Life, realized

Alumni authors give voice to transformative experiences at UC Santa Cruz that changed their lives and shaped their careers

Looking back on our college careers, some of us remember certain pivotal moments that redirected us and shaped our futures, clarified an issue that puzzled us and troubled our sleep, or challenged us to examine our assumptions.

For this issue of Review magazine, we've asked a group of five distinguished alumni writers—one for every decade of UC Santa Cruz's existence—to reflect on some of those moments that changed their lives.


Lawrence Weschler (illustration by David Hockney)
Lawrence Weschler (illustration by David Hockney)

Lawrence Weschler

nonfiction author, former New Yorker staff member

Asked to recall a hinge moment, Lawrence (Ren) Weschler (Cowell '74, philosophy, Western civilization), a much-praised author of narrative nonfiction and former New Yorker staff member, offered up two classics.

"My first week at Cowell College, in a seminar for the Western Civ core course with 12 of us students being led by Harry Berger, I was mouthing off about how stupid Plato's Republic was. 'No wonder Socrates wins all these arguments,' I declared. 'The people he is arguing with are a bunch of doofuses!' Harry looked over at me and said, 'The thing of it is, Ren, that Plato is a genius and you are a freshman, and he is playing you like a piano. Maybe you should try to make out to the music. Does it occur to you that as far as Plato was concerned, the tragedy of Socrates's life was that he never found someone to talk to—a worthy interlocutor—in his lifetime? And that the dialogues were sent out into the future in search of someone for him to have a conversation with.'

That was a pretty good lesson to hear one's first week in college—for starters that you should not assume that you necessarily know more than these masters, but more to the point, that you should always read actively, both read and monitor how you are reading and how you are being read. Which proved a good life lesson, whether engaging texts, or, later on, any sort of reportorial situation."

Along the same lines, Weschler relates how once, when studying with Marine Biology Professor Todd Newberry, he presented himself during office hours, floundering over some over-broad essay assignment.

"Newberry advised, 'Were you to be walking on a beach and come upon a dead walrus and wonder why it had died, you could do one of two things. You could pick up a piece of driftwood and start bashing its flanks, and all you would do is make a complete hash of things. Or you could take that same stick, go over to a boulder, pick up a stone and spend several hours sharpening the stick, at the end of which you would have a blade—thanks to which within minutes all would become clear.'

He paused and continued: 'When you are dealing with huge, amorphous issues, don't ask huge, amorphous questions. Spend 95 percent of your time honing the questions, after which the topic will open itself up to you.' Another lesson I regularly take to heart to this day."


Hector Tobar (photo by Patrice Normand, Opale Agency)

Hector Tobar

Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and author

For Hector Tobar (Oakes '85, Latin American studies/sociology), now a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and author, there were many decisive moments—and they started happening from the minute he set foot on campus as a 17-year-old in 1980.

"I'd grown up in a very flat, very dry series of Los Angeles neighborhoods—from the inner-city to the suburbs," he said. "I was awed by the landscape of the campus, with its soaring redwoods and expansive vistas. More than that, UC Santa Cruz was a cauldron of causes, of idealism and activism. I was a pre-med major, but quickly switched to the study of Latin American history, and to the theories of injustice and social change. Writing became my passion, in part because I was often in small classrooms where my professors worked hard at critiquing and editing my papers.

UC Santa Cruz made me a thinker and a writer. I spent many long hours in my apartment at Oakes College, and those of my friends, discussing and debating ideas and how the world worked and how we might make it better. I wrote for the 'minority'-run quarterly paper TWANAS (as in Third World and Native American Student Press Collective)—and I wrote, for the first time in my life, very long essays and papers.

Back then, you might write a 40-page final paper for a class. I hacked these out on my typewriter, and then in the computer lab where something called 'word processing' was being introduced to us, on computers that were so big we weren't even in the same room with them. And then when we were done we'd drive or bike into town to celebrate, and then ride back, up to the meadows and the forests."

Martha Mendoza (photo by Thomas Mendoza)

Martha Mendoza

Pulitzer Prize–winning AP reporter and author

Martha Mendoza (Kresge '88, journalism and education), Pulitzer Prize–winning Associated Press reporter and author, had an awakening with personal, political, and professional implications.

"My pivot moment came when I landed in Conn Hallinan's journalism class," she said. "He was lively and engaging, and as angry as I was about the wrongs of the world. For the first time I saw work I could do that had real meaning.

I had just spent a summer visiting Central America and was really perplexed by the role the U.S. was playing in several small Central American countries. Our military was getting involved in civil wars and domestic issues, going well beyond humanitarian aid.

To see what war looked like, in person, as a 19-year-old was outrageous. The refugee camps, bombed homes, towns made uninhabitable because of land mines were fundamentally disturbing. I was aggravated that there was very little public awareness about this.

Conn told me 30 years ago I had 'enormous potential as a professional journalist.'

No one had ever said anything like that to me. I believed him, and still work to live up to his belief in me."


Reyna Grande (photo by Ibarionex R. Perello)

Reyna Grande

award-winning author

Reyna Grande's hinge moment happened during one of those longstanding UC Santa Cruz traditions: a protest.

The future award-winning author (Kresge '99, creative writing, film and video) attended UC Santa Cruz on the advice of her junior college English teacher, who thought it would be good for her to get out of Los Angeles and see something new.

"At UC Santa Cruz, it was my first time being immersed in nature. The redwood forest offered peace and tranquility to my troubled spirit. I had left a home where I had been physically and emotionally abused by my father. In my dorm at Kresge College, I was free from the abuse. I finally felt liberated, and the beautiful surroundings helped me heal from my psychological traumas. It was there where I began to flourish.

When I chose to live at Kresge, I didn't know that most Latino students (there weren't many of us back then) were at Oakes College! Coming from L.A. where the Latino population is 50 percent, it was a shock to me to find myself as the minority. Often in my literature and creative writing classes at Kresge, I was the only Latina student. One day, as I was heading to class, one of my roommates—a Caucasian girl—asked me why I wasn't down at Hahn Hall with my people, protesting with them. I didn't know what she was talking about and I insisted that I needed to get to class. But she took me by the arm and dragged me to Hahn Hall because she said I needed to support my people in their protest.

When I arrived, I was in for a shock. There they were, the Latino students. Several hundred of them linking hands, chanting 'Sí Se Puede!' ['Yes, We Can!'] and 'El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido' ['The People United Will Never Be Defeated']. They were protesting Proposition 209, which abolished California's affirmative action program, a program that had benefited me.

That day I suddenly didn't feel alone anymore at seeing all those Latino students. And as I joined hands with them I silently thanked my roommate for bringing me there. I found it incredible that a non-Latina had held me accountable and made me support my people! That first protest showed me that we all have a voice, and that together, we need to speak up for the injustices that we see in the world.

I felt different after that day. I had more confidence in myself. I was more determined than ever to get a college education and really make a difference in my family, my Latino community, and my country."


Matt Skenazy (photo by Danielle Mullen)

Matt Skenazy

assistant editor, Outside magazine

Matt Skenazy (Cowell '08, literature), assistant editor at Outside magazine, wasn't interested in writing before coming to UC Santa Cruz. But when he arrived on campus, he found out that Conn Hallinan, who so greatly influenced alumna Martha Mendoza, was about to teach his last class on campus. Also, Hallinan was a family friend (Skenazy's father is Paul Skenazy, a UC Santa Cruz professor emeritus of literature).

"For those reasons alone, I figured I should take it," Skenazy said. "The class changed everything."

By the time he left to travel in New Zealand and Indonesia after graduating, UC Santa Cruz had provided a focus and framework for those journeys. "On those trips, I didn't bring a camera. If I wanted to remember anything, I had to write it down."

Looking back, he is grateful for Hallinan and another alumna and faculty member, lecturer and student media adviser Susan Watrous (Kresge '87, American studies), for encouraging him to write.

"When I was away, I'd send them stories. Nine months later, I came back to join the soccer team for preseason in Brazil. I wrote a feature story for the school paper about the trip, which was the first piece I ever had published. I guess what I'm getting at is that though UC Santa Cruz no longer had a formal journalism program [the program ended in 2003], there were ways to develop as a nonfiction writer anyway; that is why we have such a long and wonderful list of alumni writers—Martha Mendoza, New Yorker staff writer Bill Finnegan, Lawrence Weschler, etc.

Later, I wrote a story for City on a Hill about noted author and magazine writer Dan Duane (Ph.D. '96, literature), also a UC Santa Cruz alum. He had a job I thought sounded great—traveling around and writing about adventures for Outside, The Surfer's Journal, and National Geographic Adventure. When I went to interview him, he was doing something in another room, but told me to look out the window and write down what I saw so I would have a scene to set the article in.

Of course, I started the story with him telling me to look out the window. So those trips, my experiences at UC Santa Cruz, and Dan taught me to look out windows, so to speak."