Navigating UC Berkeley as a legacy student: Contrasting my expectations with my experiences

Growing up in the Bay Area, whenever I saw the “Cal” logo on license plate holders and blue and gold baseball caps, I was immediately reminded of my dad and his alma mater. Every time I saw “Cal,” I didn’t think about UC Berkeley’s academic prestige or beautiful campus. Instead, I’d think, “Oh, that’s where Dada went. That’s where he first ate dried worms and worked as a telephone operator.” This was my impression of UC Berkeley for many years: the place where my dad tried new foods and used old technology.

As I got older, I started having more conversations with my dad about his college experience, peppering him with questions about what it was like studying landforms and cartography and living in a co-op. I wanted to know what drew him to UC Berkeley all those years ago, and what qualities stood out to him. The way my dad reminisced, UC Berkeley was where he became a “real” adult. Once I was accepted, I began imagining myself in his shoes, exploring new subjects and making new connections. I could almost picture an older, wiser and cooler version of myself studying in Doe or walking up Sproul. Through my dad’s accounts, it seemed as if I knew UC Berkeley: I felt ready for the distinctive culture and rigorous academics, even if I was apprehensive about whether I was smart and unique enough to fit in.

While I knew that the UC Berkeley of 2018 would be different from the UC Berkeley of 1980, I maintained certain expectations. I pictured the campus with the peculiar characteristics always present in my dad’s recollections, which centered around his life in the now-notorious Barrington Hall co-op, with its annual “insect banquets,” frequent punk rock concerts and switchboard operator work shifts. Although I didn’t live in the co-ops during my first year, particular aspects from my dad’s stories impressed a certain narrative in my head: a quirky community full of quirky people. And after seeing many of these impressions reflected in the popular lore surrounding UC Berkeley, my expectations of eccentricity were high.

That being said, my mental image of the campus after years of hearing about my dad’s UC Berkeley days was nothing like what I actually experienced. But then my dad was a transfer student living at Barrington, whereas I was a freshman in Unit 2. While he listened live to the likes of Black Flag and Nervous Gender, I endured the Top 40 music blaring in the Crossroads dining hall. And the closest I came to my dad’s favorite “applesauce surprise cake” featuring dried earthworms were some “cricket chips” I bought at the Den. Instead, the eclectic nature of the campus came to me in other ways: Dwinelle Hall’s baffling layout, Berkeley time — everything starts 10 minutes late — and the wide array of class offerings in subjects I’d never even dreamed of, such as “The History of Hell” and “Introduction to Old English.”

Yet out of all of these things, the campus’s sheer size was what immediately struck me. Sure, I’d visited several times growing up, but walking around sightseeing is completely different from trying to find a new classroom within Berkeley time at the start of the semester. The campus felt like a maze, nothing at all like the “small” urban campus my dad had described. “You’ll have no problem getting around,” my dad, a geography major, told me many times.

Oh was he wrong.

For those first few weeks, I tripped over my own feet and accidentally bumped into people, all the while glued to Google Maps. While I still get lost today, I’ve figured out that it isn’t finding the building that’s the hard part, it’s finding the classroom.

Once I’d figured out the lay of the land, I was able to adjust to college life, learning how to manage my schoolwork, social life and sleep. I quickly discovered that amid all of the complaining about exams and sleep deprivation, most people are proud to be UC Berkeley students, and this warmed my heart. It’s comforting to know that so many others are in the same boat as you, whether you’re burrowing in the library or running late to class. While school spirit seems to always be a theme of college advertising campaigns, it wasn’t until I became a student that I discovered just how strong and impactful this community camaraderie was for me. Sure, I vaguely knew about the sports rivalries, but I was very unprepared for the competitiveness that ensued, since sports were never really on my dad’s consciousness. After all, his first football game was the 2018 Big Game, 35 whole years after he graduated. And he was even a student in 1982, when The Play happened! It was pleasantly surprising to see how proud students are of UC Berkeley; I never realized how much pride I myself would come to feel for this school.

While today’s UC Berkeley differs drastically from my dad’s, at its heart, the quirkiness is still there. It’s just in places I wasn’t expecting: from the diverse range of shops lining Telegraph Avenue to the lines outside the libraries on Sundays. I got used to running on Berkeley time, and I’ve come to appreciate the things you discover when you’re lost — cute squirrels, more libraries, little outdoor study spots. As a history major, it’s comforting to have family connections to campus — I can go to my dad’s favorite food joint, Top Dog, or call him to talk about getting lost in Dwinelle again. After almost two years here, I can’t imagine leaving.

Contact Lillian Morgenthaler at [email protected].