Before I knew that I would be going to school at UC Berkeley, the campus lived in my mind as a kind of promised land. My perception of the school was formed by black-and-white photos of students and community members protesting for what they believed in. I expected social awareness and political involvement to define my first semester this past fall.
Up until attending UC Berkeley, I had never visited the school. Berkeley remained a place seven hours away from where I grew up in Los Angeles. Those images of the active political involvement and protests on Sproul Plaza shaped my idea of what college life would be like until I made that drive, with a car packed full of my belongings. I realize now that my idea of UC Berkeley was more of a fantasy than a prediction of the campus culture.
Growing up, I spent a lot of time imagining what college would be like before I got there. Raised by a mother who started thinking about higher education before I could talk, I anxiously awaited college by the end of high school. I saw college as an escape route from high school. In my eagerness for the self-reliance and individuality associated with the luster of college life, I imagined UC Berkeley as a combination of its promises, with a diverse, politically engaged student body participating in all aspects of life on campus; I couldn’t wait to be in the middle of it all. Within my first week at school, I was attending as many club meetings as I could, with pockets often full of flyers and handouts. More than anything, I wanted to be a part of the myth I had created for myself.
While talking to my peers during the process of moving into the Unit 2 dorms, I noticed how People’s Park, just a block away, became the butt of jokes about homelessness. I thought the jokes were ironic, considering the park’s origins in student-led protest. But I soon discovered that they weren’t.
In the beehive-like structure that is Unit 2, many students I have met value their GPAs over being politically active within the community of Berkeley. I was disappointed that the students I met didn’t embody the spirit of past protesters from the Free Speech Movement to the People’s Park protests: students ready to take action to defend their communities. Moments like this made me feel isolated despite being surrounded by people. Instead of the lively campus that I had spent so long imagining, the default mode seemed to be a “headphones in, keep to myself” mentality. The campus culture felt like a distant, if not unreachable, thing. No one seemed to fit the version of this new school that I had conjured.
In November, with the midterm election just around the corner, campus politics seemed to kick in to a high gear. And I saw the plethora of students encouraging others to register to vote — Sproul Plaza was filled with “get out the vote” campaigns because of student activism. And yet, people I knew didn’t seem as stirred. My roommate said he decided not to vote because he viewed voter-turnout efforts as overbearing. While not voting seemed minor to him, the decision frustrated me, considering the importance of voting in a democratic society. Although the encounter was just with one individual, my encounter with him shaped my view of the campus culture. Life on campus seemed to stray in the opposite direction of my fantasy of UC Berkeley — not all students at UC Berkeley were gleaming beacons of activism and political dialogue, as I’d thought they would be.
The process of renegotiating my initial expectations about what college would be like was gradual — it happened slowly throughout the course of the semester. By winter break, I had let go of those expectations. Now, I am able to compare my true experiences with the expectations I had laid out before attending UC Berkeley. In doing so, I came to understand that there is no singular version of a college experience. Instead, I’m learning to embrace complexity — even if it may lead to disappointment sometimes.
My first semester has been a reality check on the romanticized view that I had before starting college. Now, I’m looking forward with a newfound sense of optimism. My second semester will be a clean slate, without the unrealistic expectations — allowing me to truly enjoy my college experience.
“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the spring semester’s regular opinion writers have been selected. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.