It’s a well-known fact that cool weather and fog bring out the banana slugs in droves. That was certainly the case during UC Santa Cruz’s highly spirited—and often cloudy—Alumni Weekend, marked by myriad gatherings and offerings including reunions, lectures, gossip, chit-chat, jewelry-making, dancing, art tours, and “Slug Taxis’’ spiriting revelers from one event to the other.
It seemed fitting that the marine layer was a constant presence during the weekend, considering that the cool coastal weather was one of the reasons the UC Regents ended up founding a new campus in Santa Cruz in 1965 instead of building one in sun-scorched Almaden Valley, as the story goes.
It was impossible to do every activity, considering there were a whopping 75 events, representing all 10 colleges, and activities that appealed to all tastes, whether you were interested in the potential of life on other planets, or just wanted to hang out at the Porter College Makers Fair, with jewelry-making benches and a tie-dying tank for souvenir T-shirts.
More than a thousand people, including 560 alumni, converged on the hilly forested campus, flagging volunteer-driven “Slug Taxis” or boarding shuttles, which made it possible to zip from one remote corner of the campus to another with minimal hassles.
It was a weekend of almost constant anniversaries and reunions. Seymour Marine Discovery Center marked its 40th birthday, the Smith Renaissance Society had its 20-year celebration, and on Friday night at the Hay Barn near the base of campus, UC Santa Cruz’s original graduating class marked its 50th anniversary with an emotional evening of taking stock and reminiscing.
“It is a blessing to be here,” said Winnie Hoskyns-Abraham (Stevenson ’69, anthropology), who was known as Winnie Scherrer in her college years. “We have a lot of classmates who aren’t.”.
Also at the pioneer gathering, Laura Caldwell (Cowell ’69 college, literature), a retired school principal in Monterey, reflected on her decision to go to the fledgling UC campus in Santa Cruz.
“I was really drawn to the chance to be in the very first class,” she said. “There were no traditions. We were going to make the traditions. We were thrown together and living in these primitive trailers so we got acquainted right away.”
Around the same time as the pioneer reception, a group of proud Slugs, some of them decked out in their blue-and-gold regalia, packed Woodstock’s Pizza in downtown Santa Cruz for the Alumni Weekend kick-off. Beer and stories flowed throughout the night.
Mist on the meadow
Saturday’s celebration began in grainy fog that burned off in late morning. It was enough to make some revelers feel as if they were traveling through the mists of time.
“We’d like to transport ourselves back to school—a time without responsibilities except for grades,” said Kate Grant Bateman (Cowell ’98, American studies), who had just finished the 5K Fun Run across campus. She enjoyed the run, though she and several others got lost at one point. “At Kresge College, you’re supposed to make a right but we went straight. We went the long way—all uphills!”
That morning in Quarry Plaza, Gwynn Benner, assistant vice provost for UC Santa Cruz’s Division of Student Success, and Christina Yu (College Ten ’20, cognitive science), were at a table in the courtyard, getting the word out about the campus’s First-Generation Initiative, focused on responding to and supporting the fast-growing first-generation college student population on the UC Santa Cruz campus.
Yu, the Chancellor’s Undergraduate Internship Program intern for the First-Gen Initiative, is a first-generation student who is eager to help others. Born in China, she immigrated with her family to the United States when she was 5, and lived in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Mindful of her parents’ sacrifices, she put intense pressure on herself to succeed.
After teaming up with the First-Gen Initiative, Yu was heartened to find out that many other students had similar experiences. Even one of her academic advisors spoke to her about similar struggles. Now Yu has decided to follow her dream. She is now pursuing a career in education, and is planning to spend her summer teaching English to elementary school students in Taiwan.
Improvising and laughing your way through life
In terms of crowd participation and attendance, a special Cowell Colloquium with a mouthful of a title—“Where the Deer and the Antelope and the Banana Slug Roam: Hair Raising Tales from the Rough Terrain of the Western American Public Intellectual,’’ was one of the surprise hits of Alumni Weekend.
A throng of 200 people greeted the distinguished historian Patricia Nelson Limerick (Cowell '72, American studies), founding director of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado, where she is also a professor of environmental studies and history. She is the author of Desert Passages, The Legacy of Conquest, Something in the Soil, and A Ditch in Time. Limerick talked about the ways that improv theater training helped sustain her wild career.
During her frequently hilarious discussion with Cowell Provost Alan Christy, an associate history professor at UC Santa Cruz, she talked about her participation in the Original Banana Slug Improvisational Theater, and how this extracurricular activity ended up coming in handy every time she’s had to deal with stage fright, difficult personalities, conflicting ideologies, and charged situations.
“Every day of a public intellectual’s life is thin ice,” she said. “You are always stepping carefully. Even then, that won’t always save you.” Limerick said improv should be a UC Santa Cruz requirement, preparing students to deal with an ever-changing world.
High-impact science in the spotlight
Returning Slugs also got an accessible and enjoyable crash course in “High-Impact Science from PBSci” from four distinguished faculty members who all happen to be Slugs themselves. These lightning talks—each presentation lasted only six minutes or so—were a public forum to highlight the power of research.
“UC Santa Cruz is a place where we try to make sure that science doesn’t just stay in the academy,” said Physical & Biological Sciences Dean Paul Koch, distinguished professor of Earth and planetary sciences. “We want our work to have impact in the real world.”
The topics and speakers were:
- Life and the Environment—Kristy Kroeker (Crown ‘01, marine biology)
- Next-Generation Medicine—Olena Morozova Vaske (biomolecular engineering postdoc 2013–2016)
- Earth and the Cosmos—Natalie Batalha ( Ph.D. ’97, astrophysics)
- Teaching Techniques for Today—Aura Alegra Eroy‑Reveles Ph.D. ’08, chemistry)
Greene introduced an array of speakers—including faculty as well as a group of eloquent and enthusiastic student interns with CITL—who addressed the importance of understanding student strengths for learning and how faculty and staff can better support students including first-gen learners.
“We think what is going on at UC Santa Cruz is a renaissance,” said UC Santa Cruz Foundation Distinguished Professor of Psychology Barbara Rogoff, who is a CITL senior faculty fellow. “We are a model for making higher education much more accessible for learners.”
A weekend with engineering Slugs
Baskin School of Engineering had a full schedule of events throughout Alumni Weekend. Festivities began on Friday afternoon in Silicon Valley with a night of gaming and glimpses at the increasingly blurred edge between games and reality.
Saturday’s events included a selection of teach-ins in intimate classroom settings. Slugs nestled in to learn about “Responsible Data Science” from this year’s faculty lecturer Lise Getoor, professor of computer science and engineering. Abhradeep Guha Thakurta, assistant professor of computer science and engineering, gave a provocative lecture titled “Decoding Genetic Privacy.” Meanwhile, Slugs curious about energy and biofuel were treated to "Fuel, Food, and Pharma: Can Synthetic Biology Empower Social Change?" by David Bernick, assistant adjunct professor of biomolecular engineering.
Slugs also got behind-the-scenes laboratory tours with pennant-waving Baskin Engineering student ambassadors. The Institute for the Biology of Stem Cells, featuring Camilla Forsberg, professor of biomolecular engineering; the Hybrid Systems Lab, featuring Ricardo Sanfelice, professor of electrical and computer engineering, and The CAVE, featuring Sri Kurniawan, professor of computational media, and Mircea Teodorescu, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, all opened their doors and explained their research.
An intoxicating discussion
Another one of the weekend’s surprise hits was history professor Ben Breen’s surprising, funny, irreverent, and sometimes gasp-inducing talk called “Summoning Spirits,” an exploration of the strange and mutable life of distilled liquor from the 15th through the 18th centuries, and its changing identities, from miracle elixir to alleged social scourge.
Powerful liquors were prescribed by doctors in the Middle Ages.
“People drank it on their death beds, hoping for a last-ditch cure,” he noted. Breen showed the remarkable attitudinal shifts towards distilled alcoholic beverages, from a substance that could purge or “distill’’ foolish behaviors, to a destructive and demonic force. One slide, dating to 1829, showed a “Gin Juggarnath” on wheels, crushing everyone in its path.
In spite of those frightening images, several people at the talk said that Breen’s presentation somehow made them look forward even more to the annual Beer and Wine Reception, which immediately followed his lecture.
Bidding farewell to a chancellor
The annual Beer and Wine Reception, held in a redwood-lined space between Quarry Plaza and the Quarry Amphitheater, had special resonance this year. It was the last reception that Chancellor George Blumenthal will attend as the Top Slug on campus. Alumni Council President Michael Riepe (Oakes ’91, computer engineering) raised a toast to Blumenthal, and praised him as a caring and accomplished listener.
“That is a tremendous attribute I will try to learn from,” Riepe said. “I appreciate his honesty and accessibility.”
Blumenthal struck a note of humility at the reception. He gave special thanks to his assistant Margaret McGuire. He said he’s “not particularly comfortable’’ with the accolades he has been receiving in light of his retirement.
“What’s important is what we have done together,” Blumenthal said. “It’s not me. I think it’s very much a ‘we’ thing. We’ve always been in this together.”
For some, the reception and the send-off to the chancellor was a fitting conclusion to a jam-packed day. But for others, the reception was just a jumping off point to one last Alumni Weekend bash: a dance party hosted by UC Santa Cruz’s Research Center for the Americas at the Museum of Art and History featuring the sounds of the local band Calíco, known for its Latin-fusion beats. Others opted to remain on campus for a rare reunion concert from a popular campus band, the Flowers of Evil.
Either way, dancing with friends was a fitting way to round out another successful Alumni Weekend celebration.