A month ago, my housemate Amy and I were touring apartments in San Francisco, trying to figure out where to live after graduation. We went to this two-floor apartment with a spiral staircase to the basement.
“Spiral staircases are honestly useless.” Amy commented. “It’s impossible for two people coming from opposite directions to walk on it at the same time.”
“Spiral staircases are/It’s also quite dumb.” I said/added. “Why would you climb 30 steps in circular when you could’ve walked 15 steps straight up on a normal staircase?”
It is often assumed that it’s better to take the most efficient path to get to our goals, and at Berkeley, a lot of ambitious, intelligent people work very hard to approach their dreams. People who want to apply to Haas flock to consulting clubs; people who want to become a software engineer brainstorm side projects that they can put on their resume; people who want to go to grad school cold email numerous grad students and professors asking for research opportunities; people who want to go to med school pull all-nighters to secure their 4.0 GPA.
I had some goals in mind too: after taking Data 8 first semester freshman year, I decided to major in data science and pursue a data science-related career.
But it was just a faint goal in mind and I didn’t walk straight to it. Instead, I was too excited and got too “distracted” by other amazing opportunities at Berkeley — I joined an a cappella group and The Daily Californian to continue my hobbies of singing and photography. I joined a finance club more for socials than a career in finance. I worked in the locker room at RSF and got my first ever paycheck.
In sophomore year, I became a photo editor and gave my life to the Daily Cal, spending lots of late nights at the office and too much time replying to Slack messages. I worked hard at the Daily Cal not because I wanted a journalism or photography career, but because it was probably the only time I would work for an independent, student-run newspaper and the job was just so cool.
I never doubted my goal to pursue a career in data science, as I found all the data science classes intellectually stimulating, but I also never did anything related to the field outside class for the first two years of college. There were times I regretted not doing more career preparations early on. During junior year, the reality hit me that as an international student I would either get a job or get kicked out of the U.S., so my darkest nightmare — recruiting — started.
I applied for data science internships with a resume full of photography, marketing and event organization skills. Unsurprisingly, I received zero interviews out of more than 200 applications that I sent out. At one point, it felt like the things that I valued the most during my first two years at Cal meant absolutely nothing. I went on grind mode for 1 ½ semesters and got my first and only offer during junior year, yet I didn’t feel happy or relieved. I was traumatized by the stress and low level of self-esteem that I had during that time, and I never want to experience that ever again.
“I should’ve started all these career preparations freshman year and taken a straight path to my career goals.” I said to myself, “I would rather not do the fun things in the first two years than having to deal with all the stress and letdowns.”
But did I really mean that?
When I think about my four years of college, it wasn’t the excitement of landing a job nor the stress of recruiting that popped into my head. Instead, it was the highs and lows at the Daily Cal and my other commitments that I once considered meaningless during recruiting.
I remember running on the massive football field trying to catch some special moments and jumping up and down when I captured my first ever touchdown shot. I remember reflecting on my privileges and promising myself to be a more active member of my community after shooting protests. I remember the nights I walked home alone at 1 a.m. from the Daily Cal office, saying “hi” to deer and raccoons on Piedmont Avenue. I remember the tears I shed in Moffitt and Daily Cal bathrooms because I thought it was impossible to finish what I needed to do, and more tears I shed because I ended up accomplishing all those tasks anyway.
Sure, being a photo editor did not make me a better coder, but it made me a more resilient and communicative person; being a photojournalist did not help me answer any data science interview questions, but it made me more aware of the world around me and my responsibility in society.
Looking back, I can think of hundreds of faster ways that could have led me to where I am today, but I regret none of it. It’s the detours I take that add flavor to my college life. My Berkeley journey is like a spiral staircase. It is not the shortest straight line from one point to another, but it takes me to see different angles of the world and increases the dimensionality of my life.
Thank you to the friends I made at Freeborn Hall, Daily Cal, Data 8 course staff and Ascend — all of you are the reasons that I feel like I belong to Berkeley despite being about 7,000 miles away from home. Mom and Dad, thank you for offering your life advice that I may or may not have followed, and for unconditionally supporting every single decision I make.
I’m in my 20s and not in a hurry to get anywhere, so I will continue to climb some unnecessary steps on my silly spiral staircase and see the world from different perspectives.
Sunny Shen was the spring 2020 photo editor. She joined The Daily Californian in fall 2018 as a photographer and worked as deputy photo editor in fall 2019 and hiring manager in summer 2020. She is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in data science and economics.