By Crystal Trinh, University of California, Los Angeles

Unfortunately, many college freshmen like me have not had the chance to set foot on campus yet due to the COVID-19 pandemic. College—traditionally a time of discovery and freedom—has been confined to a small Zoom window on our computers. To get a sense of what college life is like, many first-years have resorted to watching YouTube videos on school life as well as asking older students about university culture. From what we gathered through these accounts, a common theme arose: Boba is a crucial component of college culture.

From its origins in Taiwan, boba milk tea traveled to the United States and took over the beverage scene. Boba milk tea, otherwise known as bubble tea or simply boba, continues to be a treat that Americans of all ages enjoy. It has, however, earned a significant amount of adoration from one particular age group: college students.

Two students enjoy boba tea at an outdoor cafe. (Jaren Jai Wicklund/

In many college towns, there are milk tea shops on every corner. Additionally, various boba-themed products have been introduced to the market targeting young people. Jewelry shops have launched trinkets like mini bubble tea dangle earrings, and ice cream shops offer bubble milk tea in frozen form. During a college hackathon (an event where students team up to complete a project in a short amount of time), a few UCLA students created an app to track boba expenses. Instagram accounts solely dedicated to reviewing boba drinks have risen in popularity, and some home supply stores even offer boba night lights!

But what is boba exactly? “In the 90s, makers of boba utilized powdered teas with milk, but nowadays, boba shops are back to Taiwanese-style brews—marketing authentic tastes,” said Angel Trazo, a first-year UC Davis cultural studies Ph.D. student.

In Taiwanese tradition, the drink boils down to three main components: tapioca pearls, cream agent, and tea. However, with the rise of boba shops all across America, new flavors like Boba Guys’ Strawberry Matcha Latte and Urban Ritual’s Creme Brulee milk tea have sparked the interest of many boba enthusiasts. Alongside new flavors, shops have introduced new toppings, from popping boba to fruit jellies and even whipped cheese! America is home to a diverse range of boba drinks that greatly appeal to diverse college student populations.

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Boba, however, is much more than just a tasty drink. Unlike coffee shops where older customers sit around chatting and working, boba shops have customers of all ages—from children enjoying a sweet treat to college students looking for a place to study, said Trazo. My peers can attest to this. Library too busy? Boba. Need a place to hang out? Boba. Late night snack? Boba. While many coffee shops give off a more sophisticated atmosphere with neutral or muted decor, boba shops radiate a happy and casual environment with bright lights and pastel colors. Milk tea drink in one hand and pen in the other, many college students think of boba shops as comfortable gathering places to chat and work. Boba, therefore, has become and will continue to be a significant aspect of American college culture and life.

Banner image: Urban Ritual’s Crème Brûlée drink (left) and Boba Guys’ Strawberry Matcha Latte (right).