Considering a semester in the States? Top tips for studying at UC Berkeley from a student who has done it before

20 Jul 2017 - 10:45

Raeesa Triegaardt spent a challenging and rewarding four months on an academic exchange at UC Berkeley. Here are her top tips.

Raeesa seeing the sights of Berkeley and San Francisco

I arrived in Berkeley on 16 August 2016 and left on the 19 December. From beginning to end, this experience was so surreal, special, challenging, and rewarding in so many ways. Given the chance, I would do it all again. Here is what I learnt from my time there:

Getting around

  • If you are travelling to and from the airport, skip the BART (a subway-type transit system in the Bay Area to Berkeley). It is much more convenient to take a taxi or Lyft.
  • Berkeley and San Francisco bus systems can be rather confusing so download an app like Moovit.
  • For travelling to and from San Francisco, the BART is a quick and easy option. While I was there, it cost US$8 for a round trip from Berkeley to San Francisco.
  • To get to and from far-off places in the city, take a taxi, Uber or Lyft. You  should also try  the Muni Cable Car.


Move-In Day is when all students, typically freshmen, move into their dorm rooms.

  • If you are arriving before Move-In Day – like I did - book temporary on-campus accommodation.
  • While I highly recommend applying for residence hall accommodation, you should also consider applying for the International House. It is exclusively for international students and from all years (not just freshmen). Spaces fill up very quickly so I would recommend doing your research and applying timeously.

Budget, Budget, Budget

I received a US$6000 scholarship and all of it was spent on housing fees. Fortunately, my parents made up the difference, covering expenses like essentials, groceries and textbooks.

  • For extra money, get a job like I did at Pat Brown’s, a campus restaurant
  • It is important to note that, as an Exchange Abroad Programme student, you are only allowed to work at an on-campus job.
  • To be paid, you will need to apply for a Social Security Card. However, all of this information will be given to you should you apply for an on-campus job.
  • I would recommend buying a mattress protector as well as an Ethernet cable (the Wi-Fi connection can be a bit precarious).
  • For all other essentials, visit IKEA, Target, Walgreens and CVS.

Raise that GPA

Although the standard is very high at Cal, everything you could possibly need for help and assistance in your studies is widely accessible to you.

  • It is vital that, should you find that you do struggle with your academics at UC Berkeley, reach out for help and talk to your professors about your worries and issues.
  • The academic staff are extremely friendly and want the best for their students so they will do what they can to help.
  • Make friends with the people in your discussion sections and lectures.

Being Social

Maintaining a social life and making friends may be one of the most difficult tasks of your exchange. The best thing to do is to make the first move. Start with your roommates, then your floor mates, and finally your classmates.

  • Join as many clubs and societies as you can and make connections.
  • By saying a simple “hi” to the person you sit next to in class can make the world of difference.

I made one of my best friends at my first club meeting of the UNRAC (United Nations Refugee Agency At Cal) and we ended up doing everything together – I even spent Thanksgiving with her and her family in Los Angeles!

Getting Around San Francisco

There is no doubt that you will be spending a lot of time in San Francisco (SF) should you be going to UC Berkeley. Some of my favourite places in SF are:

  • The Golden Gate Bridge
  • Fisherman’s Wharf
  • The Westfield Mall
  • The Mission Dolores Park (try some ice-cream at the Bi-Rite Creamery right opposite it)
  • Castro District (they have rainbow zebra-crossings!)
  • The California Academy of Sciences
  • Union Square

Emotional Health – Staying Positive

Exchange can be an incredibly stressful and challenging time. Staying in touch with your emotional health is so important and will greatly benefit your stay. Some of my tips for this are to congratulate yourself on your little victories, take a break after a long day, find a local snack that you will not get back in South Africa and indulge (mine was Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Golden Grahams), reach out to your roommates or any staff on campus if you need some help. Remember that this experience is meant to push you, but it is completely worth it and will make you grow exponentially - you can do this!