Mia Szarvas, Class of ’15, graduated from UC Berkeley with a major in Conservation and Resource Studies with a focus in Political Ecology. After traveling the world for two years, Szarvas moved to Germany, where she currently works as a data visualization specialist. Szarvas is also a writer and has had several columns published in The Times of Israel and the German Magazine Aviva Berlin. She currently resides in New York City.
What have you been up to since graduating from Cal?
After I finished my undergrad in 2015, I spent a few years traveling and doing odd jobs here and there to fund my travels. After about two years I moved to Germany and have been here ever since. First, I worked online as an English and Communications Coach, teaching communications to professionals at large enterprises. At the same company, I then got hired full-time as a Learner Success Manager, working directly with students to make sure they were successful in their learning outcomes.
I learned from that experience that I wasn’t really interested in that side of business and was much more interested in product management and software development. I decided to move to Berlin for a short time to attend a web development bootcamp, which is quite popular nowadays in the Bay Area. Since then, I’ve been working as a software developer. Currently, I am doing web development and software development, but I focus on data visualization, which is something I really enjoy.
What was it like to travel for two years after graduating?
It was an amazing experience. After I graduated, I spent the summer doing an internship with the Israel Institute, which I was connected to through the Helen Diller Institute. That internship came with a stipend that I was able to save and use during my first set of travels to South and Central America for six months. I then came back home and lived with my parents for a summer, working multiple jobs, and saved up enough money to do a trip to Israel and Europe, where I stayed with friends and family. After that trip, I took the plunge and moved to Germany full time.
Not many people take the opportunity to travel for two full years after they graduate. What motivated you to do so and what do you feel like you gained from the experience?
Throughout my undergrad, I was always a super high achiever like a lot of Berkeley students. I pushed myself really hard during my time at Berkeley, which wasn’t always a bad thing — I liked the challenge. But by the end of my time at Berkeley, I found myself extremely burnt out. It wasn’t so much the academics that did it, but rather the pressure I felt to achieve everything I wanted in my life by the time I was 25. I felt like I had to change the world right away and do something huge immediately, like be the CEO of a company or a congressional aide, which a lot of people from Berkeley go on to do very quickly.
I was someone who had been leading and founding things since I was a kid, and I felt really defined by my achievements. Traveling after I graduated was immensely valuable, as it gave me time for the first time in my life not to need to produce or achieve something. I was able to relax and experience life for a bit. And through that experience, I honed in on what I actually wanted to achieve, rather than just following what was expected of me. I realized in my time abroad that my life doesn’t have to be a performance for others. When I first started traveling, I was keeping a travel blog that kept everyone up-to-date on where I was and what I was doing. Eventually, I felt burdened by it and I stopped taking pictures and writing everything down. I just committed to experiencing my time abroad without needing to show everyone what I was doing all the time.
This may be a bit dramatic, but I remember feeling like I was a lemming, and I was running to keep up with the pack, but when I looked around, I didn’t even know why I was running. I remember coming to the realization that I just wanted to know where I was running if I was going to be running so hard. Stepping off the path and taking a break was not always easy, but now I am in a much better place where I am feeling proud of what I am doing without constantly being stressed out of my mind.
You were in the first cohort of fellows at the Helen Diller Institute back in 2014. What was that experience like?
What really stands out to me when I think back on that time was that it was just really fun. That first year, there were only two or three fellows, which allowed us to work directly and closely with the Institute staff and faculty. They gave us a lot of agency to work on all different kinds of projects, which was a great experience. I helped to coordinate big events and conferences, organize and brainstorm for new events, find ways to market the Institute around campus, and even do some graphic design.
The Institute was a really safe space for me to go on campus. It made Berkeley feel a lot smaller, which is always nice at such a large school. While I majored in Conservation and Resource Studies, I spent all of my free time going to Israel- and Jewish-related events, making me kind of feel like I minored in Jewish Studies unintentionally. I was fascinated by the content and I tried to go to every event that we had. It really enriched my time as a student there and I was immensely proud of the work we were doing.
How did the Institute provide something unique to Berkeley’s Israel-interested and Jewish community?
I was really involved at Hillel and participated in a few different Israel-focused groups, but what I liked about the Institute was that it was agnostic. It was a way for me and my peers to engage with the topic of Israel and Jewish Studies in an academic way, which included listening to debates from people of opposing viewpoints. I really valued this willingness to hear multiple sides, as during that same time I had joined an Israel group on campus and ended up leaving because I felt like they were too dogmatic. I wanted to learn first before forming opinions, and the Institute gave me a safe space to do just that. I was able to learn and ask questions and in a really holistic and nuanced way.
I also ended up taking a graduate level course with one of the Institute’s visiting professors. The course dealt with water negotiations of the Jordan River, which was right up my alley of political ecology and conservation studies. I didn’t have anywhere else on campus that I could explore such topics.
How did being a fellow change your perceptions of being a Berkeley student?
I know a lot of people come to Berkeley with the perception that there’s a lot of antisemitism on campus. I never had that experience, so that wasn’t really a factor for me. But the Institute did make me feel extremely included in the academic context. It provided a place on campus to discuss, in an academic way, something that I was passionate and curious about, and that was closely tied to my identity. It was exciting that other people were actually interested in these issues as well, and that the university was investing resources in these topics. It made me feel really included.
What advice would you give to current Cal undergraduates?
Be brave. Try to take a risk to do what you actually want to do, because things often work out. Cal students and recent grads face quite a bit of pressure, and it can be quite liberating to realize that life can be more relaxing if you take the pressure off yourself. You get to choose the life you want to live. It’s also okay not to know what you’re doing all the time. You have time to figure it out.
To recent graduates, I would say that it’s good to recognize that this time may represent a transition in your identity. After being a student for a long time, you are suddenly not a student anymore, if that’s the route you choose. That can be confusing at first, and that’s totally okay. It’s okay to take the pressure off and not be so concerned with what other people think of your achievement.
Also, if you can, try to become financially literate. That doesn’t mean that you have to have a ton of money or know everything. Maybe just read a book about personal finance or how to invest. What I’ve learned since I’ve left Berkeley is that you can learn and understand a lot of things that feel unattainable or unachievable if you put the research in. You’ve learned a lot during your time at Berkeley, and personal finance is something worth learning while you are young because of the way interest accrues over time.