Cal's University Medal goes to above average guy

May 9, 2012 7:47:50 PM PDT
Just getting into Cal is hard enough, but graduating as valedictorian in a school full of over-achievers is really something. This year's medal winner is a regular guy, who is hardly a regular guy.

Cal student Eric Olliff has a way with words. He can speak Mandarin, Spanish and Portuguese. Olliff is this year's University Medal winner.

"I don't know if it has completely sunk in. I think when I am in general commencement when I'm giving a speech in front of 16,000 people, it might sink in a little bit more," said Olliff.

On graduation day, this 22-year-old from L.A. will walk away with two degrees in Chinese and conservation.

The University Medal has been around since 1871. To even apply, a student must have a GPA of 3.96. But clearly, the selection committee takes other things into account.

"It's someone who represents the ideals of the university, who has a broad-ranging interests, has done a lot of creative things," said Venkat Anantharam, Ph.D., from the UC Berkeley Committee on Prizes.

Olliff's interest in the environment began while attending the UC Berkeley summer forestry camp. He spent one summer doing investigative work at Cal's research station on the island of Mo'orea in the South Pacific. And he was recently involved in a community development program in Nicaragua.

"When I think about spending a summer in the Bay Area doing the same things that I usually do, it's much more attractive to me to try something new," said Olliff.

When I asked him what he had learned from all his trips, he quoted an old Chinese proverb.

He said it "translates to 'If three people are walking, my teacher must be among them' and the meaning is that no matter where we go or who we encounter, it's important to remain humble and realize that we have a little something to learn from everybody," said Olliff.

He plans to use some of the $2,500 prize to visit other countries in search of more everyday life lessons.


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