Among the Winter Olympics bustle, on Wednesday, Feb. 16, UC Irvine had its own champion to cheer for as fourth-year biological sciences major Vivek Mehta was announced as one of 20 students in the nation chosen to be on USA Today’s 2006 All-USA College Academic First Team.
As the only Californian this year to receive this recognition, Mehta joins a select few in receiving national recognition and a cash prize of $2,500, after beating over 600 nominees in a lengthy application process.
Mehta reflected on how far he has come.
‘If people saw who I was four years ago, they would have been really surprised,’ Mehta said. ‘I was a starter and captain in my high school football team. I would try hard to study, but there were always fun things to do.’
Perhaps the fact that UCI currently has no football team gave Mehta the opportunity to expand his interests elsewhere.
He found his niche early on at the Share Our Selves free medical clinic in Costa Mesa where he has currently volunteered over 600 hours and won a $10,000 grant to fund antiobesity health education seminars.
Mehta has also researched the effects of Dioxin, a harmful pollutant on the immune system, for the last three years, and has traveled to Mexico and India to volunteer in health clinics for women and children.
People who know Mehta can vouch for his strong moral character.
‘He is a very outstanding individual, and very humane,’ said SOS Clinic Medical Director Margarita Pereyda. ‘Despite his academic achievements, he really connects with individuals. You can tell this guy will make a difference in the medical profession. It really is his calling.’
Mehta’s success can also be attributed to his knack of setting goals and actually getting them done. When he says that running the Los Angeles Marathon is fun and that he plans to do it again this year, he means it.
When he states his plans to participate in the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain this summer and hopefully win the grant from the Fulbright Program to work on a project on infant mortality in India, it will probably happen in due time.
Mehta works hard and achieves his goals, but, more importantly, he does so with humility and always remembers to keep things in perspective.
‘I was talking to my friend from Italy, and we saw that our parents took such a huge risk to come here. Compared to them, I’ve done nothing. My dad had to work at McDonald’s, and my mom worked in a restaurant. These people left comfortable lives to start all over again, and that is my source of motivation,’ Mehta said.
Mehta’s recognition may be a little more than just ‘nothing,’ because his hard work is now paying off.
After hearing about two UCI students who had received the USA Today award in 2001, Mehta had something to think about for a few years. After talking to Susan Bryant, dean of the School of Biological Sciences, Mehta was nominated for the award and was asked to describe his ‘most challenging intellectual endeavor.’
After the story was published in USA Today, Mehta received e-mails including an impressive job offer from Genentech, a biotechnology research company.
In addition, a former UCI professor involved in a global relief agency for deaf individuals invited Mehta to lunch to talk about a position in his agency. However, Mehta had to turn down both for his summer plans in India.
Overall, the winners of the Academic First Team all had one thing in common: a global connection and awareness beyond the bubble of college life.
‘Going abroad is a wonderful experience, something every student should take advantage of,’ Mehta said. ‘There are so many students on campus too concerned about grades. Having international experience and taking the time to be involved in other activities shows you have balance and gives you balance in your life. You don’t need to kill yourself for grades.’
With that said, having a Palm Pilot in hand may also help other students achieve their own high aspirations. Mehta’s secret for finding his own balance lies in his regular practice of spending two hours on the weekends planning out his whole week.
Displaying his Palm Pilot, Mehta said, ‘I don’t like going into a situation not knowing what I have to do next.’
And if balance also means just being a college student having fun, fourth-year psychology major and friend Ricky Achiro reassures us that Mehta is more than just a list of accomplishments, as evidenced by his mischievous side and his adoration of celebrity culture.
‘He really likes [playing around]. Right before the Golden Globes he tried to get in by saying that he worked at Miramax,’ Achiro said. ‘Of course it didn’t work. [Mehta] is a humble guy, but we all know deep down inside his heart, he wants to be nominated for the Academy Awards. Just to meet Natalie Portman.’