In campus visit, lieutenant governor finds that old Berkeley spark

Eleni Kounalakis (left) met with Berkeley senior Akbar Khan at SkyDeck, one of U

Eleni Kounalakis (left) met with Berkeley senior Akbar Khan at SkyDeck, one of UC Berkeley’s startup incubators. Khan has launched a business to help feed groups of people. (UC Berkeley photo by Irene Yi)

California’s lieutenant governor, Eleni Kounalakis, hasn’t been a student at UC Berkeley since she graduated from the Haas School of Business in 1992. But returning to campus for four hours on Friday, she said she felt the same Berkeley electricity she’s come to adore.

Kounalakis, who took office in January, started her upcoming tour of all 10 University of California campuses at Berkeley, where she met with Chancellor Carol Christ and top student leaders and visited a new residence hall and SkyDeck, one of Berkeley’s startup incubators.

"What I love about Berkeley is the feeling that I had here, which is the electricity of innovation and community and that feeling that, no matter who you are, you can find your home here, you can find your friends, you can find your community," Kounalakis said.

She said the visit painted a picture for her of a student body and faculty committed to public service and world-changing innovation, even as they sometimes work in out-of-date buildings or struggle to meet basic needs like finding stable, affordable housing.

"It always troubles me to hear that there are students who don’t feel that they belong," she said, after meeting with a group of undergraduate and graduate student leaders. "The whole idea of the UC system is: anyone with the academic capability, this system is for you."

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Kounalakis, who currently serves on the UC Board of Regents, said she would bring what she learned on her Berkeley visit back to Sacramento and then push to make sure the UC system has enough resources to help every student feel welcome on campus.

"It is incumbent on the state government to know what is going on and commit the necessary resources to address these challenges," Kounalakis said.

Alexander Wilfert, a Berkeley senior and president of the ASUC, said it "meant a lot" that Kounalakis took the time to hear from students about issues like basic needs and housing.

"It is really important for us as students to try and hold our leaders accountable," he said.

Still, Kounalakis said that despite challenges, Berkeley students she met hadn’t lost sight of what Berkeley offers.

"They were pretty clear how proud they are to be Berkeley students," she said. "It is hard to get in, it is academically rigorous, it is not inexpensive, and yet, what I heard from them is that most of them feel it is more than worth it, and they are proud to be Cal students."