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Oski the underdog

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OCTOBER 20, 2017

Overwhelming. That is the only word that describes my first day at UC Berkeley. As I entered Sproul Hall, I found myself stuck in a mass of students, parents and administrators. Unprecedented traffic prevented me from asking a simple question about my financial aid to a working advisor. The line of students refused to shorten until an hour had passed. I had to remind myself that I was in Sproul Hall, not the DMV. Before I knew it, long lines and bureaucratic inefficiency became my daily reality.

Overpopulation of students, lack of resources and the need for private donors are nothing new for UC Berkeley. Back in 2009, students protested huge budget cuts and increased tuition costs in front of Sproul Hall — and with good reason. At that time, tuitions fees were already up 250 percent over that last decade. As students, our battle lies in this process of guaranteeing the best education for a reasonable price, and unfortunately, our prospects of victory are hampered by our existence as a publicly funded university.

Despite the clear disadvantages here, UC Berkeley somehow is alluring to some students with its promise of accomplishing a seemingly impossible task: quality public education. Navigating a complex and under-resourced institution forces us to make and claim a space for ourselves, giving us the necessary skills and thicker skins to endure the harsh winds beyond the protective walls of our campus.

Before attending UC Berkeley, many had the choice to SIR at other institutions. Some were given the opportunity to study on the East Coast, where private schooling reigns supreme. And though we easily criticize the lack of individualized attention we receive from our institution, and competition in a large renowned public university is rough, we are proud of our growing independence in fighting for limited resources, remaining unwavering before institutional barriers and seeking to nevertheless improve our college experience despite all odds. An upperclassmen once told me, “If you can survive Berkeley, you can survive anywhere.”

UC Berkeley is bloated with thousands of students, and the population is steadily growing, rising from about 22,600 undergraduate students in the 1999-2000 academic year to 30,600 today. Combine this trend with the fact that California cut $2 billion from the California State University system and the UC system budgets between 2007 and 2012, and we are presented with the stark reality of continuous, sweeping budget cuts, increasing tuition and fees and, ultimately, fewer available resources for aspiring scholars.

No wonder the lines for the financial aid office in Sproul Hall are long at the beginning of each semester. No wonder there are no seats at Moffitt Library by 2 p.m. No wonder there are no open slots in our professors’ office hours. Our campus is overflowing, yet we cannot afford to expand these resources. This begs the question: Are we even visible to this institution, to administrators, to our professors? What does it take to stand out among tens of thousands?

In comparison to Ivy League schools, where there exists a favorable and small ratio between professor and students who are also equipped with readily available resources, they can afford to give more attention to each student. Here, we cannot expect to be pampered in the same manner.

Even if funds magically flowed in to address a growing deficit, capitalistic endeavors — or at least, the privatization of education to evoke competition among educational institutions — will not stop for whining students (me included) at UC Berkeley.

Fully aware of these structural disadvantages, many decide to attend UC Berkeley anyway. Though certainly critiques on UC Berkeley’s transition into a seemingly more private institution of higher learning are valid, the idea and intention of providing the same quality of education at a more affordable price is worth adhering to.

It is a miracle that UC Berkeley has remained one of the top five global universities despite its terrible lack of funding from the state, which only incentivizes faculty, undergraduates and graduate students to make the most of what relatively little attention and resources are allotted here.

Though material gains, alumni donations and accolades indeed define a university’s success, belief in providing education to a wider scope of students and belief in the high quality of that education even in a public institution are powerful ideals that should not be underestimated. This pride as a top public university is what drives us to recognition — not the other way around.

Even if we as students lack the jurisdiction to influence administrative decisions, this bureaucratic red tape only encourages individual students to sharpen their skills, become more independent and rely less on the institution itself. We fight for resources, office hours, internship opportunities, research, financial aid or even something as simple and valuable as library space in an overpopulated campus, and these very weaknesses leave us stronger than we would have been if we relied on institutional privileges.

I would not trade the hardships here for the benefits of anywhere else.

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 ‏.

JANUARY 30, 2018