An inspiration to classmates and community 

Chancellor’s Medal recipient and student leader Puneet Birk excelled in her studies, triumphed over hardship and left her mark on campus.

In May, UW Bothell senior Puneet Birk was awarded the Chancellor’s Medal, an award that recognizes graduating students who have inspired their peers and faculty by overcoming significant obstacles while completing their degree or certificate program. 

“I was in shock,” said Birk, a first-generation college student. “You always think about how other people feel when they win an award, but I was bringing this home to my house. It felt surreal.” 

Recipients of the Chancellor’s Medal are nominated by UW Bothell faculty, staff or fellow students, and those in this 20-year-old’s circle were unanimous: She’s been an inspiration to those around her through academic excellence, her resilience in the face of family hardship and her work as an influential student leader. 

“Puneet embodies the very essence of the Chancellor’s Medal — she’s an inspiration, overcoming profound personal challenges to not only succeed but also uplift those around her,” said Ahmed Mohamad, a senior majoring in Business Administration who served as ASUWB vice president. 

Pushing for more 

Birk, who was a Running Start student, joined UW Bothell as a junior. She sought to challenge herself, taking a full load of classes and applying to become a legislative liaison for the Associated Students of the University of Washington Bothell. The student lobbyist position required her to temporarily relocate to Olympia and inspired her to declare her major in Law, Economics & Public Policy. 

“After working with the legislature and working with an entire team at a lobbying firm, I just fell in love with policy and the entire process of it,” said Birk. “Also, my dad is a businessman and I’ve seen him work with legal parties. It’s always interested me.” 

Aside from her studies, Birk has held two part-time jobs as a student leader. In spring 2023, she became the youngest-ever elected president of the ASUWB. Meanwhile, she also served as president of the Washington Student Association, a student-led nonprofit organization that facilitates statewide student organizing and advocacy at colleges and universities. 

“For nearly two years, I’ve watched Puneet triumph as a student leader,” said Brittany Mayes, Birk’s adviser and associate director of Student Engagement & Activities. “As ASUWB liaison, she really trailblazed best lobby practices for her team members and advocated for her fellow students in Olympia. She took her role as president very seriously, too.” 

Fostering student joy and inclusion 

Birk researched the feasibility of creating a “common hour” on campus when she served as ASUWB president. During this hour, the hope is that no classes will be scheduled so that students can have more time to engage with student clubs and enjoy their college experience. Over this summer quarter, the registrar’s office will begin analyzing how this blocked hour can be effectively implemented. 

To deepen student representation and to establish more checks and balances for the ASUWB team, Birk helped build up a student senate after it was dismantled during the coronavirus pandemic. 

“With our growing population, I realized we were a team often trying our best to represent nearly 6,000 students. It’s just not an equitable representation of all the demographics. There are just not physically enough hands,” Birk said. “So, our vice president, our policy and personnel coordinator and I — each of us — did a lot of work on creating the bylaws and structure for recreating a student senate.” 

Birk also worked to help improve campus safety and expand food options in the new campus dining hall. 

“Her presidency was about creating a more engaged, inclusive and supportive campus community,” said Mohamad. “She wanted every student to feel seen, heard and valued.” 

Meeting hardship with grace 

Even as she’s triumphed as a student and a student leader, Birk has faced some personal challenges. When she started at UW Bothell, her mother was dealing with a series of critical health issues that forced Birk to take on more responsibilities at home. 

“The biggest challenge was navigating my mom’s mental health, especially because mental health is a completely different thing for her generation,” Birk said. “My caretaking involved trying to explain what these challenges can look like, such as what anxiety truly is. So, I was not only trying to make sure that everybody was on the same page of how we could help mom get better but also ensuring that we were actively helping her to get better.” 

Then, in April 2023, Birk lost her “Big Dad,” her beloved grandfather who was a fixture of their family and of their larger Sikh and Punjabi communities. 

“He practically raised us. I feel losing him really opened my eyes to grief, and it also brought me closer to my religion” she said. “But it was a lot, and as a student, the homework never stops, so I really had to push through.” 

Birk has not only overcome, but she has excelled. She made the dean’s list this year and has continued to stay involved with numerous school clubs and mentor fellow ASUWB members. 

“The loss she endured could have dimmed any spirit, but Puneet’s resolve only grew stronger,” said Mohamad. 

Her presidency was about creating a more engaged, inclusive and supportive campus community. She wanted every student to feel seen, heard and valued.

Ahmed Mohamad, senior, Business Adminstration

A bright future 

Birk graduated in June with her bachelor’s degree, and she is looking forward to law school. She’s currently studying for the Law School Admission Test, which she will take later this year. She hopes to attend the University of California, Los Angeles, or University of California, Berkeley, (or perhaps an Ivy League school) and eventually practice corporate law. 

During UW Bothell’s Commencement ceremony at T-Mobile Park, Birk was recognized by Chancellor Esterberg as recipient of the 2024 Chancellor’s Medal and, as ASUWB president, gave her final speech to her classmates. 

Her remarks centered around her beloved grandpa’s mantra, “kush roh.” This means “stay happy,” in Punjabi, Birk explained. “It’s a reminder to embrace joy in every moment, regardless of life’s challenges and uncertainties.” 

With her enthusiastic demeanor, compassionate leadership, enduring work ethic and deep devotion to family, Birk beautifully embodies her grandfather’s mantra — and the ethos behind one of UW Bothell’s most prestigious student awards. 

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