My UC Berkeley story is one of the countless other tales of resilience that connect all Cal students and alumni with an invisible string. And, to the graduating class of 2021, celebrate and congratulate yourself because you are resilient. Here is my story — but, more importantly — the lesson I’ve learned.
There’s one very clear lesson the pandemic has taught me: Do not fear change, and be confident in your own evolution. I have been growing into myself since the moment I stepped on campus, and I look forward to embracing my own continued self-evolution with confidence and intention.
It feels like yesterday I was a freshman living in Unit 3 Norton Hall dreaming of becoming a physician. Aside from the fact that you would never catch me dead wearing scrubs (no shade), there were many other barriers that eventually steered me away from my pre-med aspirations. For one thing, it was tough to compete with my hyper-competitive peers. But, laziness aside, I realized being a doctor was not the right fit for me and changing my path worked out for the better.
Ironically, I even joined the ASUC during freshman year in hopes it would help me continue my journey to medical school. However, in helping create a physical and mental health database interning in Senator Nuha Khalfay’s 2017-18 office, I discovered something more selfless. For one thing, I realized the work I was doing related to increasing health care accessibility was much more related to the field of public health, which I ended up pursuing a major in. And, the work I was doing had value beyond professional development — I found purpose in creating a resource that would help those around me. This first ASUC experience catalyzed my switch from a linear career path to the broad public health field.
I was wrong to think that changing my major would be the only life-changing decision I had to make at Cal. In my third year, I was elected to be an ASUC senator focused on public health. However, the path I took to getting to that position was nothing short of chaos. I was convinced that the party I ran with was built upon values of inclusion when some of its representatives actually benefited from some of the most privileged communities on campus.
Yet again, I was faced with a decision: to be complicit in perpetuating the ASUC entity that has helped prevent marginalized communities from securing representation in our student government, or stand up for my authentic values while risking political isolation. I chose the latter, and to this day, I will never be more grateful for the grace people lent me once I had made this decision.
Following this, my work began to be much more intentional and guided by the principle of helping campus communities. I proudly worked on initiatives to make sure that communities on campus were ready to fill out the 2020 census and helped advocate to stop the closure of Alta Bates — the only hospital in Berkeley that performs emergency medical services and serves more than 4,000 students per academic year.
I was presented with even more tough decisions when I campaigned and stepped into my current role as the ASUC external affairs vice president. I found my very first few interviews with The Daily Californian in this role to be challenging, and it showed. Despite devoting so much time to public service in multiple sectors of government, I was extremely scared to step into the ocean-sized shoes of my amazing EAVP predecessors: Rigel Robinson, Khalfay and Varsha Sarveshwar.
However, serving as EAVP during the COVID-19 pandemic, a tumultuous general election year and a catastrophic wildfire season, forced me to challenge what norms I had to follow and reinvent them into what I thought would be the best for our campus. And, of course, that’s when I saw some amazing glimmers of success in our office.
I’m extremely proud of the amount of hard work and dedication all my teams put into our Get-Out-The-Vote initiatives in such a holistic and community-centered fashion. We hosted text and phone banks, reaching out to more than 121,000 registered California voters to vote for Proposition 16 alone. We hosted town halls for the city of Berkeley mayoral and City Council elections, as well as promoted local ballot measures. Lastly, our beloved Vote Coalition team was able to secure two accessible voting locations and host more than 50 additional voting events, including our annual Votechella concert via Zoom. I was honored to help my staff promote so many aspects of our November ballots in addition to the presidential race — there were so many student issues at stake this election cycle.
Even with such a busy fall semester, I see much potential in the current projects our office is starting on. In this legislative session, our teams have been working tirelessly to support the UC-wide Double the Pell campaign and promote increased investment in Student Academic Preparedness and Educational Partnership programs. Locally, our office will be focusing on increasing public transportation accessibility, continuing the first Cal-in-Local Government Fellowship and pushing for accountability in the increasing UC development in Berkeley.
As I look forward to the next challenges I may face leaving UC Berkeley, I will always remember the strength of my own conviction and feeling confident in myself. I hope that you too realize that you are your own biggest asset, and people appreciate what you authentically bring to the table. I don’t think this world would want two Dereks –– trust me, one is enough to handle.
So, with that, remember the strength of your individuality and authenticity always, and help cultivate the same for those around you.
Derek Imai was the 2020-21 ASUC external affairs vice president. He is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in public health and a minor in public policy.