Graphic by Marianne Choi

Katy Durand
18 February, 2024
I never even thought about applying to UC Berkeley. Hell, my college counselor didn't even suggest the school until a last-minute thought spurred on the day the UC application closed. It wasn’t that I— or Dave, my revered college counselor who doubled as a therapist depending on how my relationship with college apps looked that week— didn't have faith in me. It may have been waning at times, but the faith in my future was definitely there. With averagely impressive grades, extra-impressive extracurriculars, it would make sense that I would shoot for a school like Cal. But that was not the dream. The dream was, and had always been, the East Coast—the acclaimed Newhouse School of Communications at Syracuse to be exact. I was so sure of this aspiration that I signed a binding Early Decision contract with the university.

So, as an Early Decision admitted and committed student to Syracuse University, it made sense when I did not beam, but stare dumbfoundedly and dreadfully at everyone else's dream, in the form of an acceptance letter to the #1 public university in the country. I pictured my life at this school I had never considered, just as I had imagined my life in orange the past months. And all that came up was a version of my life I never desired. In fact, the possibility of the next four years at “Cal” (as my parents kept referring to the school that was so foreign to me) previewed in my head, and it was not a positive plethora of pictures that came up. When the big name Berkeley was mentioned, the associations conjured up by my brain that had the potential to “be like Berkeley” were — bongs, Birkenstocks, body odor, and a slightly off-putting bear named Oski that my Grandpa kept rhapsodically displaying to me on his iPhone 8. In that order.

While I wasn't too keen on figuring out where I fit into the equation of bong water and breakdowns that accompanied the brilliance the school offered, I had this perfectly constructed idea of who I would have been at Syracuse University—who I would’ve become over the next four years as an “Orange Man.” So much so that I was even able to block out that terrifyingly ugly and slightly incomprehensible mascot. I was going to double major in fashion design. I would be well adapted to the snow so by the time I moved to New York City post-grad I wasn't a West Coast wuss. Plus, I would’ve done four out of the 10 years of  New York living, thus helping me reach the tenured, real New Yorker status quicker (I once read somewhere that to be considered a real New Yorker, you have to have lived there for at least 10 years). My friends were all going to be from New Jersey or Connecticut, and I would’ve been ready to convert to Judaism for them (What, it’s okay for Charlotte from Sex and the City to do it, but not me??)

Side-by-side screenshots of Syracuse's rating in the top #7 party schools in the nation in contrast with Berkeley's prominent presence on the list of institutions with the most depressed student bodies did not bode well for Berkeley. Nonetheless, I could not block out the “But it’s Berkeley” of it all.

My mother's focus shifted to campus tours of my newest in-state option as she carefully opted to fly into SFO over OIA and hummingly applied Delta miles. There Stacy was, surfing Expedia, exhilarated (as one is), all while I remained mind-boggled in the midst of marveling at this massive decision and potential pivot I now held in the palm of my hands. As I traveled north, half of me was laughing at the stark differences between the two schools, and the other half simultaneously felt so completely lost in them.

Spring was in full effect when I toured Berkeley that May; the cherry blossoms softened the stereotypes, the old architecture and skyline captivated me, the presence of Adidas Sambas and lack of Birkenstocks—even Bostons—delighted me. And it wasn't under thirty degrees. That was cool. The campus, complete with a campanile in which I could take a class to learn how to play the bells of, was impressive, to say the least. Yet, I still remained unsure of whether I would thrive here, even if I did know how to elicit sound from a campanile. I continued wandering, surprised at how many sunny faces I saw—even grins on those entering and exiting Moffitt, one of the countless libraries. I halted myself from pleading to participate in one of the numerous games of spikeball transpiring on Memorial Glade. My mouth watered at the gourmet landscape as I practically licked the glass of the windows of the several Thai cuisine hotspots and hidden cafes filled with endearing pastries surrounding the college town. And just as my second and last afternoon in Berkeley was coming to a close, a fashion show commenced in front of Sproul Hall—it was “Fashion Week” in Berkeley, and by all accounts, it was a sign. Merchandise was bought, blue and gold, the colors of my high school. I knew I looked good in blue and gold; they were tried and true hues—even made my eyes pop. I looked better in blue and gold than I did in orange, that's for sure. Berkeley, the #1, had not been my #1, but my visit confirmed the illustrious school did in fact check all the boxes, so really my “no-brainer” decision had been made. 

Yet even if a move to the other coast was no longer in the cards for me, I could still feel like it was, as my severe stalker tendencies led me to not leave the several Syracuse group chats I was added to, as a normal individual would. I stayed in said group chats, following said Syracuse friends I made via the Instagram page dedicated to the 2027 Cuse class. While I unfollowed many Syracuse-bound serial posters who popped up on my feed regularly enough to spark annoyance, many unfollowed me too at the sight of the bold Berkeley 2027 announcement story posts and change to my Instagram bio. Yet, I could not possibly bring myself to hit the unfollow button on some of those girls I had so sincerely DM’ed—sharing hometowns, getting over the shock that I was not from the tri-state area (but from California of all places), swapping majors, comparing career goals, inquiring whether the other was gearing up to pursue Greek life, or which dorm the other desired. I felt as if I had gotten to know these future peers who were no longer my future peers so well. Olivia from New Jersey. Madison from the city. And Maya from Connecticut—not just any Connecticut though. It was important that I understood that she was from Westport. And that Kennedy was from Fairfield. And especially that Hadley was from Greenwich. Who knew Connecticut was so vast? I did. I knew. I was an educated future East Coaster, obviously. And I was clearly a considerate friend! If half of my future flock resided in the diverging towns of Connecticut, I had to make it my responsibility to learn the simple geography of the area! Because I really do take my friendship duties that seriously. With each Instagram I stalked, and every new possible friend acquired through a social media platform in which one could masquerade as anybody they wanted to be, I was able to add another piece to the well-constructed image of the life I would have at Syracuse. The friend group I would have at this school. The summer homes I would visit in my time at this school. The person I would be at this school.

But none of that was real.

Because the minute I got to Berkeley, even with the aid of social media and teenage girl-catered research, it was nothing I thought it would be. And it was everything I needed. “Peace and love, maaaan” isn't exactly being shouted from rooftops, and Mary Jane isn't the only drug in rotation, but more than that, the people I’ve met are good. And they're real. Not some perfect portrayal of a picture or persona I had painted them out to be. While I could say that my entire adolescent academic life being centered around the set goal of an East Coast University is what led me to rely so heavily on not only my scenery, but others to determine my path and my possessions—it wasn’t. What had me questioning whether I should attend the top higher educational institution was an infatuation with a certain lifestyle. And with the idea that if I completed all of the above, checked all of the boxes, regardless of what budget I might surpass in the process—I would be the person I had yearned to become. Yet as I consider my life that I’ve built in Berkeley and the life that surrounds me, I can’t imagine an environment more fit for me. While Goyards are not sprinkled throughout the student union, the weather drops a mere 5 degrees below my SoCal forecast, and I find an odd California connection in practically every encounter I have, Northern California is a magic mix. It’s a perfect blend of familiarity in the invisible strings that tie me back to my hometown on a daily basis, and a bigger venture into the unknown in florid foliage and a more overwhelming number of bridges than I had ever anticipated. It was always Cal. I simply needed to get my Lady Bird head out of my East-Coast-Engrossed “I want to be where culture is… where writers live in the woods,” ass.