This was supposed to be my coming-of-age summer. Instead, it was the summer I learned to be alone.
Having recently turned 21 and reeling from a semester that I can only describe as the lowest point of my college career, I was desperate to leave Berkeley for a few months. All I wanted was to spend the summer making new friends, working and “finding myself” in a completely new city.
I spent weeks agonizing over an application for a fellowship in Chicago, only to receive not one, but two identical rejection emails. I then desperately applied to internships in cities where I thought I could reinvent myself — D.C., New York, Philadelphia, Seattle.
Needless to say, none of that worked out. When June rolled around, I found myself at the same campus think tank I’ve worked at for years, looking ahead to another summer of research — working on the same projects, with the same people, at the same place. Though I love my job, a part of me felt disillusioned. I was so excited to do something different, to be somewhere else for once.
One by one, I watched my friends leave for their exciting summer adventures — studying abroad in Sweden, interning for a consulting company in New York, backpacking through Europe, working for a congressman in D.C., while I remained the only one among us who wasn’t desperately looking for a summer subletter.
Scarier than the possibility of a summer of Zoom calls and empty libraries was the fact that I was completely alone. I remember panic-texting my mom, “There is nobody left in Berkeley who I actually know!” I genuinely thought it would be the worst summer ever.
The prospect of being alone all summer gave me anxiety, intensified by the fact that I’ve been living with my best friend since freshman year and that this would be our first summer apart. I had visions of spending the entire summer holed up inside and talking to no one, crawling out of my apartment only to stock up on groceries or take out the trash.
That couldn’t have been farther from the truth. Despite my initial apprehension, spending a summer alone in Berkeley was the best thing that could have happened to me.
Despite my initial apprehension, spending a summer alone in Berkeley was the best thing that could have happened to me.
Summer in Berkeley is a different world. Gone are the teeming crowds of students (and electric scooters) and the constant noise. The city is still lively and bustling, of course, but there’s a different sort of energy around. On weekend mornings, it was possible to walk through the entirety of campus without running into anyone else, something I could never fathom happening during the school year.
I grew to love the silence. I learned to be comfortable in my own company and to enjoy spending time with nothing but my thoughts. In the evenings after work, I’d take long sprawling walks through North Berkeley, where I recently moved. It was jarring to see a side of Berkeley so different from the chaotic familiarity of the streets surrounding campus. To come to terms with the fact that as much as we may think so at times, Berkeley doesn’t revolve around the campus — there’s a whole other aspect of the city we never come in contact with.
Throughout the academic year, schoolwork always seems to eclipse everything else in my life, even when I promise myself that I will establish a healthy work-life balance. Removing academics from my Berkeley experience this summer, I learned to be less of a student and more of a person. Faced with a relatively undemanding job and not much else to do, I set out to do all the things that school-year me would never have time for: read books for fun, finally learn to cook, decorate my apartment, explore nature. I learned to be independent. The word “adulting” makes me cringe, but that’s exactly what I did as I came to terms with the fact that I have an identity outside of being a student.
Though I have always had a notoriously poor sense of direction, I finally figured out how to navigate the city without the constant help of Google Maps. I befriended the outdoor cats living in my neighborhood. I got over my strange fear of public transit and took spontaneous day trips to San Francisco and Oakland. One of my best friends from high school crashed on my couch for a few days and I had so much fun showing him around Berkeley, feeling like I actually lived here, instead of just going to school here.
Occasionally, I felt some twinges of bitterness as I scrolled social media and caught glimpses of the seemingly life-changing adventures my friends were on. There was still a thought lurking somewhere deep in the back of my brain that I was wasting my summer, that I wasn’t doing enough or that I should have tried harder. I was haunted by the realization that I will graduate soon, never having studied abroad or interned in a different city, and that the most exciting part of my professional life so far has been my on-campus research job.
These thoughts come and go, but all things considered, I had a great summer. I got enough sleep for probably the first time in 21 years. I loved exploring the Bay Area alone and discovering new places to show my friends during the school year. I ended up doing some really exciting research at work. I became good friends with my new roommate who I didn’t know at all before the summer began. I learned to find joy in the small things — the corn muffins from the bakery near my apartment, the birds I saw on my walks through campus, the view of the Golden Gate Bridge from my balcony during the sunset.
Looking back at this summer halfway through the fall semester, it seems like a completely different reality. It is now October, and I am drowning in papers, work, extracurriculars and my senior thesis. I can’t remember the last time I read a book unrelated to school or went on a walk for fun. I miss being able to live in the moment and make spontaneous plans without putting everything in my Google Calendar days in advance.
I see now that I took this summer for granted. True, I didn’t have one of those formative coming-of-age moments. But I learned something incredibly valuable, which is that not everything needs to be a life-changing adventure for it to be meaningful. Having time to myself is a privilege that I won’t always have. It’s okay to slow down and accept the uncertainty instead of cramming every moment with experiences that fit my perception of what my life should look like right now.
True, I didn’t have one of those formative coming-of-age moments. But I learned something incredibly valuable, which is that not everything needs to be a life-changing adventure for it to be meaningful.
If I could pick one sentence to describe my summer, it would be this quote from the poet Mary Oliver: “It is a serious thing just to be alive on this fresh morning in this broken world.” Time is precious. I have the rest of my life stretching out before me. There will be many more summers.