UC Santa Cruz: An essay by a proud alumnus

UC Santa Cruz alumnus Michael Gould, a 1976 graduate of Merrill College, wrote the following essay in September 2007 as a tribute to his alma mater:

UC Santa Cruz takes your breath away. This place, this magical estate, this serene redwood forest perched like a guardian angel watching over the blue crescent of the Monterey Bay is so beautiful, it makes you want to just close your eyes and breathe. It heightens your senses. It teases your curiosity. It promises hidden treasures. And delivers them.

This is a place born of innovation. A place so physically extraordinary that it caused its founding fathers to stop and ask questions. How do we create a place that changes the game, exceeds all expectations, inspires generation after generation of students and faculty? How do we develop a world-class educational institution that is every bit as stunning and surprising as the venerable land on which it is built? How do we draw students who are much more eager to learn than to be done with learning, students who crave to magnify their connection with beauty, who secretly long to change the world? How do we draw teachers who see beyond their disciplines, who hunger for an opposing point of view, for a different and unexpected thread of connection to another world, another idea, another explanation, another invention?

In fact, before it was born, as Clark Kerr and Dean McHenry and other founders speculated on what they would build in this beautiful place, they imagined UC Santa Cruz as a major research university, built around intimate residential colleges, dedicated to providing an extraordinary undergraduate experience, nurtured by close faculty-student interaction and human-scale community life. Their dream is our reality.

For UC Santa Cruz is a major research university, breaking through to new concepts in engineering, in history, in astrophysics, in digital media, in linguistics, in music, in social policy, the environment, literature, theater, anthropology, economics and biology and art. Yet we have an uncommon dedication to undergraduates: this is a place where undergrads work on major research projects side-by-side with faculty and graduate students. Because we believe that moving undergrads to the front lines of exploration develops both their sense of adventure and of responsibility. It helps them understand that life thrums with possibility, but that uncovering and tapping that possibility takes structure, discipline, knowledge and intensity.

This is a large place and a small place. At 15,000 students or so, UCSC is nearly 50% larger than MIT, and slightly larger than Stanford. But while Stanford has 45 undergrads to every 55 graduate students, UCSC's ratio is 91 to 9. This not only provides greater access for undergrads, but, ironically, much more attention for graduate students as well.

UC Berkeley has some 40,000 students squeezed into 635 acres of land, compressed into the middle of a city, while UC Santa Cruz's 15,000 students enjoy a campus set within more than 2,000 acres of forest and meadow, five minutes downhill to a seaside resort, ten minutes from an ocean teeming with life.

The founders were looking to capture the best of both worlds. In order to develop a university of major proportion, but maintain the intimacy of a small college, they modeled UC Santa Cruz after Cambridge, Oxford and Swarthmore universities. Each student belongs to and begins by living in a college within the university; each of the ten colleges has its own theme: politics, humanities, art, diversity, science, emerging cultures, the environment, et al; each college has its own architecture, its own feel. Cowell College, with its white stucco walls overlooks the bay like an Italian villa. Merrill College is nestled in the woods, blue roofs stretching to and merging with the sky. Kresge College is nearly invisible upon approach, with forest brown outer walls, but inside comes to life, a bustling village bursting with primary colors.

In each college, students take a core course that brings them together, regardless of their major, a course that opens doors for them they might not open themselves, that involves them with other students with whom they live, and faculty who are members not only of their departments but of the college as well. But at UCSC, faculty and students populate a much larger world; they range far from their individual colleges, far from their individual disciplines, teaching and taking classes all over this surprisingly large campus.

In fact, UC Santa Cruz is in many ways a microcosm of, a distillation of, a concentration of a much larger constellation: California. What issues does California face, and how does California lead the world? Unlike other universities that silo their academic tracks in narrow departmental studies, our Academic Plan takes into account the biggest issues facing this complex state of ours, and wraps them together with six themes that guide our growth and educational offerings, six themes that cross the boundaries of individual disciplines, six themes that cross-pollinate intellectual pursuit, research and vitality:

Cross Cultural Initiatives: California is the most multi-cultural state in the US, perhaps the world. At UCSC we are exploring who we are, our cultural, gender and ethnic identities, bringing together the best minds in Social Sciences and Humanities to discover and map the human sense of self.

Evolving Environments, Science and Policy: California leads the world in environmental stewardship. At UCSC we are spearheading investigations of environmental change and its public policy implications, merging the fascinations and probing analyses of scientists and sociologists as we explore the earth's climate and ecosystems and its ability to sustain life.

Human Health Studies: California leads the world in biotechnology and has taken the lead in U.S. stem cell research. With extensive collaboration from Physical and Biological Sciences, Engineering, Humanities, and Social Sciences, we are forging innovative new academic and research programs in the health sciences, encompassing genetics, toxicology, stem cells, bioengineering, assistive devices, and cultural understanding and communication of health issues.

Public Documentation and Communication: California's most famous industries are film and technology. At UCSC the best minds in the Divisions of Arts, Engineering, Humanities and Social Sciences explore the role of public media, sound, visual and digital media, and the arts in transmitting knowledge, emotion, identity and power.

Technological Developments and Their Societal Impacts: Silicon Valley not only leads the world with advances in computer sciences but in bioengineering and space technologies as well. With cooperation between Engineering, Physical and Biological Sciences, Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, we're pushing technological advancement ever forward, while exploring the ramifications for society, environment, ethics, social justice and nationhood.

Transnationalism and Globalization: California has the sixth largest economy in the world, and leads U.S. interaction with the burgeoning economies of Asia. UC Santa Cruz addresses issues involving global trade, including business management, culture, human rights, labor regulations, monetary policy, international communications and much more, focusing experts from many disciplines on the future of our relations with the world.

At the core of everything we do is a sense of surprise and discovery. Walk through the campus, and you walk through groves of redwood trees. Cross a footbridge traversing a deep swale, a furrowed wrinkle in the mountain, and once across, you round a bend and suddenly, there's a building. It appears out of nowhere like a buck in the woods, hidden until you're right upon it, completely at home in its natural setting.

At UC Santa Cruz, we ache for surprise, for discovery. Our faculty members are making breakthroughs relentlessly. Our students are opening new doors at a pace they've never before experienced. Our graduates are changing the world. Our programs are redefining education and reshaping the future.

Our greatest hope is to instill that sense of surprise in our students. A few stories:

One student came to us, as she describes herself, a "17-year-old dumb, little girl arts major from Southern California." Required to take a science course, she reluctantly enrolled in a class in oceanography. She became entranced with tidal biology. Somehow ended up taking calculus and physics. And became the Kathy Sullivan we know today, the first woman to walk in space.

Another student grew up in Mexico, in a cardboard shack with dirt floors. Reyna Grande was the first of her family ever to go to college. She had to overcome her status as an undocumented immigrant in the United States, overcome the cultural divide, overcome the language barrier. She did so with a flourish, graduating with a degree in creative writing/ film and video. And wrote a stunning novel, Across a Hundred Mountains, required reading in two UCSC core courses today.

Kent Nagano conducts the Los Angeles Opera.

Maya Rudolph tickles our funny bones in the cast of Saturday Night Live.

Lawrence Weschler has authored 11 books, and directs the NY Institute for the Humanities.

Jonathan Gershenzon directs the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena Germany.

Katy Roberts is the chief editor of the New York Times "Week in Review" section.

Cheryl Scott ran the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention operations in Tanzania and is now a medical director at CDC headquarters.

Margaret Fox is a restaurateur, Steven Hawley is an astronaut, Bruce Stein is shaping land use policy in the Mojave Desert and Mostafa Ghous is helping re-engineer his war-torn homeland of Afghanistan.

All are graduates of UC Santa Cruz. And represent a very small sample of our success stories. What unites all these people, what is the common thread that runs through their lives and their work?

In reading their stories, in seeing their accomplishments one gets an overwhelming sense that these are people with tremendous passion, people who can see into themselves, and then beyond themselves, who move forward with confidence and commitment, and most of all, with care. They really do care. About their own lives. About society. About their art, their science, about the world.

How does care develop? There is no single way. But we find that same sense of care that we see in our students is overflowing in our faculty. In their dedication to teaching. In their dedication to breaking down barriers between what is and what can be. In their dedication to research, invention and innovation. In their broad and eclectic interest that has them reaching across disciplines for solutions to complex problems.

When you think of linguistics, you think of the study of languages, the etymology of words. But here at UC Santa Cruz, the Linguistics Department, ranked somewhere between #2 and #9 in the US (depending on whom you ask), has contributed to a groundbreaking computer project at the NASA Ames Research Center. Visiting Professor Beth Ann Hockey is the project leader for Clarissa, a spoken-dialogue system (think HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey), that directs astronauts through procedures, remembers their individual voices, answers questions and responds to spoken commands. Because it turns out using a laptop in zero gravity is, well, awkward at the very least.

History Professor Alice Yang Murray is exploring with her students how people in the U.S. and Japan had very different World War II experiences and very different memories of the causes and consequences of the war. But this is no mere history project. It's a joint effort between History and Digital Arts, to create a web site replete with virtual tours of the many Pacific War memorial sites.

UCSC now offers a new bioengineering major. Professor Manduchi is heading up a research team to engineer equipment to help blind people negotiate their environment. They've invented a laser cane that can sense obstacles in a person's path. A computer mouse that translates onscreen features into tactile sensations. They're combining a camera and computer in a cell phone to help blind people find bathrooms and elevators in unfamiliar locations. It takes engineering, and an understanding of society, and disability, and environment.

UC Santa Cruz's physics department is rated #1 in the nation for citation impact. Alan Litke, an adjunct professor of physics at UCSC, has been conducting research at the intersection of physics and biology developing new technology for studying neural networks in brain tissue. While Alexander Sher, a post-doctoral researcher, is studying neural networks in the retina. They're developing technologies that may some day be used to enable blind people to see.

UCSC offers the first major in the UC system in computer game design. Think about it. Technology. Storytelling. Art. Business. Big business.

Our anthropologists have joined with our Earth and Planetary Sciences professors to study the diet of early human ancestors.

Our literature department has joined our history department to study recently discovered texts of ancient India.

Our nano engineers have found a way to harness light on a computer chip to create highly sensitive chemical and biological sensors. They then teamed with our chemists and our molecular biologists to develop new portable devices for medical diagnostics and environmental testing.

Our astronomy department, always ranked among the very best in the nation, is uncovering clues to the evolution of globular clusters, having discovered a star cluster more than a billion light-years away.

Our literature faculty created the Dickens Project, now recognized internationally as the premier center for Dickens studies in the world.

Our theater arts faculty and campus administrators had the foresight to establish Shakespeare Santa Cruz as a professional theater company with residence on campus, and its annual festival is now one of the most celebrated events of its kind in the nation.

To get to Theater Arts, walk down Science Hill, and enter the woods once again. Cross another footbridge and chasm, and wend your way west until suddenly you arrive at Performing Arts, home of a theater in the round. The Performing Arts Center is about to be augmented with a major new Arts Complex, offering more performing venues and a museum, an arts center to draw the town community, one that will stretch across the road, and through the fields to connect with the Music Center overlooking the sparkling bay.

As you stand and watch the water, realize just where you are. Smack dab in the dead center of the California Coast. In the middle of farm country, Brussels sprouts, artichokes, lettuce. You're 25 short minutes from the third largest city in California, San Jose. You're in the closest UC campus to the technological center of the world, Silicon Valley. You're staring at the Bay and beyond, at the ocean that leads to the Far East.

You're standing at a flashpoint of invention: musical, artistic, filmic, biological, chemical, nano, historical, linguistic, software.

You're standing at the crossroads of policy development: societal, technological, ethical, scientific, environmental.

You're standing where exploration of the deep and stellar past meets the creation of a better future.

You're standing in a community more diverse, with more backgrounds and ethnicities and beliefs, passions and interests than your grandparents ever thought possible.

You're standing among rebels and visionaries. Among people who think. People who care. Care enough to act. To give themselves to the world. And change it.

You're standing at UC Santa Cruz. A place utterly unlike any other.