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Boundless belonging

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MAY 13, 2021

If I had to pick one word to sum up my time at UC Berkeley it would be this: belonging. It’s an inherent human desire, this need to feel a part of something larger than ourselves, a tonic against alienation. The word usually implies a level of familiarity or knowingness in order to ring true, but at UC Berkeley, I feel a deep, pressing sense of belonging every day, even when surrounded by countless strangers. 

It didn’t just magically appear. My second day of orientation, after seeing hordes of newly formed friend groups leaving Units 1, 2 and 3, only to return to my empty Clark Kerr dorm room, I wondered whether I had made the right decision to come here. I should have picked somewhere smaller, somewhere I knew other people and, in retrospect, the most heinous thought of all, somewhere private. My friends at schools like these were already being given social advisors and getting invited to professors’ houses for dinner.

I, meanwhile, was getting lost in Dwinelle or sitting in the back of a packed lecture hall with 500 other people, stuck with a random class because of my ill-fated registration time. But amid the school’s enormity lay an infinite amount of possibilities just waiting to be discovered. 

I didn’t vibe with my floor or like the politics of joining a sorority? I just had to find my people who were out there waiting for me by signing up for a seminar or impulsively joining a fashion blog because it had a cool website. I didn’t like the gender studies class I thought I’d love? Well, that was fine because I ended up becoming absorbed with my last-minute addition of Latin American literature. A campus filled with 24 libraries suddenly felt a lot smaller once I claimed my own little study spot in the corner of Doe. 

Sometimes I wonder whether the reason I was able to find my place amid this large, and at first glance, terrifying, whole was because of how shaky and unstable I felt in those early days. I threw myself into everything and anything with an openness toward the rest of the world I doubt I’ll ever feel again.

By the end of my freshman year, I was crying as I moved out of that dorm room, upset I had to leave mere months after I’d found my people and cracked Berkeley’s code. The beauty of this school lies in all the eccentric and diverse people who fill it. How boring it would be to spend four years surrounded by people who come from places and think just like you; how sad to live a life of such stasis and not feel changed after the end of a semester, the end of a lecture, the end of a conversation.     

The reasons I listed in fear that I’d made the wrong choice ended up being the reasons I fell so in love with Berkeley.

This pandemic has caused some of the loneliest times in human history, but living it out in Berkeley, I’ve felt, to quote Marina Keegan, the opposite of loneliness. I’ve felt the warm crinkle of a stranger’s eyes even as their mask hid their smile. I’ve felt the love of my roommates as we spend a lazy Sunday on campus, lying together under the sun. I’ve felt a boundless sense of belonging.       

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m going to miss all those deadlines and papers and exams. The way it feels like the world might stop if you don’t write your bCourses post or bring your iClicker into class. The way each of us feels so wrapped up with our all-consuming lives until we share our woes with someone else or walk into a library to see the same confusion reflected on everyone’s faces and realize we’re all in this together.

I don’t remember the precise moment when this place started to feel like home; when towering eucalyptus trees replaced gray Chicago skyscrapers. When my address changed from Burling to Dwight. Now, I can’t imagine a future without it. 

Walking home yesterday, I felt a small shiver run up my leg as I turned and saw the bay, in all of its endless sparkling blue, spread out before me. I was alone, save for a few distant bodies, but, in that moment, I was hyperaware, able to feel the slightest cry from a bird or rustle of a squirrel. The sun hadn’t yet set but the fog had pulled back far enough that every line of the Golden Gate Bridge streaked across the sky. I tried to take a photo but the image kept appearing grainy, refusing to be preserved as if it didn’t want the secret of its beauty to get out.          

Berkeley will never be able to be pinned down because it’s perpetually changing. Next year, next month even, it’ll be filled with new people, and I’ll just be a visitor outside Sather Gate. Sometimes I get scared that I’ll never be able to love anyone like the way I love this place, that I’ll never be as open and vulnerable, my canvas forever painted. But maybe that’s the point — Berkeley is what made me. 

As we find ourselves at a crossroad, as we try to make choices to find acceptance in the real world, I want us to remember the collective joy and community, stemming from that initial longing for belonging, that we found within this place; and how it isn’t the end but a beginning to find such love and belonging somewhere new again. 

Zara Khan joined The Daily Californian in fall 2019 as a Weekender staff writer and was a news reporter in summer 2020. She is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in creative writing.

MAY 13, 2021