Alumnus welcomes new UC Berkeley students with stern warning

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Berkeley Class of 2017:

Congratulations on your admission into the world’s best public school. After a successful adolescence, you now have the privilege of attending in an institution that has been home to world-class athletes Jason Kidd, Marshawn Lynch, Natalie Coughlin, movie stars Gregory Peck and Chris Pine, tech icons Eric Schmidt and Steve Wozniak and California’s Governor Jerry Brown.

Now comes the hard part.

You are tasked with creating your own UC Berkeley story, protecting the legacy of one of the globe’s finest academic establishments and developing the intellectual tools to put your stamp on this world.

Be warned, this will not come without moments of anguish and tribulation. There will be an abundance of long nights at the library, periods of doubt in your ability to master a subject, and at times a desire for a less arduous education curriculum. Long gone are the days of easily being the top student as you are now competing with the nation’s most brilliant young minds. The constant reminders of childhood friends enjoying the comfort and familiarity of staying home for college, the Instagram alerts of kids postponing higher education to travel and Stanford students participating in Napa “wine-tasting” classes will make you believe that the proverbial grass is greener on the side.

Don’t give this thought any credence.

At your fingertips is one of our nation’s most illustrious intellectual candy store, and now is not the time to go on a mental sugar detox. Whether it’s the economics problem set, the four-hour lab session or the 20-page paper, devour any assignment you receive. Make the most of your coursework, discussion groups, extracurricular activities, campus talks and late-night Top Dog runs.

It is unlikely you will ever have such an opportunity to explore a wide variety of subjects with such remarkable resources and individuals at your disposal. Very few people on this planet are given the opportunity to shape their mind on the campus that birthed plutonium, discovered 16 elements on the periodic table and spearheaded the efforts to combat global malaria. Further, your ability to place yourself in new and uncomfortable situations will only better prepare you for this unpredictably scary but beautiful rollercoaster we call life.

What makes your time at UC Berkeley more difficult than that of prior generations is that the campus’s reputation of being the gold standard for free speech is under attack. It is up to you preserve this great tradition that started when Mario Savio and others in the Free Speech Movement fought to ensure that your campus be an open avenue to passionately discuss issues without violence, legal repercussion or censorship.

Don’t ever forget the profound impact of this movement. The bravery of these men and women was instrumental in creating the blueprint for helping future generations combat racial injustices, empower the disenfranchised and speak truth to power.

Finally, don’t worry about figuring out how to have biggest impact on the world; the greatest impact you can have in society is to discover a cause that ignites a fire in your soul.

After college, I returned home to join the National Guard. As part of our training, we were required to attend a mandatory session on “working in hostile environments.” In this session, we watched a video from 2006 of an Asian-American woman speaking to a room of UC Berkeley students about the environmental consequences of plastic bottles and the future possibilities of a California drought. Despite the constant groans, boos and condescending laughs from the crowd, this young lady never wavered. Question after question and heckle after heckle, this UC Berkeley alumna never lost her poise and defended her sustainable message with intelligence and grace.

Unbeknown to this eco-activist, her efforts to fight for her cause has directly assisted the training and preparation of thousands of military men and women. I can assure you no one is mocking her now.

So, take a deep breath, pat yourself on the back one more time, grab a burrito at Gordo’s and start exploring your new home. The world is eager to see what you discover.

Shounak Bagchi is a recent alumnus of UC Berkeley.
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