A Visit to UCLA

At the end of our weekend in Los Angeles, and since we’d already visited one college (Caltech), Peter decided an impromptu visit  to UCLA might be in order. I mildly discouraged it — some of my friends went to school there in the 1980s, and I once visited it then, but I’d had the impression it had very little student housing, so we’d get no idea of the student life.

As it turns out, it’s changed. Since then, the university seems to have build several new large dorms so it can house most of the student body and make their life easier. We drove up through Westwood, the cute hipster neighborhood on the south end of campus (also where two of my friends had shared an apartment), and immediately found an information booth, where we got a map and friendly tips for reviewing the campus.

Peter liked UCLA. It reminded him of his alma mater, University of Wisconsin-Madison, another large, top-notch public university. We couldn’t see the bookstore, since it was closed until noon. Instead, Peter made himself as familiar as he’d been at his own school and led us straight to the dorms, and through a dining hall, where students were eating breakfast. Neil and I were happy to exit and leave the students in peace, but at least we got a positive impression of them. Clean-cut, well groomed, studious and polite, they looked like they were taking their studies seriously and enjoying life on the campus.

In a way, it was nice to see the UC system’s other flagship university. UC Berkeley often comes up as an option for Neil, but like Peter, I have to admit there are reservations about it. The politics often appear to take precedence over the academics, and at least once the grad student teachers have gone on strike, essentially screwing the poor undergraduates trying to finish off a class.

The campus itself was eerily bereft of the signage and announcements that litter every other campus. One of the many helpful students I quizzed told me it was because they were in finals week, and no one would be interested in any events. But I don’t quite buy that. Caltech was also in its finals week, and still had student art and class announcements posted, not to miss the Pi paper garland strung through its trees. You can’t see a pole at Stanford, since it’s always under a stack of papers, calling students to one gathering or discussion or event. Same goes for San Jose State and Berkeley, and UW-Madison. UCLA, in contrast, looked like the set for a movie about a Californian campus, waiting to be decorated in whatever mood is called for on a particular day.

That’s not to say the architecture was lacking, or that the students were boring. Not surprisingly, the school has a vibrant performing arts program. It has beautiful, large sports fields and stadiums. And the math building has a whimsical mosaic band running around its perimeter:

UCLA Math Department Detail 1 UCLA Math Department Detail 2

When Peter’d mentioned UCLA, Neil immediately knew mathematician Terrence Tao is associated with them. Some other students on campus also mentioned them, in the context that they’d met him as well, indicating he’s actually on campus some of the time, unlike many stars, who prefer to let grad students do the teaching. We made a pilgrimage to his office,and when we got there, we were surprised to see that he was teaching a full load of classes, which must delight UCLA’s math students.

Just like the campus, the professors’ doors were bare of decor. At first, we thought it might be some department diktat, except for a few professors who bucked the trend. Professor Bruce Rothschild had an office next to Tao’s, with cartoons demonstrating a dark sense of humor, and a pamphlet of mathematical goodies, one of which Neil recognized, since he’s worked on it himself.

Peter found other treasures on campus he liked. There was an arcade. There were ROTC offices, indicating at least some tolerance for military folks (not that we are that, but I like campuses that are open to discussion rather than banning what they don’t like.) There was a wide open grassy hill where students were studying in the sunshine, and a man was walking his dog. I was more reserved — a huge student body also means huge competition for classes, and you don’t always get the class you want. And unlike Caltech (where the classes are tiny), no one will notice if you’ve gone missing, or if you’ve accidentally signed up for a course you’re not actually attending.

We left, and I still don’t know how a homeschooler gets in. But if Neil wants to give UCLA a shot, I’ll figure it out.

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