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Interview with UC Berkeley's top graduating senior

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MAY 30, 2014

Rebecca Peters, 23, may seem like any other Berkeley alumna as she sits laughing with her group of friends full of excitement from having just graduated, but she’s not. Peters received this year’s University Medal for her near-perfect academic record (a 3.98 GPA) and for her work on water sanitation and human rights, which has earned her multiple scholarships and awards. A transfer student from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Peters is graduating with a double major in society and environment (offered by the College of Natural Resources) and interdisciplinary studies, with a minor in global poverty and practice.

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Peters speaking at the College of Natural Resources graduation

This University Medal winner didn’t have an easy journey to graduate from UC Berkeley. During her first two years at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Peters was diagnosed with clinical depression. She felt confused and alone and didn’t think it was something she could overcome. For a long time, it was an issue she was uncomfortable discussing, even with close friends, because of the stigma that surrounds mental health issues.

“The truth is that depression is something you live with every day, whether you are having a good day or a bad day — it’s just your mode of existence,” Peters said. “There are high points and low points, and finding somewhere where you can operate in the middle comfortably and functionally is challenging.”

The key, she says, to dealing with depression, is different for everyone. Her way of overcoming her illness was with the support system of love and comfort she received from her family. For Peters, her parents were everything.

In fourth grade, when Peters took a qualifying IQ test to place into the gifted and talented program at her school, she failed the test. The instructor spoke to her parents afterwards, telling them that Peters would never read at the college level. Her parents, rather than putting her into remedial classes, pushed Peters to work hard and fought with the school to keep her in the program. By the time she was in fifth grade, Peters was in the GATE program and excelled in school.

Years later, when Peters opened her acceptance letter to UC Berkeley, she saw that her mom was laughing.

“I asked her, ‘What’s going on?’ She said, ‘It’s just funny, because when you were in the fourth grade, this is what we were told, and now you’re about to go to the best public university in the world.’ It’s all very poetic,” Peters said.

Rebecca 3Initially, Peters was nervous to come to Berkeley. She didn’t want her professors to know about her depression because she didn’t want it to be a crutch that affected her in her social and academic life. On top of her fears, she heard terrible rumors about Berkeley. From hearing stories of people erasing your test answers to the extremely competitive nature of the school, Peters was scared to join a large public university.

When she got to the campus, however, she decided she would find ways to get involved instead of closing herself off from Berkeley. In an attempt to create a welcoming atmosphere, Peters searched for one restaurant where she could always go to find that sense of community and belonging. This place, for Peters, was Free House at Bancroft Way and College Avenue. According to Peters, she wanted a place she could go on any given day, know everyone working there and everyone would know her.

“That way, no matter how crowded it was, I could always get a table,” Peters said as she waved at a tall, mustached waiter coming out of the kitchen.

In a sense, Peters found her home at Free House, but she also wanted a place where she could discuss and develop her interests. Not long after she started her classes, Peters started the Berkeley Water Group (BWG). Though the group had previously existed, it was just a forum for doctoral students to gather and discuss their research — undergraduates were not involved at all. Peters took the group and expanded it to include discussion of ongoing research, water conferences and thematic meetings where participants can discuss specific issues within the field of water.

Peters wasn’t done there. She wanted to create an active water presence on campus, so during her first semester at Berkeley, she started a DeCal course in Water and International Human Rights. She started the class without fully realizing what she was doing, hoping that a few students would find the topic interesting enough to show up to class. The class filled to capacity and was so successful the class has had over 130 students in the past three years, and is still being taught. Having the BWG and the DeCal under her belt, Peters was also instrumental in helping shape a minor that’s focused on water science sustainability and policy.

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Peters working on a water treatment system in Cochabamba, Bolivia

Peters focuses on work in Guatemala, Mexico and Bolivia to improve water sanitation and access in schools and rural communities. She was motivated to work in Bolivia because of the large-scale privatization of the water industry, resulting in taps being shut off and wells being paved over when people could not afford to pay for water.

Peters is motivated by the knowledge that there are countless others who deserve to be at Berkeley but cannot. Her way of respecting this is to never waste the opportunities that surround her. While conducting her research, she asks herself, “What is the responsibility of my education? Whose voices are being represented, and why or why not?”

Peters has traveled around the world for her cause. She attended the World Water Forum in Marseilles, France, and the Budapest Water Summit in October 2013. She also got to meet her hero, Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN special representative on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation. Meeting Albuquerque was empowering for Peters, but it also reminded her how much investment had been put into her as an individual. That idea continues to motivate her and propel her life.

As a recent alumna, Peters wanted to give a piece of advice for incoming freshmen.

“Berkeley’s big, and it can seem really scary, but you shouldn’t be shy or afraid,” Peters said. “Any minute you spend not speaking your mind or expressing yourself, you’re missing out. Be willing to voice your opinions and get to know people — it’s one of the most important things you can do here.”

Peters will go on to complete her graduate studies abroad at Manchester University and Oxford University. She hopes to eventually return to Berkeley to complete her PhD — circling right back to where she started.

Contact Shruti Koti at [email protected].

MAY 30, 2014