Many freshmen arrive at UC Berkeley and are faced with difficult choices — numerous open roads and routes to pursue in college, all encompassed by the feeling steeped in the word “undeclared.”
I was not one of those students.
I arrived at UC Berkeley with a plan, and I stuck to it stubbornly. I had known, since age 7, that I was going to be an astronaut, and I hadn’t been able to shake that ill-conceived childhood obsession. By the first week of classes, I had planned out my four years in the astrophysics and physics majors. Never mind that math and physics were always my weakest subjects.
That fact made college a pretty difficult experience — I was always more successful in classes with no relevance to my major. In truth, I stuck to astro because I was scared. Scared of options, scared of the fact that every breadth course I took, I somehow landed on something that called to me as the Ring calls to Sméagol. Political science. History. Philosophy. Even biological anthropology. And, especially, film. I would have given anything to take Emily Carpenter’s sci-fi film class (I took romantic comedy). Or a class with Eileen Jones.
At the purest level, I enjoyed a lot of my non-STEM classes more than my astrophysics and physics classes. I am honestly 100 percent sure I could have thrived in any of those majors; I loved the material, the professors, the other students.
Yet somehow, I never really felt that I could pursue anything other than astronomy. Other majors didn’t feel like roads I could choose. For most of my undergrad years, I thought it was because I loved astronomy the most — but that’s not necessarily true. I don’t know what I love the most. But I chose astro, and I knew where that path led. I knew what kinds of careers I could pursue, and many were more stable than those I could pursue if I followed other majors. It was safe.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy studying astro — the topics, for the most part, are really fascinating, even when covered by obfuscating mathematics and programming. And thanks to my steadfast plan, I was able to extract everything this school had to offer; I’m a better scientist because, from the very start, I knew what to leverage when. Was that the best way of growing my mind as a college student? Likely not. But in a large school with resources but little guidance, it really pays off.
Then I joined The Daily Californian — not as a science writer, but as an arts and entertainment reporter. I applied on a whim after being needled by my friend in astrophysics and former Daily Cal design editor, Melanie Archipley, and before I knew it, it had grown into my major extracurricular investment.
I covered concerts (too many, really), checked out film screenings, learned how to talk to actors and directors. It was a nice hobby, a pressure valve through which I could escape from the monotony of physics problem sets. I made new friends, gained new skills. But unlike many of those around me who were vying to break into the journalism industry, I still never saw it as a possible career path.
Everything changed when I became an editor. I got to see the beauty (and frustration) in all the cogs and pieces needed to make a newspaper happen. I loved it. My research adviser started noticing my distraction from research — I was invested more and more into making sure that the paper got out every day, no matter how much work that required from me. Many editors can speak to a similar experience: cheesy sticks at 2:30 a.m., trying to send the final PDFs to the printer.
Put in this position, my mind, terrifyingly, started mapping out alternative futures. Futures that followed in the footsteps of my former editors, who have successfully used Daily Cal as a platform to launch into the difficult but rewarding field of journalism. What ifs started floating over my head; I couldn’t help myself. For the first time in my life, I felt trapped at a fork between two roads — I’d never again be as poised to be a strong applicant for arts journalism-based internships, nor for astrophysics doctoral programs.
You could say I chose the latter — I’ll be starting a doctoral program in the fall.
But for the first time, I’m choosing not to see it as a choice.
Writing for the paper absolutely made me who I am today. It’s part of why I’m even here today at all. Life — and especially college — can often feel like a set of limiting and stressful binary decisions. For so long, I saw choosing astro as not choosing other things. But it doesn’t have to be that way. I graduated with degrees in physics and astrophysics, and also having written 140 articles and having held two editorships at the Daily Cal.
No one said I have to stop writing now or stop treating this passion that isn’t my career focus as important or worth my time. Freed from that choice, I’m free to ask: Why not both?
Imad Pasha joined The Daily Californian in summer 2015 as an arts & entertainment reporter, before becoming a music and film beat reporter in 2016 and arts editor in summer 2017. He served as editor for The Weekender in spring 2018. He is graduating with bachelor’s degrees in physics and astrophysics, with a minor in creative writing.