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 Laurel MacKenzie has been playing the carillon, the bells that peal out from the campanile, since she was a freshman.

(Photos by Bonnie Azab Powell)

Medal finalist and French/linguistics major Laurel MacKenzie elevates multitasking to an art form

– Coasting to the finish line is no way to close out one's undergraduate career at Berkeley. At least that's the opinion of senior Laurel MacKenzie, whose idea of the good life is "stretching myself thin" — especially if there are activities she loves and a daunting new challenge in the mix.

It's a formula that works for MacKenzie — as stellar grades (a 3.98 with a double major in French and linguistics), glowing personal references, and she herself attest.

"I started this semester taking 16 units, and it didn't feel like enough," says the University Medal finalist. Adding a computer-programming course helped ease a nagging sense of wasting time: "It was really fun and not too complicated," she reports.

Above: Laurel MacKenzie outside Sather Tower. Below: The carillon controls are inside a soundproof room at the top of the campanile.

No reason, then, to slacken the pace (not that MacKenzie was tempted) during the final countdown to her bachelor's degree. She's got lines to rehearse  — hundreds of them, in French — for her acting debut as an irritated countess in a one-act Marivaux comedy, "Le Legs," that her French-literature class is putting on. (Following the performance on commencement day, MacKenzie will do a quick costume change, from glittery scarlet gown to graduation regalia, just in time to accept her diploma.)

"I signed up for a big part," she says. Only later did she realize she'd bitten off more work than she expected.

Luckily for MacKenzie, she's too new to acting to be overly apprehensive, and too much of a "multi-tasker" to waste a moment. For her linguistics major, she's involved in research on nasalized vowels in the dialect of French spoken in Toulouse. Her interest in dialects and accents dates from her early years in Texas. Born to parents from Northern California, "I had no Texas accent to speak of. I was really cognizant of the fact that I didn't speak like my teachers or friends," she recalls.

MacKenzie fits in her "hard-core memorization" for "Le Legs" in the shower, while brushing her teeth, and during her Friday-evening cooking shift, preparing dinner for 60 in her co-op. Her running shoes beat out the countess's lines — "Ah! ce que je pense? Que je le veux bien, Monsieur; et encore une fois, que je le veux bien" — while she jogs in the Berkeley hills, training for her first 12K race, the Bay to Breakers, four days after graduation.

When Berkeley admissions officers set out to select a freshman class, they look for students resourceful enough to make the best of their situation, whether that means overcoming adversity or maximizing advantages. MacKenzie belongs in the latter group. As a child she had music lessons, a high school with a strong slate of advanced-placement classes, and parents who value education. Her father (a biology professor at Texas A&M) and mom (who teaches computing in a grade school) make it a point to encourage without pushing. "They've always given me free rein," explains MacKenzie. "They say, 'We trust you to do what's right for you.'"

MacKenzie has spent her years at Berkeley capitalizing on her good fortune, seeking out new opportunities, tackling them with passion, and taking nothing for granted. She advises incoming students to take the same approach. "Do as much as you can here; we're unfathomably lucky to go to such a good school," she says.

She parlayed a high school job with Texas A&M's animal-care oversight committee into a work-study job at UC Berkeley's equivalent, where her "innate talent" with computers "was just astonishing to witness," her supervisor wrote in a recommendation letter for the University Medal.

The University Medal
Established in 1871 by California Governor Henry Huntly Haight, the University Medal honors UC Berkeley's most distinguished graduating senior. Three to five students are also named as finalists.

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Already an accomplished violist and pianist when she arrived on campus, MacKenzie played with the University Symphony Orchestra and found occasional gigs at weddings and receptions. She also expanded her range by following up on a casual suggestion of her mother's.

"I bet you can play the bells in the campanile," her mother told MacKenzie during her freshman year. "You should look into that."

She did. And on the music department's website, MacKenzie discovered that, indeed, students could learn to play Sather Tower's carillon. She applied, was accepted, and has received ringing endorsements of her talent.

University Carillonist Jeff Davis calls her "one of the most astonishing students" he's taught to play the instrument. Her performances — she plays each Tuesday at 6 p.m., and performed a 45-minute senior concert the Sunday after Cal Day — "are in general meticulous, sensitive, and a joy to hear," he says.

As a child, performing viola or piano solos made MacKenzie nervous, so nervous that she decided against a career as a professional musician. Yet self-consciousness melts away when she's alone on the keyboard of Berkeley's carillon, ideally playing a fast, showy piece that showcases the instrument.

"Everyone can hear, but no one has to watch me," she explains.

Learning to play the carillon has been, for MacKenzie, a completely unexpected — and "amazing" — part of her college experience at Berkeley. The campanile, after all, "is what everyone remembers about the campus, especially if they're here at noon when they get to listen to the bells being played," she says. "The carillon is one of the biggest instruments in North America, and Berkeley is one of only three universities in the U.S. that actually offers carillon lessons to its students. And you get a spectacular panoramic view, all to yourself once a week. I've been really spoiled by that."

She has also sought out opportunities to play other carillons — in Houston, near her hometown, atop a tower located in a strip mall, and Toulouse, France, where she spent her junior year. This fall she'll start graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania's linguistics program, where she plans to study dialects and accents with outstanding scholars in the field.

She's already researching carillons in the Philadelphia area, high atop towers in churches and public gardens. "Penn doesn't have a carillon," she says. "But Princeton has a really nice one that's only 45 minutes away."

It's a safe bet that she'll find the time — and a way — to get to play it.

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