I’ll admit straightaway that my reason for choosing to study in California could be boiled down to the appeal of being on the beach for six months. I knew that if I couldn’t get into my top choice campus, at the very least I could reconcile myself a few months of sun. Luckily, I did manage to get a highly sought-after spot at UC Berkeley, meaning that alongside spending my days under blue skies, I would be able to study at one of the most respected universities in the world.
On arrival, the transition from studying in a city like London to a campus like Berkeley was a bit of shock. It seemed impossible to escape the Cal identity wherever you went, and at first, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of jealousy when speaking to friends in New York. But very quickly I began to revel in the quick 10-minute journey from my bed to my classroom seat and how frequently I bumped into my friends. If it did get too much, I could just jump on the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transport) to San Francisco or get a bus down to Oakland and disappear for the day. A definite highlight of UCB are all the libraries (32 in total!), my favourites were the gorgeous Doe Library’s reading room (it even manages to put the Maughan’s round reading room to shame) and the natural-light filled East Asian library.
As a Liberal Arts student, the academic environment at Berkeley was not quite as much as shift as it might be for some students at King’s, with me already being used to studying across multiple departments. However, what was different was the constant assessment. The difficulty in studying came from the sheer quantity of work I had: once midterms began, I had an essay due most weeks between then and the end of term. More specifically, I noticed in my literature classes that there was a much greater emphasis on close-reading at Berkeley over a reliance on theory. This was a surprisingly challenging but since returning to King’s, I find I can now draw comfortably on both skills, and not panicking if I didn’t manage to find a way to bring Foucault into an essay. My favourite class by far was an introductory Art History module. This was taught by Dr Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby, a world-leading art historian and once of the best lecturers I have ever had. Her descriptions of paintings were so beautiful, on one particularly memorable instance I found myself moved to tears and it was then particularly special to see these paintings in The Art Institute of Chicago.
My time at UCB was made unique by living in Hoyt Hall, one of the student co-operatives. These houses are good alternative if the cost of Berkeley’s halls would prove too much. The not-for-profit Berkeley Student Co-Operative (BSC) was founded during the Great Depression on the principle that it is economically more efficient to buy in bulk. If you live in a co-op, you will have to contribute 5 hours of ‘workshift’ a week, which includes doing the washing up, cleaning bathrooms and cooking dinner for the whole house (this might be up to 120 people!). But in return, you get access to seemingly limitless amount of fresh fruit and vegetables and whole pantry of dried goods, affordable housing and the chance to live with some of the most inspiring and ambitious, and not to mention friendly, people you will ever come across. The parties and socials are pretty fun too! While the co-op environment is not for everyone – especially those who struggle with mess – I absolutely recommend applying if it sounds like the right place for you (as anyone who has come to my office hours to ask about Berkeley knows). Every co-op is different. Hoyt was an all-women’s co-op with an incredibly supportive and welcoming atmosphere, in contrast there are houses like CZ, known as the ‘party co-op’, and Cloyne, which academic-themed with a no-substance environment and quiet hours throughout the day.
Even though Berkeley proved a little further from the beach than I might have initially hoped, it was truly one of the best experiences that I would not change for the world. But whichever UC campus you go to, you’re guaranteed to study abroad in a beautiful part of the world and have an unforgettable time.