For Berkeley’s new students, a lesson in why they’re here

On a sunny afternoon at the Greek, incoming freshmen and transfer students contemplate their futures at Berkeley. (UC Berkeley photos by Cailey Cotner)

On a sunny afternoon at the Greek, incoming freshmen and transfer students contemplate their futures at Berkeley. (UC Berkeley photos by Cailey Cotner)

Some 7,000 new freshmen and transfer students are looking ahead to the fall semester at UC Berkeley, and several thousand of them kicked off their first week on campus with a trek to the Greek Theatre for the 2014 New Student Convocation, an opportunity to meet campus leaders, future friends and even, as Chancellor Nicholas Dirks suggested, potential life partners.

Joseph Greenwell

As the last tuba player exits the stage, Dean of Students Joseph Greenwell — bowtie obscured by his academic gown — welcomes new students to UC Berkeley.

As students moved into their new digs over the past weekend, “I began to see connections already being forged among you,” Dirks told a large, festive crowd Monday, adding that “sometimes, you’re going to meet your partner right in this group here… Alumni tell us this over and over again, so you have to believe us.”

“But take your time,” he advised.

On a sunny late afternoon, an informal procession of incoming students snaked their way along Piedmont Avenue, on to Gayley Road and finally into the Greek, where the California Straw Hat Band was gilding its brassy marching-band repertoire with crowd-pleasing, tuba-centric choreography. The hourlong event would be bookended by a vocal rendition of “Hail to California,” as performed by the Golden Overtones.

In between, the chancellor shared the stage with a dozen deans, faculty members and others who will help shape the new students’ careers at Berkeley, including ASUC president Pavan Upadhyayula, a fourth-year molecular and cellular biology major and pre-med student. Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Claude Steele told the new undergrads that he, too, is relatively new to Berkeley — having arrived after a distinguished career at Stanford University, mention of which drew good-natured jeers from the crowd — as did Joseph Greenwell, recently named Berkeley’s dean of students after holding the same position at San Francisco State University.

Sounding a recurring theme, Greenwell urged the new students to reach out to him and others as they navigate the adventure and challenges of the Berkeley campus. In case they don’t recognize his face, he said, “look for the bowtie,” or find him on Facebook or Twitter.

Dirks, in a talk that touched on such serious topics as diversity, free speech and sexual assault — and, of course, Berkeley’s academic excellence and public mission — stressed the importance of community.

Chancellor Dirks

Dirks: “Reach out. Engage. Connect.”

“Our annual admissions process is not just a numbers game,” he said. “What we seek to build is a community of committed learners, thinkers, doers and believers who, for all their diversity — and we celebrate that — are bound together by a common connection to all that this great university represents.” That means not merely taking advantage of the campus’s resources, he said, but making “a substantial contribution as well, both to our community and, indeed, to the world itself.”

“Reach out,” Dirks told the members of the classes of 2018 (freshmen) and 2016 (transfers). “Engage. Connect.”

Claire Kramsch, a German-language professor, Distinguished Teaching Award winner and founder of the Berkeley Language Center, praised the myriad intellectual delights ahead. “You are about to embark on a voyage of discovery,” she promised..

Then, lest any of the budding scholars feel daunted at having enrolled at one of the world’s great universities, she added some heartfelt reassurance.

“This,” she declared, “was the best decision in your life.”