When I received my acceptance email from UC Berkeley, I was exhausted. I had just finished a shift at work after a full day’s worth of classes at Berkeley City College and was trudging through Sproul Plaza on my way to my housing co-op when I decided I just couldn’t resist looking any longer. The first line of that email was enough to make me stop in my tracks and — fatigue forgotten — emit an embarrassingly loud squeal. I had actually done it! I had gotten into the top public university in the world.
After the euphoria faded, I was bombarded with endless waves of paperwork in what I soon learned to be a sea of bureaucracy. I, someone already of age, had to take a test on alcohol consumption? Had to fill out residency forms? Health forms? And go to an orientation? This was not the welcome into academic utopia that I had expected.
I mostly went to CalSO for the free breakfast. I had just gotten off an early morning shift at work and wasn’t in the mood to smile and make small talk.
I figured I wouldn’t learn anything noteworthy from the orientation anyway and that most of the actually useful information I’d come across would be from observing as I made my way through my first semester. I was mostly right: I don’t remember anything useful from CalSO beyond an uneasy feeling of being out of place — something I should have paid more attention to.
As it turns out, the way I felt at CalSO was a foreshadowing of the year to come.
If I could go back, I’d tell myself to give more credit to those feelings. They followed me through my entire first year on campus: I felt like the other students couldn’t possibly relate to my life experiences, that my contributions to lectures and discussions weren’t groundbreaking enough and that I simply didn’t have much to offer those around me. I remained isolated until those feelings reached a breaking point and I decided to take time off.
My resulting three semesters away from campus allowed me space and time to realize that I had been ill prepared for the academic rigor and Olympian-level hoop jumping required to get through UC Berkeley’s bureaucracy. As I tried to think of solutions, I realized I had been ignoring a bottomless resource: the students around me.
Campus can be a frustrating place to navigate, regardless of how welcome one might feel during an orientation day. Had I known just what the future would look like, I would’ve spent the day unabashedly making connections in order to later form a support network — something I’ve found is crucial to succeeding at UC Berkeley. These connections often crop up in the same classes and can make for excellent project partners or, at the very least, someone to vent to about said project.
My first year at Berkeley, I allowed my social anxiety to get the best of me and made the mistake of not taking advantage of networking opportunities. I had an absolutely horrible year.
When I came back, however, I consciously relaxed and made myself talk to classmates — I also kept an eye out for which ones seemed driven and likely to succeed. The resulting year was as different from my first year as black is from white.
When I started forcing myself to network, I felt like everyone could see the discomfort oozing out of me. But when I gritted my teeth and pushed through the awkward conversation starters, I found that most of the other students felt similarly. If they didn’t, they also didn’t seem to mind my attempts at socializing.
After a few weeks, my days on campus started feeling more natural and I found myself actually looking forward to seeing classmates in lectures and discussion sections. Speaking up during a discussion session wasn’t quite so daunting; I could vent with others who’d also recently been to Cal Central, and I finally felt comfortable on campus.
There are definitely still weeks when everything goes wrong and I feel sure that the campus faculty and administration are doing everything in their power to make my life difficult. But these days, I have a network of friends and classmates to help me through the difficult times.
CalSO is frustrating and can feel like a waste of time, especially when they get to that one part about teaching everyone the school song. (I’m admittedly not very enthusiastic about things involving any sort of school spirit.) But CalSO is undeniably an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to network, get a sense of what you might need to adjust to feel comfortable on campus and practice pushing through those awkward first conversations. Believe me, they will prove ever so useful down the road.