ESPM Undergrad Wins University's Top Honor

May 09, 2012
Eric Olliff

By Ann Guy

Eric Olliff, who is earning a B.S. in conservation and resource studies and a B.A. in Chinese language and literature, is the University Medalist, the annual award bestowed on Berkeley’s top graduating senior for the last 150 years. The prestigious award comes with a $2,500 prize and the chance to address the campus-wide graduation, Commencement Convocation 2012, on Saturday (May 12) at Edwards Track Stadium.

A 10th-grade trip to Tibet underscored Olliff’s developing interest in foreign language and culture, as well as the outdoors. When he arrived on campus in spring 2008, he already had taken four years of high school Mandarin and decided to major at UC Berkeley in Chinese language and literature.

But after attending CNR’s eight-week Forestry Field Camp in the Sierra Nevada in the summer of ’09, he experienced a shift.

There, he witnessed a 150-foot Ponderosa pine’s breathtaking crash to Earth and worked side-by-side with Distinguished Teaching Award winner Joe McBride, a professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning who researches the effects of urban forests on air pollution in China and fire’s role in the Sierra. Olliff also won the camp’s prize for the highest marks in plant-species recognition, and his “memorial chair” was placed 70 feet up in a towering Douglas fir.

Shortly after camp, Olliff decided to double major in conservation and resource studies — and he hasn’t looked back.

He went on to work on a Yunnan Province deforestation independent-research project while attending a six-month study abroad program in 2010. All courses were in Mandarin, and it was the only language spoken. At the program’s end, Olliff gave a 45-minute presentation on his project to others in the program — all in Mandarin.

Since China, he’s studied on the Polynesian island of Mo’orea, a field site closely associated with CNR research, and investigated the symbiotic relationship between the sea star shrimp and pin cushion sea star. In a memorable exchange, he discussed the project with George Roderick, UC Berkeley professor of population, chemical and molecular biology, while they sailed in a tropical lagoon. 

Last summer, Olliff interned with the Waves of Hope nonprofit foundation in Northern Nicaragua, helping with sea turtle conservation, teaching English to local adults and children, and lending a hand in the community garden.

To qualify for the University Medal, students must have a GPA of at least 3.96 by the end of the semester before their graduation, and then submit an essay, a resume and several letters of recommendation if they wish to be considered. The medalist is chosen by the UC Berkeley Committee on Prizes.

Olliff, whose cumulative GPA was 3.99, credits his mother for teaching him time-management skills that help him work and play equally effectively and hard. But he says his soon-to-be alma mater, where he encountered a lifelong friend living a floor below him in the residence hall, gets its share of credit, too.

In the essay he submitted for University Medal consideration, Olliff wrote, “In my mind, Berkeley is synonymous with opportunity, and the students who take advantage of these opportunities represent the university’s highest ideals.”

Read the UC Berkeley Public Affairs story, from which this article is adapted.

CNR and the University Medal

University Medalists have come from across the campus, and CNR graduates appear six times in the distinguished roster.

2012: Eric Olliff, Conservation and Resource Studies & Chinese Language and Literature

1984: David Kin Cheung, Nutritional Sciences 1981: Joshua LaBaer, Nutritional Sciences

1979: Linda Spangler, Conservation & Natural Resources

1973: Kenneth Stumpf, Forestry 1950: Kenneth Leslie Babcock, College of Agriculture