UC Davis’ Top Graduating Student Is Picnic Day Chair

Amanda Portier leans against an exterior wall of the Alumni Center
Amanda Portier, who chaired Picnic Day 2022, will receive the University Medal as the top graduating senior at UC Davis at her commencement June 12. (Greg Urquiaga/UC Davis)

Quick Summary

  • Achieved 4.0 GPA, was second author on academic paper
  • Mentored individuals with physical, intellectual disabilities
  • To be honored at Sunday commencement

Senior Amanda Portier of the University of California, Davis, led the team of hundreds that put on this year’s Picnic Day — attended by tens of thousands of people and believed to be the largest student-run event in the country. She also has been a mentor to individuals with intellectual disabilities, shed light on social justice issues and achieved a perfect 4.0 cumulative grade point average.

The UC Davis Marching Band performs at Picnic Day
The UC Davis Marching Band performs at Picnic Day, the university’s student-run open house. The day features about 200 activities including a parade, entertainment and educational exhibits. Tens of thousands attend. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

The resident of Walnut Creek, California, will be honored as the top graduating senior at UC Davis during its final undergraduate commencement, Sunday (June 12). More about undergraduate commencement and other commencements.

Portier, who is graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in community and regional development, will be awarded the University Medal for excellence in undergraduate studies, outstanding community service, and the promise of future scholarship and contributions to society. She will receive a plaque and $2,000.

“While I’m one person receiving this award, it’s acknowledging the many communities and the mentorship and support I’ve received,” Portier said.

The journey to her passion

Portier came to UC Davis thinking she wanted a career helping animals. What she developed was a desire to build community and serve some of our most vulnerable individuals and communities.

Portier’s family has fostered orphaned kittens since she was in eighth grade, and she dreamed of becoming a vet. “I always had my eye on UC Davis,” she said of the university, which has the nation’s top-ranked veterinary school.

Attending Picnic Day during her senior year at Las Lomas High School sealed the deal, and Portier started in fall 2018 as a major in neurobiology, physiology and behavior.

When Portier found she wasn’t enjoying the major as much as she had hoped, pivotal to her finding her new direction in community and regional development was a Native American studies class. The instructor showed video of the treatment of those protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. “I realized I lacked a deep understanding of the past and present forces that shape today’s diverse and inequitable human experiences,” she said.

For more than a year, Portier helped Noli Brazil, an assistant professor of human ecology, investigate how policies can better direct investment into disadvantaged neighborhoods. She was second author on an academic paper and developed a mapping application to share data with policymakers and scholarly communities.

“Given her work on my project and her overall stellar academic record, I believe Amanda has proven that she has incredible promise for future scholarship,” Noli wrote in a letter of support for Portier’s recognition.

The opportunity to use her “number-oriented brain to have social impact,” Portier said, inspired her to add a minor in statistics. Later she co-founded the first college chapter of Women in Data, which works to increase diversity in data careers.

Of her academic achievements, Portier said she has always valued education. “I love learning and hold myself to very high standards.”

Picnic Day

Portier had been active in extracurricular programs in high school, but she said she blossomed at UC Davis. “Part of it is related to the impact you can have on people through leadership positions and using the skills you have for the greater good,” she said.

Portier participated in Picnic Day leadership as a freshman and took on more responsibility for what would turn out to be virtual events for two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, she led planning through the pandemic — including the omicron surge in January — and back to an in-person celebration.

“Having the opportunity to shape that event is something I’m so grateful for,” Portier told a recent gathering to thank the student board and others.

Amanda Portier is photographed with the rest of the Picnic Day board, their advisor, and Chancellor Gary S. May at the end of Picnic Day
Amanda Portier, back row and second from left, is photographed between Heather Gastellum, ASUCD advisor to Picnic Day, and UC Davis Chancellor Gary S. May and with Picnic Day board members at a reception toward the end of the day. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

Other service

Portier also built on an interest that began with her involvement with the Special Olympics in high school. She was a peer buddy in the Best Buddies program, which offers social inclusion programs for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, as well as an academic mentor in UC Davis’ Redwood Seed Scholars Program for non-degree students with intellectual disabilities.

In 2021, Portier was a California Climate Action Corps Summer Fellow with White Pony Express, a Contra Costa food recovery and distribution nonprofit. She trained volunteers, cleaned up the database, wrote grant applications and supported operations. 

‘No one does it alone’

Portier said her No. 1 role model is her mother, who has just earned an associate’s degree and been admitted to UC Berkeley to continue studies toward a bachelor’s degree.

“‘No matter what, faith in humanity is real,’” Portier quoted her mother. “No one does it alone.”

After Portier spends some time with her family, she’ll take up her search for a job focused on climate justice with the state or a nonprofit organization. “I really want to make an impact on communities and places and people,” she said.

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Photos of Amanda Portier and Picnic Day

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