Cal Day launched graduating senior’s Berkeley experience

The daughter of Vietnam War refugees, Anh-Thi Le has long shared her parents’ patriotism and desire to give back to the community. As a Girl Scout for 15 years, she joined food drives, walkathons and fundraisers, and, in her San Jose high school’s ROTC, adopted the tenet “service before self.”

In 2009, as college approached, she considered the U.S. Air Force Academy.

But then came Cal Day, UC Berkeley’s annual open house — the 2013 version takes place tomorrow (Saturday, April 20). “After visiting Berkeley,” she said, “I fell in love.”

Le, who had been admitted to UC Berkeley earlier that spring, was paired the night before Cal Day with a current  Berkeley student in an overnight host program, then spent Cal Day sampling many of its 300-plus events. She especially savored Sproul Plaza’s Public Service Fair and the endless tables of student organizations. Soon after the event, she signed her Statement of Intent to Register.

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Student Anh-Thi Le with Indian artisan. (Photo by Anna Henrich)

The next fall, as a freshman, Le said she was “very intimidated” by the caliber of her fellow students and anxious when she received lower scores than she’d had in high school. Now a confident senior, 21-year-old Le is a political science major who dove into numerous student groups and found new outlets for her public service passion. A highlight for her was to work with women artisans in a cooperative in rural Gujurat, India, as part of her minor in Global Poverty and Practice.

“I worked for NEST, a non-profit that helps artisan communities to alleviate poverty, empower women and promote peace,” said Le. “Preserving Indian culture is essential, and, in rural communities, it’s hard for women who embroider, sew clothing, make jewelry and do block printing to reach out to the public and sell their products.”

With two other American college students, Le conducted monitoring and evaluation surveys to measure the impact of NEST’s work in India, and fostered relationships between the artisans and U.S. businesses. After graduation in May, she hopes to return to India on a one-year fellowship to further study the impact of non-governmental organizations’ programs and policies.

Le credits UC Berkeley, and specifically Global Poverty and Practice, with teaching undergraduates how to conduct research and surveys, and to not only do field work, but to prepare for it and then, upon the students’ return, to reflect on their experiences.

“We take reflection courses, which are very small and intimate settings that provide us with a way to share our experiences in the field,” she said. “We all are bringing back different emotions evoked by our backgrounds and past experiences.”

Le also became involved in the CellScope lab of bioengineering Professor Daniel Fletcher. In remote areas, the cell phone microscope captures and wirelessly transmits clinical samples for analysis and disease diagnosis at low cost. As a social science student, Le has been part of this multidisciplinary public health initiative at the Blum Center for Developing Economies.

“Berkeley taught me to look at everything through a very holistic lens, in an interdisciplinary way,” she said. “CellScope is being deployed in Vietnam, and with my background, I’ve helped as a bridge between the project and people working there. As we speak, someone is now using that device in Hanoi. It’s been a wonderful experience, to see the implementation overseas of an invention from an academic setting in Berkeley.”

At Cal Day 2013, Le will be staffing a Global Poverty and Practice table and talking with parents and students about the opportunities available to UC Berkeley students.

She’ll also reminisce about her first Cal Day, when she was a high school student wondering what four years at UC Berkeley would bring.

“Don’t be afraid,” Le said, as advice to prospective and incoming students. “Speak up, get involved with student groups. At some point, you’re going to find your niche, and the only way is to meet people with similar interests. That’s when you’ll start enjoying yourself.