Fall 2019: First Semester @ Cal

What happened in my first 4 months at Cal

Posted by Boyang Li on 12-19-2019


This post was actually written on January 7th, 2020. So essentially I am sitting in my room one year after the series of events happened, reminiscing the first and only “normal” semester I had at UC Berkeley. If you are looking for something on the academic side, I will post the link below for which you can be redirected to a post that concludes my EE/CS projects. My first semester was definitely a roller coaster, as I entered the school as the arrogant kid who thought that he deserved somewhere better but turned out to almost get destroyed by the intense course load and peer pressure.


I applied to the College of Letters and Science as an applied math major, and started viewing the CS 61A lectures on Youtube over the summer, thus my only two technical classes were divided evenly between math and CS; namely, I took Math 54: Linear Algebra and Differential Equations as well as CS 61A: The Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs. I also started the semester with 2 elective breadth classes but ended up dropping one on Scandinavian cultures and kept Chinese 186: Confucius and His Interpreters.

CS 61A

Academic wise, here is the specific review of CS 61A along with many other interesting EE/CS classes I took at Cal.
The recap here will be more focused on the social/cultural side of CS 61A, or more specifically, John DeNero himself. Apparently after teaching CS 61A at Cal for years, John has became the most popular professor on the campus – Every CS and Data Science major student has to take CS 61A at some point in their college life, and even if they are taking it during the summer, the will still need the help from DeNero’s open source lectures on Youtube. Denero is also quite interesting as on one hand, he is the one destroying their hope to declare a CS major for many generations of Cal students while on the other hand he is such a tall yet polite and easy-going person to chat with.

While during the online semesters because of Covid-19 the class size is not quite impressive, during a normal semester the first 61A lecture of the semester will have to take place in Zellerbach Hall, which has a capacity of 1984 as opposed to the 705 seats in Wheeler Auditorium where 61A normally takes place in.

61A Lecture 1

No, this is not some musical or concert; this is a 50-minute-long class

61A Last Lecture

Last class, significantly smaller size as more students will prefer watching the webcast during the semester

Apparently the worship of John Denero has become a culture on the Berkeley campus, especially among the CS-related communities. It can either be a superstition or a little-stition that if you worship DeNero well enough, you will score well on the tests, which makes up the majority of your final grades. I also became one of the DeNero cults after constantly watching his recorded lecture on double speed and getting destroyed by his midterms – which I think is more of some logical questions as opposed to coding ones.

DeNero Hat

Daddy DeNero(his common nickname) with a hat for Halloween

Hog Contest is one of the many highlights every semester, where students write the “AI ‘’ for their first project and compete in competition. The award ceremony is always enjoyable to watch, especially in my semester when they literally laser printed a picture of DeNero’s face, asking for his signature.

DeNero's worshippers seeking his signature

As a computer scientist, your count always starts from 0[1]

But what being presented above is not the only reason I like John DeNero (and following the trend was also not a reason). One of the most important lessons I learned from him was actually his last lecture and was nothing related to computer science. Coming into Berkeley, my first two months was surrounded by implicit yet toxic competitiveness, and it was especially intense in the CS part among Cal students. DeNero told us that when he got married, one of the most important phrases told by his mother was “John, do not compare yourself to others”. I did not realize how sincere DeNero was, and it was not until my mental health was further destroyed by the toxicity and imposter syndromes around me that I realized the importance of “Do not compare“. Perhaps the correct mindset was the most important thing I learned from CS 61A.

Denero Pic

Another important piece I gathered from CS 61A

Denero Pic

And I made it onto Overheard at UC Berkeley[2]

Denero Pic

The Man, the Myth, the Legend

Math 54

This is just your stereotypical introductory level math classes on Linear Algebra at any given U.S. college, while the last 1/3 of the class also covered contents on how to solve ordinary differential equations and partial differential equations.

What really interested me was more about the professor herself than the topic – You can learn linear algebra anywhere in the world but only from Katrin Wehrheim at Cal. She is tall, she is German, and she almost dropped out and gave up on academia so that she could be an Olympic rower. Besides directly telling me “I would not celebrate it because the entire festival is here to celebrate a genocide” when I wished her a happy thanksgiving, her approach to teaching was also interesting.

Although I taught myself in the linear algebra class back in high school [3], the book started off from matrices. Without any outside help, for almost two years I almost thought linear algebra as purely a subject on matrix computation (which is kind of true). Therefore, I was very surprised when Katrin started off the class with introductions on mapping.

It was also a time that I figured out that pure math was not for me: contents of Math 54 was simple enough as it is an introductory class while I still find the theoretical theorems boring. But thanks to Katrin’s neat handwriting and materials, I truly enjoyed the class. Although I am not a fan of theorems and how the class was structured, I had to admit that this class made my life much easier and I started to truly appreciate mathematicians than engineers when I took the introductory EE classes at Cal – a series of unfortunate disasters due to the structure of the class for which everyone hates it and is probably the reason why most EECS students chose the CS route than the EE one, no offense.

Katrin and I

Get yourself a professor who hosts office hour for 2 hours after each class

Chinese 186

Yes, I am taking a class on Chinese in an American University taught by a white professor
Yes, I thought the class was going to be easy
No, I did not get an A; I P/NPed it

I naively thought that my limited experience of Confucius’ quotes in middle school was enough for an upper-div college class, and obviously I was wrong. Despite not enjoying the content 100%, Mark Csikszentmihalyi definitely made the class better because he himself is a legend. He attended Harvard as an undergrad to pursue a degree in mathematics, and it was in his fourth year that he found East Asian studies interesting and switched his major from STEM to humanities. His classes are also very well-prepared.

The class basically delved into the ideology of Confucianism and its impact throughout the Chinese history, such as how it was modified by Zhu Xi in the Southern Song Dynasty and how it continued to impact the Chinese government in contemporary times.

Here is my final essay for the class on the impact of Confucianism on modern Chinese government. I did not proofread it so feel free to point out my mistakes.

EE 198: Micromouse

Please refer to here as I would like to conclude all my technical classes with projects in a designated post.
Great class to be honest, especially the pizza at the end of the class. I also became the teaching assisstant for Spring 2020.


Again, refer to this link
Not the right class for my major nor my future professions, but it was still cool to learn more about CAD and MechE designs.


Warning: Photo Dump[4]

GBO & Campus Cultures


My desk and bed in a triple room at Unit 3, the notorious "Unit Third World"[5]

My life, or basically every signle Berkeley kids’ life, starts with a giant program a week ahead of the school called the “Golden Bear Orientation” in which students are introduced to cultures and resources Cal has to offer as well as bonded with their GBO groupmates.

My social life during the GBO was a bit different as I not only knew a few people I knew from my GBO group and my floor, but also other international students from the Wechat group chat. Therefore, it was quite normal for us to explore the Bay Area together prior to school started together as plenty of students, especially around me, are from the Bay Area.

Lombard Street

The famous Lombard Street

Lombard Street

Visiting Stanford is always reserved

Daddy Oski

The marching band will visit each dorm to harass the students with school spirit

Ao Li Gei

Sticking Post-it notes on dorm windows to create different arts is also common among freshman students @ Cal

A major part of Berkely’s campus culture are the squirrels that you see everywhere and the meal-delivery robots storming the campus 24/7. Apparently, Kiwibots had become a signature to Berkeley.

Kiwi Campus

Everything you will experience at Cal in one picture: Kiwibots, preachers, and homeless people

Although people from Kiwibot claim that the robots are powered by AI and image recognition combined with GPS when they travel around Berkeley, some believe that behind every three Kiwibots, there is a Colombian technician in Colombia controlling the bots remotely. The robots also get in trouble a lot of the time, making themselves an essential Berkeley meme.

A Kiwibot having midlife crisis[6]

Dog: 1 Kiwibot: 0[7]

Squirrels, on the other hand, are equally likeable compared to Kiwibots. They are also more friendly than the squirrels I have encountered in Squirrel Hill back in Pittsburgh.

They will approach you even when there is nothing in your hand


This pretty much covers all essential Berkeley experiences: Squirrels, KiwiBots, and perhaps the Boba being delivered inside the bot[8]



The Bid -- an invitation to pledge the fraternity

Back when I was in high school, I would always joke especially during my senior year that I would “rush a frat”. I was not really interested in Greek life back in high school so it was more of a meme. This is not exactly Murphy’s Law, but when you instate something too many times(even for the meme), that thing will become true.

I initially decided to rush a fraternity as one of my roommates was invited to a “rush event”, where brothers of a frat would judge and attendees and give them an invitation if they thought the individual would fit in the brotherhood. However, all I wanted to do was to have free steaks instead of the not-so-tasty food in cafeterias. After attending some rush events, I received a Bid when I also realized that the people I had talked with are very different from the stereotypical douchebag frat boys. Therefore, I accepted the Bid and decided to pledge for the fraternity.

Fratty Monday

Every fraternity will require its pledges to follow a certain dress code every Monday. Therefore if you see someone dresses up formally with a pin on their chest on any given Monday, the chance of him being a pledge is very high.

The length of the pledge process is different from house to house, and in my case it was around 8 weeks. After the pledge months and an initiation ceremony, you will become an official brother of the brotherhood.


Me and my pledge brothers, also known as p-bros in many cases


Would not say "Whole gangs there" because some people were absent


ΑΣΦ was founded on December 6th, 1845, which makes the date our "Founders' Day" every year. For Nu Chapter, we are invited to a dinner with the alumni in the area

RRR Week

Unlike other schools, UC Berkeley has a whole week for “reviewing” before the final week, which allows some people to actually prepare for the finals while others will party the whole week and start studying on the Friday of the week. Officially known as the RRR week, Cal students like to call it the dead week instead. There are a lot of traditions during the dead week and the final week, including but not limited to the naked run and the post-final celebration such as shotgunning a cold one at 10:00 PM on Friday as that is when the last final ends supposedly.


Me and my boys studying for the final


A breakfast outside the Free Speech Movement Café in Moffitt Library


A curious squirrel trying to steal my breakfast


A glimpse of the aftermath of the "Semester Ending Party" near Sather Tower


My first semester at Cal was definitely a bittersweet yet memorable one, not only because it was the only “normal” semester I have ever had, but also because of the unprecedented challenges and opportunities I experienced from both peer pressure and academic workload. However, I was glad that I had made a new group of friends for life and experienced something different that I have never experienced before.

It was a semester full of challenges and opportunities.

Oh, and pictures with professors in person.

[1]: Source: Overheard at UC Berkeley

[2]: Source: Overheard at UC Berkeley

[3]: Everyone in the class basically had to read the book for lectures while the teacher only checked the assigned homework and grade the tests; it was basically an honor class for supposedly the "smart kids" back in high school and was taught only because the parents of one of the smart kid from my grade forced the school to open the curriculum -- so in some sense, I was one of the first guinea pigs. A long sentence that might make no sense and totally off the topic, I know.

[4]: For individuals whom I did not ask consent from, their faces are removed from the pictures.

[5]: This is mainly because of the old infrastructures at Unit 3. However, I got the room at the end of the hallway, which makes the room slightly larger than other triples in the unit and at other units.

[6]: Source: Overheard at UC Berkeley

[7]: Source: Overheard at UC Berkeley

[8]: Source: Overheard at UC Berkeley