Tristan Reed knows now that he was breaking his mother's heart by the fall of his sophomore year in high school.
"My mom was very big on achievement and stuff like that," recalled Reed, who graduates next week from UCLA with a bachelor's degree in economics. "And I started to rebel against that. I stopped doing well in school and started hanging with the non-academically achieving crowd."
So when Barbara K. Burgess, a highly regarded molecular biologist at the University of California, Irvine, died suddenly late that December, the oldest of her three sons knew exactly what he had to do.
"My mother's death was a catalyst for me to turn my life around, and I did," said Reed.
Not only is the economics major graduating with a long string of achievements, but he's been selected for one of the highest honors UCLA gives an undergraduate. Reed will serve as the student speaker at the June 13 commencement exercises for the UCLA College of Letters and Science at Pauley Pavilion, addressing an anticipated crowd of 12,000 and sharing the dais with former President Bill Clinton, who is the graduation speaker.
"I would like her to be there," Reed said. "She would've been so excited."
Not that Reed, a regular columnist at UCLA's Daily Bruin student newspaper, seems particularly fazed.
"At the end of the year, seniors write a column for the Daily Bruin to kind of sum up your time at UCLA," said Reed. "So this is essentially what I'm doing. I'm just speaking it as opposed to writing it."
In fact, Reed sees his role as student speaker as an extension of his column, which he has used to investigate his twin passions — economics and public policy — but also to ruminate on student politics and campus life.
"UCLA's given me a lot, I've grown a lot here and I've learned a lot here from professors and students — students in classes and in student groups. I've tried, particularly in my work in the Daily Bruin, to synthesize that for people," he said. "That's what I hope to do at commencement."
Reed's synthesis will draw from many strands. Since the beginning of his college career, he has distinguished himself as an energetic activist. During his freshman year, he served as the founding chair of the UC Sudan Divestment Task Force, which led a campaign that eventually resulted in the UC Regents divesting funds from certain firms doing business in Sudan. Under his leadership, the West Coast chapter of the student-run humanitarian organization FORGE instituted an agricultural project benefitting 25 Congolese women and their families in a Zambian refugee camp. Putting his economics lessons to use, this year he helped the UCLA-based student organization Global Business Brigades analyze data on agricultural practices among coffee farmers in Honduras with the goal of improving production.
"A lot of activist movements don't really know the facts behind what they're advocating for," he said. "They just go for what they think is a good idea. Most people don't take them seriously as a result. Research-driven activism is what's effective."
He also has excelled academically. Initially a global studies major, Reed, in his sophomore year, became fascinated by the "way that economics and quantitative analysis could describe the world." In addition to a major in economics, he completed a minor in math. He is graduating summa cum laude, with departmental and college honors and a 3.9 grade-point average.
During his UCLA tenure, he has won three different research awards, including one of the eight Dean's Prizes given this year for the best presentation at a UCLA College-sponsored conference in May on undergraduate research. He presented his thesis on women's health services in Indonesia.
"Tristan has a resume from heaven," said Marc Mayerson, UCLA's assistant dean of social sciences and a member of the seven-person jury that picked Reed from a pool of seven finalists, based on his speech and presentation skills. "He's an incredibly involved student, and he's quite accomplished. He certainly has a bright future ahead of him, and he'll represent UCLA well in the world."
Of course, it helped that Reed, whose father is UC Riverside chemist Christopher A. Reed, knows his way around a college campus. He grew up in faculty housing at UC Irvine; after school, he occasionally hung out in his mother's lab. By the time Reed enrolled, late in his freshman year, as a transfer student from UC Santa Barbara, his future stepmother, Pat O'Brien, was serving as executive dean of the UCLA College, a position from which she retired last year.
"UCLA is a difficult place," Reed said. "And you need to be able to go find what you want. I think because I had grown up in a university environment, I knew that I just needed to go ask for it, and people were going to be very nice as long as I was very persistent."
Reed credits the formula with persuading the former UCLA economist Duncan Thomas to sign him on as a student researcher as a junior with the UCLA-based California Center for Population Research (CCPR) — after "I begged him for a job two or three times."
As a result, Reed worked on a high-profile study of Indonesian relief efforts following the 2004 tsunami. He then parlayed the experience into a research assistantship with the World Bank's poverty research program in Washington, D.C. His work at the CCPR also led him to the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology–based research center dedicated to shaping successful policies to combat poverty by providing policymakers with the scientific results of aid efforts. The lab has signed him on following graduation as a research assistant in Freetown, Sierra Leone. In 2009, he plans to enroll at Harvard University, where he has been accepted for graduate study in economics. He hopes to complete a Ph.D.
"I'd love to be a research economist and do research that teaches us better ways to make people's lives better," he said. "Where I'll do that, I don't know. But that's what I want to do."
Still, Reed isn't all about aimless selflessness. Looking back on his college successes, he believes his most valuable victory may have been figuring out whom he is trying to please with all his achievements.
"I was, at the end of high school and beginning of college, working so hard to make up for my failures when my mother was alive," he said. "I realized, though, that I could never really satisfy her, since she's gone, and that I need to accomplish things for my own sake, not hers. Now my triumphs are my own."