Walking down Sproul Plaza with a heavy backpack and hopes for a great year. Trying to get past the crowds and catch up with a friend somewhere in those heads. Nothing screams UC Berkeley more than bright, screaming students running on Sproul trying to make it past Sather Gate while getting flyered by tabling clubs.
Suddenly you hear whispers: “That’s the most elite tech club,” or “That’s the no-cut club.” Earlier this year at Moffit library, some guys noticed a club sticker on my computer and approached me asking how to get into ML@Berkeley. Berkeley’s known for its competitive club application process — up to five essays and five interview rounds is no joke!
But the wide-eyed and bushy-tailed freshmen decked in Cal gear and wearing lanyards around their necks still stop by our table. Full of pride that they made it into UC Berkeley – now, eager to find their place.
Oh yes, I was that freshman, too.
I remember my first steps on campus when I came for my Regents interview in February 2020. The crowds were bustling full of students on Telegraph in Berkeley hoodies. Of course, I made a trip to Bear Basics to get that freshmen Cal gear to wear around my high school.
And then headlines were made. COVID-19 shut down the world.
What nobody knew was coming, that fully remote freshmen year, happened for the class of 2024.
As I started college in my high-school bedroom, that magical college experience I had dreamt of quickly diminished. I knew all those movies on college students would just remain Netflix giggles.
So this year’s freshmen let me live my freshman year vicariously through them… as a junior.
Recently, some underclassmen asked me about Berkeley life. Sure, I could advise them about classes and warn them about their first CS61A midterm. But every time they asked about the dorms, I felt a void.
Whenever I pass by the Units and Blackwell on my way to campus, I can’t help but wonder, what if I had those freshmen year? Perhaps I’d have a larger social circle?
I’ve always heard that dorms and Golden Bear Orientation, or GBO, are the easiest ways to make friends in college. Our class never had that bonding with floormates or sleeping on that quintessential bunk bed. We never had the sophomore year GBO we were promised either – that meant no Cal lanyards or official welcomes. The best we had was meeting people in a Zoom breakout room, playing AmongUs, or scrolling through that Discord server. We still had socials, club recruitment, study sessions, exams, and, yes, even Zoom crushes. But I always longed for that spontaneous in-person interaction.
Sophomore year was better with an on-campus experience, from witnessing the naked run while cramming for finals in the library to watching the Cal-Stanford Big Game. As I write this, I can proudly say the Stanford Axe is at Cal right now. Go Bears! I wouldn’t trade my 3 a.m.nights in Soda working on CS projects for anything.
Yet our sophomore year still wasn’t the same as that pre-COVID college experience. We were still hiding behind our masks, showing green COVID clearance badges to get into events, and standing in lines to get tested at the RSF. After all, I was no longer a freshman on CalCentral. No refunds!
And yet, every time I get lunch with a friend on campus or cook, part of me still asks, what’s the fuss about Cafe 3 dining? Pardon me for being ignorant.
When I finally lived on campus sophomore year, a senior asked me which dining hall I ate at. I replied, “I don’t have a meal plan, I cook in my apartment.” He was startled. Honestly, I barely even know where half the cafeterias are on campus.
But for all the things my class didn’t have, we sure discovered a lot.
I do know how to break the awkward silence in a Zoom breakout room. I loved not worrying about being late to class or looking for someone to walk back with after that 10 p.m. midterm. Nothing beats waking up a minute before class and showing up at my desk straight out of bed with the camera off.
I vividly remember the excitement of showing up to my first Daily Cal meeting unaware of Berkeley time. After the fear of tardy slips in high school, I couldn’t imagine anything starting 10 minutes past start time. In-person showing up before BerkeleyTime usually means people staring at their phones.
Now as a junior, I get asked questions by underclassmen all the time. “How can I survive Berkeley grade deflation?” or “Where can I find an apartment?”
I, too, was that freshman asking upperclassmen where to go when I was sick or how to negotiate rent with your landlord. Now, fully in-person for the first time, that nervous excitement of being a freshman is alive in me.
So, as I hand out club recruitment flyers to freshmen on Sproul, I truly hope the class of 2026 enjoys that freshmen year we missed.
And even though I’ve probably been “Hilfingered,” I’m still that wide-eyed and bushy-tailed junior.
Although freshmen, now that Professor Hilfinger just retired, will never understand our upperclassmen whispers about what it means to be Hilfingered. Look it up – it’s a term engrained in generations of Golden Bears.
P.S. I still love freshman year.