In eighth grade, my class, from a small middle school in the San Fernando Valley, took a trip across the state to visit colleges and stepped on the grounds of University of California, Berkeley.
The admission tour guide told my mostly Latino classmates about the birth of the Free Speech Movement on “this very campus” and detailed the historical significance of many sights during the tour. They explained how UC Berkeley was a center for activism and advocacy of marginalized voices. They emphasized how open it is to all backgrounds, cultures, immigration statuses and identities as they encouraged us to apply.
The tour was cut short due to the bus schedule, and until I finally stepped onto the campus as a college student, that abridged visit in middle school was the only time I had been to UC Berkeley. Since that trip, I had imagined Berkeley as the “wokest” place on Earth: a place where pride flags aren’t torn or vandalized with hate symbols, slurs were ostracized and microaggressions were a myth. With this dream, I added the university to the four other UCs I was able to apply to.
After getting in and being interrogated by an eager junior whose mind was blown by UC Berkeley’s decision to accept me, I asked for advice from college counselors who sent students to UC Berkeley about whether it was the right UC for me. The counselor mentioned how UCLA had been rising in controversy due to not being accountable for how problematic their school culture is and thought it would be unsafe for me to go there. I had no reason to believe that UC Berkeley would be unsafe and unwelcoming compared to UCLA, especially since I had lived in Los Angeles long enough to know how problematic it can truly be.
Although the demographics of the UC Berkeley students terrified me, I trusted that I would be able to adjust to slight cultural differences and that it would be manageable, considering my impression of UC Berkeley was that it was the opposite of ignorant. After all, the student body of UC Berkeley was pretty diverse in comparison to Ivy Leagues or other top universities. More significantly, I was excited to be in an accepting and kind environment where my efforts to advocate for cultural sensitivity and the wellbeing of marginalized communities would not be shut down by a principal or anyone else with more power than me.
Although it has been only a few months since I have come to UC Berkeley, my observations have allowed me to conclude that its performative activism is a cruel disease that fools too many. From the constant WarnMe emails to the empty land acknowledgements in Golden Bear Orientation, I have now realized the idyllic falsity of my pretense that UC Berkeley was the liberating and welcoming community that was presented to me in eighth grade. I thought it was a school that would advocate for its own members’ wellbeing and ensure their safety; instead, they bulldoze a center for mutual aid and overwork graduate students to the point of striking. I hoped it was a school that did more for its students than a weekly email with resources linked, especially when the resources offer dead ends and unclear means of actually receiving the promised help. Considering the substantial number of students enrolled in UC Berkeley, there are not nearly enough resources or funding offered for the campus to be considered even remotely inclusive.
I also thought his school would be able to ensure safety for its students. Considering it is such a prestigious university, it should be expected, at least, to bring this; instead, it brings a singular security guard to watch four housing dorms after a local shooting. The admissions tour in eighth grade mentioned how fun and great the residence life is for a UC Berkeley first year student, so, as one does, I assumed my safety would be guaranteed. For me, this was especially expected of UC Berkeley when I enrolled myself in April of this year.
These pretenses may be what lured students to campus in the first place — like in my own case — only for them to be quickly disappointed by the antics of the people with power. The shattering of hopes and ideas for a safe, just and accommodating environment could be what inspired the activists of the Free Speech Movement to start the movement in the first place. For them to bring change, they had to want change to begin with. They had to yearn for something better than the status quo. But the misfortune of this truth is that the status quo has to disappoint us to begin with, as it has for centuries, even at the renowned campus of UC Berkeley. Maybe this is the journey to a better Berkeley, although it certainly could have been prevented if all the performativity wasn’t only a pretense in the first place. Maybe it is this status quo we need to take the steps to change for us to finally have the UC Berkeley we all expected.
This disappointment and disillusionment could be the catalyst in our story to changing UC Berkeley into the dream campus many of us were introduced to in admissions tours or campus visits. After all, justice and acceptance is not a high expectation, nor is it unattainable. This simple pretense could be our truth, stained with sweat and tears from fighting the system. If we maintain this truth, we can acknowledge our dissatisfaction and change UC Berkeley. Make it ever-changing and ever-improving. Mighty as it may be, UC Berkeley would not be able to combat such a large student body bringing light to the truth behind its curtain of performativity.