How to navigate the toughest challenges at UC Berkeley

navigating challenges of student life at Berkeley
Alexander Hong/Senior Staff

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While the beginning of your college career is an incredibly exciting time, it comes with its fair share of challenges. Your ride will likely be a bumpy one no matter what, but we’re here to make it just a little bit smoother. Here are six of the difficult things you may encounter upon arrival in Berkeley and some tips on how to handle them.

Managing time and work

Starting your first year of college can sometimes feel like getting thrown into the deep end of academia. Learning how to stay afloat can be tough. For a lot of us, it’s our first time away from our families, and college assignments are absurdly easy to procrastinate on. But there are plenty of support systems available — even if it doesn’t always feel like it. The Tang Center provides free counseling services to students, which can be a big help for the anxiety that often crops up during your first year. And more often than not, professors and GSIs are more than willing to help you strategize for your academics. There’s also a local cognitive behavioral therapy clinic in Berkeley, which can be especially useful for tackling anxiety habits. Even though coming here can feel like being left without a support network, there’s still one here. You just need to reach out to it.

Finding a new social circle

One of the toughest parts of your first year is the fact that just a few days before your classes begin, you’re plunged into a sea of unfamiliar faces — especially if few people from your high school or community college ended up at UC Berkeley. It can be difficult to even figure out which of these people you’re interested in being friends with. But as much as it may seem like you’re the only one of the thousands of new students who is dealing with this problem, know that almost all of them are on the exact same page as you. If you don’t believe us, ask anyone who has been on this campus for more than a year, and they’ll probably chuckle and share a couple stories of their awkward first few weeks in Berkeley.

Another very common experience among new students is having friendships in your first semester or two that don’t last for long — maybe you have some floormates who don’t share a lot of interests with you, but they’re enjoyable enough to spend your spare time with. Don’t feel bad if these people don’t end up being your best friends for life — a natural part of figuring out where you fit in is just going with the flow. Maybe you’ll get lucky and one or more of these people will stick around, or maybe one of them will introduce you to someone who winds up becoming a major part of your life — regardless, it’s important to keep an open mind.

Dealing with dining hall food

If you’re anything like us, you probably already heard a lot of hype before arriving here about which dining halls have the best and worst grub. Well, we’re here to tell you: All that hype? It’s all lies. Dining hall food is pretty much indistinguishable, regardless of whether you’re at Cafe 3, Crossroads, Foothill or Clark Kerr. And the food in UC Berkeley’s mess halls is — not great. It’s not terrible, but it’s not great. And after a few weeks, it will probably start to wear on you. So try to mix it up a little! Depending on your meal plan, you’ll have anywhere from 600 to 1,000 flex dollars — which can be used to buy food and groceries at the Golden Bear café or any other dining hall convenience store (we recommend the one at Cafe 3, Bear Market.) Be careful, though, because once you’re out of flex dollars, you’re out (unless you purchase more). Also, try to avoid using real money to buy things at these places — most campus stores that accept flex dollars tend to be much more expensive than typical grocery stores.

When the dining halls truly become un-bear-able, it’s time to make the arduous journey to the northwestern corner of campus and grab some delicious, fresh fare from Brown’s. This place — which calls itself “a California café” and which everyone else calls “Pat Brown’s” — offers options such as sweet potato fries, panini and salads. It’ll likely put a bigger dent in your meal account than the average dining hall will, but it’s important to treat yourself every once in a while.


Commuting in Berkeley kind of sucks. Driving here is hell, the buses are often unreliable, there are too many hills and crazy drivers to bike everywhere, and the city is big enough that walking is often impractical. Transit is a constant challenge here, and there’s no silver bullet to overcome it. But there are some tricks to making it a little smoother.

AC Transit will probably be your main means of getting around the area. UC Berkeley students are able to use this bus system for free (once they pay several thousand dollars for tuition and an $80 transit fee). The bus routes cover a lot of ground, stretching from Richmond in the north to Fremont in the south. Within Berkeley, the more popular (and useful) routes include the 6 and the 51B, which both begin in Downtown and run through Southside. AC Transit is notoriously often late, but you should download one of the many apps that provide real-time predictions for bus arrivals — we recommend Transit.

Supplementing AC Transit is the campus’s own bus system, Bear Transit, which encompasses several daytime routes and two nighttime ones. We especially recommend taking advantage of this service at night, as it can make your trek home much safer. Plus, it stops right by Moffitt Library — which is perfect for when you’re exhausted after the late-night cram sessions you’re inevitably going to experience.

Dwinelle Hall

In addition to somehow being about 30 degrees hotter than the already sweltering Berkeley fall weather, this building’s layout is so confusing that you’ll start to think Lewis and Clark had it pretty easy. The building has (at least) two different systems of floors and is built on a hill, so you can enter at ground level and take about 80 short flights of stairs down only to find that you’re somehow at ground level again. Some of the restrooms are essentially closets, while others are the size of small countries; the building’s exits often spit you out in corners of campus you’ve never even seen before. It’s an architectural marvel — but not in a good way.

Unfortunately, a mastery of the floor plan of this building, which houses more than 12 different departments, can only be fully achieved through experience and a lot of trial and error. But here’s a good rule of thumb to get you started: The northern half of Dwinelle contains offices, while the southern half consists of classrooms and lecture halls. So if you’re going to class, enter the building near Sather Gate, and if you’re going to office hours (which we recommend doing), enter near the Valley Life Sciences Building. That should minimize travel time within the labyrinth. Happy exploring, Bears.

Family members asking if you’re a communist now

I mean, yes, but also, please shut up, Uncle Bobby.

Look, UC Berkeley has a reputation as a leftist paradise, and while, yes, that is true to a certain extent, it’s also actually awesome. Living away from your family for the first time can give you a chance to explore your politics in much more liberating ways than ever before. And if you’re anything like us, the more reading you do, the more likely your extended family is to disown you if they ever find out your celebrity crush is Friedrich Engels.

In all seriousness, though, a lot of people assume Berkeley is the capital of “social justice warriors” — those on the front lines of the culture war. But that reputation is tremendously overblown. A simple city municipal code change to include gender-neutral language becomes a national news story. Propagandists start telling you that it’s equivalent to Newspeak and that feminists will burn you at the stake for saying “manhole.” In reality, of course, the environment here feels a lot like that of most other college towns — it leans progressive, but there’s also an immense ideological diversity. The weird thing is, though, that despite all this, Berkeley still kind of is the front line of the culture war — not because it itself is anything unique, but because people say it is. It’s a simulacrum of cultural significance. The takeaway here is, if your relatives ever ask you why there are so many commies in Berkeley, just start talking about simulacra and dialectics until they give up.

Contact Nick Schwartz and Ben Klein at [email protected].