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From Richmond to Berkeley: Commuting to different homes

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MARCH 13, 2020

I live with my mom in the same Richmond house that I have lived in my entire life. I have walked the same streets, gone to the same stores and seen the same neighbors every day for as long as I can remember.

This might seem good to some, but for me, commuting to college was a worst-case scenario. I had dreams of being that small-town person making it big in an East Coast city like New York or Boston — literally anywhere but California. My enthusiasm was quickly curbed when I didn’t get into most of the East Coast schools I applied to, and the ones I did get into expected my family to spend half of our income each year. 

So I turned to the UCs and CSUs. I told myself, you aren’t going to New York, but you are getting out of here. 

But my enthusiasm was curbed yet again. I could cover tuition, fees and books, but my family couldn’t afford the high prices of housing and food. So I decided to commute to Berkeley.

I was excited because UC Berkeley is prestigious and full of amazing and smart people, but I had a constant and aching sense of disappointment. I felt stuck, and everywhere I looked on campus was painfully familiar. Sproul Plaza wasn’t new and exciting —  it was where I ran while my mom frantically chased me as a child. Telegraph wasn’t full of new shops I could explore and from which find my favorite — I knew every business. Some have been there since I was 6 years old. I already had my favorites. 

I had the fantasy of living on my own, in a new city, and feeling the full force of independence in a dorm or apartment. But I still live with my mom, and I still have to check in with her and tell her of my whereabouts.  

But all those worries quickly faded away. Knowing the campus and where to buy cheap food ended up being a huge advantage, and after a while, my sense of feeling stuck only applied to math. 

I also love Richmond, the people and their many quirks, and I love that I can stay in touch with many of them. And that deep familiarity that once filled me with disappointment is a great comfort. When I’m freaking out over a midterm or final, it’s nice to go to the park my mom took me to when I was 4.  

And even living with my mom isn’t that bad. My mom is pretty cool. One time when I flunked a midterm and came home sad, she bought double-fudge ice cream and we binged watched “Jane the Virgin.” That’s the kind of person you want to live with. 

Being a commuter is not a unique hardship. It just makes the usual hardships of college —  getting used to college, making friends, finding resources — way more difficult.

Sometimes I feel like I’m looking at everyone through a glass separation. It takes me three hours every day to get to and from campus. Those three hours are a barrier. 

Those three hours mean I can’t stay late because I’ll miss my bus. Most students end their day with a short walk, while my day ends after an hour on the bus and BART. I can’t eat with friends because I don’t have a meal plan, and it’s hard to come down on weekends. So it has been hard to find a friend to study with, or a person to send me notes if I miss a lecture or need to stay home and study. 

It’s also hard to relate to people in some ways. I come from and live in a totally different place compared to most people I’ve met. Berkeley has its struggles, but Richmond is a poor community of color that has a long history of subjection and struggles it has to continually triumph over.

But often I find it hard to complain. Yes, getting to campus and finding friends can be difficult, but it’s not impossible. I have friends whom I am pretty sure I’ll have for a while, and even my commute can be fun. 

For example, last semester, a man entered the bus. He would often sing very loudly and off-key, and when he got onto the bus, most people would get up and sit away from him. 

One day, he sat near me. I was about to move, but then he sang one of my favorite songs, “Always Be My Baby” by Mariah Carey, so I joined in. At first, he was hesitant, but then we had a full-on jam session. We clapped and stomped and other people joined in too, and my morning commute turned into a party. 

That man is named Louie and we would talk every morning and sing ’90s R&B. I don’t see him so much anymore, but I’ve also made friends with other people and bus drivers. I miss Louie, though.

I can sit here and write that being a commuter is difficult and horrible, but in many ways, it isn’t. Sometimes I think that there is no better way to experience this part of my life because I get to be in a place I love around people I love, and still get to experience college in pretty much the same ways other people do — except I do have to get up early. That’s really annoying.

Robson Swift is a city government reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @swift_robson.

MARCH 13, 2020