Nine months here, and I am changed. A year ago this city was foreign, but now it comes to me in sensory staccato beats — shades of light, color, scent and feeling punctuating my days with an eerie familiarity that feels as though it has always been known but only recently remembered. Haven’t I always known this place? Yes, I do know the morning light, invariably flaxen or slate gray. And the middays? I know them, too — a muddied sepia, or if the sun sits high, stark white reflecting an absurd brilliance off the Bay. The afternoon hour languishes in its Midas touch, absolving all things in brilliant gold. The nights are violet and black — mingling with Southside’s heady scents of saccharine jasmine, fried delicacies and always, weed. Any evening walk may bring the sound of sirens or a sitar. What a strange and splendid place to call home.
I come from a particularly uninteresting suburb in particularly uninteresting South Orange County, a few hundred miles from Berkeley. Life there often mirrors the same sort of manicured, illusory perfection of suburbia itself — beautiful on the surface, stunningly detached and almost always, astoundingly privileged. I was no exception to it. College, for myself and many, always loomed as both responsibility and destiny. And so when the time came, I too played the “Game of High School.” I comported myself into neat little boxes of ostensible virtue — as if good enough grades, extracurriculars and test scores held some sacred power that could make the inevitable fear, doubt and failures of any other future only words to me.
By the end of my four years, however, I found myself mired in unexpected family tragedy and impossibly removed from the culture I had so ardently participated in before. Grief has the unique quality of cheapening all other emotions, and so when UCLA rejected me, I laughed. By the time Stanford had rejected me, I was less indignant than understanding. Then UC Berkeley accepted me.
The mere sight of electronic confetti proved convincing enough. That afternoon, I became a Cal student and no time existed before it. I self-indulgently perused university rankings, delighted that I had somehow hoodwinked the number one public university into accepting me. I researched potential professional opportunities after school, constructing a life before it even began. UC Berkeley once existed in some mythic realm, but now it had descended from the heavens and opened itself to me — and when I learned of Cal Day, I knew I needed to be there. My parents agreed. Within an hour, I had booked a flight.
If UC Berkeley virtually exhilarated me, Cal Day intoxicated me. My ideations of the campus beget an even better reality, a fantasy transfigured from mere pixels into full living color. The Campanile seemed impossibly taller, Memorial Glade even more lush and sweeping in person, Doe Library suddenly more regal and grand than any palace in Europe. Sproul buzzed with hordes of people, a flurry of flyers and happily for me, plenty of free promotional items. A barrage of celebration followed me nearly everywhere on campus. So did the ceaseless platitudes that increasingly felt like prayer to the most capricious and elusive god of all: the future. “Seize these opportunities!” “Design your own future!” I imbibed the truisms of Cal Day hungrily, and I realize now, naively.
Cal Day, in reality, is a marketing campaign designed to sell you this campus — because enrollment equates to tuition money. But more than that, the deluge of events and enthusiasm constructs a culture and experience of UC Berkeley that exists only within the realms of brochures and infographics. The idealism of Cal Day suggests that there exists a perfect college experience, or at least one that can be preordained or predicted. But there is no guidebook to being here, no way to construct a life before it is lived. Cal Day could never betray to you the depths of the friendships you will make, or the exhilaration of a passion realized; its platitudes cannot arm you against the blows of defeat you will inevitably experience, nor can it prepare you for the implacable challenge of growing up.
Nine months here, and I am changed. Nine months here gestating and growing, and I am born again — a new life bearing the indelible marks of this place, something shifted, sensed down to the marrow. You too will be changed if you come to Cal, not by the resume you build or the grades you get — but only by the defiant act of living and doing so unabashedly, committed to the knowledge that every valuable lesson this school can offer exists outside the confines of a classroom.
Nine months here, and I am changed.
Nine months here, and I am changing.