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Failing at UC Berkeley

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NOVEMBER 27, 2022

Someone once told me, “If you go to UC Berkeley, you must be successful and have it all together.” However, my time here has been less than ideal and, in some ways, you could say I failed at UC Berkeley. 

My first semester was a disaster and set the tone for the rest of my time. Within the first week of classes starting, I felt as if I was walking on eggshells. I was struggling to relate to my peers, I rarely saw people who looked like me in my classes, nothing made sense and I became scared that I could not keep up academically like everyone else. 

Everything about Berkeley scared me so much that I began neglecting myself. I stopped eating, practicing self-care and being me. UC Berkeley began to take a toll on me, and all of sudden my existence in a fat, Black and disabled body was pushed to the forefront. 

During my second week of classes, I sprained my ankle rushing to head to class. Instead of being concerned that I had possibly broken my foot, I spent the next 15 minutes quietly sobbing and secretly wiping away tears because I feared missing my class. I spent an additional six minutes trying to figure out if I could manage to pick myself up off the ground so that I would not be late and make a bad impression on my professor.

I remember watching the other students passing by and staring at me and could not help but feel a sense of embarrassment. I then spent weeks berating myself for spraining my ankle while I recovered at home, convinced that something was wrong with me if I was incapable of walking to class like everyone else without hurting myself. 

I then had to navigate UC Berkeley with an injury that was not being taken seriously by the Disabled Students’ Program — the one place I thought could be a safe space. I spent the rest of my semester begging for proper accommodations, support and being heard regarding my injury and other disabilities. 

I decided to be my own advocate and meet with a specialist to tell them I was struggling without these proper accommodations. Everything quickly went downhill when the specialist began to tell me I did not need the accommodations I was requesting, and that as a Black student it would not look good my first year at UC Berkeley to ask for accommodations. 

To that specialist, not only was I not “disabled enough,” but they also felt as if my inherent need for accommodations as a Black student would not translate well — somehow coming across as me taking advantage of the “system.” Being told this was something all too familiar for me, as a few weeks prior I was told that I just needed to enjoy the “full ride” I supposedly received and be happy with the support I already had. 

Consequently, I began avoiding classes and Berkeley entirely because I felt as if I was asking for too much and did not deserve to take up space like the rest of my peers. 

I felt like a 10-year-old version of myself all over again as thoughts of not being smart enough or belonging resurfaced for my 22-year-old self. 

I hated the fact that I felt like I was failing at being successful at UC Berkeley, and the intense pressure to finish the semester strongly reared its head as finals rolled around. This all led me to have thoughts about taking my own life for the first time in six years. 

My first year continued to be disastrous. 

My professors refused to understand the impact of existing in a disabled body in academia, I was dropped from a prestigious research program due to lack of funding, fellowship and scholarship opportunities rejected me and someone said I was not ready for graduate school. 

I felt like a complete failure. 

UC Berkeley’s motto “you belong here” was constantly hammered into my head, but given everything I had experienced within my first year, those three words never once made me feel as if I belonged. School chewed me up and spit me out — leaving me feeling rejected. 

I initially arrived at UC Berkeley sure of myself with goals and knowing what I wanted to do in the future. Now as I navigate my final year here, I am unsure of what I want. In some ways, you could say my experiences have broken me — and there is some truth to that. I stopped fighting for what I knew I needed. 

However, at some point, I realized I needed to let go of my fear of failing. An odd calmness this fall semester has overtaken me with the recognition that I do not have to navigate my education the way everyone else wants me to. Time and time again, my small support network also reminded me it is okay to navigate these complex institutions on my own terms. 

I understand now the version of “UC Berkeley success” I tried to apply to myself as a Black disabled student will never be applicable. 

It took me six years to realize not everyone will have an ideal college experience, especially when you exist in a marginalized body that institutions tend to minimize. My two years here have allowed me to learn many lessons and grow as a person. 

But it isn’t my job to endure the hardship and trauma that I did in order to become the person I am today. I do not want anyone else to experience what I have, and there has to be a reassessment of what supporting marginalized students in academia actually looks like. 

Until then, most of us who exist in marginalized bodies will continue to be forgotten and neglected — chalking up our hardships to just navigating rigor and competition. 

If I could go back and give my younger self advice knowing what I do now — I would tell her she’s smart, capable and deserves to exist just as she is. She bears the weight of trauma and harm that has ignited a fire within her to fight for what she knows she needs.

Despite everything thrown our way, my younger self and I remained forever curious to see if what we have experienced was worth it. 

I would tell her that as we enter into the great unknown feeling like our achievements do not matter, know that they do. She has managed to accomplish so many things that people said she never would, all while existing in a body that is so hated. We deserve to take space. And I, just as much as anyone else, deserve to be here.

Contact Malia Knapps at 


DECEMBER 08, 2022