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For University Medal finalists, the pandemic was a stormy voyage of discovery

The Class of 2023 may be known to history as the COVID class, but for four University Medal finalists, the pandemic was just one challenge on an often profound journey

Photo illustration of 2023 University Medal finalists featuring, from left, Aaron P. Hill, Andrea Sandoval, Rohith Sajith and Rosie Ward, superimposed against a background of The Campanile and campus buildings

The 2023 University Medal finalists, from left: Aaron P. Hill, Andrea Sandoval, Rohith Sajith and Rosie Ward. (Photo illustration by Neil Freese)

The UC Berkeley Class of 2023 may be known to history as the COVID class — the students’ first year on campus was cut short by the pandemic, and the virus roiled their lives, wave after wave.

But for University Medal winner Catherine Vera, and for finalists Aaron P. Hill, Rohith Sajith, Andrea Sandoval and Rosie Ward, the pandemic was just one challenge on an often profound voyage of discovery.

They had to contend with learning by Zoom and social isolation. Some lost family members to other sorts of illness. And yet, in their own individual ways, they summoned the resilience needed to learn and to serve their communities — and to emerge stronger, wiser and ready for the world. In this, they exemplify the strength of their class.

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:

Aaron P. Hill (he/him/his)

informal portrait of Aaron P. Hill, wearing a navy blazer, blue shirt and azure tie, broadly smiling, against a wood-grain panel

Aaron P. Hill

Hometown: Forest Falls, California

Major: History

Major extracurricular associations and activities: Berkeley Political Review, editor in chief; Cal Berkeley Democrats, communications director; Phi Alpha Theta, secretary; Power of a Princess.

What’s next? Joining Teach for America as a corps member, teaching 11th grade history in Southern Massachusetts for the next two years.

Is there some element of character or experience sets the Class of 2023 apart?

“When the Class of 2023 returned to campus as juniors, we had the opportunity to actively create new atmospheres in our clubs and classes. Personally, I think this has been a huge positive, as it allowed us to flourish as leaders — plus, the campus community has blossomed post-pandemic.”

What has been the biggest challenge you faced at Berkeley? How did you address it?

“My time at Berkeley, like many other students, has been defined by handling personal challenges while still living my college experience to its fullest. Over the past four years, I lost my mother to cancer and was evacuated for months for a wildfire, and my community at Cal has been pivotal in getting me through that. I simply could not have kept going without my wonderful friends and mentors who supported me constantly.”

If you could relive your UC Berkeley experience, what one thing would you do differently?

“I would want to be even more involved in the community off-campus. I always wish I had even more time to see more of the Bay Area, meet more people outside of Cal, and become tied in further to the politics of the Bay. As fantastic as my experience in class and with research has been, community is the brightest spot of my college experience, and I wish I had realized that earlier on.”

You’re a rock-climber. Did you really contemplate climbing the Campanile?

“I once heard a story about somebody trying to, though of course I never did. But the Campanile represents for me the high and intimidating expectations of Berkeley, and meeting those seemed as impossible as climbing it. However, now when I see it, it reminds me of all the fantastic and supportive elements of life at Cal. In that sense, it no longer seems like a challenge to climb, but my own support base.”

Rohith Sajith (he/him)

informal portrait of Rohith Sajith in a white polo shirt, sitting down, right arm extended, with Asian art and a terrarium in the background

Rohith Sajith (Photo by Subash Shibu)

Hometown: Pleasanton, California

Majors: Physics, computer science, and applied mathematics

Major extracurricular associations and activities: Society of Physics Students; Cal Running Club; and Berkeley Math Tournament.

What’s next? Ph.D. in theoretical condensed matter physics and quantum information at Harvard University

Is there some element of character or experience that sets the Class of 2023 apart?

“The pandemic caused an inflection point in both the state of the world and in the trajectory of our undergraduate experience. Post-pandemic, I believe our class has emerged more reflective and critical of both ourselves and the status quo, which will serve us well, regardless of where life takes us.”

What has been the biggest challenge you faced at Berkeley? How did you address it?

“During my freshman year, the vibrant academic environment of Berkeley allowed me to freely explore many exciting fields across STEM. However, I soon realized that I was getting spread thin across my various passions — it was time to make the inevitable sacrifice of exploration for specialization. I resolved this dilemma by persisting until I discovered a niche in quantum information that now consolidates my interests into a coherent framework and also has great potential for impact.”

If you could relive your UC Berkeley experience, what one thing would you do differently?

“In my final year, I find that my most memorable days come from juxtaposing structured academic activity with spontaneous physical activity. An underrated part of Berkeley is the people who are extremely dedicated to their physical well-being, via athletics or recreational sports. I only wish that I had joined this community earlier, as they have taught me that the keys to success — both as a scholar and an athlete — are fundamentally the same: resilience and perseverance.”

You’ve worked at an advanced level in such diverse fields — neuroscience, astrophysics, machine learning and quantum information. Tell us a little bit about the nature of your curiosity.

“The aspect of science that’s fascinated me from a young age is that of emergence, where a system behaves differently than the individual constituents that make it up. Whether it be water droplets forming a coherent wave, a metal transforming into a superconductor, or a neural network learning a complex decision boundary, I seek out exotic ways in which science brings the cliché, ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,’ to life.”

Andrea Sandoval (she/hers)

informal portrait of Andrea Sandoval, wearing her graduation stole, smiling, against a campus backdrop of low balustrades and trees

Andrea Sandoval (Photo by May Le)

Hometown: Mexicali, Baja California, Mexico

Majors: Molecular and cell biology, public health

Major extracurricular associations and activities: Deputy director of medical operations at Berkeley Medical Reserve Corps; emergency medical technician at San Diego Ambulance Company; community service chair and alumni liaison at Hermanas Unidas; research apprentice at the Scott Lab; and marathon runner.

What’s next? During a year off from studies, work as a research associate at the UCSF Weiss Lab studying autism genomics. Then pursue a medical degree.

Is there some element of character or experience that sets the Class of 2023 apart?

“The Class of 2023 is unique in its passion for social justice. This class has fought for the improvement of graduate student instructor pay, protection of the unhoused community, and opening up new spaces on campus for minorities. It’s been inspiring to see my classmates strive for equity even through the pandemic.”

What has been the biggest challenge you faced at Berkeley? How did you address it?

“The biggest challenge was missing a sense of belonging. Initially, it was a challenge to find a sense of community. As a minority, I found there weren’t many people who enjoyed the same songs, food and language that I did. To address this, I began joining student organizations that were specific to my interests and started making new friends. Then I became more comfortable with my place at Berkeley.”

If you could relive your UC Berkeley experience, what one thing would you do differently? 

“I would explore new interests more. I took a couple of elective classes that included new activities like meditation and dance — and I loved them. If I had more time, I would take more advantage of the PE classes and DeCal classes offered. Taking fun classes and exploring is what college is for, and it’s important to take advantage of the opportunities Berkeley has to offer.”

You used to be afraid of bugs. How did your time at Berkeley help you to overcome that? 

“Close encounters with bugs stressed me out. Ironically, I joined the Scott Lab as a research apprentice to study the brains of fruit flies. When I first looked into the microscope at the fruit flies, I thought they looked gross. Yet when my supervisor explained the science behind the experiments, the discomfort was replaced by interest. I was so excited to conduct experiments that I completely forgot I was afraid of bugs.”

Rosie Ward (she/her)

informal portrait of Rosie Ward, wearing her graduation stole, against a backdrop of library books and brightly lit windows

Rosie Ward (Photo by Joanne Shin)

Hometown: Berkeley, California

Majors: Environmental economics and policy, geography

Major extracurricular associations and activities: Research assistant for a Berkeley Law professor; editor-in-chief of the California Legal Studies Journal; Cal ACLU; and Cal Sailing Team.

What’s Next? Offshore wind internship at Crowley, a worldwide logistics, marine, and energy solutions company, and then pursue a master of philosophy in environmental policy at Cambridge University.

Is there some element of character or experience that sets the Class of 2023 apart?

“I think community defines our class. When stay-at-home measures were implemented, we didn’t fall apart — instead, we gained an extra appreciation for how wonderful it was to be together in person. Since returning to campus post-lockdowns, we’ve been doubly determined to enjoy each other’s company and strengthen our campus communities.”

What has been the biggest challenge you faced at Berkeley? How did you address it?

“During the pandemic, I felt a sense of uselessness, feeling there was little I could do while isolating to help my friends and others struggling in the community. I gained a sense of purpose by becoming involved in campus research surrounding the gender equity ramifications of stay-at-home orders and by tailoring the California Legal Studies Journal to COVID-related submissions. I also learned that simply listening can be just as impactful as problem-solving.”

If you could relive your UC Berkeley experience, what one thing would you do differently?

“This is a hard question, because I’ve absolutely loved it here – I wouldn’t trade my years at Berkeley for anything. So with hindsight, I would just spend less time worrying about things going off plan. I worried about not getting into my planned classes and about being rejected from clubs and internships and research positions. But now I know it’s through things not going to plan that I’ve found what I love the most.”

You’ve been a sailor and a sailing instructor. Have you taken any broader lessons from that experience?

“I’m so grateful that Cal provided the opportunity to sail, especially since exposure to the maritime world catalyzed my interests in offshore clean energy and international maritime and environmental law. I’m not sure how much sailing my immediate future will hold, but it has taught me about the friendships and good that can come from leaving your comfort zone, being part of a team and sharing what you love with as many people as possible.”