Four (brilliant!) finalists named for 2020 University Medal

The 2020 University Medal finalists, from left: Michael Cerda-Jara; Varsha Sarveshwar; Bhavish Dinakar; and Isaac Witte

The 2020 University Medal finalists, from left: Michael Cerda-Jara; Varsha Sarveshwar; Bhavish Dinakar; and Isaac Witte

Berkeley is known globally as a center of academic excellence, attracting the best and brightest students from the United States and the world. But in every class, a small cohort of students are distinguished by their wide-ranging interests, deep commitment and, of course, hard work.

This year’s University Medal winner is Anna Boser, a statistics major. But the four finalists — Michael Cerda-Jara, Bhavish Dinakar, Varsha Sarveshwar and Isaac Witte — also exemplify the incredible accomplishment and promise of the Class of 2020. Now they are graduating, part of an international community of students whose traditional ceremonies are delayed or canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The University Medal was established in 1871, and candidates must have achieved a GPA of 3.96 or higher while overcoming significant challenges and making an impact on the lives of other people.

This year’s finalists:

Michael Cerda-Jara, 2020 University Medal finalist

(Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

Michael Cerda-Jara
Hometown: Newark, California
Major: Sociology
Extracurricular: Transfer coordinator for Berkeley Underground Scholars
What’s next? Ph.D. studies in sociology at Stanford University
How will you celebrate? In the midst of this global pandemic, and in place of celebrating my accomplishments, I will celebrate my good health and that of my family.
How will Berkeley shape your future? Berkeley will shape my future by reminding me to always stay grounded in my work and to never forget that I work in service of others — for the currently and formerly incarcerated, the kids in the barrios/hoods who are afforded less opportunities, the youth who are criminalized and the millions of people who encounter barrier after barrier as a result of a criminal record. By recognizing that I stand on a hill of privilege, it is my duty to help others who come from similar backgrounds reach this same hill of privilege.

Bhavish Dinakar, 2020 University Medal finalist

(Photo by Akshay Dinakar)

Bhavish Dinakar
Hometown: Prairie Village, Kansas
Major: Chemical engineering, minors in computer science, mathematics and physics
Extracurricular: UC Jazz Ensembles violinist, Cal Table Tennis Club
What’s next? Ph.D. in chemical engineering at MIT
How will you celebrate? I plan on participating in the virtual commencement ceremony on the UC Blockeley Minecraft server.
What is the most important value you will take from Berkeley? It seems like just yesterday I was moving into my freshman dorm room, and I cannot believe that four years have already gone by. It is easy to get caught up in the day-to-day struggles of Berkeley, and it is important to occasionally take a step back and remember what really matters. Although it is nice to know how to find the spectral decomposition of a matrix, I think the true value of Berkeley lies in the memories I will carry with me the rest of my life — chasing a bat out of my suite at Foothill (housing complex), finding a refrigerator in my bathtub and munching on Doritos Locos Tacos after a late night of basketball at the RSF (Recreational Sports Facility), to name a few.

Varsha Sarveshwar, 2020 University Medal finalist

(Photo by Natalie Shao)

Varsha Sarveshwar
Hometown: Oak Park, California
Major: Political science
Extracurricular: President of the UC Student Association; external affairs vice president of the Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC)
What’s next? A summer at an education equity nonprofit, then a year as a John Gardner Public Service Fellow
How will you celebrate? I’m going to take a few days off from my student government responsibilities to rest and spend time with loved ones — following social distancing guidelines, of course.
What is your greatest ambition for the future? I was born and raised in California, and during my time in college, I’ve realized just how much I don’t want to leave. Many political science majors have national ambitions, but I think I want to dedicate my career to state politics. California often sets the example for what progressive, empathetic policymaking can look like. At the same time, we face so many seemingly intractable challenges, from education funding to the housing crisis. My greatest ambition is simply to effect meaningful change in this state, whether that’s in organizing, advocacy, electoral politics or government.

Isaac Witte, 2020 University Medal finalist

(Photo by Daniel Kim)

Isaac Witte
Hometown: Overland Park, Kansas
Majors: Molecular and cell biology, music
Extracurricular: Celli@Berkeley
What’s next: Pursuing a Ph.D. in biological and biomedical sciences at Harvard University
How will you celebrate? I’ll be with my family, celebrating my graduation from college and my younger sister’s graduation from high school. Brady, our golden retriever, is very excited!
What will you remember about Berkeley 25 years from now? The people. At Berkeley, I’ve been fortunate to find so many communities filled with close friends and amazing mentors. I’ve made some of my best friends as a member of the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, and it has been a joy to make music with them, whether performing in Hertz Hall on campus or in Spain during our 2017 tour. I’ve also met many incredible scientists at Berkeley who are deeply curious and passionate about helping others. Throughout my undergraduate experience, the people of Berkeley have been what’s made my time at Cal so memorable.