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What I wish I had known as a freshman

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APRIL 30, 2012

Coming to Cal for college was one of the biggest challenges I decided to take — supposedly, at least. As an international student from halfway across the world, I get a lot of “wow”s at my grand introduction of, “I’m from Hong Kong,” and even as I say this, I secretly wonder in the back of my mind if the person I am talking to has any clue where Hong Kong actually is on the map.

When I first landed in America, I was rather surprised to hear a series of very familiar languages at the San Francisco Airport: Korean, Mandarin and Cantonese — the three non-English languages I practically grew up with. Could I have gotten off at the wrong stop?

It wasn’t until school started when I realized that I had a complete misunderstanding of the demographics of Northern California. Apparently, this part of America is known for its Asian-ness, with over half of Cal’s student body composed of Asian students.

They also always comment on my fluent English: “Wait, you’re an international student? But your English is so good!” became something that I had to force myself to get used to after my first couple weeks at Cal.
The weather was also interesting. See, the typical picture that California is associated with is sunny weather with beaches and sunglasses, so I hope it’s not too weird for me to admit that I only packed shorts and light clothes when I came to Berkeley.

As a result, I had to buy a Cal sweatshirt my first day on campus to protect myself from the Bay Area breeze that I hadn’t heard of until I actually came here. It wasn’t until halfway through my freshman year that I learned that the warm weather I expected was a true story only in Southern California.

Hmm, would I have gone to UCLA instead if I had known that? Nah. The weather here is still a hundred times better than where I come from.

Aside from the craziness of Welcome Week and getting adjusted to college life, there were subtle but fundamental changes that my focus has gone through. I, like many other ambitious Cal new-admits, had plans to either pursue a double major or attempt to graduate early.

I had drawn out the academic course plan chart for my four years in college and had set it up so I would take at least 18 units per semester before I even started my first classes at Cal.
By the time the first round of midterms came around, I had decided to drop out of my intended major because I was searching for another major and what I really wanted to do.

After the first semester here, I also learned that academics in college is definitely different from that of high school.

Most importantly, I was exposed to a variety of fields that I never even knew of and met people from different walks of life, opening me up to a broader, fuller perspective of the world and the people in it.
I learned that there are times when a logical and realistic approach is important, but there are also times when I should really sit back, relax and follow whatever life offers me.

We hear this overused phrase, “Follow your heart,” everywhere — romantic fictions, autobiographies, self-help books, magazines, you name it, and I honestly have always been the logical kind of person who never believed in irrational decisions and gut feelings because, you know, by the time you hit college, you’re 18 years old and you have a pretty good idea of how the world goes around.

At the very least, I know that I can’t just “follow my heart” and get married to a guy on Sproul just because he held up a “you’re perfect” sign at me.

Through my freshman year of college, I realized that too many of my decisions came from the head and not enough from the heart, which resulted in too much worrying and concern for the future.
It led to not enough “enjoying the moment” and certainly not enough of “looking beyond the details for the bigger picture.”
In the end, the focus of the “follow your heart” line is on the heart, and it all depends on how much you love and are passionate about what you do.

Even as I walk into the second half of my college life, I will continue to forget the world and all the “realistic” problems and issues that I should be worrying about — internships, jobs, and research positions — and continue to pursue what I really love, and what I really want to do. Because, hey, that’s why they call college the time of your life.

Contact Alice Oh at  or on Twitter


MAY 24, 2012