Fiona: Apply, complete, repeat

Hello y’all cool cats and kittens!

I hope you’re all ready for another intense blog post by yours truly! The topic today is quarantined, critical reflection on my time at Cal… and whether I would do it again. (Long post incoming)

Sunsets from Berkeley Hill

First things first, Berkeley closed and switched to online courses 1.5 months ago, as one of the first universities in the US to do so. At the time my boyfriend and I decided we would stay put for the moment and use the additional time to explore Cal (like we initially intended to). However, when Jacinda announced that there will be no more flights coming into New Zealand we bought our tickets for a flight 2 days away. We chucked everything we owned into our suitcases whilst I was still taking tests and virtually attending lectures and trying to not let sadness/confusion/denial (?) get the better of me. Now I’ve been home for a few weeks and stuck inside, still completing the Cal semester online which has given me an opportunity to thoroughly reflect on my (cut-short) experience. I’ve obviously been keeping track of what the other 360 ambassadors have been up to and compared it to my own experiences and noticed that some of the other experiences are more travel-focused whilst mine are very academically-focused and a bit less.. colourful, I would say. I have definitely made friends and had a good time and expected having to work hard but I think I underestimated how time consuming the academic side would be as the standard at Cal is exponentially higher than at UoA, at least this is the case for Biological Sciences. I spent a lot of time playing catchup with concepts I didn’t know/understand and at the same time had to adjust to a new University environment, complete assignments and attend lectures. I had no time to travel to the places I intended on travelling to and trips into SF city were a rarity, even going out with friends was non-existent unless we decided to study together in our study group. The only thing my boyfriend and I had coming up was the Spring Break trip to Cancún which we missed as we left the United States one week before our planned Cancún travel date.

I guess it was… worth a try?

Reflecting on my expectations and comparing it to reality I have to admit that I probably should have been a little more realistic with how much time I would get to spend outside of Uni. Berkeley is a world renowned University with an acceptance rate of 8% for a reason and I think this is something I should have considered when setting my expectations for my free-time. If you have been following my posts you will know that I decided to go on an exchange for academic reasons and not necessarily to explore the country. It honestly would have been nice to see a little more of the country, however I am obviously so grateful to have been taught by such a distinguished academic body. Just to name a couple (humble brag much); my bacterial pathogenesis lecturer is Dan Portnoy, the leading expert in Listeria monocytogenes,who contributed significantly to the development of microbial cancer treatments, or my neuroscience lecturer Diana Bautista, who advanced the field of pain receptors and developed a particular type of GM mice that helped other scientists advance this field, too; both of whom could really have not been nicer or more down-to-earth people. However, the pressure I unintentionally put on myself really caused me to feel stressed out for most of my time at Berkeley (you might have figure out by now that I’m a serious nerd) and I was unable to enjoy and explore what was around me. Classes changing to online courses with compulsory lecture recordings and 24 hours to complete tests helped me get on the same level as everyone else and I finally feel like I am on top of everything (literally 2 weeks before the end of the semester, sigh).

Nerding out whilst making our way up to the Space Sciences Laboratory (this is by the Lawrence Hall of Science).

I think I really just want to give a well-meant word of advice here: depending on your objective for your exchange, choose wisely and do a lot of research. If someone had told me that I would be unable to spend any time outside of uni to explore California, I would have thought twice about going to UC Berkeley – however, when considering my (hopefully) academic career and my inspiration to become a scientist, going to UC Berkeley has really helped manifest my aspirations for the future. I feel that, whilst I didn’t quite get the “typical” overseas-uni experience, I will still be able to travel at a later date and explore California and, at the same time, I was able to meet and be taught by the most incredible, inspiring academics that helped us shape modern science. I really couldn’t fault the opportunity I was given and will treasure it, knowing that I likely wouldn’t have been able to find the biological niche I want to focus on in my career if I hadn’t gone to UC Berkeley. I got to make connections I would have never dreamt of making and I am able to hold on to, and treasure, friendships that will hopefully last beyond the end of my semester (I have zoom hangouts with my pals a lot!).

I may have accidentally gotten addicted to IKEA and Amazon Prime in the US.

Another few pointers on how to specifically approach going to UC Berkeley:
– make sure you enrol in a mix of classes that balance “doing new things” with “doing fun things” so you don’t get exhausted and still get to enjoy the international expertise Cal can offer
– expect to spend a lot more money than the requirement for the visa states as Berkeley is really expensive and it’s difficult to cut costs on anything (especially because you can’t just go and get a part-time job)
– be ready to adjust to a different learning environment – Berkeley’s high expectation and a lack of student support (such as lecture recordings) can make it difficult to follow lecture content
– Berkeley is not the university to go to if you want to see the country and “have a good time” (whatever you read into this is up to you), you will not have a lot of free time unless you are willing to sacrifice your passing grades
– whilst it is voluntary, definitely attend Golden Bear Orientation, it will help you getting to know people that you can approach with the most random questions and the Orientation Leaders make sure you are eased into the Bear vibes of the school.

After I left my friends and I realised that we never took pictures together so please accept this very serious picture of my lab partner Angela as evidence that I didn’t actually make up my friends (and yes, no lab coats are required at Berkeley unless handling dangerous substances).

Cal will always have a special place in my heart, and to get back to original question of whether I would do it again: I am seriously contemplating applying for Grad school despite (or maybe because of) the academic pressure. Cal has pushed me to work hard every day and has helped me lay the foundation to my academic aspirations. Whether you decide to come to Cal or go somewhere else, I hope that, just like me, you will find what you are looking for on your big overseas university adventure.

So long,

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