The magic of coming to Berkeley

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It was 118 degrees before noon the day I left home in Hemet, Calif., for Berkeley. My best friend, Devin, backed a 20-foot truck into our parking space. We started carrying everything we owned down the stairs and packed it carefully into the giant box trailer. The truck was like an oven inside — the metal walls, insulated by couches and mattresses, burned in the sun. Sweat poured off us like rivers as we gulped Gatorade and swore. Little by little, our apartment emptied out, and the truck filled up. At sundown, I was vomiting from the inland empire heat and my own exhaustion. But the clock on the rental kept ticking, and so we had to carry on.

We drove through the night, a caravan of truck and car, me and my best friend and our partners. We found an old set of walkie talkies in Devin’s dad’s shed and used them to keep in touch. We were unsure of the freeway — neither of us had ever driven anything as big as our moving truck, and we didn’t trust our own judgment or the wind. The result was a series of winding, old state roads that vaguely follow Interstate 5 but added about two hours to our trip.

By dawn, we were crazy with exhaustion and highway hypnosis — but we made it.

We slept for two hours before unloading. It was a record-breaking high temperature in our new home, but so much cooler than the place we had left that it hardly seemed warm. We did the same dance in reverse, emptying the truck and filling the apartment. I have never felt so worn out and emotionless in my life.

I expected to fall asleep the instant I hit my pillow, but I didn’t.

UC Berkeley was my dream school. I sweated every grade and every paper with the apprehension that anything imperfect might wreck my dreams of getting in. I had helped Devin apply to San Francisco State University just so we could go to college in the same area. We quit our jobs, said goodbye to our families and tried to explain to our friends who had gotten married and had kids already why we had to leave — why we chose a different path. We left the town that had tried every trick in the book to keep us there, including the attempt to kill us with heartless heat on the day we decided to leave.

A week before sending in my intent to register, the terror took hold of me. I thought over and over about the costs of moving, how far this would take us from everything we knew and what it would be like to fail and have to return in disgrace. What if UC Berkeley had made a mistake? What would we do when our financial aid ran out? How dare we try to aim so high when neither of us had college-educated parents?

Desperate and ashamed, I told my best friend we should just forget it. We could stay where we were. We had both been accepted to UC Riverside. We could go there together, and nothing would really change.

He looked at me first with horror and then amusement.

“You’re just freaked out. You don’t mean that.”

I didn’t.

We had made it. UC Berkeley was my dream school before I had ever seen it, and it still is, even now that I’m about to graduate. Every single cliche is true: The people I have met, the teachers I have had and the access I’ve been granted here has changed every aspect of my life. When I first arrived, I was shocked and excited that we got free bus passes as UC Berkeley students. That’s how low my standards and expectations of life were.

On my way out, I look back on the classes I took on Sanskrit, works I’ve read such as the “History of Hell” and “Moby Dick” and the inspiration I get from female writers like me. When I arrived, I had a firsthand narrative of poverty, and UC Berkeley has given me the tools to tell my story powerfully from a platform that will get people to listen. I came here with the furious desire to do something and the crushing frustration that comes with not knowing what it was or how to get there. Now, I am graduating with a clear idea of who I am and what I was meant to do.

UC Berkeley may not be the place for everybody. In some ways, the university is decades ahead of everyone else — and yet, in other ways, it might as well still be in 1868. But it’s still for me what Hogwarts was for Harry Potter. Here, I found the realization of my destiny and my new best friends. It’s so far from where I started that it might as well be magic.

Contact Meg Elison at [email protected]