The Mentee

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[Niklas Lollo, ERG Graduate Student]

It’s my second year in ERG. That may not be a long time, but trust me, I kind of know what I’m doing. Not only do I have a full year of graduate studies under my belt, I’ve been on this campus for going on my eighth year. So when I talk about UC Berkeley, my heart swells with pride and my brain explodes with knowledge. Those are probably why I was chosen to be a peer mentor this year.

Officially, the mentor committee assigned me to Alicia and by golly, I’ve given her some really, really good advice. I always tell her: get involved. Reach out to professors, attend other departmental colloquiums, have meaningful conversations with whomever, wherever, whenever. Explore the bounds of this institution. And definitely apply for every fellowship that might be remotely tangentially related to your interests. Can you shoehorn a background of theoretical physics into a grant studying Chilean farmers? As a mentor, it’s tough to say, but you know what isn’t: You lose 100% of the times you don’t try.

And Alicia has definitely followed that advice, no doubt. Bright future. V bright future. But this post isn’t about her – it is about someone else, another newbie who just oozed go-getter-ness, never-satisfied-ness, knowledge-spongey qualities.

To tell you the truth, I didn’t notice these qualities in him at first. I just thought he was another ERGie coming in, trying to change the world and some-of-that jazz. You know the type: passionate, driven, coordinating complex experiments with institutions across the world. Yeah, they’re great and all (and if you’re reading this, you’re great and all), but I’ve seen it, I know it, I can smell it. They can’t handle the possibility this program provides. They miss out on events and collaborations and relationships each and every day. They refuse to open their eyes and take the roads-not-taken (why don’t they program some model to figure out if that’s even possible? Now there’s a Master’s project).

So this young man, two years my senior, but still eager to listen, to soak up my knowledge, came to me in the break room. I was eating a quinoa salad; he had a PBJ. He asked me something so simple, so basic, “What advice do you have for someone like me?” And I blandly stated, “Get involved.” But I could see the hunger in his eyes (persisting post-PBJ), so I followed it up without words but rather a sustained look, and he knew: emails.

That’s right. At ERG, we receive thousands of listserv emails. Most of us (to borrow a phrase from the wonderful short story, “The Lord of Gmail-ia”) archive their souls without a second thought. A sociology colloquium – who needs Foucault? An article for the Energy Institute – sorry they wrote the same thing last week. BERC’s blast of a billion business opportunities – archived. Actually, deleted. Actually, unsubscribed.

But this newbie did what no one else at ERG has even dreamed of doing. He said yes. And yes and yes and yes. He reworked his schedule, so he could pack his schedule. Within 6 hours, ERG-Events-and-Opportunities fused with his Google Calendar to form a mega-can’t-be-controlled-calendar, overtaking neighbor calendars and even spilling over into Seigi’s (ever the helper). Some poets tell you what’s important is the space around words. Well, there was none in his calendar. Hell, there was no space in his brain, so crammed with deadlines and so packed with ideas he probably wasn’t even ready for.

He took on a few intern undergrads to manage his schedule and knock-out comments to articles, attend events as his surrogates and house visiting scholars for 8 months at-a-time. He AirBnB’ed a room in the East Asian library to not miss a moment of action. He applied for a job at the Stockholm Environment Institute. He got it; he took it. He also took the CPUC internship. He also took the PGE job. It’s not corrupt; it’s being a yes-person.

After a week or so, to some observers in the halls of ERG, he looked spent. To cite their biased evidence: he hadn’t showered in days (hey, no one sends emails about showering). His one pair of jeans had become ragged; his only shirt had disintegrated into a mesh net. His breath reeked of too many tuna sandwiches; his beard hoarded crumbs from those same sandwiches, and his left shoe was a bag of chips. His left hand clutched a pamphlet from a campus Socialist organization. In his right rested a notebook covered with scribbles on top of scribbles on top of mental maps and math equations and email addresses. Kay and Megan could be seen sending email whispers back-and-forth about his health. Others noticed, said nothing, judged.

But no, I thought, this guy gets it. Look, eventually he’ll stabilize. He’ll get a few more URAPs to take a load off. But really, if you’re going to come to an interdisciplinary department to get an “interdisciplinary” education, you need to get between and around and within the disciplines, wear 57 “hats,” maybe even go transdisciplinary. It’s hard to prescribe exactly, but all the emails we get are our interdisciplinary lifeblood. It’s time we started treating blood the same as energy and resources.

I know I’ve been on this campus awhile and may be too eager for the revolutionary departmental shake-up that Chancellor Dirks had envisioned. So maybe I shouldn’t use my mentor position to pursue dreams, but most of us remember when Dick Norgaard would say each year to the incoming cohort, “Berkeley is less than the sum of its parts.” Well, dammit, it’s high-time someone sacrificed for that golden aim. Someone has got to be the bridge; someone has got to generate the web. No one is an island, but maybe you can be a network. What else are we going to do with all those damn emails?

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