The promise of public

Off the Beat

sahil-chinoy_online

On the eve of my graduation, I want to share something that I’ve recently come to terms with: This school isn’t about me. It’s not about you, either. It’s not even about us, collectively.

Let’s not kid ourselves — UC Berkeley is not an easy school to attend. It’s not especially comfortable. Much of the time, it’s not even particularly fun.

Dealing with the campus administration is like walking a tightrope over a ravine of ineptitude. Handling anything remotely administrative now involves an elaborate system of estimated wait times and text message notifications that makes you feel like you’re just another schmuck at the DMV, not part of an academic community.

Personal attention? Forget it. When I was in my junior year, an advisor I had since I was a freshman asked if I’d chosen a major yet. One time, an administrator asked me, unprompted, if I “had a life.”

(Okay, that last one was probably fair.)

Grade deflation! GPA cutoffs! Campus housing that’s so unaffordable and undersupplied that most choose to risk it on Craigslist at the tender age of 19! I could go on.

These issues make sense when you consider UC Berkeley’s position: keeping tuition low while attracting world-class professors to teach an increasingly competitive group of more than 30,000 undergraduates is no small task. Add that to an ongoing dearth of state funding and a national political milieu with, shall we say, hostile elements, and it’s clear this institution has bigger problems than whether I’m on track to fulfill my foreign language requirement.

Moreover, the school has a lot to be proud of. I’ll quote the standard refrain: 17 percent of freshman admits are first-generation college students. Almost one-third of undergraduates receive a federal Pell Grant. We have progress to make on racial and ethnic representation, but there are around 4,500 undergraduate students here who identify as Chicano, Hispanic or Latino — more than Dartmouth’s entire undergraduate population. Transfer students make up a substantial part of the student body. Tuition for in-state students is one-fourth that of Columbia University.

This school is trying to achieve something fundamentally different from its private peers. Private universities make admirable research contributions and offer a stellar education — and, indeed, lift some kids out of poverty. But their survival depends on making their students feel special, so that when one starts a successful mutual fund or media empire, they funnel that money back into the school. Meanwhile, after that “getting a life” debacle, UC Berkeley will have to pry a donation from my cold, dead hands.

I kid, but the school simply doesn’t have the bandwidth to be interested in my well-being. UC Berkeley opens its doors to about 5,000 of the most promising Californian students each year. It is a breathtaking engine of mobility. It provides the same education as the best private schools to more students at a fraction of the cost. It’s elite higher education at scale.

When UC Berkeley students graduate, we bring our idealism and scrappiness back to our communities, or to government, academia or public service. We become local leaders or national leaders, or just good citizens. We generate jobs. We vote. And there are almost half a million of us.

Lost in the shuffle are pomp and circumstance — that sense of being special. Lost too are the built-in mentorship, community and alumni networks that smaller schools enjoy. So are the resources and support concomitant with a heftier endowment.

This all rings hollow, of course, because most don’t get a chance to go to a school of this caliber at all — but I wanted those nice things, and I was frustrated when I didn’t get them.

That’s why I say this school isn’t about me, or you, or us. Rather, it’s about the promise and the project of democratic, accessible, world-class higher education for all Californians. The model has its flaws and, right now, it’s facing an existential threat. But it’s a hell of a thing to witness, and I’m so proud to have been part of it.

So, while I might hesitate when the Alumni Association comes calling, I will defend to the grave the importance of public universities to my colleagues, elected officials and pretty much anybody who will listen.

Before I’m off to do that, though, a few thank-yous are in order:

To The Daily Cal, my home for the last four years, and to my brilliant editors and peers.

To Cloyne. Despite the fact that you are an epic fire hazard, I love you very much.

To my friends near and far. Nishad and Tanay, thank you for being my first home away from home. Zoë, you have brightened my time here more than you know.

To Katie, for sticking it out.

To my parents: I’ve taken enough economics classes to realize I owe almost everything to you. Rehan, know that I am your most dedicated and least vocal cheerleader.

To Chloee, my best friend. (Yikes, it’s in print now.)

And to you, UC Berkeley. You’ve made me in your image, and I’m very grateful.

“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the spring semester’s regular opinion writers have been selected. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.