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Top UC Berkeley graduate: We’ll keep ‘building knowledge for the public good’

top graduate Anjika Pai speaks at a podium
University Medalist winner Anjika Pai spoke during the commencement ceremonies. (UC Berkeley photo by Keegan Houser)
Anjika Pai, a major in environmental sciences and minor in music, is the 2022 winner of the University Medal. (UC Berkeley video)

Anjika Pai, a major in environmental sciences and minor in music and 2022 winner of the University Medal, gave the following address at UC Berkeley’s 2022 commencement:

Congratulations, graduates! I am beyond grateful to be here, and I am so excited to share with you my personal love letter to Berkeley.

Dear Cal,

Ours was a forbidden love. My parents kept me away from you for 18 years. My mom and dad — who were accustomed to the perpetually warm, equatorial climate of India — chose to settle down and raise a family in a state that often reaches below-freezing temperatures. Their decision made the West Coast a mystery to me, and that only made me want you more. As I studied next to my space heater on winter nights in Pennsylvania, I would loop “California Dreamin’” and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and I would dream of you.

Those love songs made me believe that your home could become our home, a place where a golden sun would surely shine above me while I discovered who I was meant to be. When I committed to you, Berkeley, many of my community members had their own ideas about our relationship. They would say, “You’ll become a completely different person, spending all day outside instead of going to class,” and warn me, earnestly, “Don’t turn into a hippie!”

a woman holds a grad cap saying " I am my grandmother's wildest dream"

Anjika Pai celebrated before the commencement ceremony. (UC Berkeley photo by Keegan Houser)

After all the daydreams of being with you, there was still quite an adjustment period for me when I moved in. Like most out-of-state and international students, I learned quickly about the land and people around me and adapted to your social norms. You had your own history, environment, and population — a couple of skeletons in your closet, but nothing to really worry about — that were so special and distinct. And these features were never adequately described in songs.

From the botanical gardens to Doe Library, your beauty was endless. But I fell in love with you for your mission. You carry out a vision to be a university that “contributes even more than California’s gold to the glory and happiness of advancing generations.” There it was: our future, together. Together — at the University of California, Berkeley — we achieved “firsts” and set standards for our nation and for the world.

We have gained the necessary tools to maintain a tradition of building knowledge for the public good.”

All this to say, those people in my hometown could not imagine how Cal — and California — would actually change me, as it does to all its graduates. While we have been surrounded by greatness, we have gained the necessary tools to maintain a tradition of building knowledge for the public good. Our renowned faculty, staff and mentors have taught us to turn every task into an opportunity to not only imagine innovative solutions, but also to expand our circle of care and consider a diverse set of perspectives. Every 8 a.m. discussion, every arduous three-hour lab, every Hertz Hall performance and every Golden Bears game has brought out the very best in us as we push the boundaries of what is possible.

Yet, Berkeley, our honeymoon phase eventually came to an end. No matter how many sunsets bathed our skies in cotton candy pink, the rose-colored glasses eventually came off. We endured power outages, N95 masks through smoke days and awkward in-person instruction transition periods. I saw how you put up a fight to give people what they deserved, at times — people like our amazing lecturers and graduate student instructors. We felt the pressures of political turmoil, both in-state and internationally. When I saw what seemed to be the worst of times, it became difficult to believe in my ability to do good.

Anjika Pai, the 2022 top graduating senior, sits on campus with the campanile in the background.

Anjika Pai, a major in environmental sciences and minor in music, is the 2022 winner of the University Medal. (UC Berkeley photo by Neil Freese)

So, I sought counseling. After countless lessons in my environmental science classes about the catastrophic, unavoidable effects of climate change, I would ask my professors, “Do you think we’ll be able to make it?” Each and every one responded that our generation will be the one to reverse the destruction we have witnessed thus far. But this vote of confidence hasn’t been the only thing that has reoriented me towards hope, time and time again. It has been the cutting-edge research, the community organizing and, yes, the hippie counterculture of this student body that has shown me the potential to create radical positive change.

Berkeley, I’m leaving you now. This is the hard part — and I’ve never been on this side of a breakup before. So, let me say the usual lines: It’s not you; it’s me. And there will always be a special place in my heart for you. Some of the rumors about you were indeed true: I’m leaving as a kinder, smarter and far more laid-back person than I originally was. But I need space to grow, and I need to take what I’ve learned here to keep furthering our mission for future generations. In that way, I suppose it’s best for both of us.

To my fellow graduates, I am sure that no person, and no song, could have imagined what all of us have encountered and accomplished here. Through its delightful unpredictability, this four-year relationship gave us the audacity to believe that we have the power to transform the world for good. I wish that you carry this trait of fearless optimism with you wherever you go. May this spark in you light the way for others.

Best wishes,

Anjika Pai