During my freshman year, I felt as lost and lonely as an astronaut stuck on Earth. I had dropped out of my engineering courses by week two. After hanging out with my floormates all night in the fire escape, I would go to bed still feeling dizzy and lonely. Then I applied to The Daily Californian. I went into the interview with a new haircut and my favorite tee: My friends said I looked like a writer. I was rejected.
A decade ago, I was joyriding with my friends down the dirt roads lined with eucalyptus in Southern California, where I was raised. New Mexico was the farthest I had ever been. Now, I’m well traveled and graduating from UC Berkeley.
Books, food, landscape architecture — Berkeley bears all my favorite things. And, for now, it supports brilliant scholars and buildings, as well as the education of some 30,000 students with 30,000 goals.
Though I am still reeling from my life as an undergraduate, still wondering what it all means, this I can say for sure: One does not simply go to UC Berkeley. It may be the leading public university in the world. It may offer the sunniest years of your life. But this university, full of trees and squirrels, runs on steam. It generates competition. Sometimes, the pressure is wholly academic — professors have fed my work to the fire of eternal rejection. Sometimes, the pressure is not. I have worked with individuals whose prejudice others have overlooked because of their popularity.
As some consolation, I recognize the courses that shaped who I am: courses covering Islamic public space, the short story and an introduction to environmental science, which was taught by a poet and a scientist. These classes mean the world to me, given that my high school education was underfunded and underwhelming. Before UC Berkeley, I encountered Islam only on television during the years of the Bush administration. I made paper boats for the puddle in the chemistry lab, and I grew up fearing rattlesnakes and coyotes rather than the things we do to nature.
Over the years, UC Berkeley has been bad at times. But so have I. And I don’t just mean I-put-everything-off-until-the-night-before bad. UC Berkeley gets real. Occupy came. Administrators left. And massive inequality in the United States remains — though there’s more awareness. As for my personal life, I have tried putting “who I was” and “where I come from” into the compost. I almost lost myself in the court of bohemia.
But I have been fortunate. My mentors have been novelists who live like action heroes and, sometimes, die like them. Several poets in the English department saw in my work glimmering beauty, though it needed hella refinement. Everyone has given me their time. Looking back, without my liberal arts education, I don’t know if I would be able to write about what drove me from a working-class suburb in the desert to this hermitage for the humanities on the EastBay hills, or even a sentence like “After the second World War, we realized that housing is the American Dream.”
As an undergraduate, I felt like my education was a lost bet. Sometimes, I would only see whiteness when I closed my eyes to fall asleep. But I’ve also been lucky. I’ve walked through a neoclassical suburb in Paris with my sister as the sun set, and we remembered my brother, whom we’ll never see again. In my last summer in college, I lived with a group of unlikely friends — a rebel programmer, iconoclastic instagrammer, 19-year-old doula … and many more. We studied, camped and ate all-organic dinners on a roof overlooking the bay. It was unreal.
As great as things were, this past summer I experienced many sleepless nights. After watching movies and gazing at the stars, I would comb through the online archives of the Daily Cal. I was a blogger for the food section, wanting just to cruise through my last year. Then I read the columns of Lynn Yu, Sarah Burns and Meg Elison. They made me laugh, cry and ponder. As I near my last article for the Daily Cal, I would like to thank them and the many unsung editors for the help.
When I first came to UC Berkeley, there were already archives shot through with sunshine. Now there are facilities being built on the Berkeley hills and along the Richmond Bay. Here, you might not feel like you are good enough, because there’s always room to grow. We use our university as a resource to tread on the impossible. UC Berkeley is a beacon of hope, a mountain of light.
For all the sunny days sacrificed, languages learned and essays completed at the stroke of midnight, I leave now able to realize my dreams.