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Through times of crisis, 2021 University Medal finalists embraced leadership

By Edward Lempinen

Mira Cheng, Ben Harper, Alan Huang and Nayzat Wali-Ali all smile at the camera in a composite photo

The 2021 University Medal finalists have different backgrounds and will follow different career paths, but all are leaders and all are committed to public service. From left: Mira Cheng, Ben Harper, Alan Huang and Nayzak Wali-Ali. (Photo montage by Hulda Nelson)

Students in the UC Berkeley Class of 2021 pursued their studies and came of age in a time of historic challenge, working through wildfires, political turmoil, the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic shock to earn their degrees.

But in times of crisis, some people persist and rise to leadership. That’s true of the 2021 University Medal winner, Leyla Kabuli, and of the four Medal finalists: Mira Cheng, Ben Harper, Alan Huang and Nayzak Wali-Ali. In their own ways, each turned the challenges of these years into an opportunity for service.

The University Medal was established in 1871, and this year celebrates its 150th anniversary. Candidates must have achieved a GPA of 3.96 or higher while overcoming significant challenges and making a positive impact on the lives of other people.

This year’s finalists:

Mira Cheng stands before a Hungarian landscape of water and old hillside buildings

Mira Cheng (Photo by Lorand Cheng)

Mira Cheng

Hometowns: Budapest, Hungary; Piedmont, Calif.

Major: Molecular and cell biology, minor in global poverty and practice

Extracurricular: UC Berkeley Symphonic Orchestra (viola), Cal Triathlon club, Epsilon Eta environmental service fraternity

What’s next? Stanford University School of Medicine

Wildfires, the pandemic, economic stress, political turmoil — what lasting impact will these historic events have on you and your class? “The events of the past four years have affected everyone differently, but I think, as a class, we are graduating with a particularly mature worldview and an intense determination to be agents of change. My own biggest takeaway from these events has been that, in times of crisis, the only thing that truly matters is the community that surrounds you.”

How have the challenges of growing up in a multicultural, international family shaped your Berkeley experience and your future plans? “For a long time, I struggled to reconcile the feeling of belonging everywhere and the feeling of belonging nowhere. It wasn’t until I came to Berkeley that I was able to truly explore my multicultural identity and realize that my unique perspective allows me to connect with an immense range of people. My experience of moving to the U.S. at the age of 10 and encountering linguistic and cultural barriers motivates me to work to dismantle those barriers for others in health care and education.”

Ben Harper on campus

Ben Harper (Photo by Margie Cullen)

Ben Harper

Hometown: Weaverville, Calif.

Majors: Political science, music

Extracurricular: Cal Cross Country, Cal Track and Field, UC Jazz Ensembles (piano)

What’s next? M.A. in Climate and Society program at Columbia University

Wildfires, the pandemic, economic stress, political turmoil — what lasting impact will these historic events have on you and your class? “ The challenges we faced in our time at Berkeley exposed so much about our world and the inequalities on which it is built. But these have also given us opportunities to become leaders in the fight to build a more equitable society. As our generation faces more crises in the future, I know our college experience will have given us the knowledge, perspective and passion to collectively work towards a better world.”

How did the challenges you faced as an athlete influence your studies and/or work at Berkeley? “As a distance runner, I initially ran on a club team here, and it was only after two years of hard work and incredible support from friends and family was I able to achieve my lifelong goal of walking on to become a member of the Cal team. I wanted to extend that same support to others, which led to my role as team captain and my work in public service and municipal government. My athletic journey taught invaluable lessons about persevering through hardships and leading by example, and I aim to bring these attributes to my academic, professional and personal life.”

Alan Huang on campus

Alan Huang (Photo by Kevina Xiao)

Alan Huang

Hometown: Palo Alto, Calif.

Majors: Music, molecular and cell biology (neurobiology)

Extracurriculars: The Berkeley Group, Berkeley Free Clinic, UC Berkeley Wind Ensemble (saxophone)

What’s next? A few years at the Boston Consulting Group before applying to medical school

Wildfires, the pandemic, economic stress, political turmoil — what lasting impact will these historic events have on you and your class? “ While everyone has experienced these events differently, the one lesson I’ve taken away is that the people in charge don’t always have the right answers. I’ve been inspired countless times by the energy and ingenuity of my peers in response to these events over the years, and I think it’s our responsibility as newly educated college graduates to continue questioning the structures around us to make our society more equitable for all.”

How have life challenges shaped your academic career and professional plans? “ I’d like to first acknowledge that my achievements are not just the result of my own efforts, but also a product of the privileges I’ve been afforded in life. After losing a close friend in high school to suicide and seeing my grandfather lose his memories, I began to realize that I could use my privileges and passion for science to benefit others. This ultimately led me to pursue health care advocacy and neuroscience research at Berkeley, and, hopefully, a career in medicine. I also realized that life is pretty short, which inspired me to try consulting and continue playing music throughout college.”

Nayzak Wali-Ali in golden afternoon light on campus

Nayzak Wali-Ali (Photo by John Henry Stewart IV)

Nayzak Wali-Ali

Hometown: Sacramento, Calif.

Majors: Legal studies and ethnic studies

Extracurricular: Political director and transfer coordinator at Berkeley’s Black Recruitment and Retention Center, volunteer for Bay Area Legal Aid’s Domestic Violence Restraining Order Clinic

What’s next? Columbia Law School this fall

Wildfires, the pandemic, economic stress, political turmoil — what lasting impact will these historic events have on you and your class? “ We have had to endure more than most classes before us. In the midst of all of these tribulations, it has prepared our class for the urgency of these issues. We cannot idly watch or experience these problems, rather, we must take an active part in dismantling oppressive systems and supporting communities as we fight to build something better.”

Your family endured extraordinary loss and challenge in Iraq. How has that shaped your time at Berkeley and your future plans? “My family’s loss in the Anfal Genocide in Iraq and the continued eradication of Black people in this country has shaped who I am and what I hope to do. At Berkeley, I dedicated my time to Black activist organizing efforts and worked alongside my peers, community members, and administration to address the needs of BIPOC students. As I prepare for the next stage in life, I am committed to continuing this work as a civil rights attorney. Berkeley has prepared me for this promise to my community, and I am endlessly grateful for the opportunities I have had as a student.”