In 2011, I strolled onto the Sproul Hall steps, wide-eyed, eager and all too ready to conquer the world. My mind was set on a career in public policy, and my introduction to UC Berkeley seamlessly guided me toward that goal. I joined the ASUC Student Advocate’s Office and immediately found my passion and community: a group of like-minded policy nerds eager to make a meaningful, if sometimes marginal, difference in the lives of our classmates.
This idyllic story came in sharp conflict with the jarring reality of the Occupy protests. The violence perpetrated against myself and the other protesters, coupled with the widespread apathy of the majority of campus, shocked me. How could an educational institution react so brutally to a couple of tents?
Fast-forward four years, and the same feeling overwhelmed me as I watched the violence on the first night of the Black Lives Matter protests in Berkeley. It all seemed too much to tackle and far too difficult to comprehend. I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Over these four years, what had changed?” Consulting was looking better each day.
Working with the Student Advocate’s Office has provided a unique lens into the dynamics of this dissonance. Because of the office, I have laughed harder, worked smarter and grown dramatically more than I ever knew I could. From sharing beers over late-night policy write-ups to the many spirited debates held on our glorious couch, the many magical moments have defined my time in the office, and I’m eternally grateful for them.
Coupled with those beautiful moments, though, has been an introduction to the defining problems of our time: social equity, the complexity of due process and preserving public education. Over my four years, I’ve directly or indirectly witnessed the struggles of 800-plus students who came to our office seeking help with facing difficulties, unfairness and circumstances sometimes entirely beyond their control.
My UC Berkeley experience has been a four-year experiment in learning how to deal with discord. Amid the hate and harmful policies designed to disadvantage, there are individuals fighting for a better campus, community, garden or business. The solution I’ve come to is relatively simple: Forging a career in policy, or any field that seeks to better the world in which we live, is about finding the good. It’s about surrounding yourself with those who make you dream bigger, work harder and stay curious and excited about what can be accomplished.
This fact was crystallized last fall during the protests. After the first night, a group of primarily new members of the team demanded that we do more. While I felt jaded and ready to quit, here was a group of dedicated people eager to do whatever we could to be there for our community.
This, for me, is the beauty of UC Berkeley: Each new year brings thousands of bright new minds, doggedly determined to leave their mark on the world. Sure, some will get discouraged, some will lose hope. But I know there will always be a few, in the Student Advocate’s Office and dispersed among the many vibrant pockets of our campus, ready to lead the charge.
Rishi Ahuja was the 2014-2015 ASUC student advocate. He will be graduating with bachelor’s degrees in economics and political science and a minor in public policy.