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Allan Che

SFU Student Undergraduate
Applied Sciences
Study Abroad

Experience Faculty
I met students from all over the world congregated in one place. Everyone was friendly and approachable; I could start chatting with strangers in the dining hall.
Experience Details
Introduction + Preparation

I did not have much to pack. Some notable items included a week's worth of clothes, a laptop, phone, toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, towel, shampoo and conditioner, slippers (for showering and using the bathroom), school supplies, a pillow and blanket. Many students purchased pillows and blankets after arriving in Berkeley to conserve luggage space.  

Travel and Transportation

I commuted via BART from the airport (SFO) to the Downtown Berkeley station. No transfers were necessary, and the ride took about an hour. I recommend loading an electronic Clipper card (equivalent to our Compass card) before arriving in California. That way, you can board the BART immediately upon arrival. I lived at the International House (iHouse) which was, approximately, a 25-minute walk from the station. I encountered some other students that were also heading to the iHouse and shared an Uber with them. As such, I didn't have to drag my luggage across campus. 

After I arrived at the iHouse, I was given a physical clipper card. You can use this card to ride the buses around Berkeley for free! However, you still have to pay to take the BART or other buses outside Berkeley's proximity (such as in San Francisco). It's helpful to note that the "F" bus travels from the Berkeley campus to San Francisco (terminus station at Salesforce Park) and it is free for students. 

There are a few shuttles that operate around campus that are also free for students. They are useful if you do not want to or feel unsafe walking at night. 

Preparation Tips for Future Students

I intended on taking classes at Berkeley from May 21 - August 12 (Session A + D). However, the class got cancelled in less than one week before it began. I had already booked my departure and return plane tickets without cancellation accommodations. Because I did not want to pay thousands for another Session A course that I disliked and that will not constitute SFU credit, I decided to attend my Session C (June 18) class instead. As a consequence, I lost a few hundred dollars on my plane tickets because I had to purchase new ones. Class cancellations are very rare, but they can happen. It is important to have a backup class or purchase plane tickets that allow modifications/cancellations. I was, however, able to change my I-20 and housing session dates without any fee. 

I bought an eSIM on Amazon before I arrived, which was convenient because I could access cellular data immediately. The eSIM only lasted one week, so I transitioned to a T-Mobile phone plan instead (I got it installed in-store). Mint Mobile has some cheap phone and data plans, but unfortunately, they could not process my credit card. Many students use Mint, and they all recommend it. It is owned by T-Mobile and is significantly cheaper.

During my Experience
Orientation and First Weeks

I took two classes: Math 110 (equivalent to SFU Math 338 Advanced Linear Algebra) in Session C (June 18 - August 11) and Theatre 5 (Public Speaking and Presentation Skills) in Session D (July 3 - August 11). Course codes numbered 0-99 are lower division and 100-199 are upper division. My math class had 36 students and my public speaking class had 24. Class sizes are generally smaller during the summer because most Berkeley students do not take summer session classes. 

The instructor for my math class is a GSI (Graduate student instructor). Despite Berkeley's world-class reputation in mathematics, they did not have a professor assigned to teach the class. I was slightly disappointed because the tuition is astronomically high. I suppose the silver lining is that my GSI created relatively easier exam questions compared to previous offerings of the course. 

For Theatre 5, my elective, the instructor was a professor at San Francisco State University that was teaching in Berkeley during the summer. She had great energy, was immensely supportive and made everyone feel comfortable. If you attended all the classes, you get an A. I don't think this is reflective of all the courses at Berkeley, but it made the course stress-free!

Accommodation and Living

I lived on campus at the International House (iHouse). The iHouse is not directly affiliated with Berkeley's dormitory housing program; I had to apply separately on their website. It is not difficult to secure an offer at the iHouse during the summer because not every room is occupied. It is located on the southeast corner of campus and all my classes were within a 10-minute walking distance. I chose the iHouse because it has an excellent reputation for food (and I can confirm: in terms of dining hall (buffet-style) food, the iHouse is the best on campus). People were approachable and friendly. You can sit down at a random table during breakfast, lunch or dinner and strike up a conversation with strangers from all around the world. I met over 50 people in one week just by doing so! Also, I was shocked to learn that I was the only Canadian exchange student living at the iHouse during the summer! Most residents were from China, Korea, Japan and Singapore. 

I paid USD 4,675 (via wire transfer) to live at the iHouse from June 18 to August 12 (Session C) in a single room. In other words, USD 85 a night. A double room would cost USD 3,575. I applied to live in a single room because I am very sensitive to sound. Despite living in a single room and sleeping with earplugs, I still woke up multiple times in the middle of the night from the closing of doors. The walls are paper thin. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are included on weekdays; brunch is served in place of breakfast and lunch on weekends. On holidays, only brunch is served. Note that the iHouse is more expensive than a regular dorm. There are cheaper housing options, such as student co-op housing—but they may be unsanitary. This is because previous residents are expected to clean their rooms before moving out, and not everyone does. 

Day to Day
Weekly Schedule

Here is my weekly schedule! (Note that I did not have my morning class for the few two weeks, as it is a Session D course). As you can see, on some days I had classes for five hours. My morning class was long, but the workload was minimal. Hence, my math class in the afternoon proved to be much more exhausting, despite its short duration. 

Every day, I would wake up at 7:40 a.m., brush my teeth, and head down to the dining hall for breakfast. If I woke up late, I simply took a piece of bread and made a beeline for class. After Theatre 5, I returned to my dormitory to eat lunch. Some students in my class also lived in the iHouse, so we walked back and ate lunch together. Then, I had approximately two hours to work on my assignments. On some days, I stayed in my room to save time; on other days I worked in one of Berkeley's (30)! libraries. When I got stuck on a math problem, I attended the peer tutoring sessions at the Student Learning Commons.

Berkeley operates on "Berkeley time," which means that classes start ten minutes after their specified start time. So my 4:00 p.m. math class commences at 4:10 p.m. Thus, I started walking toward my math class at 4:00 p.m. After class, I headed back to the iHouse's library to re-read lecture material that I did not fully comprehend. Sometimes I gave up because the content was too difficult. However, only after giving myself an honest attempt at understanding the material. 

I started to eat dinner from 7 to 7:30 p.m. The dining hall is packed during dinner; I tried to see if I knew anyone—and join them, if I did. Otherwise, I attempted to strike up conversations with some students whom I hadn't met.

After dinner, the time approaches 9:00 p.m. I tried to find activities to do before bed. On some days, someone on Discord hosts a board game night at their residence. We had a few "Mafia" game nights at the iHouse, which were fun and great for meeting people. Some other notable weekly events include: attending a concert (Louis Tomlinson), grabbing late-night snacks with other students, seeing the fireworks on July 4th, and doing sunset hikes. 

Most of the "bigger" trips I did were on the weekend because I didn't have class. 

I would begin my nightly routine from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m., depending on what activities I had prior. I made an effort to prioritize social events over sleeping, so I did not get adequate sleep (less than six hours) on some nights. I do not regret this decision, as I was going to be in Berkeley only once in my life. 

Learning and Adaptation

Every student I met in Berkeley is incredibly ambitious, intelligent, and talented. I met a student that took four majors simultaneously. I met another that can work for 20 consecutive hours without complaint. In class, I noticed that more students ask thoughtful questions—not simply clarification questions, but questions that extend past the scope of the material because they are genuinely curious. It is incredible to be surrounded by humble high achievers, but it can also be quite intimidating. It is a very different atmosphere compared to SFU. 

Because I was only in Berkeley for eight weeks, I wanted to prioritize social events over studying. I've been a massive nerd at SFU and Berkeley was my vacation : ). Hence, I tried to visit someplace new every weekend. 

Social and Extracurricular Activities

During the summer, official campus events were uncommon. The only one offered was the campus scavenger hunt. 

I found that groups at the iHouse can be cliquey. Many students are coming from the same university or country. As a result, they gravitated toward one another. Some hangouts felt a bit exclusive. I think it's important to take the initiative in asking others if they're interested in visiting a particular place. Regretfully, I seldom took initiative and relied on others to ask me to hang out. 

Outside of the iHouse, I made some friends on Reddit and Discord. There were a few Reddit posts created by other exchange students looking for friends. Not everyone on Reddit is responsive and some are flaky, but sometimes people will be interested in meeting up. This summer, there was a "student hangout" Discord where students would plan impromptu meetups. Someone could ask "anyone down for boba rn" at 11 PM and people indeed would be "down."

The campus has excellent hiking trails, such as the Big C and Fire Trails. These short hikes are great to admire a sunset over the view of campus. 

San Francisco is about an hour away from Berkeley via transit. The Golden Gate Bridge is a must-see. Other tourist spots include Pier 39, Lombard Street, The Painted Ladies and the Palace of Fine Arts.

You can rent a car via GIG Car Share for just over USD 100 daily, gas included. With five passengers, this works out to be $20 a person! Using this car-sharing service, I travelled to

  • Point Reyes. Gorgeous views of cliffs and exquisite blue water. It is only an 80-minute drive from Berkeley. 
  • Half Moon Bay. Popular tourist area south of San Francisco. The beach here is popular; lots of folks come to relax and take a dip in the ocean.  
  • Stanford University. Honestly, the Berkeley campus looks better in my opinion.    
  • Mount Diablo. 80-minute drive east of Berkeley. We planned on hiking up the mountain but it was dangerously hot to do so (38 degrees Celsius+) and thus ventured up via an Uber instead. The view at the summit was mediocre. Dry and barren California land. 
  • Mount Tamalpais. We hiked up this mountain and back down to Stinson Beach. Craziest day of my life—we took an Uber to the hike BUT no Ubers or Lyfts were picking up from Stinson beach. We got stranded and had to hitchhike back to Berkeley. The couple that picked us up was incredibly warm and kind. They got stranded a few years back at the exact location and also had to hitchhike home. And they were reciprocating the favour by picking us up. We were so grateful for their generosity because they did not plan on heading toward the direction of Berkeley. Lesson learned: Check that Ubers/Lyfts are operating from your intended pickup location to avoid becoming stranded.  
  • Big Sur. 3-hour drive from Berkeley with a collection of state parks. Most known for Bigsy Bridge. The drive along the highway is quite scenic.

There is a very cool semi-circular structure on campus, colloquially known as the "echo chamber." It is in front of the Valley Life Sciences building. If you stand at the center edge and speak, you can hear your voice amplify. Even some local students do not know about this!

Raleigh's is a local pub where many students like to congregate. They have "Taco Tuesday" on Tuesdays where they serve cheap tacos! (I heard they're subpar. I only went for the social experience, not the food).

You can go kayaking for free at the Berkeley Marina, a 30-minute bus ride from the iHouse. They only operate during the weekends.

Wrap Up

Everything in Berkeley is fast and abundant. The campus is vibrant and lively, with students scattered throughout. Delivery of lecture content? Accelerated. Opportunities to socialize? Plenty. I talked to more new students in a single week at Berkeley than I did in a typical year at SFU. I visited more places during my exchange than I did in a normal year in Vancouver. And I learned a whole semester's worth of upper-division mathematics in two months!

Reflection & Tips

Studying at UC Berkeley was my first time travelling alone so it was definitely out of my comfort zone. I did not know anyone at Berkeley. Because I was in California for two months, I wanted to meet as many students as possible rather than develop a close bond with a few friends—I knew it would be difficult to maintain long-distance friendships after I returned. 

I believe I made the right decision in prioritizing hangouts over school. However, I still felt FOMO (fear of missing out) for events that I could've attended, such as trips to Yosemite and a few Taco Tuesday nights. In retrospect, I should have practiced cultivating more gratitude. Berkeley was very face-paced, and I incessantly asked myself: "what's next, what's next" instead of processing all the experiences I had thus far. 

Most Valuable Aspects of This Experience

I got the meet the most talented and brilliant students I've ever spoken to in my life. It was invigorating; it made me realize what students can be capable of when they are dedicated and passionate about a particular discipline. Whether it be creating a start-up in machine learning, taking four majors simultaneously, or competing nationally at solving Rubik's cubes, there is no shortage of exceptional ability at Berkeley. I got to speak to people with impressive knowledge, interesting opinions, compelling mannerisms and hilarious jokes. I would not have known such individuals existed in this world if it wasn't for Berkeley. It was an absolute delight meeting them. 

Advice for Future Students

Tip summary: Get an eSIM, book flights that allow cancellation, ensure that Uber/Lyft vehicles operate at your destination (don't get stranded like me!), check weather conditions, and have fun!