Oh Berkeley, my Berkeley
Thursday, April 28, 2011
Category: Opinion > Columns
Berkeley was never my first choice. Like many people, my ideal college would have been somewhere east of Venus and south of Mercury - anywhere that was light years away from home.
Despite living 40 minutes away, I had never been to Berkeley before I was accepted. On my initial visit, the university did not put up a great show. It was late March, and the storm clouds hung low over campus, not so much menacing as monotonously gray. I spent most of my tour trying to stay dry and marveling at my tour guide's ability to walk backwards uphill. I left underwhelmed.
Berkeley fits well into the DIY movement. It's education, do it yourself style. I believe, sincerely, that it is entirely possible to go through four years on this campus without learning a damn thing. No ivory towers here, girls and boys, our buildings are made of concrete and glass. Yet, over the past two years, I've come to have a great affection for this school, for the people and for this damn peculiar place that we learn to call home. So here's some wisdom (or, at least, lessons learned) from a second-year Cal student, for whatever it's worth.
Take a breadth. Pun intended. Berkeley students tend to be very passionate and very dedicated to their chosen subject. On the other hand, most people tend to regard breadths either as a GPA booster or an enormous waste of time. I have never met anyone who took a Scandinavian R1B class because they were genuinely interested in it.
But with the current structure of the global economy, we're highly unlikely to remain in one job, let alone one profession, all our lives. According to Newsweek, the average American changes jobs 11 times before they turn 40. Life isn't linear, and the oddest things can turn out to be significant. Steve Jobs credits the calligraphy class he took at Reed College for Apple's beautiful typography and, by extension, the modern computer's typographical interface. Chosen correctly, taking classes outside of your major department can be a way to complement and enhance your education.
Pre-med? Take the History of Science for your breadth. English? Try a course on the neurological disorders of famous artists. Pre-business? How 'bout Ethics, Policy and the Power of Ideas (I kid, I kid)?
Your friends are your greatest assets. They are the ones who keep you sane during finals week, who listen to your rants about Tele-BEARS, grading curves and what the hell Foucault actually means. But beyond that, don't be afraid to ask your friends for help. They care, and in a school of this size, they may be the only ones who do. Specifically, try and make friends with people in your major classes. It helps, not only to make class more fun, but also to make learning more engaging. I only realized this admittedly obvious fact after my friends finally revealed to me that they did not find heuristic framing effects as wildly fascinating as I do. Or, rather, as they put it, "Meg, we don't give a flying fuck."
Okay, last bit, and this is the most important. Don't forget who you are, and don't forget why you're here.
The crystallizing moment for me came in a discussion group for my global poverty class. Global Poverty is one of the most popular courses on campus, with over 700 students. However, Professor Roy offers a few small discussion sections for a couple students to meet with her and discuss the lecture. I came, sat down and was suddenly surprised to hear myself speaking eloquently, and at length, about microfinance and American individualism. Later, Professor Roy and a few other students came up and thanked me for my contribution.
When I left, I immediately called my best friend, "I have the silliest, stupidest grin on my face," I told her. "I'm smart! How did I forget that for a year and a half?" She called me a rude name, and I laughed, but the question still disturbed me. It's easy to become just another backbencher in a lecture hall of 150, to stop challenging yourself to really think instead of just regurgitating information. It's easy to forget that you even have ideas worth thinking. Don't do it - remember who you are and have faith in what you can do.
As I prepare to leave the country for the next year, I found myself returning to an email I had written my then-future roommate. In the email, I tried to put into words what I loved about Berkeley. I told her about the classes, about the beautiful campus and the way the lights twinkle out on the bay at dusk. I talked about how I love coming home late on a Friday night and seeing people wandering the streets. The way it feels like the city is always alive, thrumming with potential. I told her that within this small radius, she would meet people who believed in things she never dreamt possible and had experiences she couldn't imagine.
It's true that diversity is not always pleasant - I once met a homeless man who believed in alien overlords - but it's always interesting, and who could really hope for more?
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