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Shayna Parekh
Shayna Parekh is the 2002 University Medalist, the top honor at UC Berkeley for a graduating senior  Photo, Peg Skorpinski

This year's top senior at UC Berkeley plans future in her family's past, will receive University Medal on May 17
7 May 2002

By Janet Gilmore, Media Relations

Berkeley - Sixty years ago, Shayna Parekh's maternal grandfather left India for a better life in Tanzania. Her parents, who grew up in East Africa and England, also left their home - to pursue opportunities in America.

And now Parekh, born and raised in sunny Southern California, plans to purchase a one-way ticket to India. She will graduate this month with a bachelor's degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and an intense passion for improving the lives of others.

A political science and interdisciplinary studies major, Parekh has been selected to receive this year's University Medal, the top honor at UC Berkeley for a graduating senior with outstanding accomplishments, including a grade point average of at least 3.96.

The medal will be given to Parekh on May 17 at the campus's Commencement Convocation. As University Medalist, she will give a speech at the ceremony, which honors all students graduating from UC Berkeley.

Parekh plans to use the knowledge she gained at UC Berkeley - the classroom learning, the words from powerful visiting speakers, the life-changing study abroad sessions in Africa and India - to improve the lives of individuals living in India and perhaps other developing countries.

"I've learned that individuals can change the world by helping one person at a time," she said. "Teaching just one illiterate parent to read is something that touches that entire family."

Parekh, 21, has been heavily influenced by her family's push for a better way of life. During the 1960s, her maternal grandfather fled Uganda for England, forced out by Idi Amin. Her grandparents were grocers and gas station owners. Her father is an aerospace engineer and her mother, a former school teacher turned businesswoman.

Parekh also grew up with a deep appreciation of her spiritual faith and its teachings. She said this includes the tenet of Ahinsa or nonviolence, a principle that Jains teach and practice toward not only human beings, but toward all of nature, including plants and animals. She also is mindful of the tenet that states, she said, that there are unlimited sides to every issue, and that human beings, limited in their knowledge, should try not to judge or act before pursuing their own independent investigations of the truth.

  Shayna Parekh
Shayna Parekh  Photo, Peg Skorpinski

When she visited UC Berkeley as a high school student, Parekh was immediately attracted to the vast array of viewpoints, people, organizations and activities. As a student here, she applied that same appreciation for a multitude of viewpoints to her studies. This was particularly true in her freshman year, when she doubted whether her study skills were at the college level.

"I would do nonstop work for a simple introductory class," said Parekh. "I would pick at minor points because I didn't know what I needed to do to be successful at UC Berkeley."

It seems she was doing all the right things. With a 3.96 GPA, there is only one "B" on her college transcript. The rest are all "A" or "A+" marks.

Parekh credits these marks to taking courses that captured her interest and writing papers when she felt truly inspired to do so. This usually occurred between 2:00 and 4:00 in the morning, when her roommates were asleep and the sound of traffic outside her window had subsided.

"It wasn't a chore for me," said Parekh, laughing. "I know that sounds unbelievable, but I only write when I feel inspired to write."

In recommending Parekh for the University Medal, Beth Simmons, a UC Berkeley associate professor of political science, wrote that Parekh's paper on the international Convention to End Discrimination Against Women is one of the best individual papers she has ever read. And, in a lecture class of 200 students Shayna clearly stood out, always tuned-in, ready with a question, comment or answer.

"This is one student I would have liked truly to claim as one of my own," said Simmons.

When Parekh enrolled at UC Berkeley, she was interested in domestic political science. But a UC Berkeley summer session in Africa, followed by internships and study abroad sessions in India, quickly cemented her interest in international issues, especially the idea of working to improve the lives of individuals living in developing countries.

During her trips to India, she helped care for abandoned babies at the Mother Theresa's Children Home in New Delhi, supervised volunteers for an American Embassy program to vaccinate families against polio, and initiated a literacy program in Bhuj. Parekh was one of 20 volunteers chosen nationwide by the America India Foundation, chaired by former President Bill Clinton, to supervise an earthquake rehabilitation program in Bhuj after an earthquake devastated the region last year. Parekh also worked as a project coordinator with a Bhuj-based organization called Veerayatan, gaining her first opportunity to take on administrative fieldwork for a community service organization in a developing country. She earned high praise.

"With the curiosity of a child, the intelligence of a scholar and the skill of an experienced field worker, Shayna has created an atmosphere of inexhaustible creativity and energy at Veerayatan," administrator Sadhvi Shilapiji wrote in her recommendation for Parekh. "Shayna organized and supervised evening reading and writing courses, inspiring these laborers to start on their journey to literacy. Shayna also worked tirelessly to break the gender barrier as she, through many days of discussion, convinced fathers to allow their illiterate daughters to attend reading and writing courses. By gracefully maneuvering the fragile boundaries of cultural norms and modern necessity, Shayna's vision and diligence has changed the lives of countless people."

Back in Berkeley, Shayna has worked at the local YMCA and the Oakland Elizabeth House, serving as a tutor and mentor to underprivileged children. She also furthered her interest in international work and social justice issues by seizing every opportunity to hear powerful visiting speakers such as Juan Guzman, the Chilean judge in charge of the prosecution and trial of former General Augusto Pinochet.

"One piece of advice that I would offer to freshmen would be never to pass up the opportunity to hear an incredible speaker because of an upcoming paper or exam," said Parekh. "This is part of your education."

After graduating from UC Berkeley, Parekh plans to spend a year in India working with Veerayatan. Later, she hopes to enroll in the London School of Economics and pursue a graduate degree in social planning in developing countries.

And after that?

"I see myself working with a non-governmental organization in India," she said. "I want to live in that environment for a long period of time. I want to know the people, their lives, their culture."

While her parents may have envisioned a more settled and comfortable life for Parekh, they support her decision. Her grandparents, whom she will visit in England this summer, are incredibly excited that she is returning to India with a college education and skills that can transform the lives of others.

"It is really amazing!" said Parekh, as she reflected on her grandparents' journey and her life. "My grandparents left India so that their children would have an opportunity to get a university education. Now, two generations later, their college-educated grandchild is returning to the home they left to try and use her knowledge for the benefit of others in that society. "

Parekh's quest to improve the world one family at a time will begin in late September, when she'll fly from England to India.

"There's no return ticket," she said. "I'm just going to go where it takes me."