Having grown up in Oakland and attending its public schools, I had the fortune of being exposed to many rich cultures that converged into one extremely diverse community. While there was an inherent richness in going to public schools in Oakland, there were also some deep struggles and problems within the school system when I was growing up. I was one of many who became disinterested and resentful with the system’s disregard for many of its students, and in a high school of 3500 kids, nobody noticed when I dropped out at 14. After years of a somewhat chaotic lifestyle and the revolving door of trouble, I finally decided to attend a school in the Peralta Community College District. Without sounding trite, the rest is history, and I am now a senior expected to graduate with honors from UC Berkeley in spring 2021. As some may have figured, I did not get here by any sort of traditional route.
I do not want to generalize the students at UC Berkeley, yet in my experience, I have not encountered many students who have similar stories to my own. This is partially my fault, as my first two semesters at UC Berkeley were spent feeling like an imposter who somehow lied to get in and didn’t want to be seen as a fraud — I didn’t open up to many people. I talked differently, dressed differently and missed the memo about classroom decorum. At Peralta, the person who yelled the loudest was who the teacher responded to. So, perhaps needless to say, I got some crazy looks while in class at UC Berkeley during my early beginnings as I practiced what I knew from Peralta – I yelled to get the professor’s attention. After some off-putting experiences while transitioning to life here, I decided to keep my head down as I didn’t think I could fit in and make friends.
As time went on and as some students coaxed life stories out of me in class, I would watch their demeanor change. Normally this change was categorized into two reactions. The first was to praise me in a very nice, albeit very patronizing, type of way. “Oh wow, you’ve gone through so much, you must be so proud of yourself, great job, that’s incredible!” While their intentions are altruistic, there is still that underlying tone that I was “the other” and I was part of some sort of community outreach program UC Berkeley has to help the “at risk” kids. As Elle from “Legally Blonde” says, “Do we not go to the same school?”
The other reaction is much more interesting to me. I see the student lean back in their chairs, change their vernacular, and try hard to relate to me. Have you ever seen a person who went to an elite college preparatory high school with a graduating class of 20 attempt to say, “I feel you, though,” and act as though she talks like that consistently? I have. Don’t get me wrong, this works both ways, I am also guilty of changing my speech or demeanor in certain situations, but for reciprocal reasons. This is commonly referred to as code switching. I have to talk one way at school with proper English and without colloquialisms to avoid being stereotyped and therefore treated differently. However, if I spoke in the ways I find myself speaking at school when I’m back home, my friends would ridicule me, telling me that “you act like you’re too good now”.
While my story is a distinct one, just as everyone else’s may be, there is one large takeaway from it that can be applicable to us all: You do not have to alter who you are, or the experiences that embody you today, to create relationships in a new and often intimidating setting, such as UC Berkeley. As previously detailed, I quieted my light as a way to avoid feeling outcast, and even as I began to share my story with some folks, people would seemingly code switch to try to make me feel more comfortable (it ended up making me feel the opposite).
My point here is a very simple one – you don’t have to lie or change the way you interact to kick it with folks of very different backgrounds from your own. Sure, this may come off as a kindergarten lesson, but it is something that we must remember as we travel through all phases of life. Friendships that are based on an attempt to be what you aren’t will be superficial at best.
One of the most amazing things about higher education and being at a place like UC Berkeley is getting to meet people from all walks of life. In this setting, we are blessed with the opportunity to learn about different cities, cultures, traditions, life orientations and more from the people around us. We don’t need to match each other on a racial, cultural or socioeconomic level to be able to relate to each other and forge a friendship. Really, all we need is an open mind, open heart and a great deal of self-awareness to foster friendships grounded in authenticity!
As I finish my time out at UC Berkeley, I am happy to say that I can be friends with people from all sorts of backgrounds as long as I stay true to myself. This was an incredibly valuable lesson for me to learn, and I hope sharing it will inspire you to stay genuine!