Alumni Week was a virtual smorgasbord for nostalgic Banana Slugs

COVID-induced online pivot allows for eclecticism and flexibility

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Banana Slugs showed off their creativity and adaptability during last week’s all-virtual Alumni Week, a celebration that made the most of its online format and featured more than 70 live events from April 19–25. 

Sure, it’s nice to hug former roommates, sit down for a picnic lunch at Quarry Plaza, and hoist some craft-brewed pints in the newly restored Quarry Amphitheater. But this year’s Alumni Week revelers didn’t have to scramble for parking, or jog-walk around the notoriously hilly and forested campus to get from one event to the other. 

This time around, attendees could take in just about everything, from a thought-provoking conversation about the afterlife of slavery with writer and scholar Saidaya Hartman, to a discussion with biomolecular engineer Ed Green about solving a 150-year-old San Francisco mystery by using cutting-edge DNA techniques he’s developed.

Alumni Week also offered a brand-new twist called Banana Slug Share Sessions, featuring an all-star group of Slug alumni who shared what they knew in a series of informal “classes.”

Organizers were thrilled at the public response to their hard work. 

“After having had to cancel all of Alumni Weekend 2020's festivities due to lockdowns, we knew we wanted to engage alumni in a thoughtful way this year,” said UC Santa Cruz senior events coordinator Diana Hogue. “So we challenged ourselves to come up with a unique collection of alumni-focused events. It all came together very organically and serendipitously.”

To create this fun-filled week, “there was a whole lot of lifting and coordinating and outreach on the backend, but all the hard work yielded success,” Hogue said. 

Attendance boomed. Though event organizers are still figuring out the exact numbers, they had well over 3,000 people show up to various events throughout the week. Historically speaking, that is a whopping number. In past years, analog versions of Alumni Weekend have attracted a crowd of about 1,000 people. 

If you missed any part of Alumni Week, you can catch recordings of the events here.

“People were together in the virtual space and in very good spirits at that,” Hogue said. 

Honoring history

Social justice loomed large during Alumni Week. Acclaimed artist Dread Scott had a live conversation with UC Davis history professor Erin Gray to talk about Scott’s participation in a collaborative and galvanizing work, Slave Rebellion Reenactment, 2019, a community-engaged performance reenacting the largest rebellion of enslaved people in U.S. history. 

Scott said all of his work has one thing in common. 

“It really asks the audience to imagine how the world could be radically different and better,” he said.

The presentation featured snippets from a video of the reenactment, which took place on November 8–9, 2019, and reimagined the German Coast Uprising of 1811. The rebellion does not receive the historical attention it deserves, Scott noted. 

Hundreds of reenactors took part in the re-creation, and though they wore historically accurate clothing, Scott and his collaborators made no attempt to sequester the participants from modern buildings. Scott liked the idea of filming the marchers in front of contemporary structures to create a strong sense of cognitive dissonance for viewers, opening up a dialogue and making them question their assumptions about history.

Though the crowd showed defiance and resistance, there was also a strong sense of community, hope, and even celebration, as the marchers chanted, “Liberty!”

“This was not a project about slavery, it was a project about Black joy and liberation and freedom,” said Scott. 

Mutual aid and community support 

In the traditional, all-analog version of Alumni Weekend, alumni would find and greet each other based on the information scribbled on their identification stickers. Pioneer alumni from Crown College and old-timers from Merrill College would gather around the same table and swap stories. 

This time around, there were no badges or tables, but the open dialogues and “chat” function in the various Alumni Week webinars had a similar social element, with old friends and new acquaintances reaching out to one another. 

This was certainly the case during a First-Generation Arts Alumni Panel event, intended to raise the visibility of first-generation arts alumni and students at UC Santa Cruz by highlighting their artistic gifts as well as the challenges they faced as they embarked on careers in the arts. 

The virtual format served an event that was all about community building and mutual aid among artists. First-generation college student Louise Leong (Porter '12, art) said her family always supported her creativity, but when she started out at UC Santa Cruz, she still had to find mentors and a strong artistic direction. She is grateful to her arts professors, especially wood shop manager Brian Quan, who urged her to learn how to be a bike mechanic so she could always support herself as she continued working on creative fields. 

Leong spoke of overcoming hardship. After graduation, and in between jobs, she went through a period of doubt about her portfolio of illustrations. 

“I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing,” she said. 

But then she was nominated for a prestigious Rydell Visual Arts Fellowship, which bolstered her confidence. 

“Then I thought, ‘I guess I do have an idea of what I’m doing,'’’ she said. “I identify with anyone who has had to figure it out on their own. I’m so grateful to hear other people’s stories of finding their own validation.” 

During the alumni panel discussion, Karina Tavares Perez (Porter '18, art), who started printmaking at UC Santa Cruz in late 2016, urged other recent creative-minded UC Santa Cruz graduates to be bold, to not give up, and to make sure to team up with other young artists. 

“It is super important after graduation to find the people who motivate you, who support you,” she said. “One of my goals as one of the arts alumni is to bring more resources to campus, passing down what I have now to current students."

Perez is working to set up a direct-funding program that benefits UCSC students who are interested in printmaking. 

Arts and community were also at the center of a Banana Slug Share session offering a historical look at the arts at UC Santa Cruz from 1975–1977, with fascinating snippets of vintage student-made documentaries, and an eye-opening look at the creative careers that arose from those freewheeling times. 

“Flashbacks!” 

Someone wrote “Flashbacks!” in the chat function during that Banana Slug Share Session, which was called “Historical Glimpse into the Arts at UCSC 1975–77: Student Film Doc & Video Synth.” 

It’s no wonder that this session brought forth such strong upwellings of nostalgia. During the talk, two Kresge alumni, Denise Gallant (Kresge '76, film and English literature) and Rob Schafer (Kresge '75, communications, media, and performance), shared rare video footage of vintage 1970s UC Santa Cruz through an uninhibited creative lens, with images of modern dancers, pooling shadows, grids, fractals, waves, and someone jumping off of a wall. 

For some revelers, that wild documentary was like a moving, pulsating yearbook. In several instances, attendees either recognized themselves in the video or saw someone they knew. 

And there were many groovy—and more recent—images from Gallant’s career as a “modular video synth" practitioner, providing visuals for such groups as Devo and the Residents, as well as an eye-catching color-saturated backdrop for the band Tangerine Dream. It just goes to show that wild creativity can end up being a way to make a living. 

Using DNA to solve a heartbreaking mystery 

Associate professor of biomolecular engineering Ed Green gave a Kraw Lecture that showed how DNA-based forensics can be used to solve a remarkable array of mysteries, from forensic genetic genealogy to identifying suspects in violent crime. 

His presentation revealed how the UC Santa Cruz Genetics Lab helped solve the mystery of a little girl dubbed “Miranda Eve.” In May of 2016, a contractor happened upon the child's skeleton in a casket while excavating a family’s backyard in the Lone Mountain neighborhood of San Francisco, setting off a search for the child's identity that made headlines all over the world. 

Green was one of the experts called upon by UC Davis anthropology professor Jelmer Eerkens, who had offered to help when he learned of the case. Green's initial analysis of the nuclear DNA taken from samples of the girl’s hair, combined with the efforts of genealogy experts, historians, and vintage photos of San Francisco, led to the solving of the mystery. “Miranda Eve” was really Edith Howard Cook, who was born on November 28, 1873, and died in October 1876, just short of her 3rd birthday. 

The grave was apparently disinterred after a post-1906 earthquake building and population boom in San Francisco, leading to the relocation of many corpses because of the insatiable hunger for unbuilt land. After the little girl was reburied, the Knights of Columbus held a special ceremony, which Green attended. 

“It was a very strange funeral,” he recalled. “But it was interesting, almost uplifting, because the Knights of Columbus had volunteered to make this happen.” 

The girl was also given a brand-new headstone. 

“That was an awesome thing,” Green remarked. “This may be the last time that the results of my work are literally etched in stone.”

Recognizing excellence 

Other highlights included a heartfelt ceremony honoring the five recipients of this year’s Distinguished Graduate Student Alumni Award, a high-achieving group that is helping to shape 21st century feminist thought, fostering inclusion and creativity in the theater arts, conducting pioneering cancer research, and much more. 

The honoreees are bell hooks (Ph.D. ’83, literature), the highly influential writer, political theorist, and professor whose works are part of the intellectual canon; Adrian Scott Centeno (M.A. ’16, theater arts), who rose to national prominence as a new play dramaturg, theater history and criticism lecturer, and arts education programmer after graduating from UC Santa Cruz; writer, author, and academic Macarena Gómez-Barris (Ph.D. ’04, sociology), who praised the strength of cultural studies, environmental studies, Latina/o/x and Latin American studies, and feminist studies at UC Santa Cruz; Rachel Karchin (Ph.D. ’03, computer engineering), now a pioneering cancer researcher and professor of biomedical engineering, oncology, and computer science at Johns Hopkins University, who studied bioinformatics and computational biology at UC Santa Cruz; and Ian Walton (Ph.D. ’77, mathematics), an independent educator, consultant, and former president of the statewide Academic Senate for the California community colleges system, who came to UC Santa Cruz in 1973 as a Fulbright Scholarship graduate student in mathematics. 

Graduate Studies Division Professional Development Coordinator and Event Organizer Sonya Newlyn placed an emphasis on each recipient’s strong sense of mentorship and the importance of working for the common good. 

“Each of them educates, and their life work has continued the mission of UC Santa Cruz since they left this campus with their advanced degrees,” Newlyn said. 

Read about this year’s group of honorees and watch the full ceremony. 

Slugs in politics

Other highlights included a talk by Terri McCullough (Oakes ’90, politics),  chief of staff to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. McCullough, the recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award for Social Sciences, spoke about the values she learned at UCSC and how this shaped her leadership and career.

Her talk, held in memory of UC Santa Cruz alumnus Gabriel “Gabe” Zimmerman, provided an inside look into her work. Zimmerman (Stevenson, '02, sociology) was working for Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords as her Director of Community Outreach when he was tragically shot and killed in 2011. 

Other highlights: former Santa Cruz Mayor Cynthia Chase (Merrill ’01, psychology) also joined the political discourse with a discussion of strategies for electing more underrepresented people to public office in a talk called “Breaking The Glass Ballot." Former State Senator and current Alumni Regent Art Torres (Stevenson, ‘68, government) and State Senator John Laird (Stevenson, '72, politics) talked about their time at UCSC, and how this experience led to their distinguished careers in politics.

If you missed any part of Alumni Week, you can catch recordings of the events here.