By Yasmin Anwar, UC Berkeley News
The Earth could use a tough litigator like Radhika Kannan, who was just named UC Berkeley’s top graduating senior. She dazzles whether she’s defending the environment or performing a classical Indian dance.
But beneath the eloquent voice and flashing dark eyes, a deep well of sorrow propels Kannan, 21, to carry out a career plan she made with her mother, Geetanjali, who died suddenly and inexplicably at age 45 during Kannan’s junior year.
How Kannan coped with the 2013 loss of her mother – who was her mentor and best friend – and then went on
to graduate with the highest distinction in economics, conservation studies and a near-perfect GPA, is a marvel of personal fortitude and determination.
“Her resolve to excel academically despite this blow, and to continue to provide emotional support for the rest of her family, truly reflects the intensity of Radhika’s will and the strength of her spirit,” wrote Kate O’Neill, associate professor of environmental science, policy and management, in her letter recommending Kannan for the University Medal.
UC Berkeley’s University Medal honors outstanding scholarship, public service and strength of character, and comes with a $2,500 award. As this year’s recipient, Kannan will address thousands of her peers on Saturday, May 16, at a commencement ceremony at Memorial Stadium. Her speech, she says, will touch on the unpredictability of life, a topic close to her heart.
“As a Cal grad, you really want to be prepared, but sometimes you just can’t be,” says Kannan. “Always know that your Cal family is there for you, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.”
This fall, Kannan is headed for the University of Oxford in England for a master’s degree, after which she will pursue a law degree at Columbia University. She has her late mother to thank for setting her on this path to success.
“My mom had the clairvoyance to know what I’d be passionate about. She knew me better than anyone,” says Kannan. “We made this plan, and I’m going to stick to it because it’s a good plan.”
Kannan was born in Mumbai, India, in 1993, the only child of Kannan Subramanian Ramakrishnan, a chartered accountant and software entrepreneur, and Geetanjali Kannan, a schoolteacher and dancer trained in Bharathanatyam, a style that originated in the temples of Tamil Nadu.
Both mother and daughter studied with the same dance teacher.
The family moved to Singapore when Kannan was 3, and continued to shuttle back and forth between India and Singapore, which meant Kannan changed schools a half-dozen times.
“Every time I switched schools I would start from scratch, and would have to learn the culture of the school, how different teachers worked, how to get into an inner circle of friends,” she says. “It made me a flexible person and more outgoing.”
Climate change hits close to home for Kannan, who grew up in countries plagued by droughts and floods. She was 10 when the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami of 2004 narrowly missed her island state of Singapore.
“I’m driven by a threat to my security and the need to protect people and countries vulnerable to climate change,” she says.
When she was in sixth grade, the family moved to Bangalore, India, and Kannan stepped up her academic game. That competitiveness stuck, she says.
Back in Singapore in high school, she joined the Model United Nations, a program that teaches the diplomatic skills used in international relations. She learned how to write resolutions, pass an amendment and listen to all points of view. She also developed lasting friendships and a desire to travel beyond Asia.
When it came time to go to college, Berkeley was among her top choices. A generous financial-aid package, bolstered by a Regents’ and Chancellor’s Scholarship, eased the decision.
But it was the Cal mascot that sealed the deal for the Kannan family, who had long nicknamed themselves “the three bears.”
“When we found out the mascot at Cal is a bear, I was like, ‘OK, this is it. I’m going to be a Bear for the rest of my life,’” she says.