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UC Berkeley's top graduating senior is driven by thirst for knowledge, good books and a commitment to others
02 May 2000

By Janet Gilmore , Media Relations

Fadia RafeedieBerkeley -- Fadia Rafeedie's parents, who immigrated from Palestine, always stressed to her that education isn't a vehicle for personal success, but for improving the lives of Palestinians, wherever they live.

As she completes her senior year at the University of California, Berkeley, Rafeedie, a 22-year-old history major, certainly knows success. She's earned all As, half of them A+s; had some of her work published in a scholarly journal; and was accepted to law school at Yale University.

Next week, Rafeedie will be given another honor - the University Medal, awarded each year to UC Berkeley's top graduating senior. Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl will present the prize to her on May 10 at Commencement Convocation, a ceremony for all graduating seniors. Rafeedie will share the stage with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the keynote speaker.

But despite her accomplishments on campus, the undergraduate said she's not the type to "be locked in an ivory tower. I love to search for truth and meaning, but unless this is applied on the ground level, it's not, for me, going to have a ripple effect."

While at UC Berkeley, Rafeedie helped establish a local chapter of the Washington, D.C.-based American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee; wrote for the online newsletter, "Free Arab Voice;" and was active in the Arab Student Union.

Rafeedie also did extensive work with community organizations; planned scholarly conferences; worked as a resident assistant and security coordinator in the dorms; tutored high school and college students; and participated in student demonstrations, among other things.

After law school, Rafeedie plans to become an activist-scholar, working either in the United States or in the Arab world as an advocate for the rights of the Palestinian community.

Rafeedie was stunned to be selected as this year's University Medalist.

"I'm still surprised," she said. "There is part of me still saying, 'You're not deserving. There are a lot of brilliant people here.'"

A campus committee selected Rafeedie from four other finalists after an interview and a review of her grades, resumé, nominating letters and three-page essay.

For Rafeedie, getting good grades was simple because she was doing what she loved - burying herself in schoolwork. With history as her major, she minored in Spanish and Arabic.

"In a lot of ways, it became a habit, to try your best on everything," she said. "It's not for the professor anymore, it's for your own learning."

Rafeedie's professors were dazzled by her papers.

Associate professor of history Beshara Doumani, who had Rafeedie in his course on the history of Palestine and the Arab-Israeli conflict, said her weekly reports were so compelling that he asked for a copy to keep for himself.

He called her final essay a "tour de force."

"She managed to locate just about every reference to Palestinian women in both English and Arabic and produced a review that was eventually published in the Berkeley Undergraduate History Journal," Doumani wrote in his nominating letter.

Ten other essays from Rafeedie appeared on the Web site of the Middle East Social and Cultural History Association (MESCHA). Fadia is the only undergraduate student who is a member of MESCHA and one of the few members to have had work published on its Web site.

Muhammad Siddiq, an associate professor in the Near Eastern Studies department, taught Fadia in two of his courses, "Styles of Arabic" and "Cultural Encounters in the Novel." He considers her one of the finest students he has had during his 20 years of teaching.

"Both of the papers she wrote for the course were exceptional and earned her an A+, which was her final grade in both classes," Siddiq wrote in his nominating letter. "For both papers she chose controversial topics and argued them persuasively against the grain of accepted 'expert' wisdom and the collective sentiment of the class."

Though her strong opinions may run counter to that of her peers, admirers point out that her kind, considerate manner makes her especially popular with peers and others. Individuals stop her on the street to offer hugs. Some restaurant owners refuse to accept payments from guests if they are "with Fadia," Doumani wrote.

Born in Ohio, Rafeedie was raised in Southern California's San Bernardino County. Her Palestinian parents immigrated to the United States before she was born.

When she was accepted to UC Berkeley, her family, including an uncle who was confined as a political prisoner in an Israeli jail, was excited and proud that she would attend a university known for progressive ideals.

But, above all, Rafeedie chose UC Berkeley because she fell in love with its libraries, where she still happily spends hours buried in books.


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