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Life as a Student of the Humanities – from Dublin High School to UC Berkeley

November 8, 2022

DUBLIN, CA–When I tell people I’m studying a subject within the humanities, they usually jump to an eyebrow raise coupled with some iteration of the following: 

What are you going to use that degree for? How are you going to make any money? Wow, I wish I had an easy major too…

By now, I’ve grown accustomed to the rude comments, the derisive laughter. But the question that never fails to amuse me is this:

What will your parents think?

Anjali Pajjuri

The part they don’t know? The humanities have pretty much defined my entire existence. My parents can’t be surprised by my choice of study: throughout my childhood, my weekends were spent jousting with intrepid knights, traversing isolated deep-sea kingdoms while restoring magical objects to their rightful owners. Storytelling is, in essence, who I am. 

The first book I truly loved – a tattered copy of Shel Silverstein’s collection Where the Sidewalk Ends – precipitated my lifelong obsession with all things literary. Reading underscored every aspect of my life, from books at mealtimes to books in the shower (yes, I know!). Once, I even begged my mom to log onto a private bookstore’s website at the crack of dawn solely to get me a coveted signed edition of my favorite author’s newest release. I would spend hours poring over catalogs, drafting a mental calendar of which new releases I could anticipate for the next few months. 

In school, a particularly formative experience for me was discussing Tupac Shakur’s The Rose that Grew From Concrete in 7th grade CORE (Shoutout Ms. Healy!). That was one of the first times I was really able to move fluidly through the intersection between storytelling and social activism, even if I didn’t have the precise words for it then. It was, in essence, my first interaction with a poem that wasn’t about the changing of the seasons, or how blue the water was. There were no dragons or fleeting distractions, no high-strung plotlines or princesses that needed saving. It was a poem that was a vehicle. And in class, we’d talk about modes of retaining history, and in particular, oral storytelling. For me, a poem is that history, condensed in an accessible way. There are stories of violence and trauma in rhythm and in verse, the narratives of the relationships that have defined history. My philosophy professor said something a few weeks ago that solidified that concept: “History tells us what happened. But poetry tells us what could have happened.” 

When I entered high school, extracurriculars were where I found my home – I was the President of CSF and Drama Club, the Co-Chair of the Dublin Mayor’s Council, and a Co-Captain of our improv team, Improv the Nation. But I never succumbed to the pressures of being the perfect college applicant, namely because I had parents who taught me how to love attending school. They emphasized working my hardest while challenging myself, even if meant fumbling here and there. The only reason I took classes like AP Calculus BC and AP Biology was due to my STEM-loving older sister encouraging me to try something new – and while my grades were less than stellar, I never regretted challenging myself, thoroughly enjoying the new perspectives the courses imbued me with. 

When the time came to think about college, I was all for an East Coast, private liberal arts school education, complete with golden Dead Poets Society leaves in Autumn and a crisp white winter for December. I wanted snow boots and puffer coats, secret societies and hallowed institutions. But everything changed when I started writing poetry during junior year. After 7th grade, I continued to pursue writing fervently, albeit in secrecy for the remainder of middle school, but it was in high school that something truly shifted. During the pandemic, the discovery of digital writing forums, comprised of teenagers (or so they claimed to be), was integral to my quintessential, life-altering teenage revelation; that there were other students like me, Bat-Mans of Gotham High School who sat through Geometry by day and studied the likes of Plath and Frost by night. 

I started to pursue poetry more seriously, submitting my work to literary magazines and writing competitions. The students in these competitions? They’re fierce. They attend selective arts schools in specialized creative writing programs, learning daily from published, highly lauded authors. But unlike other aspirations that had turned stale over the years, from star tennis player to a short-lived desire to be a meteorologist, I never grew tired of stories and the words that built them. With encouragement from friends and family, I wrote diligently, and began to reap the benefits of my hard work with accolades and publications. And while I applied to many out-of-state private schools, as UC decision release day crept closer, I began to consider Berkeley’s rich history of political activism through literature and poetry. 

When I first received my acceptance letter to UC Berkeley, I was ecstatic: but doubts swiftly entered my mind. I hadn’t truly considered the implications of actually attending the school. My perception of UC Berkeley students? Robots devoid of all interpersonal skills, the same humanities-hating STEM students that I had become all too familiar with throughout high school.

I’ve been here for almost 3 months, and it’s safe to say that all initial doubts have dissipated. For starters, our humanities departments are stellar. I’ve learned more in these 3 months from my professors than I have my whole life. My classes intersect in interesting, complex ways, such as discussing the effects of literature on developing minds in Philosophy, to the ways Hegelian Philosophy works in novels in 17th Century Literature. Extracurricular-wise, I’ve found people that mirror my interests by joining Berkeley Poetry Review, Students of Color Emerging in English, and the Associated Students of the University of California. 

Fellow students are bold thinkers who challenge my thinking while encouraging me to voice my own opinions. Some of my favorite college memories thus far have been late-night discussions, accompanied by a shared bag of cheddar chips that we pass around a circle of some of today’s brightest minds. From complex topics such as defining intelligence in a technologically-advanced world, to sillier ones, like if mob is pronounced mɑːb or mɒb (it’s definitely the latter), I’ve learned so much just by engaging with my peers. And while there have certainly been a few people that are taken aback when I share my interests, the vast majority have shown me that they don’t view humanities students any differently. We’ve all made it here, and we’re eager to learn from each other – perhaps even more when we study such different areas. 

But above all else, my favorite part of attending UC Berkeley is the history that comprises our community. The birthplace of the Free Speech movement over 50 years ago, the campus is a cultural hallmark. Every day while entering Sproul Plaza, I observe thinkers from all sides of the political spectrum protesting, demonstrating, and debating with students and community members. And this isn’t limited to outside of the classroom, either. My classes explore the intersections shared by art and social change, encouraging me to challenge the status quo within my own poetry and fiction. 

I’ve never been too stubborn – changing my major isn’t completely out of the picture yet, but I know that any course of study I choose will be supplemented by a liberal arts education. UC Berkeley might not be the East Coast university I envisioned, but it beats anything I could’ve ever imagined about college. And the bimonthly, half-hour drive home with my dad in the driver’s seat, Foo Fighters on the radio, and my overflowing laundry hamper in our backseat doesn’t hurt, either. 

by Anjali Pajjuri

“In order for me to write poetry that isn’t political, I must 
listen to the birds 
and in order to hear 
the birds the warplanes must be silent” 
- Marwan Makhoul

I write about my nose because it’s all I know these days. 
Amma places okra tip bottus on my forehead
The seeds slide down our noses because they curve like bridges over water, downturned when we smile
I also know about boys who like poetry.
He admits it like a secret 
I ask 
Which kind?
He replies
Free verse, prose
Painted fingernails drift at a standstill -
Between, under, over, then; a passage about the redness of a bridge, the frigidity of the water below it
What is a girl like me to a bridge like that?
The mint bicycles through woven metal, imprinted 
Rob and Em 4Ever 2005
Triangles intercepted by more triangles, the workers asleep all the way down at the bottom of the water, star-fringed flags of car antennas signaling virtue like an anthem 
And of course there is an ocean full of dead fish and sublime water and singed wood, opera singers and vampire choruses
The boy in him wants someone to be Rob and Em 4Ever 2005 with and it isn’t me 
Because when I have a bad day, I call it a poem.
I don’t know what anyone’s laughing about.
They call it precision. This is derision
I bring my poem to discussion and white girl likes what she doesn’t understand
She wants that new-brand immigrant diaspora poetry about how we’re self-hating coconuts
I don’t know anything about that. My poem is my nose
I’m on the bridge and I don’t jump off. I smell the water and I don’t cry. That’s a poem
I’m inside the triangle self-hazarded and I discard my body to help the men build the bridge (Poem)
Maybe I’ll call that one bridge poem (the dangerous kind that they’ll have to ban in schools)
Another little brown girl gets called a man so that is a poem too
Brown girls get called ugly but never die and that’s the worst part. We’ll chop our okra-tipped noses off forever andever andover andover
I lose my credit card. It rises to the surface of the water like glass. I think that’s a poem right there 
I dream after I poem and wake up to a button pin in my wrist
2009 (re-elect)
Stab me again and again with the pronoun pin…
The best american poetry is found in the diary entries of 18-year-old girls with big noses
  1. November 8, 2022 2:40 pm

    Woohoo!! Way to go Anjali 🙂

  2. mpajjuri permalink
    November 8, 2022 2:41 pm

    Woohoo!! Way to go Anjali 🙂

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