I’m sitting at the bus stop downtown Berkeley on the phone with my sister, crying shamelessly. Well, I had some shame, but it quickly evaporated with each additional glance from a confused stranger. I moved to Berkeley, California two weeks before to start my graduate studies at the Goldman School of Public Policy, the country’s highest ranked school in public policy analysis. I should have felt lucky to be here. I should have felt proud to be among the “chosen students.” Instead I felt like a fraud.
Before arriving to Berkeley I volunteered with the Peace Corps, getting my hands dirty and fingers sticky while making delicious marmalade with an all women’s small business in rural El Salvador. My schedule as a volunteer consisted of making jam, teaching English and sitting on the porch with my host mother, Niña Nibia. At the end of each long day, we shared stories in our twin rocking chairs like young girls staying up past our bedtimes. The calming rain would dance past us, gently kissing our cheeks goodnight. My life was rich, not in dollars, but in meaningful friendships, ripe mangoes, and a deep sense of peace. Life was beautiful when I was slowly rocking on the porch smiling at Niña Nibia’s contagious laugh.
Suddenly I found myself sitting in a graduate class with eighty strangers while the professor discussed derivations and calculus. I think I took calculus in college. I think. I had just mastered the language of Spanish (pues, algo) and now I have to learn the language of quantitative analysis filled with derivatives, p-curves, and heteroskedasticity. Acutely aware I was outside my comfort zone, I was ready to flee. As I waited for the bus to arrive, thoughts of inadequacy bubbled up in my mind threatening to overflow at any moment. Take me back to that porch, next to Niña Nibia I said to no one. I was desperate to return to that peace and belonging I found while living in Central America.
After a few words of comfort from my sister, I ended the phone call and stepped onto the bus. I wiped the tears from my eyes long enough to catch the bus driver’s kind smile. I took the #7 bus many times before but I somehow missed his friendly eyes. The ride back to my house in the Berkeley Hills was windy and it was so dark I couldn’t see a thing outside my window. As my stop approached, Paul, the bus driver, bid me farewell with a sweet, “You take care now, ya’ hear,” and gifted me another gentle grin.
As I stepped out into the dark night, a small smile breathed its way into the misty air. And as I looked back, my fears faded away. What lay before me was the entire shimmering Bay, the vibrant lights of San Francisco, and the charming city of Berkeley. Graduate school was still new and unknown to me, but I realized in that moment that all of my fulfilling experiences in life have come from places new and unknown. Up in the hills, the mysterious yet comforting fog enveloped me. Gazing at the beautiful night sky, I was brought back to that Salvadoran porch. I realized my address had changed but the peace I longed for had never left me. It was hidden in the smile of a kind bus driver and waiting for me at the top of the Berkeley hills in the moonlight.
What I realized that night is that some of the best experiences in life start with a resounding “What have I gotten myself into?” Any worthwhile endeavor comes with its own set of challenges. After seven months at GSPP, I do not only feel like I belong; I feel at home. I see the world through a sharper lens and my understanding of international development—the policy area that inspired me to join GSPP—has become richer.
It is easy to let the details overwhelm you. Derivations and calculus intimidated me and I lost sight of the reason I came to graduate school in the first place. I came to learn and be challenged. I came because I care about Niña Nibia and her five grandchildren in El Salvador. I want her grandchildren to benefit from the same fundamental rights and benefits I enjoy. They too deserve engaging teachers, comprehensive health care, and clean water.
It is no coincidence that my favorite professors at GSPP have been the economists. Professors like Steve Raphael, who taught microeconomics in our first semester, and Ted Miguel, who is an expert in development economics, have forced me to think critically about solutions to global poverty, framing my experiences abroad with analytic tools and methods. There is no shortage of complex issues in development, but with the skills I’m learning at GSPP, I feel confident to humbly and honestly be a part of the efforts to improve lives and advance basic rights worldwide.