Awards, Campus & community, Campus news, Humanities, People, Politics & society, Profiles, Research, Science & environment

Versatile University Medalist reflects interests from Chinese literature to forestry

Double major Eric Olliff's inquisitive view of the world has helped earn him the 2012 University Medal, UC Berkeley's top prize for graduating seniors.

From sailing in Mo’orea and helping to safeguard the endangered California tiger salamander to a love for foreign languages, rock climbing and freestyle rap, Eric Olliff’s eclectic passions and talents are a few of the reasons he will receive this weekend UC Berkeley’s highest honor for a graduating senior, the 2012 University Medal.

Eric Olliff demonstrates some of his juggling skills. (Photo by Jean Smith)

Along with $2,500, the award gives Olliff the opportunity to address his classmates at Commencement Convocation 2012, on Saturday (May 12) at Edwards Track Stadium. In later ceremonies, he will receive a bachelor of arts degree in Chinese language and literature and a bachelor of science degree in conservation and resource studies.

Those who know 22-year-old Olliff describe him as exceptionally bright, committed to helping others, a great friend, fun-loving and charismatic, as well as a born leader and a serious scholar.

He credits his mother for teaching him time-management skills that help him work and play equally effectively and hard. But he says his soon-to-be alma mater, where he encountered a lifelong friend living a floor below him in the residence hall, gets its share of credit, too.

“In my mind, Berkeley is synonymous with opportunity, and the students who take advantage of these opportunities represent the university’s highest ideals,” Olliff wrote in an essay he was required to submit after qualifying for University Medal consideration.

The University Medal was established in 1871. Candidates must have a GPA of at least 3.96 by the end of the semester before their graduation. Those who qualify and wish to be considered submit an essay, a resume and several letters of recommendation. The medalist is chosen by the UC Berkeley Committee on Prizes.

Asked for a few words of wisdom, the Los Angeles native and Oakland, Calif. resident offered up the Chinese script for a Confucian teaching. “It literally translates to: ‘If three people are walking, someone who could serve as my teacher must be among them,’” wrote Olliff. “I think that is important to remain humble, and realize that we have something to learn from everybody we encounter.”

His encounters have been many, and Olliff has learned from all of them.

A 10th-grade trip to Tibet underscored his developing interest in foreign language and culture, as well as the outdoors. When Olliff arrived on campus in spring 2008, he already had taken four years of high school Mandarin and decided to major at UC Berkeley in Chinese language and literature.

But after attending the College of Natural Resources’ eight-week Forestry Field Camp in the Sierra Nevada in the summer of ’09, he experienced a shift.

There, he witnessed a 150-foot Ponderosa pine’s breathtaking crash to Earth and worked side-by-side with Distinguished Teaching Award winner Joe McBride, a professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning who researches the effects of urban forests on air pollution in China and fire’s role in the Sierra. Olliff also won the camp’s prize for the highest marks in plant-species recognition, and his “memorial chair” was placed 70 feet up in a towering Douglas fir.

Shortly after camp, Olliff decided to double major in conservation and resource studies — and he hasn’t looked back.

He went on to work on a Yunnan Province deforestation independent-research project while attending a six-month study abroad program in 2010. All courses were in Mandarin, and it was the only language spoken. At the program’s end, Olliff gave a 45-minute presentation on his project to others in the program — all in Mandarin.

Since China, he’s studied on the Polynesian island of Mo’orea and investigated the symbiotic relationship between the sea star shrimp and pin cushion sea star. In a memorable exchange, he discussed the project with George Roderick, UC Berkeley professor of population, chemical and molecular biology, while they sailed in a tropical lagoon.

Last summer, Olliff interned with the Waves of Hope nonprofit foundation in Northern Nicaragua, helping with sea turtle conservation, teaching English to local adults and children, and lending a hand in the community garden.

He acknowledged being a bit uncertain at first about how he’d fare in environmental sciences, due to a limited background in the so-called hard sciences. But his cumulative 3.99 grade point average says it all.

“One only advances in life by taking risks and getting outside of one’s comfort zone,” Olliff wrote in his essay. He added that it also helps to be self-motivated, talk openly with peers, professors and people encountered every day, and immerse oneself in the larger campus community.

For him, that has included serving as the food-service manager for the 150 residents of his Berkeley housing co-op — planning meals, ordering food and ensuring food safety on a budget of more than $22,500 a month.

He also participated in the Cal in Local Government program, interning with the city of Berkeley’s Rent Stabilization Board; there, he facilitated tenants’ rights workshops and creating a renters’ guide for students.

Currently, Olliff works as a technician, conducting biological surveys for an environmental consulting firm and at the UC Berkeley Agroecology Lab, where he helps with entomological field work in Napa Valley vineyards.

But he definitely makes time to play – especially rock climb, juggle, freestyle rap and backpack. He became certified as a wilderness first responder and an advanced open water diver.

His said his memories of UC Berkeley will include hard work as well as relaxing in the sunshine in Memorial Glade, biking through the campus’s eucalyptus grove, and listening to a Beatles tune being played on the Campanile’s carillon.

With graduation in sight, Olliff is considering attending graduate school to study wildlife veterinary medicine or pursuing a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology.  Whatever life holds, he’s confident things will work out just fine. Meanwhile, he plans to spend time “simply enjoying my youth.”

Related information: