Teachings from Mumbai to Berkeley

Something to write home about

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It’s easy to remember a time when getting into a good college was my priority because it took up all of my thoughts and time. When stress and anxiety were swapped with acceptance emails from a few colleges I was seriously considering, my new focus boiled down to choosing between a public school, UC Berkeley, and a couple of private schools.

Most of India doesn’t use the same school system as the United States, which separates elementary, middle and high school, and many students switch schools after 10th grade, as I did. For the first 12 years of schooling, I went to a relatively large school that was accessible to students from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds. I met some of the kindest people there, and I am so grateful for it.

My last two years of schooling were, however, starkly different. I went from a school with 250 students in one grade to a school with just 28, all of whom were from similarly privileged backgrounds, but I didn’t realize until much later how my perspective changed when I switched schools.

For the first few months of 11th grade, I was focused on fitting into a community I hadn’t previously encountered. My new school was located in South Mumbai, an area of the city populated by some of the wealthiest residents who were exposed to little outside their community. The darkness of my skin embarrassed me, since it’s associated with lower-income groups in India even today. And I was self-conscious about being a student at a school in a very different part of the city.

I started to distance myself from all that was familiar to me about my previous school, including the relationships and friendships I had made during my time there. That said, I truly am grateful for the experience I had during my final two years of high school. High school was where I found my best friends, where I was encouraged to read more, think differently, pursue my creative passions, and discover and embrace my identity. It was also where I gained an increased understanding of my privilege.

And above all, it was the reason why I decided to choose UC Berkeley. By the end of 12th grade, I had experienced the groundedness of going to a larger school, and I had learned and grown immensely from the intimate experience of a smaller one. I knew instinctively that I wanted to apply both experiences to a new journey at a massive public university.

I’ll never know how different my experience at a private university would have been, but I want to give UC Berkeley credit for making me feel at home almost instantly. UC Berkeley offered me a worldview pointedly distinct from the one I’d encountered at my previous schools — for the first time, I was perpetually in classrooms full of students from not only a variety of socioeconomic circumstances but also different cultures, religions, ethnicities, beliefs, traditions and political affiliations.

I’ve become friends with students who were financially independent, working multiple jobs to pay their tuition; students who traveled between cities, states and even countries to live with two sets of parents at once; students who were in the military; and students who were or whose families were targets of racial violence. Before, I would think actively about my darker complexion; now, I started to think actively about my nationality. I was Indian in India; I became brown in the U.S.

All my reflections blended together in a fond memory I have of early this semester. Four of my friends and I were devouring Indian chaat at Fourth Street’s Viks Chaat, and our conversation flowed easily into talking identity and politics in China and India: the two nationalities the members of the table represented. The group at this table had people from New York, the Bay Area, India and Kuwait, from contrasting social backgrounds and ideological beliefs. No one at the table was afraid of responding: “I don’t know much about that topic. Can you explain it to me?” Above all, we were all just curious, itching to learn more, know more, listen more. The thought of calling one another out on our differences didn’t once cross our minds.

I am eternally thankful to have experienced the shift from a big to a small private school, then to a large public university. I am so happy to have met people from these three phases of my life. With ideas and learnings vastly unique from one another, they constantly morphed my understanding of struggle, privilege and identity. I am grateful I’ve never been exposed to only one single story at any given point.

Anoushka Agrawal writes the Wednesday column on her experiences as an international student from India. Contact her at [email protected]