Each year, graduating seniors have the opportunity to apply for UC Berkeley’s prestigious University Medal, an honor that requires a 3.96 GPA and goes to those who have overcome challenges and are making a difference in people’s lives.
The University Medal was established in 1871 and this year, the Prizes Committee selected five finalists. Radhika Kannan took home first place and will be delivering the commencement speech at this year’s graduation ceremony on Saturday, May 16, but the four runners-up — Miranda Landfield, Matt Nguyen, Margaret Perret and Aaron Wienkers — are all exceptional in their own right. The finalists will each receive a $500 award and will undoubtedly go on to do great things. Here is a little about the finalists — who they are, what they’ve learned, what inspires them and what comes next.
Name: Miranda Serena Landfield
Hometown: Los Angeles, California
Biggest lesson learned at UC Berkeley: “That I can’t do everything on my own,” she says. “I have to stand strong on my own two feet and simultaneously accept help and support from others.” She says her family, friends, professors and mentors have supported her in big and small ways throughout her time at Berkeley.
Greatest Inspiration: The people around her. “Life is hard and I look at the people around me,” she says, “and I am inspired by everything they have been through…We all fight hard battles, and I am inspired everyday by the resilience of the human spirit.”
What’s next: Landfield is working at the Berkeley Haas School of Business and hopes to pursue a graduate degree in psychology and work with kids in underserved communities.
Name: Matt Nguyen
Hometown: Huntington Beach, California
Major: Political Science
Biggest lesson learned at UC Berkeley: The importance of taking responsibility for ourselves, for the impact we want to see in the world and for the personal communities we wish to represent. “We must take the initiative to lead, innovate, and serve during our time at Berkeley and in the years to come,” he says.
Greatest Inspiration: His younger siblings and all the kids he’s worked with throughout his time at Berkeley. He recalls a lesson he taught to a class of third graders about natural selection: He introduced the concept and then led an exercise where students pretended to be birds selecting which worms to eat. The worms were made of different colored string, and instead of choosing to eat the brightly colored worms, as natural selection predicted they would, students looked past them and pulled up the brown worms. Although Nguyen felt a twinge of failure at first, he soon “beamed with pride at how my students applied what they learned in class to anticipate and obliterate expected results,” he says.
What’s next: Nguyen will be attending Yale law school in fall 2015, and plans to study government law.
Name: Margaret Joy Perret
Hometown: Monrovia, California
Major: Gender & Women’s Studies, Integrative Biology, Interdisciplinary Studies: Science, Technology & Society
Biggest lesson learned at UC Berkeley: To be an activist-scholar. “I believe that the process of producing knowledge is an inherently political process,” she says. “As a writer and thinker, I want to create scholarship that aligns with my feminist politics and contributes to a better world. UC Berkeley has empowered me pursue both intellectual rigor and social and ecological justice. UC Berkeley gave me the skill and confidence to be bold, creative and radical in my academic work. As such, I often find myself pushing the boundaries of who and what is legible in academic discourse. For me, this is a political project that has the potential to aid social movements.”
Greatest Inspiration: “My communities, especially queer women on campus, inspire me with their brilliance and vibrancy,” she says. “They have taught me to that it takes courage to be vulnerable and strength to be tender. They inspire me to bring kindness and radical openness to everything I do.”
What’s next: Perret plans to get her Ph.D. in feminist science studies, and says, ultimately, she hopes to be a feminist scholar and activist.
Name: Aaron Wienkers
Hometown: Green Bay, Wisconsin
Major: Mechanical Engineering
Biggest lesson learned at UC Berkeley: Question everything. “Two things that differentiate us from computers are our creativity and volition,” he says. “Take advantage of this. Be inquisitive. Struggle with these questions — really wrestle with the problem — tear it apart and build it up from fundamentals. These are the seeds of research, and where real learning happens.”
Greatest Inspiration: The night sky. “Being able to look up at the stars,” he says, “and even begin to understand the cosmos is a testament to how we have come. But space continues to remind us how much more have yet to learn.”
What’s next: Wienkers is in France for the spring and summer conducting research on internal gravity wave instabilities at École Normale Supérieure de Lyon. In the fall, he will begin an M.Phil. in Scientific Computing and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge before pursuing a Ph.D. at Stanford University in computational hydrodynamic instabilities and turbulence (supported by the NSF and Stanford Graduate Fellowships).