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New Year’s Day reflections: Learning from new experiences

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JANUARY 11, 2019

That gastric turbulence you may be feeling New Year’s Day is likely a twisted combination of sparkling wine and at least a modest sense of uneasiness. The prospect of newness and fresh starts is exciting, but it’s worth acknowledging that the closing ceremony of a total 365 days is no minor event. In celebration of the new year, you might have engaged in some self-evaluation and reflection, and you might have felt a range of emotions: satisfaction, appreciation and perhaps self-love. Or, in some dark pole near an isolated cave, the distant relatives of these sentiments might be resonating with you better — discontent, disappointment, regret.

And the residue of negative feelings the year leaves you with could be well-explained by various reasons. Maybe you fell short of your own expectations. Maybe you made numerous decisions you wish you could take back. Maybe you felt yourself slipping into old habits or failing to create new ones.

In other words, maybe you haven’t changed, or at least not to the extent you wish you had.

We look back at previous years with content when we feel we have changed, grappled and grown. We feel fulfilled when we’ve had new experiences and made new connections. We embrace newness. At the same time, however, we repeatedly cower from it. These same accomplishments that we look back at so warmly require the simple, yet at times very unpleasant, experience of stepping outside of our comfort zones.

We embrace newness. At the same time, however, we repeatedly cower from it.

And why do we feel so uncomfortable extending ourselves beyond this little circle we’ve gracefully carved around us? Psychologists reason that our inherent need to maintain our self-integrity can hold us back from having these new experiences. When we feel that our identity is threatened, we tend to put our guards up.

Researchers Geoffrey L. Cohen and David K. Sherman put it best when they wrote, “People may focus on the short-term goal of self-defense, often at the cost of long-term learning.”

I struggled with this idea when I was first faced with the decision of whether or not I wanted to come to UC Berkeley. I had deposited a considerable sum at Tulane University that I was sure I would get back when I arrived next fall. I really liked Tulane — the school advertised music and culture festivals every weekend, and when I received a handwritten note from the admissions director as well as a Class of 2021 T-shirt, I felt like I was a part of a larger family. In February, they even remembered to wish me a happy birthday.

Later on, when I got into UC Berkeley in early May, I was told I had about six days to respond. This is a familiar request for the waitlisted student and an absolute nightmare for the indecisive like myself. I drove up to tour the campus with my sister the next day, hardly thinking that I might actually commit.

The campus was unreasonably large, with stale white buildings and surroundings much less picturesque than the beloved Audubon Park across from the wide-spanning brick sign that read “Tulane University.” It seemed like the entire town of Berkeley was overshadowed by an eerie onset of dark clouds. Meanwhile, the air felt tense with the unspoken understanding that nobody was having a pleasant afternoon.

In retrospect, it probably didn’t help that my visit fell over the last two days of dead week.

I explained to my sister that while I could understand what there was to appreciate about UC Berkeley, I just didn’t know if I could see myself going there. I didn’t feel the same excitement I felt when I visited Tulane, where I felt warm and homely. Though we were much closer geographically, Telegraph Avenue made me feel far from my home in Los Angeles, and the hills we had to fight just to visit a friend in Clark Kerr felt like some inexplicable metaphor for the UC Berkeley experience. That day, UC Berkeley was not the college I had dreamed of going to. I felt uncomfortable and I could tell that this environment was quite different than the one I had grown up in. And I was scared.

Consequently, I probably could not have explained back then why the very next day, I sent my Statement of Intent to Register to Berkeley.

Choosing to come here despite my inhibitions felt counterintuitive, but I think deep down I had always known that I wanted a different experience in college. Tulane had a large Jewish population, which made me feel more comfortable leaving California. This same comfort, however, made me nervous that my experience would too closely resemble high school. Moreover, at Tulane, I was allowed to build a schedule and reserve spots in my courses before even committing to the school. It was great, but it felt much like the easy passes I had grown to know so well in high school. How would I be challenged if I never experienced UC Berkeley’s notorious battle of enrollment? Now, as a cognitive science major, I can be sure I’m getting the full experience.

I almost rejected UC Berkeley because I feared drastic change, but I thought that there was more to be gained if I didn’t.

After tearful goodbyes, I drove to UC Berkeley on move-in day, and I imagined how strange it would feel walking into my new home only to find two strangers I would soon call my roommates. During our eight-day orientation, I met even more strangers. I love meeting people, but even during my most positive interactions, I couldn’t help feeling this pang of worry that I would never make friends like those back home. Going to such a large school left me with the uncertainty of whether or not I would find people with values similar to mine, despite our varying backgrounds. This was the threat that psychologists warn us about — that uneasy feeling we have when we are met with so much stimuli that challenges who we are or what we believe in.

I almost rejected UC Berkeley because I feared drastic change, but I thought that there was more to be gained if I didn’t.

Today, I feel that choosing to come to UC Berkeley was the best choice I could have made. I learn something new every day and have been so lucky to be surrounded by some of the most inspiring people I have met. But the question of how I can hold onto my roots while embracing change remains critical and increasingly relevant. I grew up Jewish, and like most Jewish parents, mine have taught me the importance of staying close and connected to the community. I agree, but sometimes I have to loosen my grip on the tradition to open myself up to new experiences. Where do I find the balance between going out with my non-Jewish friends Friday night and staying in to celebrate Shabbat? How do I hold onto pieces of my home life while immersing myself in all kinds of student life at UC Berkeley?

These are the kinds of questions I ask myself when I meet people who are so dissimilar to me, in backgrounds and everyday lifestyle. These are some of the times I feel myself learning the most, yet I must remember to remain conscious of my values and identity. The answer isn’t always simple, but if there’s any good time to experiment with that balance, college sounds like a pretty safe bet.

Thus, I challenge myself to search for this balance often. At the beginning of this semester, I found myself skipping Shabbat dinners pretty frequently, but when I found that a very specific pause was missing from my week, I decided to make the extra effort to attend celebrations before my other plans. And while I don’t fully keep the tradition of refraining from work and technology on Saturday, I do find it valuable to set Saturday aside as a day where I feel closer to friends and nature, and I postpone my studying until the next day. Another balance I strive for is the balance of feeling present here while also keeping in touch with old friends and family. I find that my roof, where I can see almost the entirety of the city of Berkeley, makes for a supreme spot to call my friends while remaining cognizant of where I am.

The pool of people that made up my communities grew exponentially once I came to college, making it pretty hard not to encounter a much greater diversity of personalities and backgrounds. It has been such a valuable experience meeting people who are so different than I am, and at the same time, it’s refreshing when I still meet people I can so strongly relate to.

In ways I can and cannot explain, I feel like a different person than I was this time last year. When I woke up this New Year’s Day, what I felt in my stomach was much more satisfying than the remnants of the previous night’s celebration. I looked back on my year and saw experiences in which I not only built a more complex identity, but I maintained a powerful self-integrity. And as I imagined all the confusion and newness waiting for me at UC Berkeley, I anticipated the wealth of transformative memories I’ll be raising a glass to in years to come.  

Contact Shaked Salem at [email protected]

JANUARY 17, 2019