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Chancellor Christ talks student issues: Diversity, housing, anxiety

Chancellor Christ's keys to success at Berkeley: sleep, eat well, find time for family and friends

two people talk at a table surrounded by video equipment
Chancellor Carol Christ, left, talks with third-year student Savannah Ignont, middle, during a video interview at Free Speech Cafe. (UC Berkeley photo by Adriel Olmos)

Third-year pre-med student Savannah Ignont recently sat down with Chancellor Carol Christ to talk about the issues that matter to students: Diversity, housing and academic success, among others. The pair also talked about Christ’s life as an academic and administrator, and what advice she might have for students struggling to find their place on Berkeley’s campus. (UC Berkeley video by Roxanne Makasdjian and Stephen McNally)

Savannah Ignont: If you could give any advice to any student that’s coming in freshman year or a transfer student trying to get their bearings on, you know, coming to Cal’s a lot different, what would you say they should do if they are unsure about their career path?

Chancellor Carol Christ: I would first encourage students to find a neighborhood, find an academic, an intellectual neighborhood. Find a social neighborhood so you have friends who can support you. So that’s the first piece of advice. The second piece of advice I have, sounds a bit paradoxical, which is, I would say if you don’t know what your career path is don’t sweat it. I always think that students should major for love, because your major often doesn’t have that much to do with what you wind up doing in your life or your career. And to take this time is, even though, I know that many students experience a high level of anxiety this is the freest time in your life to explore, to do things that are not just your classes, but do things outside the classroom that will enable you to discover things about yourself. And then I always tell students to get enough sleep, to eat well and to find time for family and friends.

I think every student here would like to see a therapist, get mental health, but sometimes the numbers, you know, we have 40,000 students here at the university. I’m curious, if the university is working on that?

Yeah, there’s been a really interesting study that was just completed this summer by Richard Scheffler, who is a faculty member in public health, about student depression. And he shows student depression and anxiety, and he shows the numbers just skyrocketing. And his sample is Berkeley, is Berkeley’s students. And so that really, it’s on us to provide the resources to help students deal with their anxiety and their depression and so, yes we’re having staff. We’re also moving staff out to the places that students are so you don’t have to go to the Tang Center to find a counselor, so that students have more immediate access in the places that they go to class and they, you know, live and work, to counseling.

Me personally, for the African American community, I know that there are feelings of not feeling welcomed on this campus. And I also think that’s why the population of black students is so low here at CAL. And so I’m just curious, if the university has anything in order to improve that.

I believe so strongly, passionately, that the diversity of our environment is a benefit to all students, to indeed, all people at Berkeley. So, first of all, I think we need to get the numbers up. And it’s my intention to put a lot of resources into both outreach, and yield programs, in order to recruit more under-represented students to campus. But then when they get here, I think we need to create better experiences for them. First, I’m focusing on housing and wanna double the amount of housing that we have for students within the next ten years. We’re giving a lot of attention to basic needs, but as important as that, is spending a lot of resources on navigation kinds of tools. We wanna make the program Berkeley Connect, which is a mentoring and navigation program. Now, about 40% of our students do Berkeley Connect. We wanna make it for everybody. We wanna tie Berkeley Connect to classes to Summer Bridge. And we’re also starting a program that might interest you as a premed, there’s a very successful program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, which produces more under-represented students who go on to PhD’s than any University in the United States. It’s called the Meyerhoff Scholars program. And we’re using that as a model, to create our own STEM program, to both recruit and then really support under-represented students in STEM.

That’s important to me, ’cause of course you know, premed, STEM. And I do find myself being the only African American in my STEM classes and so that also makes it a little, makes me feel out of place, so it’s important to me that you recognize that. A lot of us would like to know, are there plans in order to help undocumented students on this campus? What is Berkeley doing to help them?

What we’re doing is, we are raising money privately in order to be able to give undocumented students financial aids that would substitute for the self-help requirement, ’cause undocumented students can’t work.


We also are opening an undocumented student center. That’ll be in the Spring. that will already have legal support and emotional counseling, psychological counseling, for undocumented students. But we’re gonna kind of make it a one-stop place where you can go, where all these services will be immediately available and in confidential work areas.

Will counseling be available as well?

Yes, yes, counseling will be available as well.

When are we to expect new housing opportunities for undergraduate students and graduate students?

Great question, so we are in the very active planning stages for two housing developments. One is an apartment house that somebody is building for us, and is going to give to us, which will be for graduate students. The other is a really exciting housing project that will be on the corner of Oxford and University. We’re calling it the Gateway Site. And it will be for transfer students. so it’ll have about 750 apartments for transfer students in it. Those will be the first two to come online. We’ve been doing some master leasing to try to, and when we master lease a building, what we do is, the university leases the whole building and then make it part of our housing system. So, that really helps as well. The next project after those two, the apartment building for graduate students and the Gateway Site, will be People’s Park and we’re making good progress on that as well.

So we should expect it maybe in the next five years …

Oh more than, closer than five years! I would say two to three years out.

This interview is also for the students to get to know you. I feel like a lot of students don’t know how successful you actually are. I mean, I’ve done some reading about you. I know that you are the first woman to ever be Chancellor at Cal, that’s accomplishment in itself. You also have a PhD in English, you’ve written two books, and so I’m just curious, what motivates you to be such a successful woman, and motivates you to Chancellor at Cal and work so hard?

I’ve always loved to read, I’ve always loved to study books. And I came into the Academy, because of that great love, and I loved teaching when I was an active teacher, and teaching all the time. And then I did some administrative jobs, and discovered that I really liked them. I really liked working with people. I really liked working to make things happen on an institutional scale. And so as I started doing it more, I started realizing, oh, I really enjoy this. This is very deeply satisfying to me. Now, I’m doing this job because Berkeley shaped me. It made me who I am as a person. And I’m at the time in my life when I’m giving back. And being Chancellor is a kind of giving back to Berkeley for me.

So, you say that Berkeley shaped you. I’m curious, how so?

Well, when I came to Berkeley for the first time I had never been west of Philadelphia,. I came here it was, this was Berkeley at the very end of the 60s. It was, it was wild, it was bohemian. There were a lot of hippies around. And I just found it such a freeing place to be. And it was a place that gave me a lot of self confidence, a lot of courage to think my own thoughts, and not worry that there was a correct way to think, and ways not to think. I’ve found the political atmosphere at Berkeley really liberating. And I also found the intellectual atmosphere just thrilling. Like there’s no subject in the world that there isn’t somebody here that knows a whole lot about it.

Yes, yes.

And that’s really exciting. So, it’s the combination of a social mission, which the campus has together with this very high level of intellectual achievement.

And I know a lot of students here were overachievers in high school. They worked really hard, they were leaders of something, and then they come here and everyone’s like that here. That’s something I had to get used to. But I find it as a positive thing.

Yeah, I’m really glad that you do cause some students I’ve noticed just get overwhelmed by it. They’re, so much of their identity is vested in being the best and then you’re in this whole world of the best, and it’s sometimes hard but I, I just think as you’re saying, just take that as an opportunity. You will learn as much from your fellow students, as you learn from your professors and your time here. It’s just an extraordinary world.

I will say that in the beginning I did kind of feel the way that you say that some students do. I was in shock, I was like everyone’s so smart, they’re so intelligent and they work really hard. But it just takes time. So freshmen might feel that way. But now as a junior, it’s only been day number two, but I do find the good in it.

When I asked Berkeley Alumni what’s the most important thing that you got from Berkeley, I’ve been really surprised and interested in the answer that I get over and over, which is Berkeley taught me I could do anything, And I can do it by myself. And I realized that’s a bit of a two sided coin in the sense that maybe some people wish that Berkeley were easier. But when you have a really hard thing, and you challenge yourself to do it, and you do it successfully, that gives you a kind of strength and resilience for the rest of your life.

Thank you for your time, I know you’re really busy.

Oh, Thank you, thank you for your time.