What is it Like to Attend University of California, San Diego?

The tutors behind Varsity Tutors are not just here to teach – they’re sharing their college experiences as well. Derek is a San Diego tutor specializing in History tutoring, Literature tutoring, GRE prep tutoring, and much more. He graduated from University of California, San Diego in 2008 with a Bachelor’s degree in Economics and Music. Check out his review of his alma mater:

VT:  Describe the campus setting and transportation options. How urban or safe is the campus? Are there buses or do you need a car/bike?

Derek: UCSD has a massive, sprawling campus with a lot of open space and greenery. There is even a forest in the center of the campus that most students have to cross each day getting from one class to another. It is always possible to get somewhere within 15 minutes, but sometimes you have to really hike. Half of the campus is at a somewhat higher elevation, so each day there is a lot of walking uphill and downhill.

It saves a lot of time to bike or skateboard across the campus, but almost all students walk. There is a “campus loop” bus that is a godsend when you have to get from one edge of the campus to the other. And beyond this, there is a set of UCSD shuttles that go into the nearby town (University Town Center and La Jolla) for students who want to go off campus to get supplies or hang out.

VT:  How available are the professors, academic advisers, and teaching assistants?

Derek: Undergraduates are divided into six “colleges” (subdivisions), and each student gets academic advising from his/her college. As a result, it seemed to me that advisors always develop a personal relationship with their students.

However, if you do not have a clear simple academic plan – for example, if you are a double-major, or you plan to minor in another subject, or if have not yet decided on a major (‘undeclared’) – you may encounter some wrinkles in the system. Academic advisors are just used to helping students fulfill requirements for one major, and you may have to visit your advisor more often if you are still figuring out your preferences. But the advisors will always be happy to help you figure out the best course of action to fit your needs. 

VT: How would you describe the dorm life – rooms, dining options, location, socialization opportunities with other students? 

Derek: There are many activities and it is really easy to do a range of different athletics, but the campus is pretty quiet. What I noticed was that you may not love your roommate or dormmates, but you gradually become close with them without noticing it. Dorm life is sometimes maddening, because you have to tolerate a lot of quirks, but you end up relying on your dormmates and helping them as well. For students who are still adjusting to the shock of leaving home, I think the quiet and predictable feel to campus life is comforting. But for students who like parties, energy, and socializing, UCSD might be a bit frustrating.

VT: Which majors/programs are best represented and supported?  

Derek: At UCSD, science majors are generally better supported and best represented. UCSD has excellent non-science programs as well, but the sciences – especially biology, pre-med (biochem, cell biology), and psychology – are well-funded and popular at UCSD. Generally, as with most UCs, UCSD tries to be competitive and prestigious across all disciplines, including math, humanities, and fine arts.

VT: How easy or difficult was it for you to meet people and make friends as a freshman?

Derek: This is probably one of the weaker aspects of UCSD. While incoming freshmen cannot avoid meeting new people and making new friends (they usually live with dormmates and meet people in orientation), UCSD does not necessarily help make it easy. The campus is spread out, so it is hard for the student body to congregate in one main area. Also, there is a gloomy (but beautiful!) atmosphere to much of the campus: there is lots of shade, tall dark trees, dark-colored buildings, and it’s always foggy and cool. Beyond this, there is no famous UCSD sports team or other symbol to create campus spirit. You mainly meet classmates and make friends working and studying together.

VT: How helpful is the Career Center and other student support services?

Derek: The Career Center is excellent at UCSD and very well-organized. I always felt comfortable going to them with any question, which was a relief considering how uncomfortable I was about job hunting and life after college.

VT: How are the various study areas such as libraries, student union, and dorm lounges?  Are they over-crowded, easily available, spacious?

Derek: During most of the year, there are plenty of options for study spaces. Geisel Library, the largest library on campus, is absolutely enormous and an excellent place to study. However, during final exam week, the libraries are packed literally 24 hours a day, especially the ones with computers for student use.

There is a student center that is run by student co-ops and a student center with corporate and university-owned stores and restaurants. Dorm lounges are extremely varied. Some dorms were built in the early 1960s, and others in the 70s, 80s, 90s, and 2000s. I personally liked the dorm rooms in Muir and Revelle colleges (the oldest ones) most of all – they seemed cooler in the hot months, and were surrounded by giant pine trees. 

VT: Describe the surrounding town. What kinds of outside establishments / things to do are there that make it fun, boring, or somewhere in between? To what extent do students go to the downtown area of the city versus staying near campus? 

Derek: The surrounding town is University Town Center (UTC) and northern La Jolla. It is mostly high-income residential area. There is a Trader Joe’s very close to the campus, and plenty of other food and supplies stores. The only thing that requires a slightly longer drive is Target/Walmart type stores, which are about 15 minutes drive on the freeways. 

By far, the most important local attraction is the beach, which is 10-20 minutes walk time away from the campus. Apart from the beaches, UCSD is in a very scenic and beautiful part of San Diego. And in San Diego there are many great attractions: Sea World, Balboa Park, the San Diego Zoo, the Wild Animal Park, and further south, Tijuana (which can be dangerous for tourists, be warned).

VT: How big or small is the student body? Were you generally pleased or displeased with the typical class sizes?

Derek: The student body is relatively large; I think it was near or above 30,000 students. In some classes, you are one of 300 students. However, in many classes, you are one of maybe 7 students. So the student body size can sometimes, but not always, affect class size. I believe that in some cases, this same dynamic can make it hard to get to know some professors, but easy to know other ones. 

I think that the huge size of the student body may be a reason that there is not a strong “UCSD” identity – we are too big and too spread out to feel united. But this is not necessarily all bad: it can be nice to feel anonymous and part of a giant community. Also, the largeness of the student body means that there are more opportunities to meet like minds and develop interesting, varied relationships.

VT: Describe one memorable experience with a professor and/or class. Perhaps one you loved the most or one you regret the most.

Derek: Keep in mind that the majority of professors at many universities are there because of their research and intellectual contributions, and not their social skills. As a result, many professors are specialists or geniuses in really unique specific subjects, but can be very strange people.

A few years ago, I was in a required music theory class, “Rhythm and Meter”, taught by Ed Harkins, a famous avant-garde trumpeter. Professor Harkins was known to be one of the weirdest, wackiest professors in the music department. True to his reputation, each day of that class was weirder than the last. Prof. Harkins – an elderly man at the time – would start off some classes sitting upright in a chair with one leg behind his head. He would punctuate his calm lectures with random, abrupt screams. We learned how to read and perform some of the strangest, most impractical rhythms ever conceived. And, to make the final exam the weirdest day of our lives at UCSD, we each had to perform Pygmy music (comprised of complex rhythms of screams and whistles) in duets with a partner from class. One would scream, the other would whistle.

At the time, I wondered if Prof. Harkins had escaped from a mental institution, but now I realize that he was giving us an unforgettable and incredibly rich education. I still have and take pride in my knowledge of complex rhythms, and I recognize that had there been more normal, seemingly-sane professors at UCSD, I would have learned much less. Weird and dramatic experiences like this gave all of us curiosity and character, and I think freed us from a limited, conformist way of thinking. Now that I have graduated, I miss those years where each day was guaranteed to be a strange and unforgettable exploration.


Check out Derek’s tutoring profile.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.