Learning – and Burning – on College Trip

On a visit to California schools, I wondered: should I pursue my own interests, or follow the path my parents paved for me?


Hanson Zhao

A scene from our visit to UCLA

Hanson Zhao, Contributor

Thousands of times, I’ve dreamed of spending my life in a place that is forever summer. Seems like someone above heard my request, and gave me a chance to live in California – a chance to choose a college in my nirvana.

In September, I spent four days with a group of Friends students visiting West Coast colleges. For me, it was a trip to explore possibilities for my future, but also to find my true thoughts. Should I pursue my own interests, or should I follow the path my parents had paved for me?

My parents stopped guiding me to the finance field when I was 12, because they believed the best experience I can have in the future will be the one I choose myself. But I’m not sure about the future. Should I do something I’m interested in, or one where I make more money? Both are important. This trip was a chance to think concretely about my decision.

The trip was not easy. Schedules were full, and everyone was exhausted every day. But there were many interesting – and funny – moments during the trip.

On day one, people were tired from the long flight, but excited about four days with no class. In the afternoon, our big group separated into two: my group to visit UC Berkeley, and the others to Stanford.

Berkeley is a crowded city, and the campus is no different. Entering the gate is like walking into a carnival, with club signs on the sidewalk, and people walking around shouting slogans. It was an energetic place, but the chaotic environment made me uncomfortable.

A funny thing happened that day. When we were dismissed for lunch, we had just 30 minutes to eat and return to the student center for a tour. My friend is addicted to ramen, so he and I went outside to try and find a ramen shop. But after searching under the ‘hotty ass sun’ for fifteen minutes with no luck, we gave up on ramen and went to a burger stop instead.

As we finished the $5 burgers and prepared to leave, my friend slapped my back and told me to turn right. I smelled a rich flavor of pork bone broth. Then I saw the noodle spot – right next to the burger shop!

After that, we traveled to Stanford, where the campus looks like a huge Holiday Inn. Then we traveled south to UC Santa Cruz, where the whole campus is surrounded with trees and amazing nature scenes. We ended the day after the flight to LA. The next day we visited USC, where stone paths between the red walls make the place feel like a labyrinth. We also visited UCLA: my favorite, because it is more accessible to the city, which could help when I need inspiration for writing reports and doing art.

Along the way, there were some minor fiascoes: from an unbearable walk under the steaming sun, to a frustrating flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles, to an hour-long Uber ride. One day, we were so tired that a group of us revolted, and refused to make the last scheduled van ride to a dinner with some alumni. But in the end, we made it to five colleges, and learned a lot.

Although the trip was messy, there were two afternoons when we were allowed to relax and enjoy time at the beach. We got excited and energized. Everyone was looking forward to the crystal blue ocean and the Santa Cruz sunshine.

After lunch, some friends and I decided to spend time at the beach before heading to the airport. As the noonday sun blazed down, a friend and I decided to walk on the steaming sand with our bare feet.

The moment our feet touched the sand, we smelled the scent of a steak on a grill. It was like stepping on the spiky road that Aiolia walked when he was protecting Saori Kido – it hurt!

My friend roared with pain, running and jumping as if fire was all over him. We ran to the shore to cool our burnt feet down. He stopped at the edge between the dried sand and the cool sand. But I kept on running towards the shore. Just as I was smiling with relief, I heard someone behind me call, “look out, bro!”

Suddenly, I saw a huge water wall coming towards me. I ran into the wave, and it slapped the front of my body. I twisted and turned in the huge swirls in the water. When I finally stood up, I was soaked. My friend put his head down and tried not to look at me. I laughed. But I wasn’t laughing later, when I had to get on the airplane, still wet.

I made unforgettable memories on this trip. I also had a chance to consider whether I prefer the lively atmosphere at UC Berkeley, the quiet vibe at Stanford, or the big campus that combines forest and modern buildings at UCLA.

Each of these choices would create a different version of myself in the future. Which do I want to become? I want to be myself, jump out from my family’s bubble, and do something different. Often I keep these thoughts to myself, because I want their support. But I decided to follow my heart.

I appreciate this college trip, for the opportunity it gave me to think about who I really want to be and what my purpose in life is.