University Medalist takes an educational path less traveled

Aaron Benavidez speaks to his fellow graduates at UC Berkeley’s 2011 Commencement.
Public Affairs/Courtesy
Aaron Benavidez speaks to his fellow graduates at UC Berkeley’s 2011 Commencement.

For UC Berkeley University Medalist Aaron Benavidez, who graduated this month with a 3.98 GPA and 11 A-pluses, part of being successful at UC Berkeley came as a result of years behind a cello.

Benavidez, a 31-year-old sociology and rhetoric double major who grew up in Stockton, began an unusual educational path to UC Berkeley as the principal cellist at the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra, where he traveled the world to perform. Benavidez said his years of training allowed him to flourish in school.

“When I began my educational journey, I began to see words like scales and arguments like etudes,” he said. “They were the tools I would grind to produce good academic work.”

But at UC Berkeley, Benavidez produced more than good academic work. As an active leader in the department of sociology, he founded “Eleven,” a sociology journal to which undergraduates can submit their research papers.

Benavidez, a transfer student from Sacramento City College, had plans to start a journal even before attending UC Berkeley, according to William Pe, a UC Berkeley alumnus and current senior editor of the journal.

“Aaron … was heavily involved in creating a journal before he came to (UC) Berkeley,” he said in an email. “He worked tirelessly to ensure each step leading up to the journal’s publication ran smoothly and flawlessly, and is unquestionably one of the most amazing and inspirational individuals that I have had the privilege to work with.”

As the president of the Berkeley Undergraduate Sociology Association, Benavidez also initiated the Sociological Research Symposium, a student-run symposium that attracts students from other departments as well as from other universities.

“Aaron has the knack of generating enthusiasm among his fellow students,” said Michael Burawoy, a sociology professor at UC Berkeley, in an email. “It’s a joy to witness their enthusiasm.”

Burawoy added that Benavidez raised the intellectual level of not only his classes but also of the entire sociology major. He said Benavidez continually asked difficult questions he had to face in his own teaching.

It was in Burawoy’s class that Benavidez was inspired by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Erik Olin Wright’s interest in “real utopias.” His research, along with French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s essay titled “Choreographies” — which examines anarchist Emma Goldman’s famous quotation, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be a part of your revolution” — motivated him to speak at UC Berkeley’s 2011 Commencement about a better world where everyone could have the opportunity to “dance.”

“Dancing is a metaphor for human flourishing,” he said. “Rather than seeing this better world as a no-place, the etymological definition of utopia, I sought to describe this world as an actual place where people dance and where dancing is a demonstration of human flourishing.”

Benavidez did his part in helping to create such a world in his time volunteering for TRANS: THRIVE, a drop-in center for transgender people located in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Benavidez said socializing with people at the center motivated him academically.

“I have made wonderful friendships among people with so much courage and resilience,” he said. “Seeing the face of social mistreatment fueled my passionate to do academic work that addressed the concerns of the transgender community.”

Over the summer, Benavidez said he plans to continue pursuing his vast academic goals. Along with doing research work in Philadelphia and preparing to enter graduate school in the fall of 2012, he is planning to work for Ramona Naddaff, an associate professor in the Rhetoric Department at UC Berkeley.

Nadaff said she knew Benavidez was an exceptional scholar even before meeting him by reading his work.

“Aaron is one of the most disciplined, hard-working, generous and caring students I have known,” she said in an email. “He embraces work with his hands and brains, his body and soul.”

A previous version of the photo credit accompanying this article incorrectly credited Cal Media Affairs as the source of the photo. In fact, the photo should have been credited to Public Affairs.