Spending much of her collegiate career at a chalkboard solving linear algebra problems has led to U.C. Berkeley student Kaavya Valiveti being named the top graduating senior at the prestigious Bay Area-based university.

The university made the announcement of Valiveti’s accomplishment May 3 in a press release. Additionally, the 21-year-old Indian American won the campus’ highly coveted University Medal, an honor that recognizes outstanding scholarship, public service and strength of character.

The University Medal comes with a $2,500 award as well as the opportunity to address thousands of her fellow students during a May 14 commencement ceremony at the campus’ Memorial Stadium. Despite all that, she remains humble.

“I’m still that nerdy, geeky kid that I was in school living inside my own imagination, but I’m coming out my shell,” she said in a university news release.

At U.C. Berkeley, she excelled in math — honored for a near-perfect GPA of 3.99 — as well as music, playing the harmonium and cello, and tutoring disadvantaged Latino students, the release said.

Valiveti will head to the East Coast and attend MIT for her doctorate degree in math on National Science Foundation graduate research and Norman Levinson fellowships.

Though admittedly shy and somewhat fearful of the commencement speech, Valiveti, who won’t even allow her friends to post videos of her musical performances on social media, hopes to convey how her passion helped her overcome struggles and assert herself as a woman in the STEM industry.

“Gender bias is big in STEM,” she said in the report. “One problem is keeping young women in STEM once they express interest. Not enough is done to cultivate an atmosphere where they can freely share their thoughts. That’s one area where I hope to become a role model,” she added.

Valiveti, born in Ottawa, Canada, in 1995, is the daughter of Radhakrishna, an electrical engineer and Natana, a financial planner, musician and artist, both from south India.

Her family moved to Texas when she was 3. While in a Dallas suburb, she kept to herself, spending most her time playing the cello or reading books. It wasn’t until her father accepted a job at a Sunnyvale-based fiber optics company and they moved to Fremont when she was 12 that she felt comfortable with the more ethnically diverse environment.

After attending Mission San Jose High School in Fremont, where she experienced bouts of depression as she was learning more about herself, the release noted, she gained admission to U.C. Berkeley, the same school her brother Kashyap had graduated from with an engineering degree.

It wasn’t until she attended an honors linear algebra class taught by Professor Jenny Harrison that she got hooked on math. Following that class, she went on to study abstract algebra, classical geometries, combinatorics and topology.

She has gone on to co-author a research paper during a summer research program at Kent State University and received an honorable mention for the Alice T. Schafer Prize, awarded by the Association for Women in Mathematics to the most outstanding U.S. female math undergraduate.

Outside of math classes, she played at classical Indian music concerts and volunteered with the Bay Area Hispano Institute for Advancement, as well as raised money for an underfunded rural elementary school in Trichy, India.

“Increasing access to education for underprivileged children, and improving it, is just as important to me as my work in mathematics,” Valiveti said.

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