Alumni Weekend 2017: Glorious weather, vibrant events bring Slugs home

Slugs converged to speak truth to power, reunite, rediscover the campus, and continue the learning process; everywhere you went, a party, a reunion, an artisanal al fresco lunch, or a speech was unfolding

Alumni had touching and funny stories to tell during Alumni Weekend—take a listen to these podcasts from interviews by student intern Loukas Stelyn. 
Little Slugs had a chance to raise a ruckus at the annual Banana Slug Kid Zone. Photos by Steve Kurtz.
Carmen Perez (Rachel Carson College, psychology) one of the national co-chairs of the Women's March on Washington, and excecutive director of juvenile justice nonprofit The Gathering For Justice, inspired the crowd during her keynote address.
Gina Dent, associate professor of feminist studies, history of consciousness, and legal studies, gave a "Teach-In" entitled "Ex Post Facto: How To Respond To A 'Post-Truth' World.
This group of alumni had some fun by making up some commemorative T-shirts for the occasion. They are pictured here with UC Santa Cruz chancellor George Blumenthal.
Beneath a clear blue sky, Banana Slugs gathered in the restored Cowell Ranch Hay Barn to enjoy the Alumni Vintner and Brewer Reception, featuring music, lively conversation, and plenty of appetizers.
Kris Perry, this year's Social Sciences Distinguished Alumni Award honoree, was the lead plaintiff in the historic legal challenge that overturned California's ban on gay marriage. Photo by Melissa De Witte.

Alumni Weekend 2017 was all about high-mindedness and hilarity, activism and active wear, slowing it down and racing to the finish line, surrendering to nostalgia and embracing new adventures.

It was, in other words, a study in enjoyable contrasts. One moment, a returning Banana Slug might be sipping a beer at the Kick-Off Party/Beer Garden event at the Cocoanut Grove while sharing hilarious, off-color stories about early-1970s-era UC Santa Cruz while Jimmy Buffett’s “Boat Drinks” song warbles in the background.

In another moment, those same passionate Slugs would learn how to speak truth to power from the likes of headline-making fellow alumni such as keynote speaker Carmen Perez (Rachel Carson College, psychology), criminal justice reform activist and one of the national co-chairs of the Women’s March on Washington, and Kris Perry (Merrill ’86, psychology and sociology), the plaintiff in a lawsuit that challenged, and eventually overturned, Proposition 8, a 2008 California constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages.

Everywhere you went, a party, a reunion, an artisanal al fresco lunch, or a speech was unfolding. The spirit was strong this year, with more than 1,700 people registering for this annual celebration. 

On Saturday, a tightly knit group of friends roamed Quarry Plaza wearing matching T-shirts saying, “UC Santa Cruz Alumni Weekend 2017. Class of 2012. How the hell are you?”

Meanwhile, up in a conference room overlooking the plaza, alumni, faculty, staff, and students celebrated Black Life at UC Santa Cruz with memorabilia, photos, stories, and good music.

Sister Paula L. Powell, founding director of the African American Resource and Cultural Center, recalled the organization's humble beginnings. “We started out with a budget of $700,” she said with a chuckle. “We had to make our own fun.” 

The organization made the most of it, building a sense of “home away from home” and community, and entering into collaborations with other organizations on campus. “Hey, we did our job!” she said. “We laid a foundation.”

In another corner of campus, at Stevenson Lounge, Burke Owens, food professional, former sommelier, and proud parent of two recent UC Santa Cruz alumni, provided a unique immersion course in cocktails from the era of Charles Dickens.

Curious tipplers watched Owens prepare concoctions such as the “Smoking Bishop,” the beverage that the enlightened Scrooge shares with his employee Bob Cratchit at the end of A Christmas Carol, and a cold gin punch straight out of The Pickwick Papers.

"Punch is a great way to connect with people: the flowing bowl, the convivial spirit,” said Owens. He hoped the event would take Slugs “back to a time that none of us physically lived in, a way to remember or recover something that is long gone, or at least approximate it.”

There was so much to do, it was hard to take it all in. But one thread connected every event. Each get-together and celebration evoked a different aspect of UC Santa Cruz’s identity, from doing groundbreaking research to thinking across disciplinary lanes, helping others, and stopping tyranny.

Get up, stand up! 

On Friday, celebrants had a chance to take in two memorable crash courses into organizing, refusing to back down, and making history.

That day, Kris Perry, the lead plaintiff in the historical legal challenge that overturned California’s ban on gay marriage, received this year’s Social Sciences Distinguished Alumni Award, along with two standing ovations, during a reception at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center.

Perry gave the audience a vivid backdrop about this history-making fight against prejudice.

In 2008, a majority of California voters narrowly passed Proposition 8, eliminating the right of same-sex couples to marry, on the same night the nation elected Barack Obama to the presidency. Perry described her simultaneous feeling of elation and dejection: “We had come so far and we had lost so much ground.”

Certain aspects of her dramatic story approached the surreal. During one juncture of their fight against Proposition 8, the plaintiffs sued the state of California, “even though they employed me.” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was the defendant, “even though I worked for him.”

The story’s dramatic happy ending brought the audience to its feet: “On the day we won at the Supreme Court, President Obama called us to say he was proud of us. Two days later we were the first couple in California to be married, on the balcony outside the mayor’s office, beside the bust of Harvey Milk in San Francisco City Hall before hundreds of cheering strangers and my mom with [our son] Elliott as our best man.”

The officiator was none other than Kamala Harris, now a U.S. Senator. Love and Trial, a book about this historic fight, co-written by Perry and wife Sandy Stier, will soon be published, complete with high-profile blurbs from the likes of Chelsea Clinton and Jamie Lee Curtis.

The audience at the Seymour Center included Perry’s mother and her son, Elliott Perry, a graduating UC Santa Cruz senior from Rachel Carson College.

United we stand

That night, the crash course on activism continued in earnest with Carmen Perez, who exhorted the audience to “find your lane—do what do you love to do, then take it back to the movement. This is what working separately is.” Perez wiggled her fingers, then made a fist. “And this is what working together looks like. This is how you knock down systems of oppression.

“We need all of you in this movement,” she said. “All of you who showed up [to the Women's March on Washington] on Jan. 21—keep showing up!”

She also talked about her humble beginnings: “A little girl from Oxnard led a march.”

Perez grew up in a community that was vibrant with diversity but struggled with issues such as drug use, gangs, and violence.

The tragic loss of her sister in 1994 galvanized Perez. Devastated, she wanted to end her life. Instead, she changed course and went to UC Santa Cruz, where she had a transformative experience. “When I came to Santa Cruz, the cloud that had been over me lifted.”

The campus transformed and focused her political practice and sharpened her activism. It was an important way station on the road to the Women’s March. “I didn’t just magically show up” to the movement, she said. “There was a journey that got me to where I am.”

Perez took the time to honor her influential professors, including Aída Hurtado, whose Chicana feminism class was a political and spiritual awakening for Perez. Hurtado pushed Perez very hard—but Perez came to learn that Hurtado was giving her a hard time for a reason: She was trying to make sure she lived up to her true potential.

Now, Hurtado could not be more proud of her former pupil.

“I was so honored to have been on the stage with Carmen,” said Hurtado, who now holds the endowed chair of the Chicano Studies Department at UC Santa Barbara. “It is not often that a professor gets to witness a student's success before their very own eyes. The entire event was magical.”

While Perez’s speech was powerful and sometimes heartbreaking, she also cracked up the audience by talking about her many run-ins with UC Santa Cruz wildlife, including a slimy banana slug—“They are ugly creatures!” she observed—to a narrowly avoided dust-up with raccoons, which tried to intimidate her when she brought out the trash. “They would bring the whole family,’’ she noted.

Run for the fun of it

Perez’s speech got the audience’s blood pumping—and so did the first-ever Fun Run, a joint organizational effort involving UC Santa Cruz’s Office of Physical Education, Recreation and Sports (OPERS) as well as the campus Financial Aid Office.

“It’s a great way to justify the beer we’re going to be drinking for the rest of the weekend,” remarked Brett Bell (Cowell,’12, environmental studies) as he stood at the East Remote parking lot, still cooling off from the race.

Bell ran the course with Jeff Arnett (Merrill ’72, art), a retired creative writing lecturer at UC Santa Cruz. Arnett, coincidentally, was Bell’s former cross-country coach at UC Santa Cruz.

Arnett conceded that parts of the run put him to the test. Even though it snaked from OPERS to the central campus, past the library, and out to Oakes, with breathtaking views, “It was not a sightseeing tour, let’s put it that way,” Arnett said. “It was a fairly challenging course, especially the first mile.”

“Yes,” Bell said. “That’s the nature of the campus.”

The shaping of a Slug

At on- and off-campus events, revelers were rolling back the years and living for the moment, while reflecting on the various ways UC Santa Cruz has shaped them.

Some of the answers were surprising. Asked how UC Santa Cruz changed her life, Nallely Martinez (Cowell '12, art and psychology) pointed to a fellow alumnus, Alexander “Cosmo” Martinez (Crown '13, legal studies) and said, “We got married!”

Others shared memories that seemed fresh and immediate, even though some of their stories went back 40 years or more. Jeffrey Redding (Cowell ’73, biology), a consultant for the wine industry, could still remember his surprise when he showed up on campus and saw women not only dressing in jeans, but also swearing up a storm every time they missed a shot at Ping-Pong.

“My family had been living in the Philippines, and my father wanted me to reconnect with American life” by attending UC Santa Cruz. “Little did he know!” said Redding with a laugh. “I don’t think he knew what I was getting into!”

Arriving at UC Santa Cruz was also a bit of a shock for Rena Ragimova (Stevenson '06, philosophy), a former journalist who now works in marketing. She was born in Moscow, grew up in Los Angeles, and showed up with her parents, who stared out the window at the rural campus and said, “What is this farm?”

She initially studied economics because it was hard to resist a practical approach to her education. “I’m an immigrant child,’’ she explained. But Ragimova soon switched to philosophy. “I wanted to know how to live life. What is this all about? At one point I had an experience that made me realize that life is not a series of stages—do this, do that—but something you improvise along the way. But how do you go about doing that?”

To this day, she finds herself reaching into her bookshelf and pulling out philosophy books just for fun.

Going back to school

During their Teach-In about the exciting possibilities of stem cell research, professors Lindsay Hinck, Camilla Forsberg, and Daniel Kim explained how stem cells worked before going into the details of their research.

Quite simply, “stem cells make other cells, with a unique ability to ‘self-renew’ (make more stem cells) and ‘differentiate’ (make other cells),” said Forsberg.

Stem cells “know” how to make heart and liver and all the cell types in the body, which is why there are so many exciting possibilities, Forsberg said.

“So the potential is to permanently cure disease in one single treatment as opposed to taking a pill or drug or undergo multiple treatments. If we can train stem cells to behave normally in our bodies, it is a one-time shot that lasts forever. What is better than a cure? Never get sick!”

While researchers can now make “pluripotent” cells that can make any other cell in the body, scientists must increase their understanding of how this process works. “To know how to engineer a cell, you have to know all the parts,” said Kim, while showing a daunting diagram of a disassembled car, a mess of doors, wheels, and tiny screws. "It is a complicated system. To engineer this car you need to understand every component.”

The more researchers learn about these cells, the more that knowledge can be applied to promising new treatments for cancer, neural degenerative diseases, and injuries, training the next generation of scientists to improve human health, the presenters said.

In another far-ranging Teach-In presentation, Associate Professor of Feminist Studies Gina Dent addressed the role of the humanities in the "post-truth" era.

Dent’s ambitious presentation went far beyond the idea of using facts to refute distortions and lies. Instead, she talked about the power of architecture, film, and literature to evoke deeper truths that cannot necessarily be found in cold facts.

As examples, she talked about and showed a powerful scene from Julie Dash’s 1991 independent film Daughters of the Dust. Though this is an imaginative work, the film, set in the early 20th century on St. Helena Island, captures vivid truths about black life and culture, even in instances when it does not use “realism as a form of representation.”

And yet the film “very carefully encodes so much cultural knowledge” in a way that no mere “fact sheet” could ever achieve.

On the flip side, she also talked about the way that people, without even realizing it, can receive distorted or simplistic ideas about prison life through popular media and film, without even realizing this media has shaped their outlook.

Happy anniversary, baby

During Alumni Weekend, the Natural History Field Quarter, Crown College, and Grupo Folklorico Los Mexicas all held important anniversary celebrations. These get-togethers were a great way to show just how far each highlighted organization, department, interest group, or division had come.

This was certainly the case at the Baskin School of Engineering, where alumni, faculty, and staff celebrated 20 years of the engineering school. “History was made here,” said professor of biomolecular engineering David Haussler. “Here is where we posted the first human genome on the internet. No one anticipated that when the department was built. We’re not building airplanes here. We are free to focus on nano-bio.”

Baskin Dean Alexander Wolf talked about just how much the engineering school has advanced. “The Baskin School of Engineering grew up with the internet,” he said. “The internet age was turned from a simple, and in its original form, invisible communication mechanism to something that has transformed people’s lives.”

The school started with computer science, created a molecular engineering department, and brought in genomics and computational media, along with gaming, robotics, and autonomous vehicles.

Many engineering schools still have a 19th century orientation, focusing on chemical, mechanical, and civil engineering, “but this is a 21st century engineering school, focusing on subjects that are relevant to our time,” he said.

But the school has shaped many lives and outlooks, and not just careers. Like many other returning alumni reflecting on their academic careers, Eric Carter (Crown  ’07, engineering) said the school taught him more than just a discipline. It also provided a new way of thinking.

“Studying here forced me to distill down and understand all the components of a problem,” he said. “Any kind of problem.”