Reflections from my time as a Golden Bear

The media studies department at UC Berkeley is carefully nestled in the brightest spot on campus — the second floor of Evans Hall, between the warmth and comfort of the math, statistics and economics departments. It’s hidden away carefully, so it exists, but you can’t really see it, and definitely don’t need to think about it. It’s small,  but has a population of bright students, who are often the butt of jokes and subject of unwelcome memes. If you aren’t a budding engineer, data scientist or on your third round of interviews at Goldman Sachs, you’re going to feel a bit like the media studies department: shadowed by number-crunchers and networkers, and inexplicably undervalued. 

Early in my junior year, I remember sitting in a circle for discussion section introductions — the usual name, major(s) and fun fact, nothing out of the ordinary. It was only when I mumbled “Oh, I’m an econ major,” and moved on, that I realized how deep the UC Berkeley stigma against the humanities and arts actually permeates. So deep that I’m ready to dedicate my post-graduation life to media, but hesitated to tell a room of disinterested classmates that I have the gall to also major in media studies, because I didn’t want them to think less of me. 

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the importance of my economics major and am grateful for the analytical and problem-solving skills it has provided me with. I also see the allure of a technology industry job and am painfully cognizant of the ever-growing market for product managers, marketers, analysts, consultants and the like. But, as one of more than 30,000 undergraduates at UC Berkeley, my biggest takeaway and only real piece of advice to you, is to hell with what other people think.

There is an unspoken tension between the number-crunchers and networkers, and the arts and humanities majors in that the former look at the latter with disparaging disrespect. This is unsurprising, considering the state of constantly underfunded non-STEM departments, juxtaposed with hundreds of millions of dollars in gifts that essentially steer more people away from a liberal arts education and toward preprofessional technology training. It’s hard for a snazzy building complex and unlimited funds to look unappealing next to a small, out-of-place, cluster of rooms in the ugliest building on campus. 

But, for all of the technology industry’s might, we’re learning now, more than ever, that the potential for job security is precarious, at best. In light of a global pandemic, hiring freezes, which lift the comfort that many seek higher education for, show how career-oriented coursework may not be able to serve its common purpose. In difficult times such as these, qualities such as personal resilience — which is strengthened by cross-cultural knowledge, historical background, social understanding and awareness — take a front seat.

A liberal arts education that expands our consciousness and drives activism will be necessary to lift struggling communities out of the rut caused by the coronavirus. For those hit hardest, many of whom are low-income individuals, people of color and women, there is an increased need for accurate information, reporting and policy to revamp the way people live their lives.

The UC system, which is a 152-year-old institution, existed before the technology bubble. While keeping up with trends, it simultaneously remains a longstanding reminder that the value of education extends beyond a cushy corporate career at Google or Amazon. As a soon-to-be graduate, I spent a significant portion of my four years grappling with a disconnect in balancing passion with the need for marketable skills. While deciding how to use my education, I thought about how I measured success. Is it the personal enrichment I gain from becoming more knowledgeable? Is it through leaving a mark on the world? Is it by positively impacting a life, or society as a whole? And finally, am I making the choices that will best serve my goals, or placate my peers?

UC Berkeley gave me the option to explore and answer these questions, not only through breadth requirements and fantastic professors, but also through immersing me in a community that forced me to push back against a culture of preconceived notions and battle the need for approval and Silicon Valley assimilation. As you step into your higher education journey, take a moment now — and take many moments through your undergraduate years — to think carefully about what you want to do.

Being a Golden Bear can give you the chance to protest for important causes, meet and learn from the authors of books you read and earn a thorough education in social organizing and development. If you’ve never stopped to learn more about the Free Speech Movement, but use Free Speech Movement Cafe as a homework spot, you’re missing out. If you live on Southside and don’t understand the history behind the People’s Park protests, you’re doing it wrong. And, if you think a humanities major lacks the power to serve society, you’re vastly uninformed.

So, don’t let your oblivious intended-triple-major in business, EECS and math peer make you feel less for loving art history, and don’t give anyone the agency to scoff at your 10-page research paper while they refresh dead kernels on Jupyter notebooks. If you’re picking your major because you love it, then kudos to you. Whether it’s English, history, political science, media studies or anything else, hold your head up high and make sure to announce it proudly in your discussion section, and everywhere else. It doesn’t matter what number-crunchers and networkers think. Chances are, they have more to learn from you than you’d imagine.

Contact Mahira Dayal at [email protected] .