From cowtown to campus: a reflection on CalSO

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Two years ago, I arrived at CalSO orientation — 65 glaring minutes too soon.

My mother’s dented minivan took the Claremont Avenue exit as I breathed in to quell my nerves. I nervously opened one eyelid, then the other. It was my first glimpse of Berkeley, and I saw sidewalks — gray, narrow, uneven sidewalks that lined Claremont Avenue. Sidewalks that led to a tattered diner with a whimsical orange facade, displaying a flashing message: “Breakfast! Get it here! Bacon and eggs! $6.99!” I saw old trees pushing up sidewalks and punk kids walking and wearing purple corduroy pants. And I liked it — a first impression that would hold through my CalSO comedy of errors.

We arrived at the orientation check-in, and I was the first one in line at Foothill. I sat on my sleeping bag and waited. Gradually, excited students and their families milled in. I lost my place in line when I went to go use the bathroom. Waiting in the back of the line, I shifted my shoes. I smiled encouragingly at the group of students absorbed in superficial conversation in front of me. I blinked meaningfully, cleared my throat and rolled forward onto the tips of my orthopedic sneakers, and in one loud stream I said, “Hi, my name is Jas. What’s your name? … Good morning — are you excited to be here? Because I am.”

We chatted briefly about hometowns and high schools. A girl with pink Converse, dark curls and too much purple lipstick made a face when I tried to explain the cowtown I’m from. Smirking, she said, “Oh, yeah, I think I we pulled off the freeway to pee at that Jack in the Box once. What do you grow? Like, apples or something?”

The surrounding students, still waiting in a snaking check-in line, laughed. I smiled a too big smile and proudly said, “Mushrooms. My hometown grows mushrooms.”

Curls and pink Converse replied, “Oh! So it, like, smells like shit all the time?” More laughter. I rolled back on my heels. My small town had been my universe. I had lived there for 15 years; everyone I knew and everyone I talked to had grandparents who had gone to high school at my high school. I had been in college for 20 minutes, and I quickly realized that no one really cared where I was from.

Now things were different. My universe was just a truck stop on a southbound freeway. I quickly shut up and made small talk. One girl had a twin — that was cool.

The rest of the afternoon was a blur of icebreakers and campus facts. I accidently stepped on the campus seal and ate a soggy chicken-salad sandwich for lunch. I tried to remember the names of my group members.

That night, we tried to plan classes. I went to advising, while the other girls I met went to a presentation on how to party safely. That night, I curled up in my bed with my laptop and planned out my academic life in four years. I planned to be a molecular environmental biology major — that was a cute idea.

At 8 a.m., we registered for classes. I panicked and left the room with a three-unit English class. This was not in my plan. College was hard. Figuring out financial aid was hard. Registering for classes, with the assistance of two counselors and one student helper, was hard. And where were my lifelong friends, damn it? I went into the bathroom on the third floor of Wheeler Hall and let out a dramatic sob — except no tears came out, because I was too dehydrated. I had forgotten my water bottle.

At the at the very end, however, we were shown a spirit slideshow. I danced “The Time Warp,” and the Cal Band played. I was given a free book, and in a big lecture hall — surrounded by hundreds of other CalSO babies — I felt a tangible shift. An understanding that eventually this place would become my home, even if it didn’t feel like it immediately.

Four attempted majors and three failed classes later, I’ve found my place. I no longer shift in my shoes, and I still tell elaborate stories. I have dear friends whom I helplessly adore, and I am still always early.

So don’t stress. Drink plenty of water, and do “The Time Warp.” Welcome to this place that will eventually come to feel like your own.

Contact Jasmine Leiser at [email protected].