I’m sitting here on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. As an undergraduate student. Specifically, I’m on the fringes of Lower Sproul Plaza. From where I sit I spy the steps from where Mario Savio ignited a movement decades ago…when I was in kindergarten.
But I’m not so much in a place as I’m in an organism. A living, breathing organism. Sitting 3 feet from me is the smart Korean young woman–clothing and make-up impeccably styled. A few moments ago, as I lunched, my personal space was invaded by a young Chinese man, acutely unaware of the fact that he had made me physically uncomfortable as he nearly knocked my food off the table. He was simply sitting down to eat—as he has done so many times in his own crowded culture and space. And he respectfully and quietly ate his meal. Profoundly unaware of the “American” cultural rule he had broken.
Berkeley will never be a place for me or for any American that has heard of it. When I was admitted, I needed to look on a map to find the “place” where the organism lived. As I sit in the heart of this living phenomenon I witness the fluidity of the movement—the suburban Caucasian freshman, Jansport slung over his shoulder, plodding to his next class. I see the first-generation Hispanic student, defiant and proud, staking his rightful place in this body, this being. Here now is the Japanese boy in the library, painstakingly reviewing an encyclopedia on American History…that same part of the body, that same student earlier asking the renowned professor if the class he is taking will be too hard for an ESL student.
I was assigned to a Facebook group for Transfer students. Yesterday, after the first official day of classes, the posts generally reflected a profound angst—an anxiety concerning if we really belonged here. Is it too hard? Are we really supposed to be here? Can we make it? Are we imposters? Will this body, this organism, like a white blood cell attacking a foreign invader, reject us?
I felt none of that. As a 56-year-old white male, I felt at home. Yes, the coursework is brutal. Yes, the academic expectations are astronomical—far greater than any we have previously experienced. But I feel home. This is what I’m drawn too. This is what I crave. This body. This intellectual curiosity. This beautiful mixture of cultures, and ethnicities and ideas. This…” place”.
That is not to say it has been a seamless transition. Just as I experienced discomfort with the student at lunch, I’ve also felt discomfort in the long lines and the nearly total invasion of personal space in the ill-fitting lecture hall seats. I’ve felt, generically, out-of-place based simply upon my age–a disparity that I’m reminded of by some young person or administrative employee here on a nearly daily basis.
But these are small prices to pay for admittance to this body…to this organism. To this center of intellectual growth. Without question, aside from the birth of my children, my first few days here, attending lectures, and peacefully reflecting on this campus dynamic have been the happiest moments of my life.