When my older sister — now a proud Cal alumna — was persuading me to apply and eventually send in my SIR to UC Berkeley two years ago, she constantly gave me the same rundown of all the valuable things I’d learn over the course of my four years. She spoke less about the educational value of Berkeley and emphasized the personal lessons that she thought were important for me to experience. But being a naive high school senior, I didn’t really care about “learning about myself” or “learning about people.” These “life lessons” didn’t interest me at all.
Long story short, I decided on UC Berkeley, though I was still dismissing my need for personal development. I gave no thought to the idea of using relationships as a tool to change or grow as a person, and I underestimated the impact they could have on one’s mind.
Fast forward to move-in day and the first night of college in my Unit 3 lounge. I had just finished a grueling day of “floor hopping” and had become a little more familiar with the faces that I would be seeing every day during the upcoming year. It was now time to settle down in the lounge with the floormates whom I knew absolutely nothing about.
I liked it — everyone was warm and friendly. I swear it must have looked like a picture straight from one of the admissions packets they send to prospective students. This was the honeymoon phase, I suppose.
But the novelty wore off steadily and unsurprisingly. Toward the middle of the year, after being in such close contact with so many new faces in an intimate environment like Berkeley, I grew complacent. I was satisfied with the relationships I had made, yet I had mixed feelings about myself.
I was sure I had a handle on all of my relationships, but I had a nagging feeling I couldn’t figure out who I wanted to be. Through my interactions and relationships, I noticed a growing disparity between the kind of person I thought myself to be and how people actually perceived me. It was debilitating to put so much thought into my interactions with friends and new people that it didn’t seem worth the effort. Socially and mentally, I felt drained and less satisfied with myself. It even impeded my ability to focus on anything else — school, family, fun.
My homesickness flared, bringing with it memories of old friends and the ease of relationships rooted in childhood. So I wrongly forced myself to engage less with those around me for fear of feeling even more sorry for myself, but I found myself feeling worse — almost feeling like I had given up.
Around the same time, I tried to reach out to a resident who stayed in his room for long hours, who had persuaded himself that he wouldn’t succeed in social environments. As the building’s health worker, I did what I was taught — I approached him to provide support and to explain to him the impact of social health on his emotionally stability and physical wellness. I neglected to tell him that his inner growth would depend on it because I hadn’t yet realized that myself. But with or without my help, he eventually reached out and found his fears and reservations to be unwarranted.
I was hypocritically giving the same advice and guidance that I myself ignored, and seeing his improvement, I felt motivated and energized to engage, to continue cultivating relationships and to peel back the layers of my own personality to reach the core of who I actually am and how I fit.
I regret nothing about the past year, because my experiences gave me the opportunity to truly understand what the purpose of college is. And it’s far from my conception of college as a high school senior. It’s not about the grades or compiling a standout resume. It’s about self-discovery — the kind of thing you can only achieve through personal relationships. It’s incredibly important, albeit extremely vague. But that’s the point — everyone is different. Everyone experiences it differently, at different times and for different reasons, so identifying and labeling self-discovery and giving it a definition with clear boundaries is impossible. It’s what you make it. Or rather, it’s what makes you.
So commit to fostering as many great relationships as possible — it’s the fundamental purpose of humans: Everything we do is for and because of each other. Every single relationship you develop, from the fleeting ones to the overwhelmingly powerful ones, can provide you with something valuable — a lesson about yourself. We’re social creatures by nature, so our wellness and our biology truly depend on our social interactions. The self-expression, the psychological support and the euphoria that can only be garnered through strong, positive relationships are crucial for success in life.
Step out of your comfort zone. Even if it means just striking up a conversation with someone you wouldn’t normally talk to or sitting next to someone you don’t know during lecture, you’ll learn something about others and something about yourself. We’re only here for a short period of time, so take advantage of this rare opportunity to explore an amazing city, amazing people and yourself for these short but rewarding four years.
“Shahin Firouzbakht writes a Thursday column on health issues affecting student life.
Contact Shahin Firouzbakht at [email protected].”