I attended a “last lecture” (a Berkeley tradition for graduating seniors), a last class and a last 1:54 p.m. Autism DeCal. I turned in my honor thesis as my last assignment, and this is my “last column”; my swan song, or rather “Golden Bear Song.”
In writing this, I could not help but reflect upon some words from the “last lecture” by astrophysics professor Alex Filippenko:
“You may not be able to take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way, you may not have time, you may not recognize that opportunity, but you may recognize some of them and take advantage of them.”
I realized what defined my undergrad experience was not only recognizing some of these opportunities but that it was the support and encouragement at Berkeley that gave me the confidence to pursue them.
I never felt impostor syndrome at UC Berkeley. Rather it was whether I, as a disabled student, would even be allowed access to the opportunities college offers. I have significant disability challenges as a minimally speaking autistic with oral motor apraxia, sensory dysregulation and a whole other laundry list of disability stuff that contribute to high anxiety and uncertainty.
For much of my life, my disability has meant significant gatekeeping of opportunities. Would I be allowed to thrive here?
What I saw during my first semester was reassuring. I was immersed in mesmerizing lectures and conversations with professors. I was surrounded by nonjudgmental peers, unfazed by the challenges of my disability. The Disabled Students’ Program supported the academic accommodations I’d requested.
Armed with this tiny bit of confidence, I craned my neck out a tiny bit toward The Daily Californian booth on Sproul Plaza — the first of several opportunities at UC Berkeley.
I tentatively put in an application and wound up with a weekly column. To my immense surprise, my first column on autism received some 7,000-plus hits overnight, and I started getting emails from readers from New Zealand to Nigeria to France. My column, “The Person Inside,” was perceived as useful; my confidence inched up some more.
“Take advantage of unexpected twists,” Filippenko said at the last lecture of the semester.
At the end of that semester, I was approached by cognitive science students asking if I wanted to interview V.S. Ramachandran, the keynote speaker at the annual major conference. I had never done formal interviews, let alone interview a world-famous neuroscientist. Face-to-face interactions have never been easy for me, yet I was swept away by some of my experiences including an interview with legendary disability rights activist Judy Heumann. The knowledge gained from these interviews helped shape my perspectives and worldviews.
I expanded my wings some more, reporting for the Daily Cal’s arts and entertainment department and attending my first prescreening of a movie at the Variety Club Preview Room in San Francisco. I advocated for the Daily Cal’s first ever disability-related impact issue and helped with multiple disability accommodations workshops for Daily Cal staffers. The opportunity and training at a paper like Daily Cal meant my writing itself was becoming more and more polished.
Whether it was faculty, staff or my peers, what I appreciated most was the absence of gatekeeping due to the perceptions around my (dis)ability. Not hearing a constant “no” makes a world of difference and skyrocketed my self-confidence and feelings of self-worth.
“Without curiosity, your life will not be enriched as much, lookout for interesting things to think about,” Filippenko said at the last lecture.
I sat in interesting lectures, observed and interacted with amazing professors and fellow students. All of these experiences provided fertile ground for the neurotransmitters of curiosity to free flow in this autism mind with perspectives that translated into my writing in academics and outside.
Even as I thrived at places like the Daily Cal, I was able to avail of other academic opportunities. While I was at a research university, surrounded by all this incredible research, advertised research assistant, or RA, positions did not seem to match what I could do in terms of speaking and motor skills.
I cautiously reached out to campus psychology professor Steve Hinshaw and found myself as a RA in his lab working on ADHD and mental health (he made room for me!). Hinshaw also sponsored the autism decal I ran for most of my time on campus, and I found him to be most supportive and encouraging of how I wanted to run that class. The class enrollment grew from 17 to 50. Emails from former students such as one from a grad student in Europe telling me that material from the DeCal was influencing her current research felt super validating of my efforts and impact.
In my senior year, as a Haas Scholar, I conducted independent research under the mentorship of campus psychology professor Dacher Keltner which will result in two published papers. What an incredible opportunity it has been to learn and be shaped into a quality researcher by an absolutely awesome faculty mentor. I am in awe and admiration. It is truly a privilege.
I found community and belonging at UC Berkeley, the Daily Cal and other opportunities with Spectrum: Autism at Cal, the UC Berkeley RadMad Disability Lab and as a Haas Scholar. I’ve learned these foundations can ignite success.
I graduate with a heap of unexpected honors: University Medal finalist, Psychology Departmental Citation Award, Phi Beta Kappa, Psi Chi, 4.0 GPA and a prestigious P.D. Soros Fellowship to complete my upcoming doctorate in neuroscience at Vanderbilt University. These acknowledgments are like encouraging pats on my back that seem to say “You are doing some good stuff, young man!”
“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel,” said Socrates.
Most importantly, my UC Berkeley education kindled the Socratic flame, inspiring me to study what I am passionate about along with new kinds of experiences and knowledge. (Speaking of new experiences, I even got to model for the Cal Student Store. Who would have thought of “Model Hari”?)
“Life is full of change and uncertainty and that’s what makes it a great adventure,” Filippenko said at the lecture.
I am both nervous and excited about what’s ahead. As the Bhagavad Gita explains, change is the only constant in our lives, and one is better off focusing on the action (the sure) and not the results (the unsure). Inaction is not an option.
The Gita also points out that results do not solely depend on my actions. I hope the next stage of my educational journey will be one filled with kindness, compassion, patience and empathy from others and one of personal, endless curiosity and positive action so I can continue to learn and add those pebbles that widen the ripples in the pond of knowledge and change.