Go Big, or Go Home
For many high school students, the decision to attend a small college or a large university can be a difficult one to make, but for me it was never a question. From a very young age, I believed in going big or going home.
Part of my conviction lay in the idea that where I came from was small and boring. Now that Portland, Oregon is one of the jewels of the country – a hipster paradise, full of culture, companies like Nike and Intel, and the greenest scenery you could ever hope for – my perspective has obviously changed. But at the time, growing up in a quiet, mainly Caucasian suburb, I longed for more. I wanted diversity, an urban landscape and throngs of people I could meet.
The way out was not the easiest path, as I had always dreamed of going to school in California, but my parents simply didn’t have the money to send me out of state. The urge to flee to the Golden State had originated with trips to see my grandparents. My sister and I visited them in the Berkeley hills every summer and on holidays, and we loved hiking in Tilden Park and eating ice cream at Fenton’s on Piedmont Avenue, not to mention listening to their stories about Cal. My grandfather had gone to UC Berkeley, as had his mother, my great-grandmother. In the 60s, my father went to business school there, while my mother worked in the dean’s office. Growing up, Cal football games were a regular tradition for our family, full of fight songs and all things blue and gold.
Despite this family legacy, while in high school, I didn’t really have a firm sense of where I wanted to end up for college – family friends in Southern California also tempted me with campuses like UCLA and UC Santa Barbara. Near the end of my junior year, I hatched a plan. I would graduate a semester early and live with those family friends in Southern California for a year, establish residency, and then apply to the UC system. It sounded simple, but like most of life, it didn’t work out exactly as I had imagined.
It would be two years later, after I had graduated high school and attended a small college that I finally ended up at Cal. I was on a real campus, a huge one in fact, next to one of the greatest cities in the world, San Francisco. Large schools can be overwhelming, but they are often attached to cities and cultures all their own, and you never know what you might come across. The urban landscape around Cal enriched my life (Berkeley and Telegraph Avenue have a culture that is unlike anything else in the world) and then there was, of course, the multi-cultural mecca across the bay. I had my first Dim Sum in Chinatown, my first authentic eggplant Parmesan in North Beach and saw the city light up during the holidays as I had with my grandparents so many years before.
Then there was the unlimited curriculum on campus, the ability to major in whatever I wanted to, and the endless student groups, clubs and social activities. A large university can afford its students the power of choice; there are simply so many options that everyone can find a place where she fits. And of course, there are the sports. I’m not a huge enthusiast, but the roar of a crowd in Memorial Stadium was certainly the definition of school spirit. My grandfather had passed away before I got to Cal, but cheering along with my fellow students made me feel as though he was right there with me.
While culture, curriculum and social life are all important, I think one of the most important benefits of attending a large university is that it develops your tenacity to negotiate the various bureaucracies of life. On a campus of 45,000 people, the reality is that sometimes you are reduced to a number, but life can often be like that as well. At Cal, I learned to not only follow the steps to prove residency or attain financial aid, I had to be aggressive enough to fight for the classes I needed to graduate, and brave enough to go to office hours with a professor who had no idea who I was. These skills have been invaluable to me in the real world, translating to everything from job searches and filing taxes to finding apartments and buying cars.
My time at Cal, while shorter than most, was one of the more formative times in my life, offering me life skills and experiences that went far beyond academics. While bigger campuses obviously have their shortcomings, I think what they can potentially offer students in the bigger picture is practically endless.
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