Early Impressions of UC Berkeley

This is a short documentation of how the first few weeks at Berkeley felt, after I found a place and started school. Excuse the illustration with great cell phone photos, but my even better DSLR is just too big to carry around at all times in this mountainous environment.

The Berkeley Geography

UC Berkeley is built on a hillside; in 1868, they thought it was a good idea to have it here because the campus center could be perfectly aligned with the Golden Gate Bridge. Even if the Bridge didn’t exist back then, the alignment to the channel between the San Francisco Peninsula and Marin County was just beautiful. Back then it was just the “Golden Gate”, without the Bridge. Anyway, this certain geographic choice is something you will feel the first few weeks at Berkeley – falling asleep like a dead rock at 9pm because you run up and down the hill like a madman all day long – getting your schedule, ideas, and exploration together.

This is where Berkeley is at, in the eyes of the BART.

This is where Berkeley is at, in the eyes of the BART.

The Berkeley Creek next to a weird cannonball.

The Berkeley Creek next to a weird cannonball. This is right inside the campus – if it wasn’t for the metal monstrosity, you might as well be in Yosemite.

A landmark on the Berkeley campus: The Campanile, a clocktower that offers rides to the top for free if you pay the tiny Berkeley tuition.

A landmark on the Berkeley campus: The Campanile, a clocktower that offers rides to the top for free if you pay the tiny Berkeley tuition.

There’s a little river running through the Berkeley campus called  Strawberry Creek; you will find certain spots where you can feel like you are in a national park… buying a camping chair and studying there for midterms and finals is high on my list.
If you’re used to North being up and South being down, you will get confused here – Up is East while Down is West. In the North, there’s nothing outside campus, pretty much – all dead. In the South, that’s where life is happening: Bancroft Way is full of little stores that sell you an unbelievable amount of coffee, boba (bubble tea, the best!), sandwiches, pizza, more coffee, copy services, and lots of caffeinated coffee. The intersection of Bancroft and Telegraph is busy all day, and you’ll find a ton of people, a ton of bicycles and some crazy Christian wannabe-Jesuses there.

On the West End, we have three competing movie theaters, a lot of homeless people, some small markets and pharmacies and more copy services. This is actually the gangland of copy services, which became so popular and powerful that all other businesses have to pay protection money. But, this is where the subway departs, and where no classes happen – so it’s always either a bus ride or a 20 minute walk away if you come from or have to reach something of actual relevance on campus. An exception to this cross-campus commute to advanced public transportation are the psychology students, who have to study in an incredibly ugly building as a trade-off for their exquisit geographic location. Little known fact to people who don’t live in the Bay area: Berkeley is a neighborhood away from Oakland (remember the tear gas incident of Occupy Oakland) and a 20 minute subway ride on the BART to get to Downtown San Francisco.

The California Memorial Stadium in its final minutes, as previsualized in "The Dark Knight Rises"

The California Memorial Stadium in its final minutes, as previsualized in “The Dark Knight Rises”

On the East end of campus, you will find an absolutely massive football stadium that has been smartly built directly on the Hayward fault line – causing a Dr. Doom scenario by Batman’s best friend in case of an earthquake. Seismic experts call the stadium an appreciable life hazard, which is an excellent source of protein.

Also up there is the spanish colonial build of the I-House, where we international students can come for more coffee in case Bancroft Way evaporates, or to solve visa and language issues. Not to forget, the massive Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which is owned by the Department of Energy, has an annual budget of $650 million and is the site of the first romantic encounter with enriched Uranium, which made Berkeley the birthplace of the nuclear bomb and intellectual home camp of the Manhattan Project. A Big “C” is built on that Hill; they most likely wanted to write “Cal” but the budget for “al” had to be reassigned and be invested into engineering an invisibility cloak for the incredibly ugly Architecture complex close by on campus. That research project was unfortunately unsuccessful, and there’s reported cases of spontaneous eye cancer in passersby of this structure. A much better idea to perish is to enter the Steam Tunnels under UC Berkeley, and studying architecture in this building must feel like studying rainforest preservation on the moon.

Wurster Hall, home of the Architecture School at Berkeley. Caution: Looking at this so-called building for longer than a few seconds will severely impair your eye cell's fertility.

Wurster Hall, home of the Architecture School at Berkeley. Caution: Looking at this so-called building for longer than a few seconds will severely impair your eye cells’ molecular structure.

The Berkeley Culture

When I initially got here, I expected a lot of hippies, drug addicts, drug experimenters, intellectuals and geniuses. What I have found so far are Hipsters, Intellectuals and Stoners. Mostly intellectuals though, which is awesome; and the occasional genius among them. Hippies seem to have moved south decades ago, as there’s very little tree-hugging going on. It is quite a culture shock when you spend your first day’s lunch break at the campus cafeteria and you hear three hipster dudes next to you not talk about chicks or movies, but about the role of religion in society and public policy (this really happened). Or when you’re outside at 1am with your housemates and some random girl joins in, and the conversation flip-flops between an immense need to buy cigarettes, the viability of a fabric printing service that could monopolize among sororities and fraternities, without any segway between the topics; collective multitasking with conversation topics is forced onto every newcomer.

The great participation in student-run organizations and fraternities in action: Rain or sunshine, they are hustling for new members.

The great participation in student-run organizations and fraternities in action: Rain or sunshine, they are hustling for new members.

There is a solid research culture, with huge labs all around the place, some even with windows you can look through and compete with your moist breath for visual dominance on the thick glass separating you from million dollar machines and research projects. One thing that will shock you is the persistence of fraternities – not to slap the hell out of you when you want to apply for them during “Rush Week”, but to try to get you to join them. The entire idea of frats and sororities being exclusive seems to only exist in some sort of secret society underground; all the spanking has been illegalized, and now that frats can’t use violence in initiation rites any more, the pool of masochistic wannabes dried up. Fraternities and Sororities actually have to market themselves to get prospective newcomers at Berkeley.

That means, there’s about ten tents of people that have nothing better to do all day than try to make new members join their fraternity. They’re there five days a week in the first month or so, for like six hours a day, and come with promises that can be summarized as “Join us to become a better entrepreneur” “Become a better Christian through being in a frat” “Become a better American Pacific Islander by joining us boys” or “We will not spank you, we use whips”. On a special day of the semester beginning called Calapalooza, these frat dudes and sorority gals are joined by a massive batch of about 120 student-run organizations (good turnout for about 400 registered organizations). The crowds are massive on Calapalooza, and anything flies here: Charity work clubs, volunteer work clubs, engineering with elementary school children clubs, film clubs, christian art clubs, christian film clubs, Calpirg, drum clubs, dance clubs, dance clubs for Asian students (?), entrepreneurship clubs, business clubs, investment clubs, … you name it. Four clubs/organizations were especially interesting to me:

  • GIANT Filmmakers – the Filmmaking club of Berkeley
  • CalSol – a team of mechanical and electrical engineers that builds a solar-powered car with 80mph top speed every two years
  • CalTV – a mini-TV-station on campus that distributes original content online
  • Daily Cal – the campus newspaper with over 200 people volunteering to produce a daily print publication.

The Berkeley Classes

Classes here are like … classes in pretty much any other university. In the film program, classes are usually around 30 people (with 10 in  a senior seminar being the lowest); some math classes I peeked into had about 250 students in there. The professors are really well-educated and knowledgable, lots of them are real researchers and all of them are absolute geeks on their field. If you’re looking for a film production program, you will encounter about 10 tungsten lights under 1K, four 4ft-KinoFlos, one small corner Cyclorama Wall and a decently sized classroom that has been rebuilt into a wannabe-studio. That’s about it; you get access to the film equipment only if you are in a workshop or take one of the beginner’s video production classes. Berkeley’s film program is about film studies – history and theory. Not production.
But – if you can create your own production experience, the theory being taught at Berkeley is amazing. And if you get a chance to take Film 140, you get to learn about Sound in Film from adjunct professor Mark Berger, who won four Academy awards for Sound Mixing. Actually, he’s got the best ratio of nominations and wins in history, 4:4. He’s quite the perfectionist, and whatever he tells you is most likely made of pure gold with a sprinkle of platinum sonic coating.
My other classes are…

  • Film 151 – Charlie Chaplin and Woody Allen in a crossfire ensemble of comparisons in their filmic style, celebrity personality, preference for very young girls, and personal history. Very interesting, since they both are landmarks of comedy, and since I have seen so little of their great work before this class.
  • Film 105 – a Senior Seminar in Silent Film, taught by a German guy who loves to use the word “fascinating” and who is fascinatingly smart, excited and knowledgeable, especially about the early years of cinema. The class consists of only 10 people, which makes for a very productive atmosphere, we work with primary literature and draw exciting parallels between the Lumiere brothers and Youtube.
  • Film 25B – the History of Sound Film is quite a long and internationally complex one; in this quite “quick learn, quick turnaround” class we  get our brains stuffed with influences of politics on filmmakers, and the historical developments of various styles. Quite important to know, especially when you’re able to parallel history with present-day situations.