Top graduating senior credits French professor Debarati Sanyal for her interest in human rights advocacy

two people sit and look at one another
May 12, 2023

Most members of the University of California, Berkeley’s Class of 2023 will always remember a stressful and disappointing two-year stretch, when the pandemic forced classes online at the end of their first year on campus.

But for graduating senior Catherine “Catey” Vera, those online classes instead were a refuge during the slow death of her father from ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, the illness that afflicted physicist Stephen Hawking. Someone who had been a stable rock in her life was suddenly weak and vulnerable.

Taught via Zoom, pandemic classes provided Vera a haven from the constant need that she shared with her mother and sister to attend to her father’s feeding tube, ventilator and bed sores during his inevitable decline.

“Classes were my safe place,” said Vera, who has always loved the challenge of learning. “Learning new things is such a hopeful thing, which was so needed when I was dealing with this complete lack of hope. I still can’t really fully express what a lack of hope does to someone. Every day, he’s getting worse. There’s only one way the suffering ends, which is death. And there’s no cure.”

In addition, her father’s illness brought back memories for Vera of her own brush with death six years earlier, when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The radical surgery required to remove the tumor ended her dream of becoming a professional ballet dancer.

Together, these tragedies cemented her determination to make the most of life and to do something positive, a mission exemplified by her three years working with UC Berkeley’s Human Rights Center on refugee issues in the United States, Myanmar and elsewhere in the world.

Now poised to receive her B.A. with a major in cognitive science and a double minor in data science and interdisciplinary human rights, Vera has been selected to receive the highest honor for a UC Berkeley graduating senior, the University Medal. She will address her fellow graduates and their families at the all-campus commencement on Saturday, May 13, and receive a $2,500 honorarium.

“I’m so honored to have been selected for the medal,” she said.

A total of 7,075 undergraduates are set to get their degrees this academic year, along with 2,603 master’s degree students and 971 doctoral students.

Read the full story on Berkeley News