Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Berkeley But Were Afraid to Ask

Photo: Protesting students march down Bancroft Way in a rally against Proposition 187, which sought to crack down on illegal immigration. Activism has been a tradition at UC Berkeley for the past several decades.
The Daily Californian/File
Protesting students march down Bancroft Way in a rally against Proposition 187, which sought to crack down on illegal immigration. Activism has been a tradition at UC Berkeley for the past several decades.

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Berkeley often becomes the subject of conversation: "Is it true you're going to Berkeley? I'm so jealous!" followed by, "It's a bunch of hippies and tree-huggers up there, right?"

Most students have similar stories of when other people found out that they were going to Berkeley. But from the first couple of steps onto the UC Berkeley campus, it becomes clear that this school stands out in more ways than one.

With a rich history steeped in tradition-and in the breaking of tradition-UC Berkeley has earned itself a world-renowned reputation for quality education and a truly unique social atmosphere.

Perhaps one of Berkeley's most visibly distinctive trademarks is the "Big C" located on the side of Charter Hill overlooking the campus. Until the construction of the "Big C," the freshman and sophomore classes would climb up the side of Charter Hill and "war" against each other to display the superiority of their class year. Now, the different classes on campus rally together to defend the "Big C" from being painted red by students at Stanford University.

"The 'Big C' is one of Cal's greatest traditions," said Lauren Bachelis, a current undergraduate student and tour guide. "Whenever Stanford comes across the bay to paint our 'Big C' red, rally committee is in charge of making sure that it stays yellow to maintain our campus spirit."

There's another tradition on campus so celebrated that it boasts features on such sites as Facebook and YouTube. If you happen to see numerous freshmen rolling down a hill and being videotaped by laughing upperclassmen, you've reached 4.0 Hill. It is believed that rolling down this spot on campus, also known as Faculty Glade, will yield a 4.0 grade point average for all who perform the ritual.

In addition to the university's deeply-rooted social traditions, it also carries the tradition of academic excellence. Berkeley is reputed the world over as a hub of intellectual creativity and diversity. We currently host 20 Nobel Prize winners, four Pulitzer Prize winners, 28 MacArthur Fellows and many more faculty award recipients.

"There's just no place quite like this when I think of the diversity of course offerings and the kind of people you get to take courses from," said Steve Tollefson, director of the Office of Educational Development. "The tradition of teaching on this campus is extremely important and deep. Sometimes, because it's a research university, people forget that. The teaching is just wonderful at this campus."

Anyone within a 10-mile radius of campus on game days knows how much Berkeley esteems itself on athletic tradition. One of the only marching bands in the nation to perform the high-step form, the Cal Band promotes school spirit on campus. Founded in 1891, it is also one of the oldest college marching bands on the West Coast. Today, the band can be seen trumpeting through Sproul, clarinet-ing through the unit courtyards or sousaphone-ing its way to victory at sporting events.

But no athletic tradition is as celebrated as the tale of the Axe and the Big Game. The Axe first made its appearance in a Stanford rally in 1899. After Berkeley beat Stanford at a baseball game two days later, Berkeley students seized the axe and dodged both Stanford students and San Francisco police to smuggle it safely across the Bay. Stanford and Berkeley ultimately decided to award the axe to whichever team won the Big Game each year. Every year on the night before the Big Game against Stanford, Berkeley students hold a bonfire at the Greek Theatre during which a history of the rivalry is recounted.

One of the largest traditions on campus is that of activism. The Free Speech Movement, for which the cafe next to Moffitt Library is named, began during the 1964-65 academic school year on the UC Berkeley campus. Under such leaders as Mario Savio and Art Goldberg, the movement's essential goal was to establish the First Amendment as the only rule regulating political speech and freedom of expression on campus. After much negotiation, protest and rallying, demands of the movement's leaders were met following the appointment of cause supporter Martin Meyerson as the new chancellor.

"The (movement,) I think, came about during a time when a lot of opening up of political questioning put Berkeley on the map as a place of activism of progressive thought," alumnus Jeff Martin said. "It created a community of people and ideas that would, even after the '60s and '70s, have that sort of activist legacy. Even today, a good number of people choose Berkeley because of that heritage."

Today, Sproul Plaza remains a hub of creative expression and political demonstration. Out of the hundreds of student groups at Berkeley, there are approximately 45 political groups and many more who make their voices heard on campus.

The tradition of activism continues as tree sitters, who have been occupying the oak grove near Memorial Stadium since December 2006, protest against the planned construction of a new athletic center. While this struggle is both complex and ongoing, the perseverance of its supporters attests to the social change that is an inextricable part of the Berkeley campus.


Contact Zoe Carpou at [email protected]

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