More than just a classroom: explore Berkeley, the Bay Area, and beyond

Meg Elison

Last week, I engaged in an old tradition here at the Daily Cal. When our time as editors comes to an end, we sign our names in desk drawers. These drawers came out of desks from the now-demolished Eshleman Hall, where our offices used to stand and once even caught fire. I signed my name, affixing part of myself to a history that is not entirely mine and an identity made up of thousands of people.

In a way, you are doing the same by coming to Berkeley. Berkeley is not only what you will make it in these next few years but all that has come before.

That’s the first thing I wish I had known when I started here.

I wish I had known what I wanted to do with my life the first time I slid into a classroom chair. The truth is, however, that almost nobody does, and the ones who think they have a solid plan have mostly absorbed it from pressuring parents or an unreasonable expectation of life and the job market.

In my case, cycling through potential majors got me to read some diverse stuff and also notice the one continuous thread that ran through it all. It may not strike you like lightning — you may have to hunt destiny down and shake the truth out of her. So, here is my advice: Try everything that is within your power to try. Be open to it all, and when something calls out to you, answer it.

Sometimes, the thing that is calling is your social life. I wish I had known the absolute uselessness of hiding out at home. Fear makes us small. It puts you on a short chain like a neglected dog and keeps you from trying anything that looks risky. There will be sick days, rainy weekends and unemployment in the years ahead that will appropriately propel you to take your laptop to bed and profess your undying love to Netflix. But, there are only these few years to actually live like a college student. Say yes to invitations. Dress up, show up and set some kind of goal for yourself before going home. You have to stay for an hour, or you have to talk to at least two people. Get into all the social scenes and situations you possibly can. At least half of your college experiences will come from other people.

Yes, your education takes place largely outside the classroom. Get your degree by all means, and do yourself proud. But, you should also get crazy. Get clear information about relationships and sex. Get access to birth control and disease prevention. Get an idea of what you want, and go find it! Fall in love, get your heart broken and find out for yourself what that’s like. Do not marry the first person who seems willing. Do not sleep with anyone who isn’t desperately interested in you. Don’t take any of it too seriously too soon. Be careful and generous in bed, and don’t tolerate anyone who is less than caring and generous toward you.

Lest I sound too general, let me advise you specifically as Berkeley students: Enjoy the surrounding area. I have met far too many upperclassmen who have never been to San Francisco or have only gone once or twice. If you’re not going to leave the campus — or the two or three miles surrounding it — you might as well have gone to Irvine.

Go to Oakland and see fire dancers at an old steel mill. Go to San Francisco and see naked leather daddies, an opera, Chinese New Year or something you can hardly describe. Go sailing on the bay for free with our own sailing team. Hike in the Marin headlands and watch the fog roll down. If all you want to do is eat at Chipotle and pull down the shades in your dorm, you are missing out on twelve kinds of adventure. The world is at your doorstep. Don’t waste it.

Never forget the incredible power of walking away. I wish I had known years and years ago that almost every situation that made me feel sad, uncomfortable, tired and inferior was something I could just walk away from like a boss and never look back. I stayed in groups because I wanted to be loyal. I stayed friends with people because I didn’t want to seem mean. I stayed in classes because I didn’t want to feel like a failure. I stayed silent because I didn’t want to be judged. Life is short, and college is even shorter. If the only penalty for walking away is that you might feel bad or dumb for a little while, remember that. Absolutely nothing on Earth is worth the wasting of your time.

Most of all, I want to tell you the things you will have to learn on your own: You will learn that you are powerful and need to fear almost nothing after time and experience have taught this to you. I wish I had known on my first day of school that someday I would sign my name in a desk at the Daily Cal and have absolutely no regrets. I wish you all the same.

Contact Meg Elison at [email protected].