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Ashneel Pratap’s “let there be light” moment

October 28, 2020

Above: Ashneel celebrates his 10th birthday with his grandmother. | Image courtesy of Ashneel Pratap

Ashneel Pratap, Class of 2021, is a transfer student and an Alumni Scholar in The Achievement Award Program. Ashneel reflected on his upbringing and time at Cal in front of an audience of TAAP Scholars and Cal alumni and community members at The Achievement Award Program 21st Recognition Celebration. Below is a transcript of his speech.

Good evening, everyone, and thank you, Dio. I’m so happy to have the opportunity to share my story, and I’d like to start by recalling my youth.

When I was younger, I often had to fill out these surveys before taking standardized tests. In these surveys, I would be asked a variety of demographic questions, such as “What is your race?” I didn’t really think much of this question at the time; I would think, “My parents are from Polynesia, and I know they are always talking about Fiji, so I’m a Pacific Islander.” And for me, it was that simple. And in complete transparency, this is probably what my parents would have wanted me to know. They wouldn’t have wanted me to know why they actually immigrated to America.

“I realized that I, too, was capable of great things, and that regardless of the struggles my ancestors had, I had the opportunity to honor the memories of my ancestors by coming to Berkeley.”

At 15, I realized that my grandmother was completely illiterate, my parents didn’t have a proper education, and that we had slavery in our family. I began to learn about how Indian slavery occurred up until the 1950s and how my own grandmother was in bondage all the way up to this time. I learned about how political strife led to the deaths of thousands of my ancestors. And finally when I was 20, did I realize the impact my ancestral history was having on me this whole time. I felt as though I couldn’t attend a prestigious university like Cal, that maybe I should just work in a labor profession, just like my parents and those before me. All of this changed when a cousin of mine said, “Why don’t you apply to Cal? Why don’t you try for Cal?”

I had never considered it before. That was my “let there be light” moment. I realized that I, too, was capable of great things, and that regardless of the struggles my ancestors had, I had the opportunity to honor the memories of my ancestors by coming to Berkeley.

I’ve taken advantage of being at Cal, and I’m constantly growing and learning more about myself. One may think that my motivations have been inspired solely by my Fijian heritage, but this is not the case. Rather, from my background and my experiences at Cal, I’ve learned that we’re all human. Even in the midst of learning such a dark history, I’ve taken away that there is no race, ethnicity, or religion. We’re all human and we all deserve common decency and respect. This has been deeply inspired by my coursework, and I’ve decided to act on this by becoming involved with economic research. We compile and analyze data to understand why low-income students have difficulties in getting an education, and how we can reach more people through SNAP benefits. I’ve taken this human-centered approach to other areas that I’ve worked in as well. As an intern for United Airlines, I had the opportunity to impact hundreds of workers by establishing lunch programs.

As students and soon-to-be alumni, we not only carry the education of a world-class university with us, but we also carry the spirit of a community that provides, and strives to provide, every individual with dignity and respect. Being at Cal has helped me understand that I want to be part of this process, I want to help people, and I want to come back to this fantastic university for my graduate studies. I hope you all learn that we’re more alike than we think, and that at the end of the day, it’s not very difficult to be the light in somebody else’s life.

Thank you all for listening.