Each spring, the UC Berkeley calendar contains one dominant fixture: Cal Day. With 35,000 visitors comprising primarily of newly admitted students and their families, it is easily the single busiest day on campus. But as a waitlisted student, I assumed CalDay was just for admitted students and stayed home.
However, for current students, Cal Day represents something entirely different. That Saturday is basically a campus-wide holiday of sorts with lots of anticipation among the student body. The day is filled with celebration, and there’s this palpable energy and revelry among the student body.
But I didn’t really identify with either of these traditional Cal Day experiences as a freshman. Perhaps, deep down I subtly resented the prospective students who got to celebrate their direct admission to the campus for the fall semester; a visceral reminder of my disappointment the previous March and subsequent month and a half long wait for a final decision.
With the day waning in the afternoon, my phone popped up a reminder that read “Michael Lewis in 15 minutes.” Instantly, I sprang out of my chair, put away my laptop, and jogged down to Zellerbach Hall for that evening’s Berkeley Talk, a series of conversations with thinkers interviewed by Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, with Michael Lewis, the best-selling author of numerous books about the financial industry and sports. As an economics major who is a rabid sports fan, my fandom comes as no surprise.
I settled into my 5th row seat with my hungry, wide eyes ready to take it all in. The Chancellor came prepared with a variety of questions that allowed the audience the full Michael Lewis experience in an hour with questions ranging from his time as an undergraduate at Princeton, working at Solomon Brothers as an investment banker, his career as both a financial and sportswriter to his time shadowing the president for a few months.
As I sat and listened, two things came to mind. The first was that the opportunity to attend such a riveting and engaging talk was hardly a Cal Day special. In fact, it was a very apt showcase for the campus. In my time at Berkeley, both before and subsequently, I’ve had the opportunity to listen to renowned Egyptian political satirist and activist Bassem Yousseff, Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, table maestro Zakir Hussain, and Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson. In addition famous and exceptional lecturers such as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich and former Council of Economic Advisors Chairwoman Christina Romer grace the Berkeley stage each and every week for students.
The second was how Michael Lewis exemplifies many of the values that Berkeley and its students cherish. First off, he talked about being an art history major and joked that even back then no one thought he could get a job. Yet his career is filled with such a variety of successes that he himself can’t think of a major that would have encompassed the skills he’s used in his various careers. In addition, politically active and free speech minded Berkeley students could easily identify with his Solomon Brothers experience, during which he was reprimanded for writing newspaper columns in which he opined that investment bankers like himself received unjustifiably high salaries.
I left that evening reintroduced to the world of opportunity that Berkeley offered, much like the 35,000 guests on our campus. Cal Day, in that one hour, exceeded my pessimistic expectations and I felt like a received a tacit, but firm warning to never try to cast the campus in a rigid box again.
As I fast forward a year to this month, I find myself in a completely different place. Inspired in part by my eye-opening Cal Day experience, I’m now a campus ambassador looking forward to playing a role in shaping this year’s Cal Day. So I invite you to join me, join us, on April 16th. Because, Cal Day, like Berkeley, has a welcoming place for everyone.