At the end of the red brick road

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Rachael Garner/Senior Staff

“How was going home?” asked Shamaya Pellum, a college adviser in UC Berkeley’s College of Chemistry.

I’d dropped into her office to do a quick degree check between classes. Her head of exuberant curls glowed in the afternoon light. I picked a teal-covered Ghirardelli chocolate off her desk; my fingers struggled with the wrapper to free the sweet.

“Fine,” I answered, as I victoriously removed the square from its plastic confines. “You know how home is for me.”

Pellum laughed knowingly. Her big, gold hoops grazed her face with the motion. I smiled in tacit reply and took a small bite of chocolate. Our history shone clearly through her warm, brown eyes.

We meandered a bit through conversation and caught up, chatting about local jewelry stores, astrology and Rihanna’s new album, before returning to academics.

***

At first glance, UC Berkeley’s College of Chemistry — colloquially abbreviated the CoC — appears much more like a penitentiary than university buildings (an Uber driver once asked my friend if the building was a prison when he dropped her off there).

Latimer Hall’s peeling paint lacks the grandiose sophistication of the Haas School of Business; Pimentel Hall’s auburn walls don’t compare to glass walls of Li Ka Shing Center. In fact, many students who haven’t followed the red brick up the hill don’t even know where the chemistry buildings are.

But despite its humble appearance, the CoC boasts a staggering arsenal of accomplishments from its last 144 years of existence.

Because of its award-winning research and faculty, the college consistently places UC Berkeley as the number one university in the world for chemistry — and number two for chemical engineering — for both its graduate and undergraduate programs. It has produced an enormous number of UC Berkeley’s Nobel laureates — seven current and/or past faculty members and nine alumni.

On paper, it’s one of UC Berkeley’s proudest accomplishments. Prospective students who have a penchant for the chemical sciences apply directly into CoC from high school.

Yet, for me, the CoC is much more than a long list of what it’s done. For me — in a campus of more than 30,000 students — it’s home.

When I arrived freshman year as one of 19,000 students enrolled in the College of Letters and Science, I was laughably overwhelmed. I hailed from a private high school where my graduating class was 88 people, from a city where everyone’s life stories were common knowledge. I was comfortable in my small-world, Angeleno existence, in which I danced, tanned and drove often to Starbucks.

Latimer Hall’s peeling paint lacks the grandiose sophistication of the Haas School of Business; Pimentel Hall’s auburn walls don’t compare to glass walls of Li Ka Shing Center. In fact, many students who haven’t followed the red brick up the hill don’t even know where the chemistry buildings are.

It makes sense then that, when I got to UC Berkeley, I absolutely hated it.

I hated the cutthroat vibe of Economics 1, the competitive nature of Chemistry 1A. I hated the Mordor-style gloom, how hard it was to make friends. I hated how there was only Peet’s Coffee on campus and how ugly Evans Hall was. I hated a lot of things.

Yet, what bothered me most was the dearth of community on Berkeley’s campus — the omnipresent feeling that nobody really cared about you or your well-being; that you were just another face in tens of thousands.

Near the end of my first semester, I realized I needed to find something to convince me not to transfer.

At the time, my Chemistry 1A lab partner and I liked to chat during our experiments. We had different professors even though we were enrolled in the same lab section that fall. Once, he off-handedly mentioned something about his professor Marcin Majda being a “funny and charismatic lecturer,” as we titrated a solution. I looked him up after class.

Majda, it turns out, was — and still is — the undergraduate dean of the College of Chemistry. After speaking with a couple friends, I decided to give changing into CoC a shot. I met with Maura Daly, the freshman adviser, and enrolled in the recommended classes for the chemical biology major for the coming spring.

***

“This place has so many requirements,” I lamented, scrunching my nose up in complaint as I popped the last bit of chocolate in my mouth.

“Sometimes, I’m like, why have I done this to myself,” I mumbled while chewing. Pellum chuckled and inclined her head toward mine in empathetic understanding.

“I know. But you’ll appreciate it later,” she said, placating me. Her gaze flicked to the stark buildings outside. My eyes followed. I took in the ruddy red of Hildebrand Hall, the grisly gray of Latimer Hall, and I shot her a look with my left eyebrow skeptically raised.

“Are you sure?” I asked dubiously. Pellum ignored me.

“Who knows,” she said, flashing me her wide, gap-toothed smile. “You might even miss it.”

***

In the College of Chemistry, it’s incredibly easy to get to know people.

Upon joining, you begin to recognize the same faces in your physics, math and chemistry courses. Almost instantly that spring, I found my world growing smaller, shrinking to a slightly more manageable size, as I began attending classes where I actually interacted with my peers and GSIs on a personal level.

Finding someone else in the CoC, I discovered, was akin to meeting someone who spoke your mother tongue in a foreign land. Grateful, you clung to each other in a lower division class of hundreds. You worked together, connected in a way that was difficult to understand and cared for another’s success and well-being.

It was a haven of collaboration, of process and journey, at a school where product reigns. And it still is for the 250 or so people in the class graduating in 2017.

I never thought I would dissect the harmonic oscillator to death, extract salvia’s psychoactive ingredient or pipet together a protein at a national synthetic-biology lab. I never thought I would even finish upper-level math, much less take a year of quantum.

With a unique curriculum comprised of half-engineering, half-physical sciences courses and synthesis-focused research, the CoC’s distinct academic set-up has transformed the way I think as a student, scientist and human. Three years later, I can honestly say that joining it is one of the reasons I didn’t leave UC Berkeley.

The sheer number of things the CoC has pushed me to accomplish is unfathomable, especially to the person I was freshman year.

I never thought I would dissect the harmonic oscillator to death, extract salvia’s psychoactive ingredient or pipet together a protein at a national synthetic-biology lab. I never thought I would even finish upper-level math, much less take a year of quantum — now my favorite class of all time. And, if I had studied chemical biology in the College of Letters and Science instead of CoC, perhaps I never would have.

The kind of opportunity this college — this community of chemists — offers is no joke.

In the CoC, you find organic chemistry professors who genuinely care when you end up in the ER and college advisers who remember your favorite songs. You find classmates and administration who lend you a hand when you have nothing but “thank you” to offer in return.

Here, between the muted gray walls at the end of the red brick-lined road, you find a space to call your own in a school that often feels like it belongs to everyone else.

Here, you find something like home. Wouldn’t it be such a shame to see it go?

This article was written in response to the campus’s consideration to dissolve the campus College of Chemistry.

http://www.dailycal.org/2016/02/25/campus-considers-dissolving-college-chemistry-cut-costs/