Love song for UC Berkeley: A personal essay

Arya Aliabadi/File

When I was applying to colleges in the tumultuous time that was the fall of 2016, I didn’t know what I wanted. All I knew was that I didn’t want home. I wanted to be free of the ruralism and the traditionalism and what I at the time perceived as the lethargy of living in the middle of the desert. I wanted escape. UC Berkeley was not my first-choice school. Nor was it my second-choice school. But in the end, I think it should have been my only choice.

One of the big buzz words that pops up in promotional materials for this school is “diversity.” I don’t contest that characterization, but I think a more accurate adjective is “chaotic.” UC Berkeley is what you get when you paint a canvas with fire in every color. UC Berkeley is what you get when you describe the world in 1,232 acres — or try to, anyway. UC Berkeley is a promise you can’t keep, the promise of the “American dream” for a distinctly non-American population.

UC Berkeley is what you get when you paint a canvas with fire in every color.

No one tells you this, of course. You won’t know if you love the place until you are forced to swim in its milk and honey and drown in its blood. Luckily for me, I fell madly in love with the university. I don’t believe in the college equivalent of having a “one true love,” but I do think there is something serendipitous and romantic about the way I came to love the school.

First, I fell in love with the people. I swung to the music of dorm room conversations about Donald Trump and environmentalism and English as a second language. I discovered that the lenses through which I have spent my entire life interacting with the world are not the lenses that other people use. Students and professors forced me to see the world differently, more complexly, more truthfully, more completely.

And then I fell in love with the space. The campus itself is incoherent, a collection of buildings that have no business being together. Doe Library is pretentious and “academic” where the Valley Life Sciences Building is stoic and ancient. All of Haas is professional — which is fitting — while Wellman Hall sits atop a hill flanked by green, which is also fitting. Dwinelle, in all its complexity, perhaps best captures what it is like to inhabit the mind of a UC Berkeley student or even try to hold a conversation with one. South Hall, at the ripe age of 146 years, is a sentinel of the university’s history, while the Campanile, poised with unrivaled regality, promises the university’s future will reverberate above the clouds.

I fell in love with the faces of strangers — black and white and brown and every in-between shade — navigating this urban labyrinth like confused salmon. I fell in love with spontaneous piano playing on Upper Sproul. I fell in love with the way the campus looks at night, the lights of Shattuck and College, the impossible view of the Bay from the Lawrence Hall of Science. I fell in love, unironically, with Oski and his eyehole through which he drinks his water. I fell in love with a column of uncolonized air, a pillar of freedom extending into space ad infinitum and I fell in love with the KiwiBots slavishly trudging along — indifferently, unknowingly.

I have come to the realization that it is easy to describe UC Berkeley, but it is impossible to explain her. Maybe I’m just bad at writing or maybe I don’t know her intimately enough to do her justice with my prose. I cannot count her breaths or trace her curves, but I can proclaim what she — imperceptibly, gently — whispers in my ear.

I have come to the realization that it is easy to describe UC Berkeley, but it is impossible to explain her.

UC Berkeley is unafraid to live suspended in tension. It does not try to hide the complexities and contradictions of being human. It contains multitudes, just as we do. You hear echoes of these intersecting identities in conversation whenever someone finds a way to work the esoteric into their vernacular. It is not uncommon for Marx, Wollstonecraft or Bader Ginsburg to be inserted into discussions about weekend plans or one’s hometown. We exist in our minds and strive, at every opportunity, to make our thoughts manifest.

Yes, the school promotes a toxic learning environment. Yes, partisan agendas can make constructive dialogue difficult. We are still grappling with what it means to live in this world, in this time, in this place. We are loud because we are passionate.

Because in Berkeley, we are all naive. We are intellectuals, trailblazers, young people with our heads in the clouds and our feet in the mud. We are all dreamers, convinced of our capacity to change the world. In some ways, I think every college campus’ students believe that they will inherit the earth, but in Berkeley it is true. In Berkeley, it is inevitable.

Contact Edrick Sabalburo at [email protected].