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Swimming in a sea of thousands

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APRIL 16, 2015

When I walked into Wheeler Hall for my first lecture of freshman year, my mouth dropped open in disbelief.

Rows upon rows of empty seats filled the room, and as my eyes quickly scanned back and forth attempting to count the threadbare seats, I thought to myself, “Jessi, you’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Of course, I’m not actually from Kansas, but I still felt like Dorothy when she wakes up in Oz, opens her eyes and sees Munchkinland before her. I was so far from home in a land so jaw-droppingly different that I couldn’t begin to imagine the wonderful friends and crazy adventures that awaited me.

I couldn’t begin to imagine these things, namely, because of the 800-plus empty seats staring back at me, making my hands tremble and heart race in panic. The thought of that many students in the same room was something I could barely wrap my brain around, and surviving the class seemed like an impossible feat.

I felt like I was lost in Oz, except I couldn’t click my heels together three times and wish myself back home. I was stuck in Berkeley — until Thanksgiving break, at least.

To say that coming to UC Berkeley from a small school in Los Angeles was simply overwhelming would be an understatement.

From grades nine through 12, I was in class with the same people. Those people were also in my play rehearsals, on my soccer team and in every one of my classes. With a total of fewer than 300 students, it was hard not to run into the same friends at school every day. We studied together on projects, chatted as we walked to class and frequented the same lunch spots when we were finally old enough to venture off campus during our lunch hour.

I was happy in my little bubble, but when I began applying to colleges, I knew I wanted something different. I wanted to join new clubs and meet new people. I wanted to take classes about marine biology, ancient Egyptian culture and criminal psychology. I wanted to paint my face blue so I could sit in the cheering section at football games, where the craziest fans were welcomed with open arms. I had imagined the picture-perfect college experience in my head, and I was excited to live out that fantasy in real life.

But while school spirit and Golden Bear pride was something I relished, the large number of students and sheer scope of the UC Berkeley campus was something I hadn’t quite considered.

In my first week of classes, I ran back and forth across campus, helplessly trying to navigate with the map included in my freshman welcome folder. I found that once I located a building, seeking out the actual classroom was a whole separate challenge. I struggled to figure out where to get the best deals on textbooks and how to take notes in a class in which the professor droned on endlessly without writing a single word on the blackboard. Deciding which classes to register for online was one of the more difficult challenges — not to mention choosing where to sit in an 800-person lecture hall.

I quickly realized that I wouldn’t have anyone checking in on me, besides my mom, whom I spoke with on the phone daily. I didn’t feel prepared — I was on my own with seemingly no one to turn to for help. In a sea of thousands of UC Berkeley students, I felt completely alone.

But coming from a small school had its advantages. I felt comfortable asking questions and contributing to class discussions. I was eager to go to office hours and get to know my teachers on a personal level. My high school’s unique approach to education — project-based learning instead of test-taking— left me feeling nervous for exams but completely prepared for the wave of 10- to 15-page papers that rolled around during midterm season. I excelled at class presentations, and as I narrowed down my field of study and entered more specialized major-specific classes, the benefits of having gone to a small high school started to pay off even more.

What I’ve come to realize is that no one feels completely prepared for the transition to college, no matter what size their graduating class in high school. College is big and scary. And those other freshman students who seem to have it all figured out? I’m sure they’re on the phone with their parents every night worrying about the same things the rest of us do.

As someone who’s successfully managed the transition from small liberal arts high school to big-time university, I’ll let you in on a little secret: A school with 35,000 undergraduates is as small as you make it.

By joining different clubs and getting involved on campus, I met people who inspired me, challenged me and introduced me to some of my very best friends. I started seeing people I knew on my walk to class and waving at them eagerly, feeling like I was beginning to figure everything out. At the end of my freshman year, I began to think, “Perhaps UC Berkeley isn’t so big after all.”

Once I gave myself a chance to figure things out on my own, I discovered that not only was I able to get by, I was also able to thrive. Now, UC Berkeley feels like home.

As I enter the last stretch of my senior year of college, I almost feel like I’m right back in high school. Berkeley is my bubble. But I’m ready, once again, to move on to something bigger. After graduation, I’m sure that my first few months in the “real world” will feel just as scary and overwhelming as the feeling of walking into that Wheeler lecture hall freshman year. But I’m excited to hop back onto that yellow brick road and see where it takes me.

Contact Jessi McDonald at [email protected]

APRIL 18, 2015