Studying at a top public university in the US

Snapshot_20100109_1-1Continuing with our series of guest blogs, we have a Korean student narrate how he had to realign his expectations when he switched from a private high school in Asia to the top-ranked university in the US.

There are valuable pointers for anyone aspiring to take that route.

If anyone asks, “Which is the top university in the United States?” you get the usual answers: ‘Harvard’, ‘Princeton’, or ‘MIT’. Discrepancies do exist in judging the single best university since every institution has its distinct learning atmosphere that cannot be assessed nor compared in terms of mere scores and numbers.

However, if one asks, “Which is the top ‘public’ university in the United States’, a consensus is easily reached. Despite the recent financial crisis and reduced support from the government ever since the late 80’s, the ‘University of California at Berkeley’ (a.k.a. UC Berkeley or Cal) still stands firm in its position as the top public university in the nation. With this thought in mind, I was full of excitement and expectations for the college I was going to. I couldn’t wait to spend four years of college life at “Cal”.

Well, that emotional wave did not last long. As soon as I said goodbye to my relatives who accompanied me to Berkeley, I realized that I was on my own. Not to mention that all the welcoming people were gone after two days of move-in period – only a few pages of pamphlets lying around the dorm remained. I felt lonely! It was not the typical loneliness that one encounters as part of their transition from high-school senior to a college freshman. I was feeling both lonely and disappointed – the picture of Berkeley I had drawn in my mind was a pleasant, joyful place crowded with talented students sharing academic and non-academic issues. Well, frankly speaking, UC Berkeley seemed dead!

Lectures were no different. As I stepped into the lecture hall, it reminded me of a popular concert that consists of a large audience. Roughly 300 students were attending the lecture. In addition to the threatening number of students at the hall, everyone was preoccupied with listening to the professor; I couldn’t talk or make friends with anyone. After a series of intimidating lectures, I came back to the dormitory, discouraged and exhausted. I longed for an outlet to relieve stress, but all I could find at the dorm was my roommate. The sense of belonging at this university was completely absent, and I started having second thoughts about this institution, which I never had before coming to Berkeley.

Looking back right now (after a year), I am really enjoying my life at Cal, I can confidently say that it was my expectations of the public university that was the main reason for my disappointment. Educated in the private institutions from the first year of elementary school, I was not familiar with the system of public education. Compared to private institutions, public institutions are a step closer to society, where you are absolutely on your own. And so is the case in UC Berkeley. Private universities aim to provide a high quality of service to every single student. On the other hand, public universities do not exactly strive to provide a service of education to everyone, but rather offers an opportunity for the best education possible for those who desire it and are determined to learn. People refer to today’s world as the age of limitless competition. Indeed, UC Berkeley imitates today’s society where only the strong survive and make the most of the given environment.

Today, I am actively involved with student activities and classes at UC Berkeley that I strongly feel involved at the top public university. Although the huge classes are still uncomfortable for asking questions and engaging in active discussions, I now go to the professors’ office to talk to the professor or clarify doubts. After the lectures, I go to the ‘Student Learning Centre’ to work as a tutor. I am also involved with various kinds of club activities such as Korean Studies Club, International Students’ affair, etc.

The key to becoming an engaged student in a public institution is being an enthusiastic, self-motivated and passionate student; a quality most of Cal students have. Staying idle and complaining is not going to do anyone any good, but once you start looking around for opportunities to learn, experience or get together with inspired students, you realise UC Berkeley is the right place to be at. Courtesy its outstanding faculty, students and academic resources and the fourth largest library in the United States, the school offers plenty of research opportunities and can help you to realize your potential to the fullest.

There’s an old saying, “God helps those who help themselves” and that’s exactly what you should keep in mind.  Staying quiet in the lecture, you will never be able to make a friend. Coming back to dorm straight after class is the last thing you want to do, because there are so many valuable experiences outside the lecture halls – student organizations, hobby clubs, undergraduate researches, outings, speeches and much much more.

Take the initiative and do anything that you enjoy. Once you learn to participate and be a part of those school activities, the sense of belonging eventually follows.


Hyuk Ki (Harris) Shim
Economics and Statistics -Class of 2012
University of California, Berkeley

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