Monday, April 4, 2011

Advice to a new student at Cal

A woman with whom I went to high school sent a note the other day via Facebook. Her son had just been accepted to UC Berkeley; freshman admission decisions were posted a few days before. It's no mean accomplishment to gain admission to Cal, and my former classmate has good reason to be proud. Her son is "thrilled" and was watching my correspondence with his mom "with a big smile on his face." He has every right to be proud too.

But in her role as a mom my classmate also expressed concern about the potentially overwhelming size of the public university for which I work. (She herself studied at Stanford, a perfectly respectable little university, about which I will make no disparaging remarks ... that would be childish.)

She asked my advice about how her son ought to "navigate" the school in order not to find himself lost among the tens of thousands of students. That's a good question. So -- as an alum, a community member of several decades, and a campus employee -- I offered two pieces of advice. Now that I've had a few days to ask around about the question, I've appended another to the end of this post.

-- Two Pieces of Advice --

Find small communities

Here's the thing about big schools: nobody knows everybody. Nobody does everything. What people do occurs in communities of common interest and activity. Ditto for who people know.

A new student might be fortunate to fall into friendship with people living in his or her freshman dorm; if s/he's really lucky, s/he'll become good pals with a roommate. There's easy, instant community. Works for some, not for all.

There are plenty of other possibilities. Maybe my friend's son will pledge a fraternity. That's never been an interesting possibility in my world, but ... different strokes. As it happens, a mutual high school friend of mine and the mom who wrote last week attended Cal and joined a sorority. It wasn't what you might think: there are plenty of Greek houses beyond the Animal House stereotype. Our mutual friend loved it. She's still great friends with some of her sorority sisters, women she makes a point to see every year, more than a quarter century after we graduated.

Yep. I'm that old.

Anyway. More possibilities:

Community can be found in all manner of places, not just among people with whom one lives. Maybe my friend's son will get involved in campus politics, or national politics, or international politics, or Berkeley city politics (which often pass for international politics in the news media). Maybe he'll audition for an a capella group, or play intramural sports, or join the University Symphony Orchestra or a Jazz ensemble, or learn to play the carillon mounted in our Campenille. Maybe he'll worm his way onto the staff of the Daily Cal or the Heuristic Squelch (Cal's humor magazine) or contribute to the Berkeley Fiction Review or Berkeley Poetry Review. The Cal Corps Public Service Center offers opportunities to tutor kids in public schools in the East Bay, challenge poverty, and get involved in the Peace Corps among dozens of possibilities rife with opportunities to form community with undergrads committed to working for a better world; over 4,000 students volunteer in any given year according to the campus Facts at a Glance web page.

The big picture? Come fall term, the campus will be his oyster.

My friend's son and every other incoming member of the class of 2015 should think about how to factor life outside classes into a well-rounded schedule. With a bazillion options out there, the first extracurricular groups and activities a new student explores won't necessarily be the one s/he chooses to stick with. So my meta-advice on finding small communities is this: it's important to feel free to change your mind. You're in college to explore. Don't let anybody stop you!

Go to office hours

I was not a joiner as an undergraduate. Yes, I made friends, mostly through the good luck of who ended up on my dormitory floors the years I lived in Putnam Hall ... and there were friends of friends too. But I took almost none of that advice about finding groups and activities when I was enrolled at Cal. I studied. Frankly, I was something of a nerd, what can I say? Books are still my friends!

Importantly, though, I did go to my professors' office hours. A lot.

Here's the thing, which kind of shocked me at the time: most students didn't visit their professors even though all comers were welcome. Were my classmates intimidated? Too busy partying? Did they fail to get how valuable an opportunity we'd been granted to spend time with smart and articulate faculty?

Beyond the shock of realizing most undergrads didn't bother with office hours, it shocked me to discover that professors and graduate teaching assistants were hungry for students who wanted to talk about the subjects we were studying. Now, mind you, this is not the same thing as students who want to talk about how they deserved a better grade on that paper, or about precisely which material would be tested on a midterm exam. No. The faculty were not so eager to help students limit studying to a lazy minimum. The faculty were and are teaching because they're truly, seriously, deeply into their fields. They want to talk about their work.

For example:

I took a creative writing course from the late poet Thom Gunn, then a craggy middle-aged man who came to class in a leather motorcycle jacket and spoke with a soft but assured British accent. I didn't know much about who he was when I signed up for the course. At the time, there weren't many creative writing courses on offer in the English department, even for students in the major. He was teaching one of them.

Partway through the term I figured I'd look Professor Gunn up in the Norton Anthology of English Literature. I found his work in a section that began on page 2,483 of my edition, deep into the "still living" section of the tome. I was puzzled by some of the references in Moly, a poem written from the perspective of one of Odyssesus' shipmates in Homer's epic, whom Circe has transformed into swine.

So I showed up one day during Gunn's office hours and after a bit of small talk told him I wanted to ask a few questions about his poems. To my deeper-than-Moly puzzlement, he expressed surprise -- and clearly felt flattered -- that I'd bothered to seek out his work and read it attentively. He was warm and forthcoming, and eager to talk about language and resonance in poetry.

I'm not sure I appreciated what a rare and fine experience that was until years after the fact, but I sure am glad I put myself in its way.

-- And another thing --

I had brunch with a first cousin and his daughter over the weekend. The daughter, my first cousin once-removed, is a junior at Cal. She's studying art practice. When she's not buried in projects and papers, she's a nimble conversationalist in wholly enjoyable coffee klatches at a café we both like, across the street from the campus. I told her about the friend whose son will arrive as a freshman in August, and asked what advice she would give from her perspective.

I was gratified to hear that my own suggestions seemed on the mark to a current student. And then my cousin recommended something I didn't know about: Freshman Seminars. From the program's website:

UC Berkeley’s Freshman and Sophomore Seminars provide an unparalleled opportunity for faculty members and small groups of lower-division students to explore a scholarly topic of mutual interest together, following an often spontaneous flow of dialogue and interchange in the spirit of learning for its own sake. By taking a seminar a student becomes an active member of Berkeley’s intellectual community. [...] Students are encouraged to choose their seminars based on the pull of intellectual curiosity, a desire to explore enticing and even unfamiliar realms.

Not something we had when I was in school (the program started in 1992). Back in the old days, freshmen and sophmores longed wistfully for the day we'd have enough units to be permitted to enroll in upper division courses, which is where seminars offered escape from lecture halls filled with one or two or five hundred fellow students. Yes, we had small discussion sections led by graduate student teaching assistants, and some of those were terrific ... but it would have been double-plus-terrific to interact with faculty around a seminar table instead of via binoculars and the post-lecture scrum around the podium.

Thanks, cousin, for the tip.

So in summary:

  1. Seek out your communities.
  2. For the love of knowledge, visit your professors during office hours.
  3. Don't miss your chance to enroll in a Freshman seminar.

Welcome to Cal!

Thanks to "Introvert" and WikiMedia Commons for the image of the UC Berkeley campus, circa 2005.

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