Getting my bearings: Learning the geography of UC Berkeley’s campus

Illustration of Berkeley map
Isabella Schreiber /File

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Throughout my life, I’ve always been pretty good at directions. It’s always been a point of pride for me. As a fourth grader, when my sister went to UC Berkeley, I knew the exact directions from my house in Southern California to my sister’s apartment on Southside after only my first time driving up with my parents. After that, I remembered exactly which roads to take, from the inner ones in my neighborhood to the various freeway switches and to the inner roads in Berkeley, which I had never seen before. Once I started driving, I only got better at telling where I was, where I needed to go and exactly how to get there without having to open Google Maps. But all that changed when I came to Berkeley.

It was always something that worried me a little bit about moving to Berkeley. I knew Irvine, my hometown, like the back of my hand. What would happen in Berkeley? How would I cope with not knowing the street names, where they go and what stores are on each street? My first week living in Berkeley, during GBO, I went to Abe’s Pizza for the first time with my friends. It was such a disorienting experience geographically. I couldn’t walk from Unit 2 to farther than Asian Ghetto without feeling uncomfortable.

If the city was that bad, then campus was completely debilitating. I had to swallow my pride and use Google Maps to simply walk to my classes. To avoid this, I went so far as to walk around campus for about two hours and get myself accustomed to the layout about three or four days before classes began. And yet, every time I walked beyond Sather Gate or the Hargrove Music Library, I would have to pull out my phone and check if I was going in the right direction.

Going from “I could get home with my eyes closed” to “I have no idea where I am” was a sudden shift that caught me off guard. I had to adapt. One step I took to make the transition easier was leaving 10 minutes before I normally would for my classes so that I could try to get there on my own, but if I got lost, I’d have time to make it to class.

Eventually, it got easier to get my bearings. Soon, I was able to tell where exactly I was on campus by looking for where the Campanile was. Walking across campus became second nature, and I knew exactly how much time certain walks took: Unit 2 to Pimentel took me between 11 and 12 and a half minutes, depending on how many red lights I got on my way there. From Stanley to GBC, it’d take me approximately five minutes and 45 seconds. By the time first-semester finals rolled around, I was nearly perfect on my walking schedule. Of course, the occasional elevator breakdown would throw me off, but disregarding that outlier, it was laser precise.

My mastery over campus is not entirely legitimate, though. I may know the walking paths well, but they are only for the classes I’m taking right now. Outside of Pimentel, Stanley, GBC, the Campanile, Evans and the Daily Cal office, I have little clue as to how long walks take, which are the nicest ones, etc. And that’s just campus. I have yet to really explore and get to know the city of Berkeley. Southside is familiar and recognizable, but Downtown Berkeley, which is a very important part of the city, is tough to navigate blindly. 

It’ll all be in due time, however. If there’s anything I learned from this conundrum during my first semester, it’s that adjustment to new and radically different environments and times cannot be forced. It took me a few months, but eventually, I became confident in my geography and navigation skills once again. And I think that’s a good lesson to have for these troubling times. Adjustment is inevitable. It’s just who we are as people, for better or for worse. As weird as things may seem, we’ll adjust sooner or later. And once things get better, we’ll have to adjust to that too. It’ll be a tedious cycle of feeling uncomfortable, then slowly acclimating to new things, then finally feeling some semblance of stability before things change once again, but eventually, we’ll make it back to normal.

Contact Hamzah Alam at [email protected].