By Mina Kim and Adam Grossberg
It’s graduation season and with colleges landing big-name commencement speakers (and dis-inviting others), it’s easy to forget about the students who are chosen to speak by their institutions for their remarkable achievements.
At UC Berkeley’s commencement Saturday at California Memorial Stadium, Rebecca Peters will have the honor of addressing thousands of her peers.
In fourth grade, Peter’s IQ score measured so low that her school deemed her unfit for college. Tomorrow, she’ll graduate from Cal with a 3.98 GPA.
“It’s overwhelming. My parents were told that I would never learn to read at college level. I was put in basic classes and was bored to tears,” Peters said, crediting her tenacious parents and a dedicated teacher for turning her education around.
Peters, 23, is the recipient of the University Medal, awarded to UC Berkeley’s top graduating senior. She is graduating with a double major in society and environment, and interdisciplinary studies, with a minor in global poverty and practice.
In addition to her high academic marks, Peters has also earned praise for her work improving access to safe drinking water in Central and South America.
“In Guatemala … you see Mayan communities still living in rural, segregated areas with no services and with no piped water,” she said. “It was there that I first saw a direct connection between socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity, and access to water in a way I had not seen in California. That’s why I’m here today at Berkeley.”
Peters told KQED that her passion for water access dates back to a small river running through her childhood backyard, when she was growing up in Calabasas in the Santa Monica Mountains:
“When I was very young, my sisters and I would play in the river. And all of a sudden, as I got older, the river started to dry up, and all the frogs and tadpoles that we had liked catching started disappearing. I was curious about why that was, so I ventured upstream, and I found a company had been dumping chemicals and waste into the river. I started a petition to raise awareness, and eventually I got a spot on my city council’s environmental commission as a student representative and a liaison to the high schools. So by the time I started college, I knew I wanted to be involved in water.”
Since transferring to UC Berkeley from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 2011, Peters has helped found and lead several projects, including “the Pachamama Project in Cochabamba, Bolivia, a partnership between a Mexico-based non-profit and other groups to improve water access to 12 rural schools; the Berkeley Water Group, a student-run think tank on global water, health, hygiene and sanitation issues; and a course titled ‘Water and International Human Rights,’” according to a UC Berkeley press release.
After graduating, Peters will continue her studies abroad. She will attend Manchester University in England and then Oxford University, with the hopes of returning to UC Berkeley for a Ph.D. related to issues of water access.