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Danielle Sobkin

UC Berkeley to Beyond

Since I’m considered ‘too political’ of a graduate for UC Berkeley’s commencement speeches, I’d like to share the speech I hoped to give at my graduation ceremony.

I want to start with a confession. One that might have the admissions office reconsidering the piece of paper I’m about to receive. But seriously…please don’t.

The so-called genesis of my Berkeley story is a bit unconventional, not marked by the academic rigor one might expect but by a memorable mishap that now defines my journey and how I’m here. In an effort to decide my future academic home, I embarked on a last-minute campus visit with my mom, hoping to absorb the scholarly atmosphere of Cal, 4,000 miles away from home. However, our timing was impeccably poor. Unbeknownst to us, we had chosen April 20th for our quant, Mother/Daughter visit. For the uninitiated, 4/20 at Berkeley is less about quiet contemplation of academic pursuits and more about a vibrant celebration of…horticultural enthusiasm.

There we were, my mom—a woman whose resilience was shaped by the trials of the former Soviet Union—suddenly enveloped in the day’s festivities, which bore little resemblance to the scholarly environment we had anticipated. As we navigated through clouds of fog and groups of students celebrating with a zeal that could only be inspired by the botanical, my mom turned to me, a look of utter disbelief painted across her face, and whispered, “Ты с ума сошли?!” which in Layman’s terms means, I was out of my mind if I was coming to this school. The irony, of course, is that here I am, diploma-bound, living proof that the most enlightening decisions often begin with utter disbelief and a healthy dose of parental persuasion.

The day unfolded like a scene from a sitcom we never knew we were starring in. We navigated a campus alive with spirit, past groups of students engaged in passionate discourse on the virtues of photosynthesis (or so I assume), and through clouds of…let’s call it ‘school spirit.’ My mom’s eyes, wide as the textbooks I’d soon learn to worship, her expressions ranging from bewilderment to outright confusion at finding herself an unwitting participant in Berkeley’s unofficial plant appreciation day. “Is this what they mean by higher education in America?” my mom whispered to me in a mix of horror and shock

Yet, through the laughter, the incredulity, and yes, even the second-hand contact with Berkeley’s “natural fog,” a decision was made. And I remember the very moment. It was the following morning, coffee and croissant in hand, and back on a campus that now felt, looked, and smelled quite different. We sat on a bench tucked away in the Physics courtyard and on it read a plaque, “The 2016 Berkeley Physics Senior Class invites you to sit and contemplate. May your time in this courtyard lead to your own epiphany moment.” 

While Physics has always been my academic nemesis, I must admit, I developed an instant fondness for the 2016 Physics Senior Class that day. Like any high school senior faced with a decision that will shape the next four years, I was in desperate search of a sign, a subtle hint from the universe, nudging me towards a decision. “Should I?” was the question lingering in my mind, seeking an affirmation to leave behind everything comfortable and familiar, to embark on a journey 4,000 miles away to a place where the unknown is embraced, and exploration is the norm—a place where every challenge is an invitation to grow, and every curiosity leads to discovery. 

And so, my journey at UC Berkeley began—not with the solemnity I had envisioned, but with a story that would become a cherished part of my college experience. It taught me that sometimes, the path less understood, less conventional, and yes, a bit more clouded, can lead to the most extraordinary destinations.

As I stand before you today, I can’t help but thank my mom for seeing past the fog (literal and metaphorical) of that April day. For recognizing that at the heart of Berkeley’s vibrant and occasionally bewildering traditions lies an institution that has seen me through late-night existential crises, coffee-fueled study marathons in mainstacks, and helped me uncover a passion so fiery it occasionally prompts my family to check the smoke alarms.

So, here’s to the unexpected detours that guide us to our destinies, to the moms who stand by us through every bewildering turn, and to a university that teaches us that education, in all its forms, is truly a thing to be savored. To the Class of 2024, let’s remember that success is not linear, nor is it guaranteed. It’s the product of our resilience, our willingness to embrace the unexpected, and our ability to laugh at ourselves when we land in Berkeley on the one day we probably should have stayed away. Cheers, UC Berkeley, for being the most academically unorthodox, profoundly enlightening adventure I never knew I needed.

About the Author
Danielle Sobkin is a student at the University of California, Berkeley pursuing a double major in Data Science and Economics. With a deep connection to the global Jewish community, she has served on the Hillel International Student Cabinet (HISC) and works as a Data Scientist with Jewish on Campus (JOC). As the daughter of Soviet refugees and a first-generation student, Danielle draws inspiration from her unique background and aims to connect with others through her writing. She is passionate about conveying the importance of Jewish Joy in everyday life and creating a more inclusive and understanding community.
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