Growing from stones at UC Berkeley

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Finally succumbing to peer pressure as a then-20-year-old adult who was long overdue to obtain her driver’s license, I took the practical test last summer. Anxious with the bold, but ill-considered decision, sweat trickled down my neck like boiling water as my driving evaluator settled into the passenger seat. I revealed a smile as fictitious as a political promise, although in reality I looked like a constipated chipmunk since I just had my wisdom tooth extracted two days prior.

As I held onto the clutch, unwelcome thoughts of reluctance flooded my brain. Being the only unlicensed individual within my group of friends, I have grown sick of their tireless mockery of my inability to drive as an Asian woman. In a society that continuously glorifies success and normalizes common contempt for personal inadequacy, questions such as, “What if I fail?” dominated my mind.

Innumerable driving errors and fifteen minutes later (though it felt like several hours), the evaluator asked me to park. Doubtful of why I deserved a license, he asked me why he should issue one to me. Stumbling over my words, I confessed that retaking the test would be difficult as I had recently been admitted to UC Berkeley and would soon be preoccupied with academics.

His eyes unexpectedly gleamed as he exclaimed, “UC Berkeley? Cool! Isn’t that the best place ever? Me too, class of 2000!” Despite his earlier apprehension, he enthusiastically gave me a high five and circled “PASS” on the evaluation sheet.

While this is quite a dramatic anecdote, it landmarks the first time that my affiliation with UC Berkeley literally opened doors for me.

Prior to getting admitted into UC Berkeley, I had identity crisis. As an aspiring physician, I spent most nights arming myself with knowledge about matter and electromagnetic radiation. But on the weekends, I was dressed in red uniform and non-slip shoes as a cashier at Carl’s Jr. Being an immigrant and first-generation college student, the resources that would allow me to succeed in America’s society seemed to be scarce.

Historically, I was destined to work my way through a minimum wage job like most of my predecessors in order to put bread and butter on the table — education was not an option. For those of us who have nothing, such as the students who may be undocumented or those who come from broken households, attaching our identities to surrounding institutions is our primary fallback and source of self-validation. As a Golden Bear, I weaved the threads of the prestige of UC Berkeley into the fabric of my identity. Otherwise, I’m not exaggerating when I say that I don’t have anything else to cling on to. Today, I’m not wearing a red uniform with a Carl’s Jr. emblem on the back. Instead, my education undressed me from my insecurities. I‘m fully clothed in blue and gold.

Yet, with this newly acquired identity, I still struggle. Consistently earning a 4.0 is hardly obtainable. Not being the smartest student in the room is the norm. UC Berkeley put me through a reality check. I was challenged. I was humbled. I have never hysterically cried right after a midterm and called my mother to receive comfort and support until I stepped foot in UC Berkeley.

There are over 37,000 extremely gifted and talented students within the institution. And because UC Berkeley pioneered the holistic review system, these students are nothing short of profound — consisting of outstanding individuals who not only excel in academia, but also possess traits of inconceivable resilience.

Obtaining an education in the United States is becoming increasingly difficult, especially with the current federal administration’s proposed budget cuts on public education. With multiple systemic barriers that increase the gap between the educated and the uneducated, both the value and purpose of a degree becomes progressively questionable for those who are unable to afford to it. Despite the ubiquitous concerns about this institution’s inability to cater to the masses, as an individual who personally had to overcome prejudice attached to my identity as a person of color, my mere admission to this campus is concrete proof that I’m on the same footing as my privileged peers.

The years spent may be few, but they are certainly not easy. UC Berkeley is not for the average Joe and not for the faint of heart. It’s a fluctuating adventure, a rollercoaster ride consisting of ups and downs. In this ride, I felt delirious. However, I chose not to carry the burdens inflicted by this academic experience as heavy stones on my back, but rather I used them under my feet so that they may become the stepping stones toward my success.

In such a competitive institution where everything is earned and not given, UC Berkeley forced me to undergo a state of metamorphosis; it chiseled me into an irrepressible young woman who is ready to tackle failure, but even more ready to accept it. I am certain that next time car doors won’t be the only doors opening up for me.

Mariah De Zuzuarregui is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected].