Life in UC Berkeley: Joshua Price’s Cal Eng Journey Part I
A few months ago, I heard a description of what it’s like to be a member of the UC Berkeley community that has really resounded with me. I’m not sure exactly who it came from… probably either Cal’s chancellor or one of its Nobel professors. Regardless, they described Berkeley along these paraphrased lines:
If you’re looking for a place to be comfortable, don’t come to UC Berkeley. This place never rests, never lets a mistake or injustice slip by unnoticed. Your beliefs will be questioned from all sides and you’ll be forced to face ideas you wish you never had to think about. So long as there’s one problem in this world, Berkeley will not rest.
Any Berkeley student, professor, or community member immediately understands what this lack of “comfort” means. When you walk through Sproul Plaza, people yell at you about problems around the world: warfare in the Middle East, income inequality, institutionalized racism, climate change… the list never ends. There are multiple protests each week, some of them even turning violent and resulting in tear gas that you can sense walking to class the next day. Walking around town at night you’ll see homeless people sleeping in doorways or scrounging for food.
I imagine the idea of perpetual discomfort, of others endlessly confronting your core beliefs, and of having no choice but to face the world’s most daunting problems is probably a major turn off for a lot of people. But honestly, it’s one of the things I love most about this place. I chose Berkeley over my other college options because I had never seen a place so engaged with the world’s problems on every level — not just in the classroom, but in the dorm room, in the plazas, in the streets.
Rephrased, I chose Berkeley because I had never seen any place so alive. And if I was looking for liveliness, I sure haven’t been let down. The past eighteen months have been a whirlwind of big changes and even bigger ideas. Berkeley has reshaped how I see myself, how I see others, how I see the world and everything in it; it has challenged me to the core and I’ve loved every step of the journey so far.
My First Semester
I was so ready for college.
Anyone who knew me well back in high school can attest that I was quite the independent spirit. I was rarely home, usually staying late at DHS or someone’s house for a robotics meeting or working at Starbucks on homework until they kicked me out at 1am. By my senior year in high school, I was ready to throw myself out there into what everyone labeled “the real world” — living on my own, going wherever I wanted, spending time with whomever I pleased.
So when Welcome Week at Berkeley finally came around, I loved every minute. The week before classes start at Berkeley are packed with events: orientations, concerts, panels, games, parties, and lots more. I made friends from all over the world, explored my new city, and stayed up ’til sunrise getting to know my roommates. It was an amazing launch into the world of college.
I thought all the excitement about Berkeley during Welcome Week would die off after the first few weeks of class, but it really didn’t. Throughout Fall 2014 the campus was socially aflame with two big events: the Black Lives Matter movement and the 50th anniversary of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement. These generated an excitement at Berkeley like I’ve never seen before and affected my experience as a student daily.
Studying three stories underground in the Main Stacks library, I could hear hundreds of marchers up above yelling their lungs out about injustices. Protesters stormed into my 600-student multivariable calculus lecture to raise opposition to tuition hikes. Police closed off the street I lived on for days at a time to make room for massive protests. A main lecture hall was shut down for a week by a sit-in. My roommates would come back late at night, having stormed I-80 as a part of a BLM protest. I could feel the sting of residual tear gas as I walked to class the night after police clashed with the crowds.
Compared to life back in Dublin, where the only reason I remember seeing my town in national news was for that one time the MythBusters misfired a cannonball, living in Berkeley was really something else. Being in the crossfire of huge movements like Black Lives Matter forces you to engage and think about life from different perspectives. I learned a lot about calculus, physics, materials science, and the like in my first semester, but my biggest takeaways from that semester were about the vastly different lives of people with different backgrounds and what we can do on individual, institutional, and societal levels to provide a more level playing field.
I’m majoring in mechanical engineering with a minor in electrical engineering and computer science. I chose those two focuses back when applying for colleges because it seemed that through them I could achieve a broad and practical technical problem-solving education. My impression from engineers I knew in high school was that if you have a solid foundation in math, the various disciplines of science, computer science, and design principles, you’re well prepared for a successful career in almost any technical field.
In retrospect, my experiences at Dublin High School prepared me very well for the rigor of the curriculum here at Berkeley. AP courses in math, physics, and chemistry set me up for success in the technical prerequisites (linear algebra, differential equations, E&M physics, etc). Courses in Dublin’s engineering academy equipped me with the design thinking and practical skills I needed to succeed in the hands-on mechanical engineering courses. For example, I’m taking a course in 3D modeling using SolidWorks this semester, and I already have extensive experience in 3D modeling because I used a similar software in the engineering classes at DHS.
The biggest way that Dublin prepared me for college was by helping me develop the work ethic I have today. College courses require curiosity, persistence, and intense focus. By packing my schedule full with difficult courses and time-consuming extracurriculars in high school, I forced myself to develop the mentality and habits necessary for thriving in college.
One thing in my engineering classes that has really surprised me is the continual emphasis on ethics. For example, in an introductory materials science course I took my first semester, the professor would explore concerns about the impacts of materials on the environment and public health in almost every lecture. He especially emphasized the responsibility that engineers have to make sure they fully understand the products they are making, for lives could be at stake if those products fail in any way. This adds an element of importance to my learning that I never felt in high school: if I don’t understand this concept well enough, people could die someday. This makes my education feel important in an entirely new, and much more serious, way.
Professors also frequently relate what they are teaching to current developments in the field, which makes us students realize how important and relevant the material is. As one example, my current biology professor Jennifer Doudna invented a process called CRISPR-Cas9 that has resulted in truly groundbreaking advancements in biochemistry and gene editing (she’s on Time’s 100 Most Influential list and will likely win the Nobel). She frequently references her own work when talking about fundamental biological principles and molecules such as DNA transcription and enzyme inhibitors. When she explains that new understanding into a theory she’s lecturing about could be the key to some major issue such as eliminating HIV, my interest propels to an entirely new level.
To be continued in Part II…
At the Dublin High School 2014 Senior Awards Night Joshua Price was awarded an entrance scholarship to the UC Berkeley, the Daughters of the American Revolution, Jose Maria Amador Chapter – Good Citizen Award, earned a Gael Achievement Award for the Engineering and Design Academy, the President’s Gold Award for Education Excellence, and earned Dublin High School’s Advanced Scholar Diploma.