Exploring the intellectual playground

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When one of my high school teachers heard that I was graduating from UC Berkeley with two humanities degrees, he proclaimed, “You must be your parents’ worst nightmare!” Of course, he was referring to the stereotypical assumption that many Chinese parents force their children to become either doctors or engineers. Fortunately, my parents have been incredibly supportive of my choices, despite their secret wish that I had studied engineering.

But for the past four years, whenever I told other adults what I was majoring in, I braced myself for the disapproving look that scorned me for wasting precious time and tuition money on such frivolous degrees. Although some adults were encouraging, others were not. Their judgement, along with my own insecurities, have prompted me to reevaluate my identity and decisions many times. Am I ever going to find a secure career? Can I have both fun and practicality? How do I do college right?

Those questions resulted in a crisis the summer before my junior year, when I accidentally discovered, by poking around some website code, that I might enjoy computer science. The crisis deepened when later that summer, someone told me I should be doing math or science instead of literature and music.

So when I returned to school for my junior year, I threw myself into the flourishing computer science culture on campus, trying to prove to myself and everyone around me that I had a future in STEM. But even better, I realized that STEM and humanities need each other to be their best selves. So I settled comfortably in the intersection between them: in design, technical communications and digital media.

This realization was only possible through persistent exploration. Determined to squeeze every last drop of experience I could get from my tuition dollars, I learned everything I found interesting at Berkeley. There’s a joke in Mandarin that “university” translates phonetically to “freedom to play for four years.” So I’ve treated Berkeley like an intellectual playground to try new things.

I hung out with brilliant programmers who patiently taught me how to code. I dabbled in graphic design, skimmed through hundreds of Javascript lines as a beginner and worshipped John DeNero in computer science classes.

I joined the martial arts community and discovered how fun it was to get thrown, kicked and pinched by friends. Though I no longer frequent 145 RSF, my time in martial arts clubs was colorful in the sense of bruises, belts and crazy personalities.

I stayed true to my cultural roots by taking a Chinese language class, reading Chinese literature for my major, learning how to play the erhu and joining Fei Tian Dancers. I’ve always wanted to dance and finally summoned the courage to join a dance group this semester.

And of course, there’s The Daily Californian, which has shaped my career the most. When I joined the multimedia staff as a music producer, I never pictured myself pouring my heart into videojournalism for two years. But here I am, a retired editor.

All this while, music has been in my life. I played percussion with the symphony orchestra for two years and sung the “Ode to Joy” with the choir. I’ve performed with the Philharmonia Orchestra in New York and Los Angeles. I’ve played on rice bowls and flower pots, performed gigs with my band at Sliver Pizzeria and accompanied a cello quartet to entertain marathon runners. I’ve written squiggly music notes on paper and watched performers bring them to life. I’ve made friends who complain about musicology papers with me and compose works for me. No part of music has been a waste of time.

Through it all, I also discovered how essential writing is to my soul. No matter what I do, nothing else can replace the satisfaction of spilling my thoughts on paper and sculpting a coherent blog post or article out of them.

All these seemingly irrelevant activities are important in shaping my goals, career or otherwise. Despite having two “useless” degrees on my diploma, I couldn’t be happier with the time I spent finding my place through all these activities and classes. I understand why many Asian parents want their children to pursue certain careers, but I also know there’s no single way to do college right or to be happy in life. I take refuge in the Chinese idiom, “You learn as long as you live.” Learning excites me in all its forms.

I also love how Chinese culture emphasizes humility and appreciation. So I owe a big thank you to the friends scattered throughout the campus for accepting me for who I am. Thank you to my family for trusting me to shape my own future and for supporting me in every way. Thank you to my roommates and freshman hallmates for being a family to return home to. I only survived because of you all.

As is with long-winded speeches, the music is now cueing me to leave the stage. I wish I had four more years of this crazy college life. But it’s time for me to leave Berkeley to the next generation of Golden Bears. So with love and laughter, I say farewell to Cal. Go Class of 2016!

Karen Lin was the multimedia editor in spring 2016. She joined The Daily Californian as a music producer in fall 2014 before becoming the multimedia web producer in spring 2015 and multimedia assistant editor in fall 2015. She is graduating with bachelor degrees in comparative literature and music. 

Contact Karen Lin at [email protected].