Finding your niche


I started college determined to make such an impression at UC Berkeley that my dream school would regret rejecting me.

I researched the school’s extracurriculars meticulously, outlined my entire college schedule and started envisioning my future internships — all before I graduated from high school.

Yet, for all my resolve, as soon as I set foot on campus, I knew immediately that I did not feel at home here.

My freshman year taught me that, sometimes, all the planning you do can be destroyed by a gut feeling that things simply aren’t going to work out. You can plan to obtain all the factors to constitute the perfect college experience, but you don’t realize what criteria you will prioritize until you are in the midst of it.

I knew I couldn’t ignore the gut feeling that no matter how much I strove to fall in love with my school, I never would find my niche. What I’ve come to realize is that you have to be trusting of these gut feelings. Maybe that means admitting that you don’t feel at home with any of the four clubs you joined first semester and being confident in yourself to drop out and begin anew. Maybe that means changing your major multiple times and embracing not knowing where you will be in the next year or even the next couple of months.

Looking back now, I always ask myself: What was all that preparation for? At the same time, I’ve learned not to be bitter about the time spent floundering and searching. There is a quote I read that said having regrets is the most unfair thing to do to yourself — because you couldn’t possibly have known then what you know now. I couldn’t have known that I would end up feeling so lost throughout my first year.

Part of it was that it was so much harder to meet up with people in college due to everyone’s different schedules and find a consistent group of friends. I missed sitting in a class and being able to know the names of everyone around me. Everyone was meeting a soul mate or best friend for life in college, yet I felt as if I left my best friends behind in high school. People kept telling me, “It’s a giant campus, but it’s easy to make it feel small.” I waited, and I kept waiting, thinking that I missed some essential step. Eventually, I withdrew myself completely.

The fact that I was an English major only exacerbated the isolation. I thought that college would be a place where I could finally feel at home with my career choice, where I could focus on classes I wanted to take and be with people who felt the same. As a humanities major, I felt neglected by an institution I perceived to be more science- and technology-based.

When hundreds of people gathered on Sproul Plaza for the November election results, it was the first time that I felt like I was part of this community. Fireworks exploded over the masses, an American flag was waving vigorously over arms pumping to Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A.” Granted, solidarity is still different from feeling at home. But then, I finally joined The Daily Californian and CalSlam, a spoken-word collective on campus where I finally found my niche.

UC Berkeley doesn’t have to be your home. If it’s not, don’t force it to be one. But you can take away something meaningful from your experience anyway. Take advantage of the resources available — as well as San Francisco and the inspiring conversations you can have with both professors and the homeless — to help you find where you do want to be. And all the while, be trusting with letting those gut feelings guide you.

That may mean creating a new definition of what a good college experience for you is like. For me, it meant embracing the difference between alone and lonely. It meant being OK that you might not talk to any familiar faces for several days in a row but genuinely looking forward to a conversation with your GSI — because she just understands your adoration of John Keats’ poetry so well. It means telling your friends back home — when they’re all sharing exciting stories — that your favorite part about Berkeley is the random benches that you find dispersed around campus or the way the trees leading up to Sather Gate turn from Whomping Willows to magical cherry blossoms in the spring. It means not comparing yourself to those amazing people getting big research grants in biotech or creating startups (there are a lot of them here), and it means doing your own work from an authentic place, because you can create your own kind of amazing. It’s not the typical definition of a great college experience, but it’s my own.


Contact Mary Zhou at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @MaryZhou529.