Fourth-generation Berkeley student lands prize for water work

UC Berkeley undergraduate Rebecca Peters has landed a prestigious Truman Scholarship in recognition of her leadership potential as an agent of change and commitment to making a difference in the world through public service.

Peters, whose classroom work and field research focus on issues of water security, management and equity, is one of 62 “exceptional college juniors” nationwide selected last week as 2013 Harry S. Truman scholars.

The prestigious prize comes with a sizable financial award — up to $30,000 for graduate studies — and is rounded out with valuable government internship, leadership-training and postgraduate research opportunities in Washington, D.C. Scholars also receive supplemental financial support and priority admission at some leading graduate institutions.

The Truman Scholarship Foundation was established by Congress in 1975 to encourage future “change agents” of America. The awards program recognizes college juniors with outstanding leadership potential who are committed to careers in government, nonprofit, education and other public-service sectors.

“It’s very exciting and humbling at the same time because this kind of honor doesn’t mean you kick back and relax,” says Peters, who is pursuing a dual bachelor’s degree in society and environment through the College of Natural Resources and the interdisciplinary international development and economics.

“For me,” she adds, “it means these people are investing in me and I have to work all the harder to justify their support.”

Rebecca Peters

Peters tests the flow rate of ultraviolet water-treatment system in Chiapas, Mexico, last March.

Peters, who grew up in Southern California, transferred to Berkeley from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo after her sophomore year to enroll in the Blum Center’s global poverty and practice minor.

Now at the end of her second year at Berkeley, and with one honors thesis filed in January, Peters plans to continue her undergraduate studies for an additional year in order to complete a second honors thesis on water and human rights.

“More than anything, I identify as an environmentalist but, fundamentally, what I care about is developing policies that transcend solely economic or social or environmental valuations,” she says.

Throughout her time at Berkeley, Peters has bolstered her impressive classroom efforts and improved her Spanish language skills with extensive practical project experience in Latin America. Recently returned from field work in Chiapas, Mexico, she spent last summer in Cochabamba, Bolivia working on water-purification and sanitation projects in rural and semi-urban areas.

“When I look at the chances to take meaningful leadership roles on this campus, the opportunities for undergraduate research, the ability to connect with leading faculty, these are all things I think were only possible because of the unique nature of this institution,” Peters says.

In coming to Berkeley, the San Francisco native followed in the familial footsteps of three generations of women stretching back to the turn of the 20th century — mother, grandmother and great grandmother.

“My grandmother is 96 years old now but she still speaks vividly and fondly of her time at Cal,” Peters says. “In fact, she always gives me a hard time whenever I wear Stanford red.”

While life decisions revolving around family and career halted her forebears’ studies before graduation, Peters is on track to graduate in spring 2014.

“I’m the fourth generation to come to Berkeley, so it’s a special place and it would mean so much to be the first one who leaves with her degree,” Peters says.

In addition to her core studies and research, Peters worked to expand water-related opportunities for students, co-founding a DeCal course focused on water and international human rights, revitalizing the Berkeley Water Group, an interdisciplinary think tank for undergrad and graduate students, serving as a peer advisor to students in Global Poverty, and Practice and working with faculty to develop the curriculum for a minor in water sustainability, science and policy.

Rebecca Peters

Peters worked with local nonprofit Fundación Cántaro Azul on a safe-water system at a rural school in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Peters is a finalist in this year’s Big Ideas @ Berkeley student-innovation competition in the human-rights category, while her article titled “Power, Poverty, and the New Water Market” will be published in the upcoming edited volume Territories of Poverty by Berkeley professor Ananya Roy.

“It’s crucial that the United States take a leadership role on water issues because the decisions we make now about water security and distribution will have profound impacts on the future of humanity,” Peters says.

Looking ahead, Peters plans to use her Truman scholarship to fund a dual master’s degree in water science and international development at Oxford University in the United Kingdom. In the longer term, she hopes to fulfill her commitment to public service as she works to shape U.S. foreign policy in the area of water issues.

“None of this would have possible without Alicia Hayes at Berkeley’s scholarships office,” Peters says. Hayes is an advisor in the Office of Undergraduate Research and Prestigious Scholarships.

“She’s done more than anyone to help me pursue my graduate studies,” Peters adds.

Peters and the other 2013 Truman scholars will visit the 33rd president’s hometown June 2 for a special awards ceremony at the Truman Library in Independence, Mo.