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The Art of Adulting: A Student-Led Class Draws Hundreds

December 16, 2019
by Cirrus Wood
Cartoon man next to copy machine

This fall, two UC Berkeley juniors Jenny Zhou and Belle Lau, have taken on the challenge of educating their peers in a semester-long class in ‘Adulting’—i.e. the mundane but necessary duties of adulthood like filing taxes and managing a budget.

“We thought of things that we struggled with,” said Lau. “And then thought ‘well this is probably what other students need help with.’”

The two developed a course plan, as part of the DeCal program, the university’s roster of student-led courses. Initially, it was much more a series of hands-on hacks—how to change a tire, how to bake a cake, how to do laundry. But they pivoted after advisors pointed out that many of their proposed topics were insufficiently academic, or simply impractical given time and location restraints—not to mention limited access to cars or ovens. And so Zhou and Lau refocused their course, which they advertise as “how to live in the real world and function as an adult,” and teaches life skills such as “how to develop good habits, manage stress, pay taxes, budget our spending/income, and to live a healthy lifestyle.”

Belle Lau and Jenny Zhou
Belle Lau (left) and Jenny Zhou (right) // Detail of photo by Cirrus Wood

The course is offered Mondays and Wednesdays to two different groups, both led by Zhou and Lau. Each class begins with a guest speaker on the adulting topic of the week, such as budgeting or nutrition; the second half of class is devoted to activities and discussion. Guest speakers have included professors, grad students, licensed nutritionists, accountants, and Lau’s high school economics teacher. The class is pass/fail, with a mid-semester paper about goal-setting and an open-ended final presentation on a topic pertaining to good habits for successful adulting.

“I think a lot of adulting these days consists of balancing our time and learning how to take care of ourselves without focusing too much on academics,” Lau said.

“I think the stresses that we feel as college students are different from what our parents felt,” said Lau, describing part of the motivation for the course’s creation. “Trying to keep up our grades while simultaneously seeking jobs and internships, joining clubs, getting leadership experience,” Lau later wrote by email. “We stretch ourselves so thin and lose touch with our mental health.”

Zhou’s parents immigrated from China with the equivalent of a third grade education. “Their advice is not always relevant,” she said. “For example, they define success with academic achievements and physical wellbeing, yet, being able to manage my time, money, and mind is also part of my definition of success,” she later clarified.

“I think a lot of adulting these days consists of balancing our time and learning how to take care of ourselves without focusing too much on academics,” Lau said.

Of course it’s deeply ironic that a pair of undergrads are teaching fellow undergrads how to navigate maturity, but someone has to be the adult in the room. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, interest has been high on campus. When Zhou and Lau first offered the class in the spring of 2019, they received 100 applications for a 30-person class. When they upped the number to 60 students for the fall, they received 200 applications.

Students sitting at desks in lecture
Students take notes during lecture // Photo by Cirrus Wood

Senior computer science major Darren Wang is one of those students. “It will give me that thrust that I think most people need to get a handle on how to adult,” he said.

When it came to money, relationships, and especially diet, Wang realized he was assembling his own practices piecemeal from not-so-reputable sources like Instagram food bloggers.

“The biggest opportunity for me has been having the speakers and being able to ask questions,” he said.

On the day we interviewed, the class topic was relationships, both romantic and platonic, and the guest speaker was Gigi Engle, a Chicago-based sex coach and sex educator. Engle led the class via Skype. Students raised their hands with questions:

Q: How do you deal with a clingy or needy partner?

A: Care for them, and care about them, but don’t sacrifice your own well being for theirs.

Q: How do you remain friends with an ex when the breakup was especially messy?

A: You don’t. Or at the very least take six months to figure out what you want and if that’s even possible.

Q: What if you want to leave the relationship but your partner is also your roommate?

A: Never keep the relationship just to keep the lease.

Wang, for his part, was already excited for next week’s topic. “I am looking forward taxes,” he said. “It’s something that’s always been very daunting. “Growing up you always hear your parents say, ‘Oh wow, it’s tax season again,’ so then you’re like ‘Oh shit! It’s tax season!’”

Professor gesturing at powerpoint
Wu instructs the class in filing taxes // Detail of photo by Cirrus Wood

The following week, Lau brought in her mother, Allie Wu, an accountant. “Who here owns a business?” Wu asked the thirty students in attendance. No hands. “OK, who here is a self-employed contractor?” A few hands went up.

Wu walked the students through a 1099 form, as well as self-employment tax, quarterly filing, and suitable tax filing programs.

“Make sure you receive a confirmation email!” said Wu. “If you don’t receive an email, then you haven’t filed your taxes.”

Wu ended by giving the class fifteen minutes to calculate their taxes using a fictional 1099 and a federal income tax form. At the end of the exercise, she put up the correctly filed form on the screen.

“Anybody got this?” Wu asked. A collective groan from the class affirmed the negative.

“OK,” she laughed. “I should have given more time.”

Which the students have. At least until April 15th, anyway. And thereafter, the rest of their lives.

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