With me forever, Berkeley: A personal essay

Illustration of students sitting in front of the Campanile
Emily Bi/Senior Staff

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As I near the end and find myself counting down the days until I have to leave my home of the past four years, I’ve found myself trying to pinpoint exactly what makes college, for those of us who are lucky to go, such a magical, mythical, mystifying experience.

When I first arrived at UC Berkeley, I was shocked by how open my schedule felt compared to high school. Being forced to stay inside one building every day from dawn until dusk was now a thing of the past. The endless, infinite amount of time college provides makes it so we feel, or at least the illusion of it like we are in control. That time opens up the possibility to craft and create our own days even though no two days are ever the same. There are the after-class chats that quickly morph into hours long walks across campus and those coincidental campus run-ins that end up lasting till the early hours of the morning.

Then, there’s the real reason we’re all here: education. I’ve recently been thinking how deep of a privilege it is to spend four years immersed in books, discovering and unearthing our curiosities, our questions, our imagined potentials about the world. 

Most careers reward productivity and profit. If a financial analyst decided to submit an essay on “Walden” and how it left him with a new appreciation for nature because of Thoreau’s beautiful prose instead of an excel spreadsheet, they’d surely be fired. Imagine what a sterile world it would be if people weren’t forced to encounter and examine realities that differed from their own. But all of college’s learning and discovery doesn’t just hail from the classroom.

The etymology of the word college comes from the late 14th century and roughly translates to an “organized association of persons invested with certain powers and rights or engaged in some common duty or pursuit.” 

An organized association of persons was what Berkeley used to feel like. With dining halls, libraries and gyms, everything a student could ever need is no more than a stone’s throw away. Aside from its progressive students, UC Berkeley reads like an almost, albeit elitist, Marxist utopia. We even have our own transportation services such as BearWALK to keep the small, isolated bubble we inhabit accessible and safe.

Our campus is a reprieve from the car-clogged highways and filled suburban driveways that plague so much of the United States. I used to spend so much of my days walking, almost always clocking in well more than the famed 10,000 steps without even realizing it. It was a morning commute few could only dream of, shuffling along to class alongside the morning dew as I watched the fog slowly break across the Golden Gate Bridge.

And while the school’s dorms may look like brutalist-style prisons from the outside, the campus’s strategy of packing so many students into one building as possible is how communities are formed. I’ve always found it funny when adults lambast college students for being too tolerant or too woke. For many, it’s the one time they’ll ever live with people from all around the world and from all walks of life — shocking it translates into appreciating different cultures and values. 

Living in a community surrounded by people the same age as you where there’s an endless amount of time to socialize and spend simply being connected to other people is something so precious and precarious that I didn’t realize how rare it was until it got taken away.

Walking by students sitting far away from each other or grouped into pods outside of Golden Bear Cafe, or GBC, makes me ache for the current freshman class while being nostalgic for that freshman year friendship frenzy. Those first few weeks of school are one of the only times in your life you can simply smile, sit next to someone and start talking only to leave with a new friend. I met one of my best friends at GBC where we coincidentally sat at the same table, and instead of staring and scrolling through our phones, smiled at each other.

By sophomore year, I’d moved into a house with 10 friends. At any other time in my life, this fact might make me sound impoverished or like I belong in a commune. But here, my living situation is almost always met with people remarking about how cool that is, or, and this is from a past life, trying to invite themselves to one of our parties.

UC Berkeley is what it is because of its people, and the pandemic stripped so much of it away. Aside from the obvious debauchery committed in the name of self-discovery, I found I missed the little things just as much. I missed the daily brushes and bumps with those familiar strangers on campus. I missed professors’ voices bouncing off pencils furiously scribbling across paper. I missed the pure elation of simply being in a room alongside other bodies. I missed all of our small little lives crossing together to form that much larger, unified whole.  

But, despite it all, there was also so much joy still left, only waiting to be discovered. My senior year was spent wrapped up in books, hanging on to the lectures streaming from Zoom calls. It was discovering how collective domesticity gets made when nine people are forced to stay home all day. Sunset walks and morning hikes took on a new meaning simply for the novelty of being outside. 

If anything, having a pandemic hit during the last year and a half of college made me appreciate how beautiful it was at its height and how privileged we were to spend the rest of it together, isolated in our own little bubbles, learning about our passions.

Adulthood feels hopeless, depressingly isolated and boring compared to this. I’m not ready to trade my roughed-up Birkenstocks for a traffic-filled morning commute. I’m afraid I’ll become someone who settles for just flipping through a few pages before bed instead of consuming and losing myself in a single text. I don’t want to live with just a single roommate or a boyfriend, or, most frightening of all, children, instead of with all of my friends forever. 

Grown-up friendships themselves seem so sadly shallow, filled with spin cycle buddies and school moms. How are they ever supposed to compete with sharing a joint, perched above a Clark Kerr rooftop, debating the meaning of love and life under the first blush of dusk?

As I inch closer and closer toward the finish line, I’ve started to think about one of the other reasons why college is so special: time. From the moment we step foot on campus we know it will end. Conscious of that ticking clock we maximize every possible opportunity, for fear of wasting a single moment, because we know how precious they are and that, soon, we won’t get anymore.

I’ve decided I’m going to keep that constant tick with me even after I leave this place. I am not going to become the boring person I dread being — I’m going to keep walking everywhere, even if it takes me more time. I’m going make time to read instead of wasting minutes scrolling through my phone. Most importantly, I’m going to consciously carve out space in my life for the people I love, knowing how precious such moments are. I’m going to keep Berkeley and all it has taught me with me inside me wherever I go, forever. 

Contact Zara Khan at [email protected]

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