ,” she added, “he was going to teach me.”

Sandra Brown

Sandra Brown

Vakil, whose family moved to the United States in 1986 from Iran, described how his mother, a doctor, had treated victims of mustard gas during the Iran-Iraq war, and his own discomfort at the idea of scholarship unwittingly helping to fuel U.S policy in the Middle East. He recalled how, as an engineering student, he had become “increasingly aware of the way in which the ‘defense industry’ — in quotations -— was shaping and influencing and pouring a lot of money into science and engineering research.”

“I think there needs to be a lot more conversation in the education sphere around STEM, for whom and for what?” he said.

Receiving honorable mention Thursday was Sandra Brown, an activist for farmworkers’ rights and food justice who earned her Ph.D. in geography at Berkeley in 2012. She was recognized for her work campaigning for living wages in the Bay Area and coordinating public actions with farmworker cooperatives and unions in Ecuador and Colombia.

The annual prize, awarded under the auspices of the campus’s Center for Research on Social Change, is named for Thomas Yamashita, whose internment in 1942 made it impossible for him to complete his degree at UC Berkeley. He eventually graduated from the University of Nebraska and went on to have a successful career as a civil engineer, based mostly in Hong Kong.