Former College of Marin Student Wins UCB University Medal
Josh Biddle Plans To Use $2,500 Scholarship to do Clinical Outreach in Kenya
“I'm honored to be the first community college transfer to be awarded the University Medal and I take that responsibility seriously,” he said during a brief commencement speech May 16 to thousands of his peers. “I want to accept this award on behalf of the late bloomers and the second-chancers.”
At the UCB commencement Biddle, 28, described the unorthodox journey he’s taken to realize his educational goals.
“I've spent a lot of my life hiding,” he said, noting his early years of drug problems and depression, difficulty at both private and public high schools in Marin, followed by a semester-long sting at a Midwestern college, a series of classes at College of Marin and two years at a therapeutic boarding school for teens and young adults in Colorado.
He graduated from UCB 10 days ago with a degree in integrative biology. The award comes with a $2,500 scholarship that Biddle will use to pay his way to Kenya where he will do clinical outreach on behalf of the Ray of Hope Foundation. He intends to study medicine at UC San Francisco beginning in September.
“I want to champion the nontraditional path and represent the wisdom of following one's own internal directives no matter how foolish they initially appear,” he said. “And if my winning helps inspire other young people who struggle to bring meaning to their lives not to be embarrassed by their confusion, then I'm happy.”
After the two-year Colorado program, Biddle described how he lived as a farm laborer and lived with his then-94-year-old grandmother who inspired his own interest in the natural world. He went on to travel to Central America, landing eventually in the San Francisco Bay Area where he began studying biology at City College of San Francisco until transferring to UCB in 2008.
Biddle credited his success to his willingness to ask questions and seek guidance along the way. He urged his fellow students to speak out and be heard.
"The redirection of his life’s trajectory has been amazing — going from one of self-medication and questioning his purpose in the world to his present life of actively and passionately doing work to improve the lives of individuals from marginalized groups," wrote John Matsui, assistant dean of biological sciences at UC Berkeley and director of the Biology Scholars Program, in his letter recommending Biddle for the award.
At UC Berkeley his study has included testing the drug resistance of mesothelioma cancer; how stress affects the length of telomeres, the protective caps at the end of DNA strands; and how estrogen receptors in the brains of female meadow voles promote social bonding. He also volunteered at the health clinic at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco and tutored inmates at San Quentin State Prison.
"I like science and I like hospitals and there’s enough good in the medical profession to make it right for me," he said.
Biddle dedicated his speech to Bill Sell, a mentor in a teen/young adult therapeutic boarding program who helped him “to lean” into his emotions rather than to retreat into his fear.
“I'm wrong more often than I'm right and I've got about a billion more questions than answers,” he said. “I spend most of my time making my life harder than it needs to be and I forget to do a lot of important things. About the only thing I do know is that I don't know much.” Most of the time, he said, “I just make it up as I go along.”
The “real University Medalists,” he said, are students who have to sleep on couches because they can't afford rent or the ones taking a full course load while they raise children and work. “I know that before I save the world I should probably learn the name of the man who drives my bus,” he said. “I know that it's easy to love poor people in Africa, but I also know that there are poor people in my backyard who need help and that the hardest person to love is myself. I know that I'm not supposed to be afraid of my pain, that it's the clearest window I have into the experience of others, but most of the time I run away from that too. I know that the moments when I'm most sure of myself are the ones of which I should be most leery. I try to treat the self-doubt that greets me every morning as motivation to do better. I honor the homeless men and woman trapped in the dungeons of their addictions who explore the truly dark places of this world so I don't have to.” The most important thing to do is to tell your story, he said.