Wake up call

Berkeley Got Back

This past summer I had the pleasure of traveling in a time machine. All I had to do was login and input a secret code to access the system, and — in a millisecond — I would traverse through countless generations at the click of my mouse.

No, really, I talked to historical figures, new and old, while biting off chunks of dark chocolate and shoving almonds into my mouth in front of a computer screen. This advanced machinery ran on unique gears, specifically Cal undergraduates, who rhythmically clicked through time sheets labeled “Generation X” or “Baby Boomers.” To ensure steady signal between past and present, headsets and microphones were provided.

Welcome to the Cal Calling Center.

I had the privilege of learning more about UC Berkeley’s rich history through alumni, graduate students and my peers while working at the call center. On the call list, there were alumni from the ‘50s who I would consider “the greats,” and, with all due respect, the greatly old. In fact, if you search hard enough on campus, there probably exists a designated space for at least one class from this decade. (Hint: The Class of 1954 Gate, built to counterbalance Sather Gate, stands before Euclid Street).

Then the ‘60s rolled in, marking a time of great political upheaval in UC Berkeley’s timeline. Mario Savio and thousands of Cal students had to protest for their right to free speech and academic freedom on campus. Thereafter, the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s continued this proud tradition of protest before injustice. Our reputation evidently survives as a result of ardent intellectual pursuits, which have carved UC Berkeley’s present form.

As I acclimated to the bustle of the call center, I found more time to concentrate on alumni narratives of this campus — not only because the job expected me to maintain an average gift donation, but out of genuine curiosity. Though the setup may appear impersonal, the conversation actually produced a heuristic effect on both caller and recipient. I was encouraged to navigate and reflect on my own college experience while simultaneously listening and relating to theirs.

Most admitted that they reaped the ostensible benefits of attending the No. 1 public university in the world. Most also refused to donate. Yet, when they talked, vicariously reliving their college life through this telephone line, their voices unknowingly betrayed them, failing to feign disinterest.

I caught a Berkeley alumnus expressing something along the lines of, “Berkeley had the best and the brightest. … Oh, it was challenging … but a privilege to attend here with my fellow classmates.”

At night, when I push out against the green gate guarding the call center to head towards Bancroft Way, I always wonder, “Do we still share values of the past?” After all, even the cobblestones of Sproul Plaza erode over time, Evans Hall grays in comparison to its contemporary counterparts, and the Campanile’s long history is shortened to a one-minute elevator ride as background noise for tourists.

Here, at the Cal Calling Center, I easily put myself in their story. I imagine how UC Berkeley must have lived before to evoke this pride from former academic architects. I gladly journey through time until I snap back to reality at 9 p.m. sharp. Outside, there is an unrecognizable campus, rigid and seemingly immutable in contrast to the dynamic past. My mind is back there, but my body is here.

As I rewind these conversations ranging from pejorative remarks to overflowing commendation about Cal, I came to the conclusion that being comfortable, being complacent and — most importantly — being passive was the price of a dynamic history. This institution, shouldering a formidable bulk of traditions and unrelenting systems, has leveled out.

We have reduced the capacity for change because, ironically, we believe there has been substantial change already. Since the founding of UC Berkeley, we have prefigured and molded this institution in hopes of securing the best environment to cultivate leaders, thinkers, helpers, and innovators. Its bureaucratic skin has gradually toughened, overshadowing our individual impact as students and faculty — successfully casting the illusion that the present is an accumulation of the best developments from the past.

Once we allow this institution to remain stagnant at the expense of our own voices, then this university no longer exists as the same entity that Berkeley alumni have carefully cultivated and revered.

Incentives to improve disappear when the institution no longer responds to its creators and their creativity in spurring progress. To continue this breeding of higher education, we, as in the student body and faculty, must maintain our authorship and remind ourselves that UC Berkeley’s name is only meaningful when we give meaning to what we do here.

Dohee Kim writes the Friday column on UC Berkeley’s past and present. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @dohee_nicole ‏.