Radhika Kannan, who studied economics and conservation and resource studies at UC Berkeley, was awarded the University Medal and recognized as the most distinguished graduating senior on campus.
Established in 1871, the University Medal honors outstanding scholarship, public service and strength of character. Kannan will receive a $2,500 prize with the award and will deliver a student graduation speech at the commencement ceremony May 16.
“She is the perfect choice as a University Medal winner,” said Edward Miguel, a professor of environmental and resource economics at UC Berkeley who wrote a letter recommending Kannan for the award. “Radhika is someone who really embodies Berkeley — it’s not just about being smart, but using talent and energy to create a better world and trying to do the right thing for society.”
The Academic Senate Committee on Prizes also interviewed and selected other finalists, including Miranda Landfield, Matt Nguyen, Margaret Perret and Aaron Wienkers, who will each receive a $500 award.
Previous winners of the University Medal include 2014 recipient Rebecca Peters and 2013 recipient Ritankar Das.
Hailing from Mumbai, India, Kannan transitioned between schools many times during her childhood. Her family moved to Singapore when she was 3 years old and continued to relocate between Singapore and India, which helped her become more outgoing and flexible, she said.
During her time as an undergraduate, Kannan became involved with the Cal Mock Trial team, which placed second at the National Championship Tournament this year.
According to Kannan, the team became her family during her undergraduate years as she and other members went through high-pressure environments in competitions and long hours of practices.
Nick Cotter, the external treasurer of Cal Mock Trial, said Kannan continuously served as the “team mom” of the club, bringing student members together and leading by example.
“Radhika has a magnetic personality, and people have a tendency to gravitate towards her,” Cotter said.
During her junior year, Kannan was devastated by the sudden news that her mother, with whom she was extremely close, had died. Kannan returned to India immediately and considered the prospect of taking a semester off to be with her family but ultimately decided to return to UC Berkeley to finish school and receive her degree.
Kate O’Neill — an associate professor in the department of environmental science, policy and management at UC Berkeley — also wrote a letter recommending Kannan for the award and praised her ability to reach out to her network to ask for help.
“Knowing how to get through crisis like that and reaching out to say that she needs help,” O’Neill said, “that is an unusual talent, and it is hard to do.”
Among many flaws she admitted to — such as speaking too fast when excited and being independent to a fault — her biggest weakness, she said, is perfectionism. Kannan said she becomes stressed out about mundane things that she should learn to let go.
“Even when I was applying to grad school, I was too scared to press the submit button,” Kannan said. “Someone else had to do it for me because I wanted to keep revising it.”
Kannan is flying to England this fall to earn a master’s degree at the University of Oxford. Eventually, she plans to pursue a law degree at Columbia University and follow her passion for environmental justice.