Definitions of Family

When I got to college, I, like most all college students, packed what I could into suitcases and left my family behind. After living with my parents and two little brothers for the past eighteen years, college would be an opportunity for me to “find myself” – and my new family. In an effort to reassure trepid freshmen that we wouldn’t be lost in the onslaught of an incoming class of six thousand students, we were reminded of an age-old adage: friends are the family you choose for yourself. The saying started popping up on sparkly, rhinestone encrusted canvases just weeks into our freshman year. Sorority big-little weeks had begun.

I joined a sorority my first week of college, and met my future big sister right away. Kelsey was smart, driven and kind. In my real family, I was the oldest sibling, and had never had the guidance of a big sister or brother for insider tips. Because she did it with such ease, Kelsey inspired me to pursue a double-major while remaining committed to a myriad of volunteer activities. In the years that followed, I became a big sister for another Sigma, and our lineage quickly grew. Fast forward to this past week, and I found myself to be a great-great-grandbig. The past four years at Cal have allowed me to build my own family, helping cement Berkeley as my home. I stayed on campus for every summer of college, thus spending more time with my chosen family than my birth family, whom I only see for a few weeks a year. But this week, my youngest brother visited Cal for the first time, allowing me to see campus through his perspective. My brother is fifteen, and had previously never traveled on his own. During his time at Cal, I tried to showcase an honest portrayal of the college experience – attending Berkeley is a mix of hard work, beautiful landscapes, passionate students and packed schedules. He ice skated for the first time ever at a sorority/fraternity exchange in Oakland, used my university-issued Clipper card to hike 400 steps up Telegraph Hill to the historic Coit Tower (no famed parrots spotted along the way, unfortunately), heard former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich lecture passionately on the legacy of discriminatory redlining practices in perpetuating income inequality, woke up at 3:45AM to the ringing of the RA duty phone to assist a resident’s lockout, and saw a glimpse of the extensive planning it takes to execute UC Berkeley’s favorite event, Cal Day.

In a memorable moment, Luke sat in on my Forms of Folklore lecture expecting to hear about spooky urban legends or familiar fairy tales. But the first slide Professor Jorgensen projected, in crisp black Times New Roman blared: “Brandes, Family Misfortune Stories in American Folklore.” We burst into laughter, and did our best to hide it. The author, Stanley Brandes, must be a distant relative of ours. If I had done my reading for the week, perhaps I would have uncovered some long-lost Brandes family lore.

This week, birth and chosen family histories swirled together. Lena, the littlest of my sorority little sisters, was picking up a little sister of her own: my great-great-grandlittle. When I looked up from my black-bean-patty-pesto-baguette at Barney’s, a local gourmet burger restaurant, and saw the generations of “little sisters”, “twins,” and “aunts” my Trophy Fam had amassed in a chattered flock of nine sorority girls, and my true fifteen-year-old brother Luke nestled in between them with his curly fries, I knew I had made Berkeley my home.