Top graduating senior a rags-to-academic-riches story

The life of über-scholar and cellist Aaron Benavidez, just named the top graduating senior at the University of California, Berkeley, is nothing short of dramatic – from his impoverished and turbulent childhood in California’s Central Valley, to playing the cello in Europe’s elite concert halls, to finding his “Ithaca” in the field of sociology.

Aaron Benavidez is this year's top graduating senior (Photos by Mia Tu Mutch)

This Saturday, Benavidez, the youngest son of working class Latinos in Stockton, Calif., will accept the University Medal for his scholarship, public service and humanity at Commencement 2011. Before a crowd of 12,000 people at Edwards Track Stadium, he will deliver a speech that is sure to convey how fortunate he feels.

“Only at Berkeley could someone who was hungry for more, someone who wanted to experience a challenge, someone, like me, succeed,” said Benavidez, a double major in sociology and rhetoric whose erudition since transferring to UC Berkeley from Sacramento City College in 2008 earned him a near-perfect GPA of 3.98, including 11 A-pluses.

At 31, Benavidez’ fresh, unlined face and direct gaze behind dark-framed glasses belie his age and the obstacles he’s had to overcome. Given the hand he was dealt, it’s a miracle he made it to UC Berkeley at all.

“Aaron is simply not supposed to be at Berkeley,” wrote UC Berkeley sociology professor Loїc Wacquant in his letter recommending Benavidez for the University Medal. “He is not supposed to have garnered straight A’s and A-pluses in all his classes; he is not supposed to have mastered two disciplines, sociology and rhetoric; he is not supposed to have developed his own scholarship and to have grown into a Renaissance young man who weds scholarly brilliance and artistic excellence with personal generosity and social commitment.”

Indeed, at UC Berkeley, Benavidez has garnered an impressive legacy as founder of Eleven: The Undergraduate Journal of Sociology, for which he served as editor-in-chief, and of the UC Berkeley Sociological Research Symposium, for which he recently won an OSKIs Student Leadership Award.

He worked as a research intern at the Center for Urban Ethnography, as president of the Berkeley Undergraduate Sociology Association and as academic chair of the Alpha Kappa Delta Sociology Honors Society, and taught a DeCal course, “Violence: From Visible to (In)Visible.”

He said sociology has given him the language to translate and make sense of his life.

The son of a Mexican-American electrician and a Panamanian house cleaner and caregiver, Benavidez was born in Los Angeles in 1980, the youngest of two girls and two boys. As a child, poverty and bouts of violence and alcoholism plagued his household. When his parents separated when he was 5, his mother moved her brood into a modest apartment in Stockton.

His parents reunited when he was 7, and the family moved into a house in a working class neighborhood in Stockton. He took up the cello, drawn to the power and emotions he could project through the large, bowed, four-string instrument.

“I could be anybody,” he said. “The cello allowed me to enact and embody the different variations that I was becoming.”

His father, a Teamsters union organizer, instilled in his son the moxy to fight against socio-economic and racial inequities. “If something concerned me in high school, I would start a petition,” he said.

But his parents’ misunderstanding of the importance of SAT exams for entering college got in the way of him taking the test, Benavidez said.

In spite of these hurdles, Benavidez excelled, winning essay competitions and other accolades. But he was not a quiet, nose-in-a-book child. In fact, he was so rambunctious on the school bus one day that the driver ordered him off, with his cello, in an isolated area near Highway 99. “It’s just me and you,” Benavidez told his cello as they set off for the long journey home.

At 17, he applied to UC Berkeley, submitting everything but his SAT scores, which he could not provide because he had not taken the exam.

By the time a letter from UC Berkeley arrived accepting him on condition that he complete 60 community college units, Benavidez had left home, dropped out of high school and moved to Sacramento, where he supported himself by working in a music store and teaching cello, Benavidez.

After eking out a living, he auditioned informally for the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra. His distinctive talent earned him the position of principal cellist and he went on to perform at such prestigious venues as The Sorbonne in Paris and the Esterhazy Palace in Austria.

Despite the prestige, travel and opportunity to perfect his art, it was a period of intense solitude and introspection for Benavidez: “I was giving so much of myself to the music. I wanted to retreat,” he said.

At times, he tried leaving his cello in the unlocked trunk of his car, or in the lobby of his apartment building, hoping someone would steal it. But no one ever did.

By 2005, he had quit the UC Davis Symphony, packed away his cello and enrolled at Sacramento City College, segueing from professional musician to starving student. Even though he was eligible for financial aid, he refused it on the grounds that “I was on a journey I didn’t want taxpayers to pay for.”

He earned no less than 10 associate’s degrees in subjects ranging from English to history to international studies.

When he arrived at UC Berkeley in 2008 as a 28-year-old transfer student with financial aid and student loans, he finally felt secure: “I had money for the first time. I could buy books, food. It made me appreciate Berkeley, made me want to spend all my time doing work.”

And work he did, embarking on two majors and finding his niche. It was in his sociology honors thesis program that Benavidez became interested in violence in the lives of transgender women. His research led him to coin the term “quotidian violence” – everyday hostility and ongoing abuse that cause anxiety and a reduced quality of life.

Almost every Saturday afternoon, he volunteered at TRANS: THRIVE, a drop-in center in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district for transgender people, where he would chat with them, wash dishes and organize a closet of clothes.

“I saw something of myself in their struggle to come to terms with violence,” Benavidez wrote in his application essay for the University Medal. “We were together in translating tragedy.”

This past winter, he traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa, conducting more than 90 interviews at Nelson Mandela Bridge, Constitution Hill and the Apartheid Museum. His findings suggest that South Africa’s new national identity is being packaged more for a global audience than for people who reside within the country.

This June, Benavidez will assist University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Philippe Bourgois with his research. Next, he will apply to Ph.D. programs as one of 25 top minority students selected to attend a graduate school application “boot camp” at the Institute for the Recruitment of Teachers program at Andover Academy in Boston.

After that, he will return to UC Berkeley to work on a research project about Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp with rhetoric professor Ramona Naddaff. He hopes to begin a doctoral program in sociology in fall 2012, but he said it’s too early to say where.

But before he’s swept up in his next scholarly adventure, Benavidez is stopping to reflect on why UC Berkeley was the right place for him at the right time.

“Berkeley is a place to which you have to come knowing yourself,” he said. “By the time I arrived, I knew what I wanted to do and the courses I wanted to take. In a way, it was like magic.”