Don’t be a zooplankton

As the new school year begins, so does the onslaught of freshmen with the complex mixture of emotions so many of us may recall — a mixture of idealistic hope for success-filled college years and agonizing terror of getting lost in the crowd.

Just a few years ago, I remember feeling excited beyond belief to start college classes, to live on my own and to start fresh. Yet, at the same time, I remember feeling overwhelmed, confused and lost. I had no idea what I wanted to major in — I still have not declared a major. I was taken aback by the tremendous class sizes and could not fathom how it would ever be possible for a professor to know me on a first-name basis. Walking down Sproul Plaza, I could see it was clear that there were so many things to do, join and learn, but where was I supposed to start?

With the thousands of intelligent, talented and ambitious students admitted to Cal each year, it is hard not to feel intimidated by one’s peers. In high school, many of us felt like the “big fish in a small pond,” but at Berkeley, it is easy to feel as insignificant as a single zooplankton in a vast ocean.

After two years of feeling inept and overwhelmed, last summer I decided I no longer wanted to be a zooplankton. I was taking classes to try to catch up on the prerequisites for my newest choice of a major. But after only a few weeks of class, I performed poorly on a midterm and started to doubt my ability to succeed in this new field of study (as I had at least eight other times in the past).

As always, I blamed my inadequate high school education. Maybe if I had gone to a better school or had at least one teacher help provide an inkling of guidance, in the way my friends from more elite school districts described, I would have better known what to major in. Maybe then, I would have taken better prerequisites and would not have suffered a C on that test. After two full years of feeling incompetent at Berkeley, maybe it was time to give up.

But last summer, I realized it was necessary for me to stop and gain some perspective. Yes, it is true I felt like a wandering microorganism among a sea of many smarter fishes in the Ocean of Berkeley, but this ocean also happens to provide a world of opportunities. Why, then, was I dwelling on the opportunities that were not available to me in high school if I was not taking full advantage of those that were available to me now?

Rather than complacently accepting the grade and giving up on my chosen major, as was my usual tendency, I chose to approach the professor for help in office hours. Being at a school with such highly esteemed professors, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that professors are willing and eager to help and get to know students. In office hours, I not only received repetition of material that I needed but also learned different dimensions of the subject that were not taught in class and potentially even scored a letter of recommendation.

In Berkeley’s diverse student population, we all face different struggles, and no student’s story is the same. Some students might be on financial aid and need to work their way through college, while others may have had a lower quality of education prior to college than their peers and need to put in the extra work to catch up — as I had to. But the good news is that the university provides a range of resources that cater to different students needs and interests. We have the ability to explore new fields of study, social scenes and extracurriculars (among other things) more than most people in the world. Going to college gives each student an opportunity to determine whom they want to be, with whom they want to surround themselves, and actually make it happen. And although I hate generalizing, we all have a chance to become the people we dreamed of when initially walking through Sather Gate as an idealistic and hopeful (even if unsure) freshman.

As the semester starts, I don’t feel overly excited or overly terrified. I’m content, hopeful and ready. I hope every student — whether a freshman beginning this wonderful learning experience, a senior who still doubts his or her competence or any student with stress — can stop and take some time to gain some perspective, as I was forced to last summer. Utilize every single resource this university has to offer. Join a club or two, open your mind to new ideas, seek help from proper sources if necessary. Because we’re not big fish in a pond anymore. But, we can still swim and thrive in this ocean we call UC Berkeley — an ocean of enthusiastic, talented, ambitious and diverse students. And in an ocean like this, the opportunities are endless.