Halfway through UCLA
Experiences & new things learned in my two years as a Bruin
The past two years have unquestionably been the best years of my two decades on the Earth. I’ve had the privilege of calling one of the most beautiful, innovative and vibrant places, home.
UCLA has been much more than an educational institute for me. It has been a source of happiness, a place of endless opportunities where there is infectious energy at each corner. There is so much to do at this school. So much to learn, so many amazing people to meet. Four years is simply not enough to fully utilize it.
It is, therefore, bittersweet that I’m halfway through UCLA.
I thought of writing about my experience because of many reasons. I want to share some unique things that can be done at UCLA with prospective students, incoming freshmen or people curious about UCLA. Another reason is that I was compelled to document the incredible time I’ve had so far as a Bruin. This is my attempt to capture the gist of my first two years at UCLA, while it’s still fresh in my mind. This article highlights some unique things I’ve learned and experienced. Things that are a part of my Bruin story.
Being in Clubs and Organizations
With over 1200 student organizations, UCLA has the bragging rights for having one of the most active and diverse student bodies in the US. At the Enormous Activities Fair each year, passionate members of these organizations hand out flyers to students eager to join clubs. At my first Enormous Activities Fair, I was overwhelmed by the number of clubs and the barrage of flyers thrusted towards me. Way too many clubs sounded really fascinating to me. I remember wishing that I could clone myself and join all the clubs I wanted to join. Since that wasn’t really doable, I came up with another strategy: pick two clubs for a longer term and experiment with one new club or activity each quarter. So far, I’ve sort of followed this plan.
The two organizations I decided to join for a longer term were Bruin Entrepreneurs(BE) and UCLA Association for Computing Machinery(ACM), the former for meeting people interested in starting new ventures and the latter for learning technical skills. At both these organizations I met and became friends with amazing people. In Spring quarter of freshman year, a few members of BE decided to start a new initiative for connecting diverse creative people. This initiative, Creative Labs, is now a very fun and innovative club with over 100 participants each quarter. At ACM, I not only learned skills but also got a chance to be on the board and contribute for the tech community at UCLA.
The other extracurriculars I did were pretty diverse. For instance, I joined Film and Photography Society for a quarter and worked on the Visual Effects for a short film. I was amazed to see the kind of planning that went into each shot of that short film. People in Film and Photography Society are experts in cinematography, editing, direction and sound design and I’m sure a lot of them want to work in the film industry. Another quarter, I enrolled in Krav Maga classes at UCLA Recreation and learned a bit of the Israeli martial art. I also joined Daily Bruin, our student-run newspaper which has won several awards for being the best college newspaper in the nation. Out of all the quarter-long clubs I joined, the one I enjoyed the most was SLAM! at UCLA. At SLAM!, you’re paired with a student teacher who gives you free one-on-one lessons for guitar or piano. My lessons were absolutely wonderful and I learned quite a bit of guitar in a short time span.
The reason I’ve mentioned all these clubs is to testify that UCLA has experts in literally everything under the sun. If you look around, you can find experts in film-making, martial arts, journalism, music and I bet even underwater basket weaving. Clubs and organizations have kept me engaged with talented people and have pushed me out of my comfort zone. I’ve made close friends, learned new skills and grown as a person because of these.
Meeting great People
A popular adage proclaims that you’re the average of the people you surround yourself with. I truly believe this. Over the past two years I’ve been moulded by the groups of people I’ve interacted with. One of the first groups I became a part of was of people on my floor in Dykstra Hall. Every night at 9:30pm, about 15 people would be in my dorm room and we would discuss our days, rant about how hard our courses were or simply study. From random people on a floor, we transformed into really close friends and decided to live in adjacent rooms in our second year.
What’s most interesting is that in this group of about 15 people we have about 10 different ethnicities and 10 different majors. Now, it is hard to believe that just two years ago, 100% of my friend group was Indian and wanted to pursue some sort of engineering career. The new diversity of people in my friend group has shaped my perspective by exposing me to different ideas and cultures. Over the past two years, I’ve been a part of quite a few tight-knit groups at UCLA. I’ve seen people grow and I’ve grown with them.
Apart from forming relationships with students and professors, I have also had opportunities to interact with some great minds who come to share their knowledge with students. For instance, I got a chance to ask a question to the exemplary Silicon Valley venture capitalist and UCLA alum, Ben Horowitz. Some other interactions that are memorable are a dinner with serial entrepreneur, Ellie Antoun, and listening to a talk by Gary MacDougal. Interacting with such accomplished alumni and hearing about their journeys has been very encouraging for me as I can see how UCLA shaped their lives.
People make or break experiences. If you put in a little bit of effort here, UCLA will connect you with great people who would make your experience amazing.
Hackathons fascinated me ever since high school. The idea of going to different universities and building something in 36 hours straight with different people was extremely appealing to me. My fascination coupled with the fact that a lot of hackathons pay for your round-trip, led me to many inter-collegiate hackathons. Over the past two years I’ve had the chance to participate in great hackathons at Stanford, UC Berkeley, Cornell, Michigan, UPenn etc. The best hackathon in my (biased) opinion is UCLA’s LA Hacks.
Perhaps one of the very few hackathons held at an Olympic venue, LA Hacks is my favorite because of many reasons. The magnificence of Pauley Pavilion is one of them. The renowned speakers, workshops, great food and the overall experience are some others. Even before coming to UCLA, I was determined to contribute to LA Hacks. So joining the LA Hacks organizing team was on my agenda.
Saying that my journey with LA Hacks has been amazing would be an understatement. It has been an absolutely phenomenal experience that is hard to describe. Organizing a huge, 3 day event for 1200 people from across the world is very complex. What makes it even more complex is that we start with almost $0 every year. Fortunately, the organizing team is full of passionate, hardworking and really fun people and even challenging tasks like raising money become exciting because of everyone’s enthusiasm. For over 6 months, the organizing team plans a range of things like applications, food, transportation, sponsorships, logistics, design and the overall experience of the people who attend LA Hacks.
To give an example of the kind of things that happen at LA Hacks––some of the episodes of the show Silicon Valley were aired at LA Hacks 2016 before anywhere else in the world. Plus, some of the cast came for a panel! A lot of sweat, sleepless nights and GPA points are spent for organizing this event. But it’s incredibly fun. I had a great learning experience while managing the hacker experience for LA Hacks 2017. Paying attention to detail, communicating effectively with teammates or potential speakers, and doing multiple things parallelly are some things I became better at.
Along with hackathon organization and participation, I’ve been actively involved in what I like to call ‘Hackathon Evangelism’. By various methods, I’ve tried to persuade different people to try what I really love. For instance, I was supposed to row-walk at UCLA sorority houses for asking people to volunteer at LA Hacks. Instead, I also tried to get the house members to apply and hack at LA Hacks. For those of you not familiar with row-walking, imagine a sea of well-dressed girls at dinner and me, standing in the middle, awkwardly selling them something completely different from what they are used to: a hackathon. This experience is very vivid in my mind and I’d call this exercise a success if even one girl out of the hundreds of girls I spoke to became interested in hacking. Another of my efforts to encourage people to try hackathons is my TEDx Talk on ‘Why Everyone Should Hack’ (more on that later).
Learning New Things
Every single day I learn something new at UCLA. Courses here are very engaging, especially the Computer Science courses. Some of my professors have been beyond impressive. Learning Data Structures from the co-inventor of Norton Antivirus or Computer Graphics from an Oscar Award winner are the kind of opportunities UCLA CS students have. Over the past two years, I’ve learned computer science from some of the best people in their fields. It is funny that the more I learn about computers, the less I feel that I understand them.
Apart from my major courses, I’ve taken some really fascinating courses that have expanded my perspective. My favorite non-CS course so far has been Music 15: The Art of Listening. In this course we learned how to understand and listen music effectively by exploring different kinds of music. Every week we had guided performance-lectures by guest artists from around the world. Some of these performances were pure entertainment. This course has encouraged me to listen to music from different eras and areas.
Another course that I thoroughly enjoyed was Art History 23: Modern Art. My professor was extremely passionate about art pieces and his energy radiated during lectures. To give an example, he was once talking about the emotions in a painting while using his stick (as thick as a pool cue) to emphasize different parts. To express the intensity of the emotion, in a stroke of passion, he hit his pointing stick on the screen that the stick broke in half!
Since I had never taken an Art History course before, I had never really learned to appreciate art. But AH23 made me stand in front of Picasso pieces and make notes for formal analysis of artworks. So while I still don’t fully understand art, I’ve definitely learned how to appreciate it. And, I can differentiate Monets from Manets.
UCLA offers an array of exciting courses taught by some of the best people in the world. The courses I took made me write a bit about music, art and film, something I would’ve never done otherwise.
Giving a TEDx Talk
I was incredibly lucky to be invited to speak at TEDxUCLA 2017. I’ve grown up watching TEDx talks and when I got the invite, it felt unbelievable. On top of that, TEDxUCLA was being held at Royce Hall! Royce Hall is one of the most beautiful and magnificent pieces of architecture I’ve ever witnessed. It is symbolic of UCLA and has a rich history of speakers and performers including Albert Einstein, John F. Kennedy and Coldplay. The feeling of standing on the Royce Hall stage and facing over 1500 people is hard to describe. Honestly, I’m more proud of the fact that I gave a talk at a packed Royce Hall than that I gave a TEDx talk.
I learned a lot about public speaking, speech-writing and confidence while preparing for my talk. The life experience of delivering it is invaluable.
Again, this was possible only because of UCLA. I was given an opportunity that I couldn’t even have dreamt of, two years ago.
(If you haven’t seen my talk, go watch it now: ‘Why Everyone Should Hack’!)
UCLA has been a lifestyle for me. A lifestyle of learning, collaboration, innovation, excellence and trying new things. I’ve got so much more than I could have asked for from a school. Now, I’m excited to see what the next two years have to offer.
[EDIT: I wrote a continuation of this story about 3 years later to conclude my time at UCLA: https://mihirmathur.medium.com/half-a-decade-at-ucla-1b3eaeb686aa]
Hope you enjoyed reading about some of my experiences!
A thing to note is that I tend to focus a lot on positive things in life. Because of that, almost all the experiences I write or talk about are usually very good. This does not mean that I haven’t had any negative experiences, failures or rejections in the past two years. My objective with this article was to give a glimpse of a few good parts of my UCLA journey. For the freshmen reading this, I hope this encouraged you to make the most out of UCLA by trying different things!
Thanks to my friend, Sam Wolf, for proof reading and giving great suggestions!
If you liked this piece, check out more of my writing at www.mihirmathur.com/#/writes