Committing to UC Berkeley (for real this time): A personal essay

Caragh McErlean/File

I sit at my desk fidgeting with the strings of my sweatshirt, becoming aware of the feeling of its hug upon my body. Multiple wears and washes are evident from the clusters of lint at the seams and the stretch marks along the width of the bright yellow screen-printed design. The word “Cal” reads a little worn after only a year, but the sweatshirt is clearly loved. As I celebrate one year with my sweatshirt, ruminating over the unanticipated roller-coaster ride that was my freshman year of college, I finally feel confident in my decision to commit to UC Berkeley and optimistic for the future.

Reflecting on the physical state of my college sweatshirt, I remember the day it came into my possession. It all happened in less than a day: After a 6 a.m. flight out of LAX to SFO, a campus and housing tour, and a trip down Telegraph Avenue, I became engulfed in a frenzy of all things UC Berkeley and let my newfound school spirit successfully distract me enough to forget all my weighing responsibilities awaiting my 9 p.m. return home. Of course, I needed something to materialize the experience.

At some point in the day between a Top Dog hot link (which I may or may not have regretted a couple hours later) and exploring the spacious Unit 2 triple, I saw it. A small but distinguishable storefront sign reading “T-Shirt Orgy” caught my attention, and I wandered in for merch, wondering who thought “Bear Basics” would make a better name. I tried on at least 12 styles, each only slightly different from the previous one, before committing to the most basic of the Bear Basics (and then suddenly the name clicked).

If my sweatshirt selection anecdote has not been enough evidence, I will explicitly tell you: I’m indecisive. And even though I had the gear, part of me was still unsure if this would be the school for me.

Get “The Weekender” in your inbox!

Creative writing, deep dives, cultural commentaries and art delivered every Saturday.

Education had always dominated my long list of anxieties about the future. A first-generation student, I found myself constantly worried and lonely as I chose where to spend the next four years. As I deliberated my decision, it seemed as if all the sacrifices my family had made for me played in my head on repeat, with me just eager to make them proud. During the wee hours of the night when I should have been sleeping or whenever I needed to talk myself down from panic, I found myself obsessively adding and deleting entries to my UC Berkeley pros-versus-cons list. At the forefront of my hesitation was the fear that I would love the school, but the school wouldn’t love me back.

Deciding where to spend the next four years of my life was as chaotic as my hoodie selection, but the journey didn’t end there: The process of emotionally committing to UC Berkeley lasted much longer than the instantaneous click of my official commitment. While I submitted my intent to register more than a year ago, I have only recently settled into and fully accepted my life here at UC Berkeley. A large part of my adjustment period involved coming to the conclusion that no matter how vigorously I work to minimize disruptions to my plan, things will often unfold in ways out of my control.

The process of emotionally committing to UC Berkeley lasted much longer than the instantaneous click of my official commitment.

You would think that after spending what seemed like an eternity of attempting to map out the next four years of school, I would have at some point settled on a major. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Sociology, I told myself. That sounded good at the time since I have a passion for social justice, but the more I thought about my options, the more I changed my mind. Attracted to several majors, it felt as though I was cheating on my intended major and lying about the person that I had been saying I was. Now, I am an intended double major in legal studies as well as environmental economics and policy, though I couldn’t really tell you how that happened.

Learning to cope with many small yet persistent identity crises about my changing environment, I found myself in defining moments of resiliency and growth. There were moments when the concept of home and familiarity felt so distant that I actually contemplated transferring to UCLA (glad I’m over that, No. 2 public university). At some point, however, I learned to love my new environment, overcoming my obsession with finding and following a defined plan. I found the key to my version of success, surprisingly, in trusting my own capabilities and decisions.

Truly believing in the culminated village work of my family, teachers, mentors and community that went into making me me and brought me to UC Berkeley was enough to keep me simultaneously grounded and forward-moving. My changed mindset renewed a sense of bear identity more genuine than the spirit I experienced a year ago. Some may say that is just an effect of Stockholm syndrome, but I’d argue that it’s evidence of my commitment issues slightly diminishing. Navigating the competitive climate and overcoming the culture of defeat at times remains tricky to say the least, but I have never felt more confident that everything will be OK.   

I often think about what I wish I could tell my younger self. If I could rewind just a year, back to the time when my hoodie was soft and new, would I do it all the same? Hindsight is always 20/20 as we learn and grow from our experiences. As clichéd as that might sound, whoever said that was definitely on to something.

As I look back at my freshman year in its entirety, there were days when I should have sat on Memorial Glade instead of at my desk spiraling into a feeling of impending doom. I am much too young for that. My experience at UC Berkeley has taught me that while it is important to find things that drive you, it is equally important to take a second to breathe.

Contact Ashley Soliman at [email protected]