Probably for decades, high school seniors lucky enough to get into Cal have been subjected to two things: profuse congratulations and a specific question from that conservative authority figure, perhaps a teacher or an uncle. The question usually goes like this: "Berkeley? So you're going to become a hippie/stoner/hobo now?" This is usually followed by a hearty laugh reveling in one's supposed wit.
I got all the congratulations, but definitely not the question. The commentary was far more pointed. My favorite teacher, who had gently poked fun at my political views all through high school, chuckled sarcastically, "Oh, you're going to have fun with all the liberals!"
Like many refugees from communist countries, I've always had a deep appreciation for the freedom this great country affords. This background has led many of these refugees-Cubans, Vietnamese, Russians-to become committed conservatives. So it was natural for those who knew my views to be surprised to see me matriculate to Berkeley, a famed bastion of leftism. More than that, they thought the political atmosphere here (or at least the one they imagined) would be something I could not tolerate.
In fact, the decision was not difficult. Berkeley was the best school I got into and offered a tremendous value for the money. (It really does-far inferior schools charge as much in tuition a year as Cal does in four.) Simple as that. The politics never figured into it.
I did think about that factor-both town and gown indeed have a reputation for being intolerant of dissenting views, namely conservative ones. I recall when enraged protesters forced their way past police barricades, preventing Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu from making a speaking engagement at the Berkeley Community Theatre. I remember when eminent Islamologist Daniel Pipes had his lecture on campus disrupted in a vile fashion.
But I also knew that any reputable university, outside of a few Christian institutions, is predominantly leftist-a function of the basic fact that both youth and education correlate positively with leftist political views. Now, certainly some universities are more in-your-face with the activism and consequently less tolerant of opposing views. The opposite is also true, and one might think that a less political environment, such as the one that exists at UCLA or USC, may be better for students with views outside the youth mainstream.
Of course, why have differing views if nobody cares anyway? As one of my professors, a former Bush 41 speechwriter, told me, there is no better place to refine one's political views than in a hostile environment.
That argument only goes so far. I did not want to go to college to promote any political ideology or to "create change." My goal was to do well in school, get my degree and have a good time while at it. I knew none of that had anything to do with politics.
My freshman year, I was not disappointed. Sure, I had talks about politics with my floormates in the lounge. Many found my views alternatively appalling and humorous. (Some still fondly recall when I would, a forty or two into the night, sing "Rule Britannia" to commemorate the lost glory of British imperialism.) But my politics never defined my relationship with the people I have encountered here. Simply put, I do not feel I have been treated differently by anybody I know because I'm a conservative.
This is partially attributable to one of my favorite features of Berkeley-its size. Because it is so huge, you can find exactly the type of people you like to interact with, activities you want to be involved with, etc. For example, I don't find the students heavily involved with political causes to be ones I enjoy spending much time with. So I don't have to. Conversely, if you're somebody who wants to be especially involved, you can easily find the outlet for that.
Let's go back to that snarky authority figure cracking jokes on how Berkeley is filled with hippies and communists. More likely than not, he is stuck in a view of campus straight from the '60s. I don't think everybody was particularly involved back then either, but you won't hear much about the kid who took his classes quietly, avoiding the campus activism. But the causes were certainly more engaging then than they are today.
Most of the discontent that has fueled Berkeley activism recently stems from tuition fee hikes. As unpleasant as they are, they lack the same ability to galvanize students in the same way free speech issues, the Vietnam War and ethnic agitation did in the '60s. There is just no issue today that has the same ability to inspire apathetic students.
This has been one of the most politically active years in Berkeley's recent history. We've seen rallies, marches, riots and a divestment battle. Yet we can safely say the spirit of the '60s is behind us. Instead, we have a campus where it is equally easy to get involved in politics, as it is to avoid it.