These responses have been edited for clarity.
My most memorable first day of school was my first day as a graduate teaching assistant. I was assigned to the introductory psychology course, which was being taught by a brand-new assistant professor who I think had never taught the course (or maybe anything else) before. We arrived at the lecture hall to find relatively few students scattered around. At the appointed hour, the instructor somewhat nervously introduced himself and gave his introductory lecture, with me sitting in the front row dutifully taking notes in case there were questions during discussion section. At the end of the hour, most of the students filed out, but some stayed, and a much larger group swarmed in. This was back in the Dark Ages, when classroom scheduling was done manually, and apparently someone in the registrar’s office had given us the wrong time for our class meeting. The instructor turned to me and said, “I don’t think I can do this again.” So I got up and, working from my notes, repeated his lecture as well as I could. We all got through it, but more importantly, I found that I could stand and deliver to a large group. Over the rest of the semester, I discovered that I especially liked teaching the introductory course, which I did for 38 years.
— John Kihlstrom, professor emeritus of psychology
My father was in the military, and our family moved every year or two. I was always the new kid: a lonely stranger in unfamiliar classrooms and bewildering maze-like hallways. I was clever and adaptable and made friends quickly, but those first days could be tough! By the time I was in high school, though, I’d realized that even the kids who weren’t new felt uneasy at first and that I could think of my anxiety as just excitement in disguise. From this perspective, the overwhelming newness and lostness of a first day could actually feel … pleasurable.
Between ninth and 10th grade, my family moved from Florida to Texas. I was, once again, entering a new school — but this one was different. First of all, I knew that my father had gotten permission to stay in Texas until I graduated. This was going to be my last school, and the first one I wouldn’t have to “leave.” But even more unusual for me was the school itself. It was a Catholic school. It was a girls’ school. And we all wore uniforms. To my parents’ surprise, I loved all of this! I had not been raised Catholic, but I loved (and still love) the idea of an education that combined intellectual, emotional and spiritual growth. I had never been in a single-gender educational environment, but the energy of these studious and spirited women made me giddy. I had never worn a uniform, but I was delighted by the idea that my clothes would no longer determine whether or not (usually not) I was cool or who would choose me as a friend. Wearing the exact same thing as everyone else, I could be myself and make friends with anyone.
The school year started with an assembly in the gym: half convocation, half Mass. The room was alive with voices and laughter, and I sat in the bleachers taking it all in with my brand-new uniform and a silly grin. As we waited for the teachers to organize everyone and take their seats, my attention kept falling on the girl right in front of me. She had a cloud of unruly curls and alternated between sneaking peeks at a novel and scribbling in her journal. We had wild hair and bookishness in common, I thought. Promising! But otherwise, she seemed so confident, relaxed and sophisticated. She was everything that I was not and exactly the kind of person I wanted as my first friend — but way cooler than I thought I deserved! I almost let this judgement get the better of me, but as the assembly was ending, I got up the courage to tap her on the shoulder and whisper that I liked the novel she was reading and that her journal was pretty. Thank goodness I did! Over the next few weeks, we became close friends, and I learned that on that first day, she was also a new student and that her anxiety had been just as strong as mine. Even funnier, though, was the fact that she had thought that I had exuded calm and confidence, and she had wanted to be my friend for the same reasons I had wanted to be hers! Learning this made a huge impression on me, and it’s something that I still think about on the first day of school every year. No matter how calm people look on the first day, lots of us are battling our nerves. Everyone has more to offer each other than they realize. And each person’s brilliance will remain a secret unless we show up in the world courageously!
— Emily Carpenter, lecturer of film and media studies
In fall 2011, I was scheduled to teach Astronomy C10 / L&S C70U, with the first lecture being at 3 p.m. That day, however, I started to feel somewhat sick about 1 p.m., and things became progressively worse. I sat in my office, looking up symptoms on the internet, and by 2 p.m., I decided that I might be having a stroke (which was not even remotely the case, it turned out), so I asked the staff of the department of astronomy to call 911. At the same time, I emailed my head GSI and told him he had to give the first lecture, to about 700 students, in an hour! Fortunately, a few days earlier, I had sent him my PowerPoint file to examine, in case something bad happened to me on an all-day whitewater rafting trip the day before classes started. It was a pretty stressful and crazy time, but it all worked out okay!
— Alex Filippenko, professor of astronomy
My only exciting first day was primary school, really. My older sister took me there on the back of her bike (in Belgium, children go to school by bike at a very young age), but I didn’t want to get off the bike and kept crying. She didn’t know what to do (she was only 9 years old), so she went to the school director, who then came with a piece of candy, which convinced me that going to school wasn’t so bad after all.
— Jeroen Dewulf, director of the campus Institute of European Studies and the Dutch Studies Program
I was trying to remember my first days. My first day in kindergarten in Bombay (now Mumbai) was at a school called Convent of Jesus and Mary. I remember not knowing where to go, and I guess I must have sat down in the wrong seat since I remember getting my bottom spanked by the teacher. I don’t remember much else, but I think I had a pretty good time and was happy enough to go back.
I don’t really recall my first day at college (Hindu College in Delhi University) being particularly memorable, except for the fact that I met one of my dearest friends on my very first day of college. We became fast friends that day and 31 years later, she is still one of my closest friends.
My first day of graduate school at UNC-Chapel Hill, I remember being rather shocked by the free and easy ways of some of the students who would put their feet on the desk during lecture and call the professor by their first name. I also remember my Parisian roommate and I waiting for the bus on a Sunday for about 1 ½ hours, until another student told us that the buses didn’t run on Sundays.
— Shobhana Stoyanov, lecturer of statistics
I remember the first time I taught a college class as a professor. I had spent days preparing this lecture, practicing it to make sure it wasn’t too long, trying not to say anything too confusing. Standing at the top of the stairs of the large lecture hall, I was absolutely terrified. Every cell in my body told me to run away. But somehow I trotted down the stairs, picked up a piece of chalk and wrote “Professor Marla Feller, office hours …” and started to teach. By the end of the lecture I was thrilled with how it went. As I was leaving the class, I heard one student utter to another, “This is going to be a really boring class.”
I couldn’t really blame the students — I remembered that as a student, I never once considered how much work a professor had put into preparing a lecture, let alone preparing an entire course. But it was a humbling moment.”
— Marla Feller, professor of molecular and cell biology
I remember my first days of college at the University of Redlands. Willing away tears as I said goodbye to my parents because I wasn’t sad about going to college, but nevertheless there were the tears. That pit in my stomach as they drove away. The nervousness as I tried to navigate the dining commons and figure out who to sit with. That first Saturday night party. Sitting in my calculus class taking note of the crazy male-to-female ratio — so much more male than my experience in math classes at Redwood High School in Larkspur. Finding comfort in math and the regularity of problem sets. Forming new friendships, some of which continue nearly 45 years later. Eventually finding my center.
— Martha Olney, teaching professor of economics
I moved to Oakland from the East Coast right at the start of ninth grade. As a teen it felt like moving to a different planet. It was nothing like I thought California would be (picture “Baywatch”). Everything was brown and I thought it was ugly — it was August in California. My first day of school was shocking. People used totally different slang and at first I had no idea what they were saying — especially “hella” and “hecka” (which is original Bay Area slang). My junior high was spread out with a lot of outdoor space and people ate lunch outside, in contrast to my previous multistory buildings with indoor cafeterias. I had lived in Vermont and a suburb of Boston — both pretty white, homogeneous places. Then I was in Oakland with more diversity than I had ever had in a school, and I had to very quickly learn a lot of social norms about navigating different groups, clothing styles, music and slang. I was very certain I was totally uncool (certainly true) and would never understand any of it.
— Amy Gurowitz, lecturer of political science
On my first day at UC Berkeley, at 7:50 a.m., I set out from my dorm (Putnam Hall) in search of my Psych 1 class in Tolman Hall. I was pretty sure that I knew how to get to Tolman, but I lost my confidence about halfway there. Just as I was beginning to panic, fearing that I would arrive late to my very first Berkeley class, what should I see but a large building with “Psychology” written on the side.
“This must be the place,” I thought and breathed a sigh of relief. In I went, not realizing that I had entered the Valley Life Sciences Building, once — but no longer — the home of the psychology department. I walked up to the fourth floor — Psych 1 was in 4-something Tolman. I was puzzled by the small rooms — surely Psych 1 would be in a big lecture hall — but it wasn’t until I turned into a hallway full of metal carts with embalmed rodents that I thought, “Um, maybe I’m not in the right place.” Out I went, stopped the first person I saw and was steered by an amused senior in the right direction.”
— Oliver Arnold, associate professor of English
As my memory fades with age, a “most memorable first day of school” inevitably becomes the latest one. Last August, we brought our son to his college. Among the brightest impressions of that day was the first sight of his double dorm. It exceeded the one our daughter used to live in while at UC Berkeley by a factor of three or four. With its 300 square feet, I thought, it was the biggest dorm on the East Coast. It turned out to be the second — the biggest one was across the corridor.
Our children, especially while in elementary school, would always start their school year by presenting their teacher with a bouquet of flowers. In fact this was a widespread tradition in the Soviet Union, and when we moved to the United States, we simply found no good reason to abandon it. What I still have difficulty to imagine though, is how the poor Soviet teachers could carry their 30 bouquets home.
— Alexander Givental, professor of mathematics
My favorite aspect of the first days of classes is the first day that I lecture. I walk into the lecture hall, put my bag down and look up at a sea of faces. I’m as happy to see faces of students who have taken other courses from me as those who haven’t. In those moments, when a quiet descends over the room, I wonder what inspiring life stories, achievements and triumphs over adversity I will hear both in the semester ahead and the years beyond the end of my course. Having taught at UC Berkeley for more than 25 years and having accidentally met many former students over the years, I’m certain they will surprise and inspire me. Go Bears!
— Oliver O’Reilly, professor of mechanical engineering
I had three most memorable first days of school at UC Berkeley.
My first day as a student at UC Berkeley was, if I am checking the calendar right, Tuesday, Aug. 19, 1996. I remember walking down Bancroft Way from I-House, turning right on Sproul Plaza and going under Sather Gate. There were no cell phones then, but if there had been, I probably would have asked someone to immortalize that moment with a photo. I was overwhelmed by the size of Berkeley. I was super nervous; it was my first time in the United States on my own, so far from my family in Portugal. I was also looking forward to it. And I was so right to choose UC Berkeley: I fit right in, my student colleagues were super smart, and my professors became my role models of what a researcher and teacher should be. Little did I know that I would have another first day at UC Berkeley six years later. After earning a doctorate in economics, three masters from Cal (master Vasco, master Diogo and master JoseMaria, my boys), and a husband from UC Berkeley too (my other — better — half is a faculty member at the Haas School of Business), I became a faculty member in agricultural and resource economics.
So, my second “first day” at UC Berkeley was my first day as a faculty member on July 1, 2002. I had my own empty office with a name plaque on the door. I was given my very own key and was warmly welcomed by my faculty colleagues as what felt like a younger sister — especially by my colleague Peter Berck. My department, and Peter especially, made my first day become the start of the best job one can hope for!
This brings me to my third “first day” of school at UC Berkeley: Aug. 15, 2018. It was the first day of school without Peter in our department. Peter died last Friday, Aug. 10. Berkeley is full of students but a little less full because Peter is no longer teaching at UC Berkeley. Thank you, Peter, for your 41 years of being part of the first day of school for thousands of Berkeley students
— Sofia Villas-Boas, professor of agricultural and resource economics
I was 4, nearing 5. I rode on the back of my dad’s bike and felt the pangs of pulling away from his strong presence as I walked through a gate. Being of the anxious variety, the classroom and playground seemed wildly chaotic and noisy. In the mayhem on the playground, I got nudged toward a tall, gangly guy named Mark Green, who became my dear friend and source of ease. Later that night, I remember arriving with my parents, and the story goes that I asked them where I was supposed to sleep each night. I thought I was moving away and living at the grammar school a few blocks from my home!
— Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology
Contact Ketki Samel at [email protected]