Campus & community, Campus news

It’s cool to be kind: Berkeley lecturer’s award honors the good-hearted

The $1,000 Chris Kindness Award, given monthly by Alan Ross, a UC Berkeley lecturer and distinguished teaching fellow, celebrates random acts of kindness.

Students Egbert Villegas and Nelly Elahmadie, both wearing black T-shirts, pose for a photo at the Chris Kindness Award ceremony at Berkeley Haas, where Villegas was given the March 2023 Chris Kindness Award.

Egbert Villegas, a molecular and cell biology major, was nominated for the Chris Kindness Award by his girlfriend, Nelly Elahmadie, for rushing to help a driver in an overturned SUV. (Berkeley Haas photo by Laura Counts)

UC Berkeley student Egbert Villegas was driving his girlfriend, Nelly Elahmadie, to a doctor’s appointment last November when the pair spied an SUV flipped over on the freeway in Oakland. 

They were on their way from Walnut Creek to Berkeley; the accident came into view right before the Caldecott Tunnel.

Other drivers were whizzing past the unsettling scene, but Villegas “sprang into action,” said Elahmadie, pulling over to a safe spot and then  running to the overturned vehicle to help the driver, who was still strapped to his seat.

Last Thursday, Villegas, a molecular and cell biology major, was honored on campus for his effort with a $1,000 award, a framed certificate and a performance by the Straw Hat Band. It all was a complete surprise, he said, since “I never expected anything out of this … I was always taught to do things out of the kindness of your heart.”

That’s exactly why Alan Ross, a lecturer and distinguished teaching fellow at the Haas School of Business, founded the Chris Kindness Award, which Ross gives monthly for a random act of kindness to a person who lives, works or goes to school in the city of Berkeley.  

Ross, who has taught business ethics at Berkeley Haas for 33 years, named the award for Chris Walton, who was a preschool teacher for his daughter Haley, 21, and son Danny, 18. Walton, who died in 2012, “imbued in his young pupils a strong sense of community, charity and care,” said Ross.

The kindness award also aligns with what Ross teaches in his ethics course, The Social, Political, and Ethical Environment of Business. “When I teach corporate social responsibility, I call it ‘citizens’ social responsibility,’ for the responsibility we have as citizens,” he said. “What responsibility do we have? What more can I do? The award definitely ties into what we teach, and the students see me doing this and not just talking about it.”

A close-up photo of Berkeley Haas distinguished teaching fellow Alan Ross. He is smiling and wearing a dark blue crew neck T-shirt.

Lecturer Alan Ross, a Berkeley Haas distinguished teaching fellow, came up with the idea of the Chris Kindness Award. (Berkeley Haas photo by Jim Block)

Each month, the public selects a winner by voting for one of three finalists listed on the award’s website. The names of those who were nominated but don’t receive the prize in a given month are rolled over to the next month.

Villegas, a first-generation pre-med student from Mexico who plans to become a cardiologist, is the fourth winner of the award and the first UC Berkeley student to receive it.

“I really do appreciate it. I have been working since 7th grade to pay my tuition, so this means a lot,” said Villegas on Thursday at the Chou Hall awards event to a group of about 50 friends and fellow students. Some of them were members of the newly-formed Chris Kindness Club, a Berkeley Haas group led by Kaitlynn Turner, who will graduate this spring with a business degree.

Ross said that Villegas, who nabbed a record-high number of votes, in the hundreds, “is just a sweet guy. Every time I’ve talked to him, I’m blown away by how sweet he is — and how sweet all of our other winners are. They are so shocked that they are getting an award for something they do on a daily basis.” 

Elahmadie, a business major, met Villegas in a campus-wide online group chat during their first semester at Berkeley. She found out about the award while taking Ross’s ethics class last fall.

Egbert Villegas and Nelly Elahmadie, two UC Berkeley students, talk with friends and fellow students at the Chris Kindness Award ceremony at Berkeley Haas, where Villegas won an award for a random act of kindness.

Egbert Villegas and Nelly Elahmadie visit with friends and fellow students at the recent Chris Kindness Award ceremony at Berkeley Haas. (Berkeley Haas photo by Laura Counts)

“When I heard Professor Ross talking about the award last semester,” she said, “I knew I would nominate Egbert for what he had done.”

In her written nomination, Elahmadie described how Egbert managed to get the SUV driver to recline his seat and climb out of the car. Realizing that the man spoke Spanish, Villegas, who moved to California from Mexico with his mother in 2008, asked him questions to try to rule out signs of a concussion or serious injury. Then, he stayed to translate for the driver when the medics arrived. The man refused an ambulance, but Villegas didn‘t leave the scene until he believed the driver was OK. Villegas and Elahmadie haven’t heard anything since about the man or his recovery.

Villegas, who is interning at UCSF this summer, said he will put the money toward his medical school tuition. As a future cardiologist, he said he believes he can make a difference in his community by helping to prevent health issues that arise from a high-fat diet and a lack of regular, supportive health care. 

“In my community, we suffer from heart- and blood-related conditions stemming from poor diets and a lack of access to proper health care,” he said. “As a cardiologist, I aspire to gain back the trust of my community in our health care system and to promote both an equal and effective access to health care across the board.”

Ross funds the award out of his own pocket. He said it’s a tribute to his late parents, Morton and Sylvia Ross. “I was thinking about a scholarship, but I came up with this idea of an extra $1,000 for a school teacher or a bus driver who will use it for good,” he said. With so much negative news in the world, Ross added, he loves getting email that is “filled with these amazing stories.” 

He said he hopes the Chris Kindness Award program will expand to other cities and inspire students like the one he recently heard from who couldn’t find a flight for spring break. 

“The only ticket available was first-class, so he bought it,” said Ross. But when the student boarded the flight, he found an elderly man had upgraded from economy — to the student’s very seat. Seeing the man struggling, the student told him to keep the seat and instead sat in the coach section. 

The student told Ross that he acted with kindness “because of the Chris Kindness Award,” Ross said. “That really touched me and made me think about the ripple effect and what it can do.”

Previous award recipients are:

  • World-renowned origami artist Bernie Peyton, a UC Berkeley alumnus who teaches origami to young patients at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland. He volunteers his time every Thursday morning and supplies all of the paper.
  • Bus driver Alisa Jackson, who prepares meals and purchases blankets for people who are homeless. She also is passionate about helping youth and runs a nonprofit that teaches financial literacy.
  • Teacher Michele Williams, who over the past four years has reached out to a former third grade student of hers with special needs. His mother said of Williams, “With kids of her own and all week spent teaching other children in (the Berkeley Unified School District), she still regularly asks my child for a Peet’s meetup to hear how he is doing and catch up.”

Ross is fundraising for the prize. You can donate here.