Staying afloat: How I learned to love UC Berkeley

Being a student at UC Berkeley is a lot like learning how to swim. No, not with swim lessons at the neighborhood pool. Not with one of your parents holding you up and telling you to kick while they keep you from sinking. Not with brightly colored floaties that help you stay on the surface once your parents eventually let you go. None of that. Instead, it’s more like how I learned to swim — getting thrown into the deep end and told: “swim.”

Of course, there was another adult in the pool because my family isn’t that crazy. But I didn’t know that, so as soon as I felt the rush of the cold water around me, I panicked. I can still remember holding my breath and just kicking.

The only reason I opened my eyes was to look at the surface, though I couldn’t really see much beyond the bubbles and the sun. It all happened in a matter of seconds, but it felt like an entire lifetime before I saw one of my dad’s hands reach out to me. It’s one of the few childhood memories that I can recall in vivid detail. Everything I felt in those few seconds in the water, I experienced at UC Berkeley.

Getting the acceptance letter felt exactly like my grandma telling me I was finally going to learn how to swim. Excitement bubbled up inside me and I could hardly wait until the day that I was at UC Berkeley. Except, just like getting to the pool that day, the excitement transformed into anxiety when I came to the realization of what it all really meant.

I’d have to do something new, something completely unknown to me. I had never been so far from my family and regardless of everything that went on at home, I knew that I would miss them all. But my family had to throw me into the water at some point, and I guess that point was move-in day.

The few seconds I was suspended in the air before hitting the water were incredibly frightening. It felt like this throughout my first semester here. I knew no one besides my roommates and had no idea what I had gotten myself into. I was taking classes that I was woefully underprepared for and I constantly compared myself to others around me. I hated the way I felt whenever I went to Wheeler Hall. I hated the way I felt whenever I lingered outside a professor’s office as students asked questions I couldn’t really comprehend. Those few seconds in the air stretched throughout an entire semester and it only went away once I hit the water.

My first midterm season at UC Berkeley made the fact that I was a first-generation college student painfully apparent. It also made the clear disparity between my high school education and that of those around me even clearer. The cold water around me and my inability to see my surroundings invited panic. I didn’t really understand the severity of my under preparation until the moment I sat in Lewis Hall, staring blankly at my first midterm wondering how screwed I was. I’m thankful, though, for that experience. Without it, I don’t think I would have ever learned how to swim through the first semester and into the ones that followed.

Just as there are many ways to learn how to swim, there are plenty of paths that I could have taken once I got to UC Berkeley. This is one of the reasons why I hate and love this campus. For one, so many options were extremely overwhelming for me, especially since choosing to come to UC Berkeley was one of the first real decisions I had made on my own.

As a result, navigating through the numerous paths that one could take is difficult without some form of help. While there are many reminders that the campus offers some forms of help, it is ultimately up to the individual to find the resources they need. All students should know about places like the Student Learning Center, which offers tutoring services. I didn’t find out about it until it was too late into my first semester and I was in danger of failing most of my classes.

These experiences have taught me how to “swim,” but throughout my two years on this campus I have seen a lot of students “sink.” Not because they don’t have enough perseverance to pull through, but because it can be exhausting to spend four years swimming against the current.

Don’t get me wrong, UC Berkeley has a lot of great things to offer, especially if you look in the right places. A lot of these things are practical: the renowned education, the networking opportunities — even just the name “UC Berkeley” brings you notoriety. Some of my most treasured memories, though, come from the emotional connections I have experienced — the thrill of hearing the alumni chant at a football game, my first time going up the Campanile and seeing the entire campus and the friendships I’ve made at the Daily Cal. These are moments I will value for the rest of my life and I would have none of these things if I didn’t have the strength to learn how to tread water and keep myself afloat.

Regardless of how hard it is to manage a full course load and dedicate my time to the Daily Cal while also maintaining my mental health, UC Berkeley is an incredibly wonderful place and I wouldn’t trade it for anything else in the world.

Clara Rodas is a deputy news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @Crodas_dc.