Learning to belong in a crowd full of students at Sproul Plaza

Lizzy Klingen/Staff

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The ground is covered in colorful chalk. People with sign-up sheets are offering you donuts. An old man dressed in rags is dancing with invisible strings. No, you are not dreaming, and this is far from a Barnum & Bailey circus. You are on Sproul Plaza.

And if all the personalities, opinions and ideas of the world could conglomerate into one place, it would be here. The plaza breathes life 24 hours a day. From fair-wage protests to student-group tabling, there is never a dull moment, and there is really no casual way to get through Sproul Plaza once you’ve entered. A leisurely stroll becomes an emotional odyssey to go through the picket signs, vocal activists and outgoing activity representatives. It’s wonderful, intimidating and energetic, all in one small area.

Enter the wide-eyed, wet-behind-the-ears freshman. She’s excited to start her journey at UC Berkeley and inspired by the vibrant campus life, but she’s also terrified by the intense culture of her new environment. She’s an outsider about to take her first steps on Sproul Plaza.

That freshman is me. During my first few weeks at UC Berkeley, I did not think I would ever fit into the outspoken, spirited personality of the university I saw manifested on Sproul Plaza. Similar to how potential incoming freshmen might feel on Cal Day, I was overwhelmed by the fervency around me. I would observe from afar, shyly dip my head and scurry past the hubbub. It was as if I was watching an action movie — I saw the drama and excitement but never believed I could be part of it. The traditions and customs of UC Berkeley were foreign to me.

It wasn’t long before it was my turn to be thrown into the fray. A few months after joining a theater group at the beginning of my first semester, I was required to pass out fliers to promote our performance. I didn’t actually think much of it until my fliering time slot drew closer and I found myself with a stack of bright pink leaflets and an hour to kill on Sproul.

I stood under Sather Gate for the first few minutes, feeling incredibly awkward and unsure of what to do. I remember being aware of how exposed I was, on display for all to see. I noticed some shy-looking girls observing from afar. I just didn’t fit the Sproul fliering mold. I was supposed to be on the side beside those girls, comfortable in my hiding. I think I even considered just walking away and dumping the flyers in the trash. No one would know.

But then it hit me. Here I was, an actual Sproul flierer with a real responsibility to a real group. I was no longer a shy girl to others — I needed to fit that zealous, intense UC Berkeley mold. I was genuinely a member of the community, participating in a time-honored tradition. There was nothing different between me and the vivacious student-government representative standing to my right. We both had the task of promoting something we cared about. Our outward behavior — how loud we repeated the name of our organization or how quick we were to hand a flier to a stranger passing by — was merely a reflection of our inner passionate feelings. And I did feel zealous — I did feel intense. It was a wonder I hadn’t realized it sooner: I belonged on Sproul Plaza as much as any other student. Behavior on the plaza isn’t just for show; it’s a sincere expression of enthusiasm and devotion — two sentiments for which UC Berkeley is known.

I promoted my theater group’s show like a madwoman. I shouted and advertised and distributed all my fliers in less than 20 minutes. I went back to the copy room, printed more and repeated the process all over again. And I loved every second of it.

That day, I realized just how much I belonged at UC Berkeley. By fliering on Sproul Plaza and participating in a tradition unique to UC Berkeley, I proved to myself that I possessed all that life and energy I had for so long observed from afar. And that’s really what UC Berkeley is all about — being passionate about what you do. Outwardly displaying it to the public is your choice, but if you’ve got that fire inside you, if you’re wildly excited by the ideas and activities you engage in, you most definitely belong at UC Berkeley.

Today, Sproul Plaza is a walk in the park. I see student tour groups absolutely mesmerized by the scene, baffled by the eccentricity of the students promoting their activities and events. And there is nothing odd about it. Everyone has passions, and Sproul Plaza just gives students the opportunity to animate that feeling and bring those passions to life.

During your visit to UC Berkeley, do not be intimidated by the ardor and intensity found on Sproul Plaza and around campus. You’ll find your place in all that vibrancy if you just take a chance, because there really is no casual way to get through UC Berkeley once you’ve entered. You are going to find something you are absolutely passionate about and, if you play your cards right, you might just end up fliering like a madperson on Sproul Plaza.

Contact Daniela Grinblatt at [email protected]