A freshman’s guide to right now

photo of the UC Berkeley campus
Can Jozef Saul/Staff

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Tacky, I know. A flyer you might find tucked into the back of a Berkeley informational pamphlet, complete with a “Go Bears!” lanyard from your GBO leader. What does another “Freshman Guide” mean when preached and authored by a fellow freshman concurrently experiencing the exact same joyride? 

The “right now” is intentionally ambiguous. What constitutes the concept of right now? There are more than 7 billion lives occurring in this exact moment, leaving the parameters of right now open to exactly whatever degree of inclusion you so desire. Maybe it’s a fall semester in the life of a Berkeley freshman. Maybe it’s the 21st century. Maybe it is something that falls in between. 

This of course raises the question: Why now? Why write this on a random Friday in the middle of November — a few months too late to be an anticipatory first-year letter, and a few months too early to be a full freshman year reflection? To this, I raise the question, why not now? Life is ever transitory and any conclusion of a chapter of it is completely constructed by man. This moment in November is as good a time as any to share a handful of lessons learned or discoveries made in the early throes of the college experience. And so, without further ado, here are a mere handful of the guiding principles I have come to understand in my very first months of college life. 


Darn it, your parents were right. Money does not grow on trees. 


In my first week of college, I spent $200 on flimsy dresses from that one shop off Telegraph that claims to be thrifting but knows full well that they’re charging boutique prices. My mother groaned when I told her.

“Berkeley has seasons, Aly,” she exasperated. “When on earth are you going to wear those?”

“All the time, Mom,” I lied, and now, I am the owner of four gorgeous fashion pieces that collect dust on hangers in my already overflowing, undersized closet. We hate to admit it, but moms are usually right. 

If you’re like me, maybe you’ve held a job or two in the summers between high school. Maybe you had your own bank account and matching debit card and bought right into the illusion of “personal financial responsibility” that your parents spoon-fed your allowance-lined pockets. 

If you’re like me, you were in for a rude awakening. 

Lo and behold, they were not kidding when they said eating out would be the culprit of your financial demise. You’re left scrolling through your bank transactions, scrambling to justify each $7 boba drink. You insist it’s networking, it’s an investment. How else were you supposed to make friends the first week of school, if not by grabbing a meal with every single person you ran into at the ice cream social?

Roughly two weeks in, you realize this lifestyle is unsustainable. The humble fund from your summer job has depleted, the savings are long gone. You are left only with half-empty bowls of overpriced ramen and good old-fashioned guilt. It is at this point you concede you cannot put it off any longer: It’s time to budget.

After dragging your feet on the matter for so long and relentlessly vocalizing your misery to your roommates, you are embarrassed to discover how easy it actually is. Turns out if you use that little scanny thing on your student ID card at your local dining facility, meal costs are reduced by 100%. And no, you do not need that Starbucks bottled coffee every day. It’s a small step, and you still don’t know how to file taxes or sign a mortgage, but it’s one towards financial independence nonetheless and you feel a little better for it.


You’re going to fail a lot more than you think. Like, a LOT more.


Whoever said failure is a stepping stone to success probably never took a Berkeley math midterm. Those things are soul-crushing. If you take a couple hundred wide-eyed, eager freshmen who are accustomed to a straight-A high school track record (and likely dependent on academic validation) and feed them to the merciless beast of a D-minus curve, I’m not quite sure how anything beyond utter pandemonium can be expected. 

For the first time in many academic overachievers’ lives, real, utter failure is encountered. And for many of us, we never learned how to actually deal with it. That’s not to say our lives up until now have been absent of struggle or challenge, but there is something intrinsically humiliating in the failure of the one area in life we had always been praised for excelling in. It stings, and it’s embarrassing; we even feel bad for dwelling on it when far worse is going on in the world around us. But hardship has never been a battle of comparison, and what hurts us, hurts us. Validating this experience is the first step.

The next is recognizing the scope of life beyond this one mess up. Here is where perspective comes into play, once the hysterical tears have dried and our mothers have gently reminded us that life exists beyond a bad test grade, a failed course and a college degree, even. The world does not stop being an unyielding, limitless force despite that ugly Arial font spelling out your failure on the latest bCourses assignment, and it will not pause for anyone. It is both uncompromising and forgiving and entirely happening for you, not to you. Once this has been realized, even the most disappointing discoveries become lessons that can be left in the past, rather than baggage brought into the future.


You get lonely, and you kind of like it.


The dining hall is in chaos, and you have no one to sit with. Both your roommates were called away to club meetings, church gatherings or some other busy happenstance, and now you are alone, with a half-cooked burger in one hand, pride in the other. You could sit with a stranger — you’re sure they wouldn’t mind, they would honestly likely welcome you with open arms. But it has been a long day and analytic geometry has been kicking your butt, so you would really just prefer a moment of peace. You sit alone.

Somehow, the world does not spin off its axis. The occupants of the dining hall do not stop midbite to gape at you, and the birds do not pause midsong to glare at you judgmentally through their beady eyes. You are sitting alone, and quite frankly, no one cares.

You come to find this is a general consensus in other aspects of your life: No one really cares. Please do not mistake this for the message that your friends are indifferent to your existence or that your family has forgotten you are a part of it. That is not what I mean.

What I mean is, if you take a sunny midday nap on Memorial Glade in an unflattering position, no one cares. If you take an awkward amount of time fishing for exact change at Chipotle, no one cares. If you skip one history lecture because the sky looked a little too blue for your liking, no. one. cares. And that can feel so freeing.

And that can feel a little lonely. When you step on your last Tide pod in the laundry room when you really needed that shirt cleaned for that one event tomorrow, and no one is around to witness or care about it, things can feel exceptionally pointless. We as humans are wired to need connection, to need someone to care about our lives and the insignificant ins and outs of our day. Sometimes it takes time to find those people, and we have to be okay with being that person for ourselves for a little while. But if we can embrace those moments of isolation, if we can offer them kindness, grace and patience, then we can find beauty in the reacquaintance with ourselves.


Privacy is an illusion and completely optional.


Have you ever found yourself sitting on the floor, painting your nails and humming obnoxiously in an attempt to drown out the outraged screams of annoyance coming from your younger sibling as she tries to break down the door of your shared bathroom? Yeah, college feels a lot like that.

It’s amazing, the peculiar coexistence of bustling nonstop activity that accompanies roommate life, with the inevitable aforementioned loneliness of adjustment. How can one be so overwhelmed by action one moment and feel completely alone the next? Perhaps the association of fulfillment with how many people you surround yourself with is not quite so foolproof. Maybe the intersectionality of productive loneliness and overall spiritual health is undervalued. Maybe I’m using really fancy words to convince myself that the absolute butchering of my privacy is totally no big deal.

All jokes aside, privacy, while admittedly much more difficult to come by when you share a living space with two other people, is still essential to a balanced life. You learn to find it within the hidden benches on the north side of campus and in between the class schedules of your roommates. But even more than that, you learn to appreciate the time you are forced to start intentionally rationing for yourself, savoring every second of uninterrupted silence. Stolen moments away, spent however you please, accountable to no one, essential to everyone.


You wonder if the person you are growing into is someone that past versions of you would be proud of.


You don’t really get an answer to this one, but you endeavor to ensure it. And for now, that is enough.

Your newfound independence exhilarates you with endless possibilities while your quiet moments of self-reflection ground you in humility. They tell you there is nothing quite like the college experience, it is the transitioning into real-life adulthood, it is endless and relentless and over in the blink of an eye. And you believe it. 

But as you release yourself from the pressures of shaping the experience into something for you to control, as you accept it is meant to be something that instead shapes you, things become quiet. And one of those rare moments of solitude finds you in the right now. 


Contact Alyson Lee at [email protected]@dailycal.org

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