Take it from the top: Advice to my freshman self

I’d never heard Tupac rap when I started my freshman year at UC Berkeley. I couldn’t find Oxnard on a map. I had no clue what “AFX” stood for. I thought San Francisco was warm. I’d never had alcohol. I’d never had boba. Imagine.

Maybe I was literate and numerate, but Lord, I was as ignorant as they come. Three years at UC Berkeley haven’t quite remedied my ignorance or cured my prejudices, but they’ve been a start. I’ve learned to properly respect rap. I have friends from Santa Cruz to Stockton, from Chico to Carlsbad. I’ve gotten myself mixed up in Berkeley Dance Community groups, worked full-time in Pacific Heights and had my first glass of champagne. (I didn’t like it.)

In retrospect, I’ve learned nothing in college except that I was wrong about everything. My freshman self was a fragile, lost, unsteady little kid who tried to be kind, tried to be optimistic but mostly just tried his best. And for that well-intentioned try-hard, from the bottom of my heart, I offer this advice — he needed it:

First, college prepares you for nothing. Don’t expect it to. You thought college was vital preparation for law school; you thought your grades would count and your major would matter. You’re mistaken. Once you work a few jobs — even entry-level stuff — you’ll learn that employers care more about what sort of person you are than what sort of student.

Sure, work hard in your classes. They matter. But there’s a reason every adult says your major is immaterial: No matter what work you find, they’ll train you in new and unfamiliar tasks. They’ll have their own procedures, their own preferences. They’ll expect you to fit their mold, not break it.

Because Berkeley won’t — can’t — prepare you for real life, it’s up to you. You need to find internships; you need to work part-time wherever you can. And don’t just work one job: Work several. Find out whether you like to greet strangers or if you’d rather fill spreadsheets. These are not trivial things to know about yourself.

In college and afterward, you will need to work strange hours at jobs that don’t always teach you new skills or play to your strengths. So it’s crucial you learn what you can and can’t put up with while you start to envision your perfect role.

You won’t always be the president’s heir apparent in your favorite club or the junior in line when the seniors graduate. And when it comes time to start emailing your resume and going to interviews, you’ll want a sense of what to say and what to look for. But Berkeley can’t help you then. You’ve got to learn to fly solo.

Second, you simply must enjoy college. But let’s be clear: College isn’t one fixed thing. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure book, an intellectual playground. And the obligation to love college doesn’t mean you’ve got to like what you do. It means you’ve got to do what you like. Take classes where you’ll actually do the homework, not just cram for the exams — and if that means you need to change your major, do so.

You’ll also hear people persuade themselves that half a decade and another quarter-million dollars are reasonable costs for a J.D. or an M.D. And they are right — if that feels like play and not work. But you will literally drop out of college if you cannot find something you love. And even if that time is full of life lessons and personal growth, you will ache for the time you lost with friends and the college rituals that passed you by. So don’t waste your energy impressing other people with your GPA and the professional degrees you covet. Those will be cold comfort at night as you fall asleep.

You, dear freshman, love English, French, history, music, theater — even politics. You want to learn German and Arabic. You fear that climate change will doom your generation. You have myriad passions and many more interests. Permit yourself to abandon economics — and law school — and study the things that will make life exquisite. Study what you value. 

If this sounds like the dewy-eyed counsel of billionaire commencement speakers, it’s not: Those people with their 4.0s and their grad school acceptances have made sacrifice after sacrifice. They have delayed and delayed one gratification after another. You don’t have to. All of life shouldn’t be about someday.

Above all, life is about people. You will learn and forget that fact in an endless cycle. Currently, you owe some people your life, others your happiness and a few you just owe dinner. That’s as it should be. Every second you spend without a course reader open or lecture slides up, weigh how that time colors your relationships. These moments are precious.

Some of your friends will work before leisure. You will admire those people, but you won’t be one of them. And when you really come to know them, they won’t actually be those people either. You will be taught, humbled, inspired and loved more by the people you hold close than by any accolade you win, any performance you give, any ambition you realize.

The people you call to on Sproul will be the ones who make you listen to Tupac. They are the ones who will tell you how much they love San Diego, and Los Angeles, and the Bay, and the Valley. They’ll be the ones who teach you to dance, who share your first drink, who buy you boba. It will be their faces that fill your memories. And they will be the reason you learn to love California.

Contact Aidan Bassett at [email protected] .