Breaking through the Berkeley bubble

Alien on Campus

UC Berkeley is perfect. At least, that’s what I thought when I first got here last semester.

As a first-year international student full of excitement and longing for a fresh start, I saw every aspect of UC Berkeley as absolutely marvelous.

I was eagerly overwhelmed at discovering that the campus has more than 20 libraries and at finding out about all the student groups, majors and Nobel Laureate professors on campus. On top of all the campus excitement, I had the whole Bay Area to explore.

But I was most thrilled about the diverse community.

I loved the idea of meeting people from every ethnic, cultural and social background. When I lived in Monterrey, I had been surrounded by people with the same beliefs and the same culture. Now I was coming to a new country — specifically the liberal state of California — and I thought that a diverse community would automatically mean that everyone had an open mind.

Fast-forward, though, and things got a lot more complicated. That’s not to say that I lost my excitement for life in Berkeley, but just that I saw the reality of it.

After a semester at UC Berkeley, I started to see the cracks and flaws in our perfect progressive reputation. Many people call UC Berkeley a liberal “bubble” where racism doesn’t exist. But this is far from true — prejudice such as racism and sexism hide beneath the campus’s social inclusion facade. And as I realized this, my illusion of the perfect liberal campus disintegrated.

Last semester, I was telling an acquaintance about an eccentric professor I’d met. To my surprise, she asked me if the professor was Latina. When I replied that she was, my friend responded, “Well obviously — all Latinas are crazy.”

I was shocked to hear such a blatantly stereotypical and racist comment on a campus that prided itself on being so inclusive.

And I soon discovered that racism wasn’t the only example of prejudice at UC Berkeley — sexism was equally present on this so-called liberal campus.

A few weeks ago, I went out to get dinner with a friend I hadn’t seen since last semester. When I first met him, he had been excited at the prospect of joining a social fraternity. When I asked him about this, he said he was really disappointed because he hadn’t expected the “frat mentality” to be so sexist.

“You’d be surprised how these guys talk about girls,” he told me. “They have no respect for them.”

In hindsight, this was predictable — as I learned about the high number of incidences of sexual violence on college campuses across the country, a sexist frat mentality is really not that surprising. But at the time, I’d regarded the United States as being much more progressive in issues regarding gender equality compared to the rest of the world. Now, though, I saw the reality: These injustices are pervasive even in “developed” countries.

When I first started at UC Berkeley, I was in the Berkeley bubble without knowing it — as an international student, I had heard the campus’s reputation for being a welcoming place for people of all backgrounds and identities. But after a semester, I realized that the Berkeley bubble needed to be broken.

The idea of a socially conscious Berkeley “bubble” obscures the struggles of underrepresented groups of students — it makes well-represented students naively believe that discrimination and prejudice are non-existent on our campus.

But at the same time, many community members are recognizing and actively talking about these issues — a stark contrast from the culture I grew up in.

Coming from an environment were people seldom bring up social issues, much less try to reform the political and institutional systems around them, I see deep value in the insistent fight to improve this campus.

Students at UC Berkeley fight for what they believe in. They see problems in almost every aspect of the local community, and they voice their concerns. While this can often lead to heated debates and aggressive protests, it has also been the basis for all the progressive changes in our system and in our community.

So while I may have been naive when I first came to UC Berkeley, breaking the Berkeley bubble made me realize that social activism is the key component to helping our society thrive. And yes, this might mean being much more aware of all the shit that’s happening. But it is also an opportunity to engage with the problems around us and build a better future.

Alejandra Márquez writes the Wednesday blog on her experience as an international student. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ale_marquez20.