At Haas Pavilion, Cal student-athletes in the spotlight for academic excellence

Hammed Suleman

Hammed Suleman

Social-welfare major Hammed Suleman knew he’d be delivering the keynote at Monday’s Student Athlete Academic Honors Luncheon, an annual event to honor the classroom achievements of Berkeley student-athletes.

He “had no idea,” though, that he’d also be the winner of the Joseph M. Kavanagh Award as the campus’s most academically improved student-athlete — one of some 40 fellow Golden Bears to be recognized at the Athletic Study Center-hosted event for grade-point averages every bit as impressive as their successes as members of Cal’s intercollegiate squads.

“Berkeley’s had such an impact on who I’ve become today, and who I aspire to be,” said Suleman, a track-and-field star who plans to work for his master’s degree in education after he graduates later this month. “From my first day on campus, Berkeley’s pushed me out of my comfort zone and forced me to grow.”

He recalled the intimidation he felt when he arrived on campus five years ago, and being unable to grasp the vocabulary of another student who spoke in class.

Among the most important lessons he’s learned at Berkeley? “It’s better to try and fail,” he said, “than not to try at all.”

Alicia Asturias

Alicia Asturias

But failure clearly wasn’t in the vocabulary of the dozens of Cal student-athletes, coaches, friends and supporters who gathered in Haas Pavilion to make the point — by shining a spotlight on scholarship, community engagement and grade-point averages that would be the envy of any Berkeley student — that Intercollegiate Athletics defines excellence as preparation for success in life, not simply within the confines of what Athletic Director Sandy Barbour called “your playing fields, courts, pools, tracks and courses.”

“We honor, today, what is right about college athletics,” said Barbour, who introduced the winners of the Tom Hansen Conference Medal, awarded to the outstanding senior male and female student-athletes at each Pac-12 institution, based on a combination of achievement in scholarship, athletics and leadership.

The 2014 Hansen recipients were Brandon Hagy, one of the world’s top amateur golfers and a business-administration major with a GPA of 3.72, and Alicia Asturias, an exceptional women’s gymnast and a psychology major with a GPA of 3.83.

In all, awards and postgraduate scholarships were given to 16 student-athletes from across the spectrum of sports at Berkeley, as well as recognition of the highest team GPA and most-improved team GPA — both scored by the women’s golf team, which combined for 3.54 — and Golden Bear Awards for those with the highest GPA on each team.

“Not only have many of you taken advantage of all that is available to you at this great university,” said Barbour, “but many of you have also succeeded at an international level athletically.

“And to me, that’s our point of difference,” she added. “That’s what Berkeley is about, that level of worldwide excellence.”