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What I wish I knew when coming to UC Berkeley

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APRIL 16, 2015

After graduating from high school in Singapore in May 2014 and taking a teenage existential crisis-induced six-month detour back home in India, I found myself in California for the first time in January. On Jan. 18, I stepped off a bus and found myself in uncharted territory. I had heard a lot about where I was going — both good and bad things — and read a fair amount, too. As I got closer, I thought I was ready for what sure to be a momentous occasion.

But nothing could have really prepared me for my first visit to Target.

I had a conceptual understanding of what a visit to a “big-box store” would entail, but to actually be in one was something else. Here was a place that had every material good I could possibly need or want. In the places I grew up, peanut butter was a novel commodity, and most grocery stores would stock a home brand and a variety or two of Skippy. But within this big, magical box, there were multiple shelves devoted to as many types of peanut butter as one could imagine.

As I stood amid this glorious display of consumerist excess, it did seem rather irrelevant to note that I did not care much for peanut butter in the first place, and I immediately pledged my allegiance to the notion of American exceptionalism. Any second thoughts I might have had were assuaged upon my return to Unit 2 and the initiation of my free month of Netflix.

At the risk of succumbing to a nauseating degree of literary contrivance that will hopefully rest easier now that I have used some big words, I will contend that each one of my 92 days here in Berkeley has, in some respects, been like walking into Target for the first time — just as exciting, a little more varied and a whole lot more overwhelming.

In the last few months, I have made my fair share of mistakes. One personal thought does seem to remain resolute, though: Only in coming to Berkeley could I have learned just how overwhelming this place is.

Berkeley is immensely diverse, straddling every imaginable extreme: A five-minute walk separates Greek Row and the Vedanta Society, two places with wholly different conceptions of an engaging weekend get-together. A 10-minute walk takes you from the centuries-old Doe and Bancroft libraries, where the manuscripts, media and architecture are all reminiscent of a time gone by, to Soda Hall, where one can observe — and contribute toward — work in fields that did not exist even 10 years ago. And 15 minutes of walking separates parking spaces reserved for Nobel laureates — undisputed masters of their field — from parking spaces used for comparatively nefarious activities and, in the case of some, as temporary sleeping spaces.

I knew that I would be one of 30,000, trying to navigate my own path within this endless sea of veritable contradictions. And in the past semester, it has proven to be just as tough and daunting, as well as occasionally more than a struggle than I signed up for. What I wish I had known, however, was that one way or another, everything does end up working out — perhaps not the way you intend for it to, but it works out nonetheless.

With almost a semester done, every day still feels like a feeble yet immensely enjoyable attempt at drinking from a fire hose. On an almost daily basis, my fortunes and my feelings tend to vacillate. There have been times when things aren’t exactly going my way and the concurrent feeling of self-loathing becomes significantly exacerbated upon scrolling through a multitude of social media platforms and seeing that everyone else I know seems to have their life in order. But then I look at my own profiles and remember the significant effort I have put into making it look like I do, too. When we step away from the keyboard, though, we get a real glimpse of how bumpy each of our day-to-day narratives may be. And it is through this peculiar solidarity that I, for one, get by (with a little help from my friends).

In a period of anxiety that only the words “resume building” and “future” could induce, I did all I could to get myself involved on campus during my first fortnight here. I received flyers with glee, submitted applications to multiple campus groups and hoped that when I heard back, I would find that lifelong, sustainable passion — one that hopefully came with job security and some combination of the words “coding” or “investment banking.”

As it turned out, I did end up finding that passion in the booming industry of print media. I found a group of people just as irreverent as they were curious and an incredible opportunity to learn more about the eccentricities of the city and school I now call home. I did not intend, nor did I expect, that I would end up here, but things could really be worse.

To realize that a fair number of people here are grappling with the same issues that you are is comforting, and what has been incredible about this place is that social support is readily available. That support could come from a group of friends you never thought you would make, from individuals you may have considered strangers in the Student Learning Center before approaching them or even from the oddly affirming motivational posts on Yik Yak.

Chances are that you, too, may be consistently overwhelmed as you try to figure out what your own “balance” is — one that nary a website, friend, professor or, despite my best efforts, even a column can define for you. But what I do know now — and wish I knew earlier — is that things will turn out fine because wherever you may end up going, there you will be. And, of course, you do get to have a fair amount of fun — infused with the occasional dollop of self-loathing — in the process!

So there you have it: some semblance of advice from someone much in need of guidance himself. I don’t think that feeling of being consistently overwhelmed is going to go away anytime soon, but I wish I knew when coming here that even if it doesn’t, there isn’t much of a reason to fear.

Contact Ishaan Srivastava at [email protected]

APRIL 18, 2015