Harry: Brains like Berkeley

I’m now just about halfway through my semester abroad and time is flying by. For this entry I thought I’d focus on the academics and also some impression on Berkeley as a whole.  Pictures are unrelated, but give a bit of a peak into life.

I was a little apprehensive about coming to Berkeley because it has a reputation for being hard and highly competitive but so far, it’s been pretty on par with UoA. Berkeley, and from what I’ve heard, the American system more generally tends to have a lot of little assignments which are due weekly/biweekly. This means most weeks you have three or more things due and I think the constant looming deadlines contributes to the stressed out culture on campus. However, in my experience these have been really manageable so long as you stay on top of them. Also, having little assignments due all the time also forces you to review the content each week and helps you keep up. This should probably also be taken with a grain of salt if you’re a math/physics/engineering major though because the problem sets for some of those classes have a reputation for being particularly hard. I also haven’t sat my midterms yet so maybe I’ll be complaining more in my next entry!

Another difference is the diversity of classes available. Unlike UoA, classes at Berkeley have a lot less restrictions and prerequisites. There’s a four week period at the beginning of semester when you can swap classes around so you can judge for yourself whether the difficulty level is right for you or not. This has meant I’ve been able to take a couple of upper division psych courses without having ever done psych before. While there has been a bit of a steep learning curve and I’m not as well versed as other students, it’s been a great opportunity to study something I’m passionate about at higher and more specialised level.

I’ve also been attending the graduate colloquium for social psychology and once a week they invite a speaker from another university to present some of their research. So far, the speakers have been from UCLA, Stanford and Northwestern and it’s been inspiring to be at such an epicentre for academia. The talks also count towards your credit requirements.

More generally, being on campus is a lot of fun. We’ve been blessed with exceptional ‘winter’ weather (thanks climate change!) and I spend an hour or so most days just chilling in the glade with a book or some friends. I’m a commuter at UoA and my trip usually takes about an hr and a half each way so being so close to campus has been life-changing. The proximity of the students to the university definitely contributes to the feeling of community and strong campus culture and I’m enjoying it a lot. The people here are also great, because Berkeley is a competitive entry school known for its academics the students here are all passionate about learning which translates into a passion for life. Everyone you talk to has other things outside of school that they’re into and they’re generally really open and eager to tell you about it.

The Glade

Berkeley is also a great location, it’s just as easy to get into the heart of San Francisco as it is to be completely away from civilisation in Tilden Park. I haven’t done a lot of exploring yet because there’s so much going on at the co-ops and school but look forward to seeing more of the area in the coming weeks.

Until next time,

Fiona – Midterms, Spring and Soccer!

Hello y’all,

The first month at Cal is over and soooo many things have happened! Here is your inclusive insight into Fiona’s very lively rollercoaster ride in America:

Midterms

My first midterms are done and dusted and boy, I am so relieved. None of our lecturers were willing to instate a piazza or provide previous exams for practice and there are no lecture recordings, which made studying for the midterms quite a challenge and unnecessarily anxiety-inducing – at least for someone like me that can get a bit freaked out when I cannot practice under “fake” exam conditions with a practice exam beforehand. If I hadn’t found people to create group chats with before the midterms I think I would have just ended up sitting in a corner and feeling sorry for myself – so make sure you make some friends in each class that are happy to communicate with you and answer questions as they arise or give you lecture notes if you missed a lecture.

Midterms are generally ongoing because they are regular and at different frequencies in each class, unlike at UoA, but the first set of Midterms (after one month) was bunched together and quite challenging as everything had to be learnt at the same time with extremely limited resources. I know better now and here are a few tips that will hopefully make your studying at Cal a little easier:
1. Make sure you’re up-to-date and reflect on lectures on the same day;
2. Ask a bunch of questions during office hours (I cannot recommend enough smaller-group time with lecturers!)
3. Talk to other people in the group chats about lecture content.


To me, these things helped a lot in this huge University with limited access to resources and no class reps that could make facebook groups (I cannot stress this enough! We are very spoilt and coming here has made me feel quite grateful for what we have at UoA). I still love every single day here but feeling lost and ‘uncared’ for has had a big impact on me mentally until I found the right people and, as far as I am aware, it’s a very common thing here – so it’s important to make connections and find people you can relate to to have a good time at Cal! (Go Bears!!)

Spring feels like summer?

Now to my second topic – Spring feels like summer! Spring has only just begun but I wildly underestimated the weather (and apparently the impact of climate change in sunny North California) so I am sweaty all the time.

If you come here during spring semester make sure to bring summer clothing, you will need it for at least 2 reasons: Firstly, whilst the buses are free for Cal students, they come infrequently, go down very random routes, and there is no collective app that shows current schedules so you will find yourself walking through the spring heat regularly – I often ended up not trying to find a bus and just walking up and down hilly North Berkeley instead. Secondly (and the slightly more exciting reason), a lot of people like to chill in one of the many grassy areas and play frisbee or have a drink in between lectures. There’s limited shade but the vibes are amazing and it’s easy to feel right at home – lots of people have picnic blankets or hammocks and I can guarantee you that there will almost always be a doggo that’s chasing a ball that you can sneakily observe.

On another note, I recently decided to raid the ReUse store on campus that has cheap second-hand clothing and is student-run so now I am kitted out with a lot of promotional Cal t-shirts, all for 2$ each, and feel like a real Bear that doesn’t need to evaporate in the sun. (Go Bears!)
The only thing is that I am starting to miss the beach a lot – I used to go nearly every day in New Zealand (rain or shine!) and the closest beach here is nearly 1.5 hours away on the bart and bus. I haven’t had time to go because I finished the midterms just recently and something just doesn’t feel quite right without sand, water and fish’n’chips nearby!

Intramural soccer team!

Lastly, I am very excited to tell y’all about Intramural sports teams! I didn’t realise that there was more than the famous athletics teams but when my Golden Bear Orientation leader told me about Intramural sports I knew I had to get a whiff of American soccer! I decided to join as a free agent which means that a captain from any team can invite me into the team if they’re within capacity. It’s a small fee (~$25?) to sign up for a rec membership and I had to buy some new turf boots (~$45) but everything else was pretty straight-forward. The games are weekly and so far we’ve had two – which we both lost (yikes)! It has been so much fun participating in a team sports and just being able to enjoy the game and be around people from different countries where we all communicate in the same ‘language’ on the field has been awesome. The other free agents and I are included in various activities, on and off the field, so I feel like we truly are part of the team and that’s been a great experience. (Go Bears!)

Intramural soccer – we played pretty late, at 9pm! That blurry chunk is me!

As y’all can see, there’s lots going on and I’m having a great time, even if the academic side is a little stressful. I’m looking forward to the next months and can’t wait to tell you more!!

Bye for now!

Harry: UC Berkeley Pre- and Post-Departure Tips

For my first blog I’ve decided to focus on tips for before you arrive in the U.S. and also some first impressions from my first couple of weeks in the U.S.

Also a pre-warning, I’m still waiting to get my film developed so this entry is a bit low on photos!

HOUSING

This semester I’m living in one of the houses associated with the Berkeley Student Co-operative (BSC https://bsc.coop/). Their aim is to provide affordable housing to students who would otherwise be unable to attend Cal and other nearby colleges. The rent at the co-ops is about $3700 USD a semester whereas alternative accommodation like iHouse is about $9000 USD per semester. The low rent prices are made possible by the five hour “workshift” required by each resident every week. These workshifts range from cleaning bathrooms to cooking to party security. So far, I’ve done a couple of cook shifts and a bathroom cleaning shift and they’ve been fine, although I don’t know that I’ll be rushing back to clean the bathroom!

I’m in the house Casa Zimbabwe, this is the largest house and houses about 120 students from a wide range of backgrounds. The sheer size of the house can make it feel intimidating, but the residents are really friendly and accepting and after just a couple of weeks, it’s starting to feel like home. I think the community that you receive here is one of the major benefits of living in a co-op. I’ve talked to quite a few international students, most of whom are living in apartments and they’ve said that the hardest thing so far is building a network.

View from the CZ roof takes a bit of beating

Logistically, it’s definitely worth applying early to the co-ops because there is a waitlist. However, you do get priority as an EAP exchange student. I applied for the co-ops before I’d even received my campus placement (and also applied for the co-ops at UCLA and UCSB). There is a small fee, but in my opinion it’s worth paying the money and getting on the waitlist early, rather than potentially missing out. I also wouldn’t stress too much about not getting off the waitlist on the first round, I was 65th on the waitlist and got in on round 2 or 3.

COURSES

I found getting my courses approved to be quite difficult. The course syllabi are not easily accessible like at UoA and I was told that the course descriptions which can be found online did not contain enough information. I would recommend finding the classes you’re interested in taking and emailing the professors directly to get the course syllabus as I initially emailed the departments and didn’t get a response.

Unlike UoA courses at Berkeley can be very competitive to get into and as an exchange student you don’t have top priority (this is given to returning undergrads). However, you will still receive some priority for classes that are your major. As an exchange student you can only declare one major at Berkeley so if you have more than one at UoA I would recommend declaring the more competitive major to ensure you get into the classes you want. I would also recommend getting in touch with departments and pleading your case, specifying that while you declared ____ as your UC major, you are also a ____ major at your home university. Doing this meant the film and media department allowed me to be recognised as a Film major and gave me preferential entry into competitive film classes.

If you can’t get into courses that you want to be in, it’s also definitely worth getting on the wait list. Most students initially sign up for more units than they intend on taking and drop and add courses throughout the first weeks of classes so even if you’re high on the wait list, there’s still a decent chance you’ll get into the class.

OTHER

I paid for the SHIP health insurance programme but a lot of people I have spoken to have health insurance through a company called ISO Insurance (international student specific health insurance) which came out to about a third of the cost. I’m not completely sure of the specifics but just google ISO insurance and it should come up.

The compulsory Golden Bear Orientation (GBO) was pretty full on, but overall a lot of fun. They say everything is mandatory, but it is actually mainly optional. I tried to go to all of the events anyway because I’d paid for it and it’s a great way to meet new people (especially if you weren’t meeting people through a co-op). There is a strong focus on diversity, consent and mental health and it was nice to know that everyone who is on campus has been through the same programme and it sets a really good precedent for the inclusive culture on campus.

For the spring semester GBO is only 4 days but in Autumn it’s 7 days. I would recommend arriving in the US a few days before GBO starts so that you can get your bearings and get over your jetlag. Even as a pretty extreme extrovert, constantly meeting new people at GBO then coming home to a house full of strangers and a roommate got pretty exhausting towards the end of the four days.  

I think that’s all the tips I’ve got for now but feel free to contact me (hcre398@aucklanduni.ac.nz) if you’ve got any specific questions and I’ll do my best to get you an answer.

Until next time, 

Go Bears!

Fiona: Challenges even before leaving the motherland (and why it’s totally worth it)

Greetings from the Bear territory, y’all!

I see that a lot of essential topics have already been discussed so I will not talk about them but I can really only stress that you should have a read through the other blog posts to get an understanding of the expectations you need to have. When it came to deciding what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it, the posts have been incredibly helpful as pretty much all organisatory things have been covered! Harvey’s advice on preparing for classes is also very useful, my classes are exactly the same (relatively large workloads, no recordings, no tech allowed, expectation to participate, etc).

A very excited me on the day before Golden Bear Orientation in front of the Sather Gate.

Anyhow, since I am the first BioSci student to go to Berkeley from UoA I have come across a pretty unique challenge that I wasn’t adequately prepared for so I have decided to share some insights on to other BioSci students that are considering applying for Cal. Please bear (haha) with me whilst we encounter a slighter drier topic than I had anticipated in my first blog post: organising the academics. This is including me having to worry whether I am even going to be able to go until about 4 weeks before my departure! But fear not, like my undergrad advisor said during tear-filled meetings with me; “just keep going, I promise you it’ll all be worth it in the end!”

A quick snap of part of campus, we often need to walk from one end to the other between classes and I easily get 10000 steps each day just from attending my classes!

Now here is the tea: Bio classes at Berkeley are either solely theory or solely practical and, since practical classes (labs) are a requirement for all students, the seats are reserved for the specific majors, no exceptions. However, UoA doesn’t approve Bio courses as equivalent unless there’s some kind of lab involved during the exchange as at UoA, all Bio courses have a theory and a practical component. Unfortunately without a UoA full-time course load, the exchange doesn’t get its final approval from our faculty. I quickly saw my dream of having intellectually stimulating conversations with Jennifer Doudna (the co-inventor of CRISPR-Cas 9) vanish into thin air, especially after being rejected for concessions by 2 lecturers at Berkeley and desperately running between UoA’s Bio and 360 departments for literal weeks. After many emails with UoA Bio and various lecturers at Berkeley, I finally found a Microbiology lecturer that was happy to have me in his lab. Everything fell into place very suddenly and a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders.

A meme shown during Golden Bear Orientation. You’ll see what this means when you get here 😉 (GO BEARS!)

Now to the present time and a slightly more delightful topic, classes here at Cal! The variety and very odd specificity of classes was what interested me in Berkeley in the first place and I was not disappointed. I have one class that is literally about only Microbial Genomics and Genetics and another one on Bacterial Pathogenesis! Whilst I sometimes feel a bit behind, no student or teacher seems to be getting tired of any of my questions so I’m learning a lot just by asking follow-up questions all the time. What’s even better is that everyone seems to love Microbiology just as much as I do! It’s easy making conversation with people when they like hearing random fun facts about local bacteria. It has been very enjoyable nerding out with people and learning from them, especially since a lot of the students have student jobs in real labs and have lots of interesting stories to share. Getting involved in the labs and conducting research is a very normal thing here and students from all levels and backgrounds can participate. I myself am very excited to be able to have a project lined up and will finish the blog post with a promise to keep y’all updated about the project!

Sciencey regards… and GO BEARS!!

Harvey: Final thoughts at UC Berkeley

Academics

The amount of work that is required of you as a UC Berkeley student honestly came as a surprise to me. The most significant difference in terms of academics between UCB and UoA is the way that the courses are structured. At Berkeley, there is a greater emphasis on homework and class attendance (i.e. coursework), whereas UoA generally places a much higher weighting on our final exams. Berkeley also tends to be more old fashioned, preferring blackboards and overall less use of online/digital resources, such as lecture recordings and piazza that we take for granted back at home. Ironically, I probably have the highest attendance rate over the 15 weeks on the exchange than any other semester that I’ve completed. 

Travelling

As most of the classes at Berkeley weren’t recorded, it was a bit difficult to plan trips during the semester, aside from the occasional thirty-minute BART ride to San Francisco. It’s probably best to travel during the Thanksgiving break, or before and after the semester. That being said, I did end planning some last-minute trips to Chicago for a weekend and LA over thanksgiving. I’d recommend finding friends and planning your trips early in the semester to save on airfares and accommodation costs. Do be aware that for budget airlines, carryon bags may include an additional fee (only the personal item, e.g. backpack is included in the ticket price). 

Another handy tip: make sure to extend your friend group outside of just exchange/international students – the locals might be able to show you around!

Sunny day in Chicago
My first NBA game!

Transportation

Getting around the Berkeley area is relatively easy; each student is given a student clipper card, which allows free transit via bus around the east bay area (Berkeley + Oakland mainly). A campus shuttle is also available to students free of charge, and they operate very late into the night (for those late-night study sessions). If you do plan to travel around the bay area, the BART (bay area rapid transit) is your best friend. Just load up your clipper card at the stations, and you’ll be good to go. Another great way to travel around is by using the lyft bikes! They’re super convenient, students get a one-month free membership, and you won’t have to worry about getting your bike stolen.  

Biking around the SF piers

Food

I found that the food options around campus were quite pricey and weren’t very good (in my opinion). There are better restaurants in the downtown Berkeley area, as well as Oakland, which has heaps of great Korean restaurants. And yes, the bubble tea/boba culture also exists in Berkeley, with numerous places to get your fix if that’s what you’re into. Also, for full-service restaurants where the server takes your order, and you pay at your table, don’t forget to tip! They usually expect a tip of around 15% depending on the service (and how generous you’re feeling). 

Overall

Ultimately, my semester at Berkeley was one of the most challenging and rewarding of my university career. Just as I had acclimatised to the Berkeley life, my four months here at Berkeley has come to an end. Leaving is bittersweet; I’m excited to see my friends and family back at home again, but I will inevitably miss the friends I’ve met here at Berkeley. I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to expand my horizons, grow as an individual and meet life-long friends.

Getting all the paperwork (visa/course approvals/housing/insurance, etc.) sorted will be tedious, and you may find it hard to accommodate yourself in a new environment. But it honestly is a once in a life-time experience (when else in your life will you ever go on a university exchange again?) that isn’t to be missed. I’d highly recommend anyone thinking about going on exchange to go for it. 

I hope my blogs have been useful and informative to you. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions about life at Berkeley as an exchange student. Thanks for reading!

Goodbye Friends

Harvey: Accommodation and Dorm Life

Welcome back to the blog! I’ve just finished my first set of four midterms, and they went surprisingly quite well. I’ve got a couple of weeks before my next set of midterms, so I’m planning to take advantage of this to do a bit of relaxing and travelling. In the meantime, I thought it’d be helpful going through the accommodation options and dorm life here at Berkeley.

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Trying In-N-Out for the first time with my roommate

Accommodation

As an exchange student, you can either choose to live on-campus housing or find your own apartment/flat off-campus. Off-campus housing is typically cheaper (and more pleasant for the price you pay), but will involve much more work on your end; you’ll need to make sure you don’t get scammed, and you will probably need to view the property beforehand. Both of which may be difficult if you’re not already in the states. Furthermore, since most housing contracts are usually 12 months, if you’re only exchanging for one semester, it may be difficult to find another tenant to replace you when you leave. On the other hand, on-campus housing tends to be quite pricey for what you get, but I find it to be much more convenient and an excellent way to meet other students. On-campus housing also includes a meal plan, so you won’t need to cook.

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Maximo Martinez Commons

There are quite a few university residence halls to choose from, ranging from dorm-type to apartment type halls. To my knowledge, the units 1, 2 and 3, as well as foothill (and some others), are all freshmen (first year) dorms. Since all exchange students are classified as juniors/third years, no matter what year you’re currently in at Auckland, don’t bother with these. Some university apartments, along with Blackwell and Martinez, give priority to transfer and students second year or above, so I recommend applying for these instead. The newest residential hall is Blackwell, which I also find to be one of the nicer ones from the list. Another option available is the International house (or I-house), which has a separate application process. I-house residents have their own separate dining hall, which, in my opinion, has the best food.

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My side of the room

In my case, I was allocated to a double dorm room in Martinez commons on the south side of campus. When you apply for housing, you select your top five housing choices, with your last choice being any location any room type to get priority housing. It is essential to apply for accommodation before the housing deadline to ensure you get priority housing. This means that the housing department will guarantee that you get a room, although it may not be on your preferences list. For some reason, I received my university login details (required for the housing application) a day after the housing deadline closed. I still managed to get on-campus housing through constantly emailing the housing department, so I’d definitely recommend keeping in contact with the university when something doesn’t work out. This doesn’t only apply for housing, but also for your course enrollments!

Dorm life

Like many of the other students, I wanted to live in a single room with my personal space. Unfortunately, the Berkeley ‘housing crisis’ only allows for double/triple rooms if you’re not trying to break the bank. There’s quite a lot to get used to, and of course, it depends on who your roommate is. Some people never get along with their roommates, and others get on great. You would also need to get used to their different schedules (sleep times, etc.) and their good or bad habits. In this aspect, it’s vital to communicate with your roommate. Other things to get used to are the unisex bathrooms, and people studying in the study lounge late into the night, starting from the second week of classes. Sometimes it’s a struggle to find an empty study room since everyone’s on the grind. Residential halls also tend to offer free events and prizes to its residents. All in all, I highly recommend living in a residential hall or apartment just for the sake of meeting more people!

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Introducing kiwi slang to the locals (through my amazing art)

As you may have realised, there are heaps to get used to here at Berkeley! Don’t be afraid of reaching out and asking for help, there are plenty of resources out there. Feel free to contact me at hlin583@aucklanduni.ac.nz if you have any questions about accommodation or Berkeley in general.

Thanks for reading!

Harvey

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View of Berkeley and the bay

Harvey: First Impressions at UC Berkeley

Before I begin first my post, I’d like to say that if you get into Berkeley, be prepared to work hard. If you’re looking for an exchange experience with a chill workload and have plenty of time to spare for other activities, don’t choose Berkeley. This school is exceptionally academically challenging (at least for engineering) and will push you to your limits. None of my classes have lecture recordings, and the number of resources provided to students is much less than back at home, especially for upper-division (3rd/4th year) courses. But if you’re thinking of exchanging here, you’re probably expecting to be academically challenged… right?

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View from the top of the Campanile

Most people know UC Berkeley or Cal as the number one public university in the United States, and Berkeley is geographically stereotyped as the campus “just 30 minutes’ drive” from San Francisco. However, in reality, the City of Berkeley is a stark contrast from the bustling high rises of San Francisco, being ranked in the bottom 20 for safest cities in all of California. Student housing here is very pricey, and the actual accommodation you get is not of high quality, considering the price you pay. The streets are dirty in comparison to Auckland, and you tend to see many homeless people in the area. That being said, I don’t feel particularly unsafe in the area, and the university offers plenty of services to make sure you get home safe. There’s quite a bit to cover here on these topics, so I’ll probably return to these in my future posts.

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Welcome to UC Berkeley!

GBO (Transfer Edition)

The first date on which the semester starts, according to the academic calendar, marks the first day of GBO (Golden Bear Orientation). As an exchange student, I attended the same orientation program as the other exchange students, rather than first-year students. Unlike UoA, where there isn’t a specific timeframe for people to transfer into the university, Berkeley transfer students typically move after the end of their 2nd year. Since I am also living on campus, my orientation group also consisted of people living in the same building as I was. This is great for meeting people that you’re probably going to see around a lot in the same building. I found this week to be quite enjoyable and met many friends that I now hang out with quite often. The activities sometimes ran until midnight but aren’t all compulsory, apart from the ‘bear pact’, which everyone must attend. Even though they are not compulsory, I recommend visiting some of the events just for the sake of meeting new people.

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GBO Group 607! (or what’s left of it by the end of the week)

Furthermore, as part of the transfer-student orientation, we can choose from a list of companies to attend a company tour or a tour of the Bay Area. Make sure you check the dates to see when the form releases, since spots from the well-known companies fill up very quickly! There are some great companies such as LinkedIn, Goldman Sachs, etc., and this presents an excellent opportunity to network. As I couldn’t find a company relating to my studies (I applied late), I visited an Australian architectural company called Woods Baggot, which was quite interesting.

American Football

Having never watched a football game in my life, I attended the opening home match between Cal and UC Davis. As you all know, football culture is huge in America. Hot dog stands line the streets up to the memorial stadium (where the match was being held), and everyone wears some form of Cal merchandise to support their team. I still don’t understand the rules, but it was fun to experience the school spirit!

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Grateful to be sitting in the shade

Overall, the first few weeks have been very full-on, but I have found the experience so far quite meaningful. Keep an eye out for my next blog post to follow my journey here at Cal. Feel free to contact me at hlin583@aucklanduni.ac.nz if you have any questions on the application process or anything in general about the university as an exchange student.

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