Each year, graduating seniors have the opportunity to apply for UC Berkeley’s prestigious University Medal, an honor that requires a 3.96 grade-point average and goes to students who have overcome challenges and are making a difference in people’s lives.
The University Medal was established in 1871. This year, the Prizes Committee selected five finalists. Kaavya Valiveti took first place and will be delivering the commencement speech at this year’s graduation ceremony on Saturday, May 14, but the four runners-up — Amy Wang, Chun Man Chow, Rachael Acker and Yizhuang Alden Cheng — are all exceptional in their own right. Below, the finalists, each of whom receives a $500 award, introduce themselves — who they are, what they’ve learned, what inspires them and what comes next.
Name: Amy Wang
Hometown: Arcadia, California
Major: Molecular and cell biology
Biggest lesson learned: To expect and accept the bumps in the road. I have always been the type of person with a meticulously thought-out plan, but I’ve learned that sometimes — even if you’ve done everything right — things might not go as planned. And that’s just how life is. Let those surprises challenge you, delight you and grow you into an even stronger, wiser you.
Greatest inspiration: Definitely my parents. My parents were the first in their families to move out of China, and their courage, work ethic and determination to create a better future for our family never cease to amaze me. My father is the first in his family to pursue higher education. In fact, both his parents were carpenters, and my grandmother told my father from a young age that if he wanted to do anything other than carpentry, he had to focus on his education. Despite having grown up poor and hungry during the Cultural Revolution, my father went on to not only be the first in his family to attend college, but also earn a Ph.D. in chemistry. Growing up in a household that placed immense value on education and family has shaped me into the individual that I am today, and I cannot thank my parents enough for all that they have taught me and all that they have sacrificed to ensure a brighter future for me. Realizing and reminding myself of the many challenges my parents have overcome inspires me to push myself to be the best person I can possibly be, not only for myself, but also for the people and communities around me.
What’s next: I will be attending the UCSF School of Medicine to continue pursuing my goal of serving communities both near and far as a physician-scientist.
Name: Chun Man Chow
Hometown: Hong Kong
Major: Chemical engineering and environmental engineering science
Biggest lesson learned: I’ve learned that we can’t do things alone. I think everyone has a role in society, and many of the issues we’re facing require expertise across multiple fields to solve. That’s why I really appreciate the diversity at UC Berkeley — I know that even though we might all be going toward different paths, we will all be making a difference in the world, and together we can bring about positive change.
Greatest inspiration: My greatest inspiration is the people I’ve met and gotten to know. My father is one of the kindest person I’ve ever known. He’s taught me not only how to love, but also how to find meaning and stay happy in life. The orphans I worked with in Japan showed me how to be resilient, to accept vulnerability and to find joy in little things. Last but not least, I’m inspired by all the people who have devoted their lives to helping others and serving communities in need. They have given me hope and motivation to dream big and to fight for a better world.
What’s next: I will be pursuing a master of philosophy (MPhil) degree in advanced chemical engineering at the University of Cambridge under the Churchill Scholarship before going for a Ph.D. at MIT in chemical engineering to develop novel water treatment technology.
Name: Rachael Acker
Hometown: Palo Alto
Major: French (and pre-med)
Biggest lesson learned: I have learned how to find and pursue the things that I am passionate about. I have also learned to appreciate all of the diversity that is here at Cal, and come to appreciate that everyone here has their own unique set of talents and interests. Maybe most importantly, I have learned that there are so many people who want to help and support each of us; it’s just about being willing to ask for help and looking for it in the right places.
Greatest inspiration: One of the people who inspires me most is my swim coach, Teri McKeever. From day one, she has shown me that my success in college is not only determined by my athletic and academic achievements, but also my growth as a person. She has broken many boundaries as a female in the sport of swimming, and specifically coaching at the collegiate and Olympic levels. She empowers and inspires everyone on my team to not be afraid of being strong and confident women. I wouldn’t be where I am today without her support and the example she continues to set for all of us.
What’s next: I will be applying to medical school in June 2016. I also just received a Fulbright independent research grant to pursue a research project in biology at the University of Rennes in France next year.
Name: Yizhuang Alden Cheng
Major: Economics, applied mathematics and statistics
Biggest lesson learned: I’ve learned that rather than worry about whether something is possible, it’s much better to simply try my best. Had I set goals that could be achieved too easily and rested on my laurels after attaining them, I would probably not have attained my full potential here at Berkeley.
Greatest inspiration: My parents have been an immense source of inspiration. They grew up in large and relatively poor families around the time Singapore gained independence. Despite the lack of financial resources and a public safety net during those years, both my parents were able to obtain college degrees through sheer will and determination. Their work ethic instilled in me a belief that there is no substitute to hard work and perseverance.
What’s next: I will be working as a full-time research assistant to Professor Stefano DellaVigna and Professor David Card for a year after graduation. After that, I plan to pursue a Ph.D. in economics and enter a career in academia.