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My personal ode to Berkeley

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APRIL 11, 2014

Let’s end this week’s opinion column round table with a pretty simple question: When’s the last time you left Berkeley? And, no, I don’t mean to stop off at the Missouri Lounge or some other locale that requires you to travel a mere stone’s throw from campus. I mean past Fourth Street and the water slapping up against the rocks at the pier, beyond Ashby Bart or over the crests of Tilden’s hills. Were your Birkenstocks the object of unwanted stares and attention? Did you spontaneously combust?

By now, you might have caught on to my snarky overemphasis. Good for you. But allow me to substitute these exaggerations for a moment with some more forthright candor: There is absolutely no place like Berkeley. Sometimes, what it takes is leaving our beloved city to realize this absolute truth. I think this epiphany swept over me the last time I ventured out to my grandparents’ house, located in a small town along the Sacramento River delta. Self-proclaimed Bay-Area locals would argue with you to no end about that town’s status as a member of the Bay Area, and neither side of the coin would ever be completely right or wrong. On the one hand, it’s past the final BART destination on the northeast line (usually always a telltale indication that you aren’t in Kansas anymore). But also, the Sacramento River runs right next to the town, and ultimately, through so many small channels and streams, leads to the San Francisco Bay. The one thing that’s for certain is it ain’t anything like Berkeley.

To put it in simple, Berkeleyan terms that you’ll understand, this is where organic comes to die. No debates are to be found about decolonizing your diet or the nuances of Lady Gaga’s feminism. My grandparents understandably have no idea who Lady Gaga is, but the point is not moot. The absence of dialogue about politics and progress is what alerted me suddenly to my whereabouts and opened my eyes once again to how different the place I call home is from the rest of the world. The strange character and esoteric political disputes like those mentioned above are what have led to my unhealthy love affair with Berkeley. Growing up in San Francisco and knowing I was being raised in the metropolitan hub of lefty nut jobs (relative to the rest of the country), I still always recognized that Berkeley was not merely an attachment of our liberal haven. The East Bay city and its wacky populace have their own unique voice to offer up and be heard.

And lately, with a Facebook news feed that has been saturated by posts and articles regarding the deep and sweeping changes San Francisco is undergoing — often pertaining to its problems with gentrification — I am glad to be one in this sea of voices. Much of the discussion I’ve had about the shifts in San Francisco has actually been with my friends from UC Berkeley, most of whom aren’t even from Northern California originally. What is important about Berkeley is the culture that never fails to encourage students to ask questions — even if that encouragement is not always found at the institutional level. UC Berkeley students don’t just accept things as they are, but instead know the way things should be and are never afraid to challenge the status quo. Whether it be demanding change to university policies on sexual assault or disputing UC President Janet Napolitano’s appointment, I am glad and privileged to be surrounded by so many who think critically and act progressively — even if it’s for someone else’s sake and not just their own. These young activists love Berkeley like I do, and that’s why they want to make it better.

Of course, Berkeley and the university are supported by a long and fruitful history of social justice, advocacy and activism. That’s one thing that initially drew me to this place, and it is comforting to know that when I leave, even if things change — and they will — there will always be a culture here that fosters and maintains inquiry and activism. Things are constantly changing at UC Berkeley because people ask questions — and the right ones, at that. Even if the Free Speech Movement has become a token of commercialism — some might even say a tool to market to prospective students — we would not have the kind of involvement from our campus’s students today without it. Our past allows us to be where we are today and to think progressively into the future.

If you find yourself leaving Berkeley when school is out in May, I am sure you will realize, once again, that the place you call home exists inside of a bubble. Don’t fret or agonize too much over this tragedy. As long as you’ve been a Berkeleyan, you can take what you’ve learned from this paradise with you, no matter how far you go. In fact, I’d say it’s your duty to the world and to Berkeley to bring those experiences and that encouraging culture of inquisitiveness elsewhere. As I wander outside the bubble, I hope that what I can offer and give to other people are the things I’ve been given and learned right here. I’ve said it before, but I could say it many times more: There’s no place like Berkeley.

Max Rosen writes the Friday column on life after college. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @RosenMax.

APRIL 11, 2014