Arriving at UC Santa Cruz for the first time in September 2019, I still remember my university starter pack from move-in: an academic advising folder with my schedule of events, a UCSC key chain I still use today, and a blue UCSC tote bag for whatever miscellaneous things one might need a tote bag for.

Fast-forward a year later, my fall 2020 university starter pack is a 24-pack of canned Aquafina, a spray bottle of all-purpose cleaner, 500 milliliters of hand sanitizer, a digital thermometer, and two UCSC-branded face masks. 

It’s far from the college life I had gotten used to a year ago. The school is extra cautious with interim public health policies while still attempting to provide a sense of normalcy to residents. I’m under sequestration for my first two weeks back, which limits my movements to picking up food from the dining hall, traveling to work, engaging in low-risk outdoor activities, and heading to the Namaste Lounge for my mandatory, weekly testing. 

Illustration by Ryan Tran.

At the lounge, one station by the door registers incoming appointments, while four more conduct testing. With every station occupied, it’s a cacophony of voices and echoes. Between the surrounding commotion, the plexiglass barrier I’m standing in front of, and the muffling of our masks, it’s hard to hear the worker helping me, but we make do.  

On campus, testing is self-administered, as opposed to the dreaded nasopharyngeal swab that looks like they’re going to pick at my brain. This test only requires you to swab the inside of each nostril a couple centimeters deep for 15 seconds. It tickles a little bit, but aside from that, it’s quick and easy. 

After mixing your swab in a vial to be sent to the lab, you’re done. The whole process takes just over five minutes, and results come online in two or three days.

If it comes back positive, the health center will call to tell me the bad news. Luckily, I haven’t gotten one of those calls yet.  

Heading back to my apartment, I pass the College Nine and Ten Dining Hall. Sometimes by force of habit, I find myself walking toward the door to get swiped in and pocket a couple of herbal teas. But I can’t do that anymore. 

When sequestration’s over and the dining hall reopens, everything will be to-go. Customers will order ahead on an app and bring their meal back to their room. 

I’m still nostalgic for the times that I’d stop by for a late-night munch, my friends laughing about my failed experiment of the pizza slice in the panini press, or joking about the dining hall’s sad attempt at a meal that consisted of warm wheat bread with a hot dog on top. I’m still hopeful I’ll create new memories like those, but I know I’ll have to be patient. 

My first couple of days on campus, I’m reminded of the uncertainty that the future holds.  Less than 24 hours after arriving, I got a Cruz Alert warning me about the Heller Fire, burning less than a mile from campus.  Thankfully, it was contained an hour or two later. 

Hailing from the heart of Los Angeles, I’m used to smog. But the faint, yet blinding amber sky and lingering smell of burnt tinder reminds me that I’m looking at wildfire smoke, not the emissions I’m used to. For two quarters I woke up to a stunning view of Monterey Bay, surrounded by redwoods, and breathing in the crisp Santa Cruz air. Now, the tainted sky serves as a reminder of this year’s constant uncertainty. 

I enjoy endless walks, with no real destination in mind, and one night I found myself strolling across the empty campus. 

The university is only housing students in Crown, Merrill, and Colleges Nine and Ten, so everywhere else on campus is a ghost town. Walking past campus hotspots without their usual activity continues to unsettle me.

A deafening silence sits over the Lower West Field, devoid of the occasional person yelling “OOAAAKEEESSS” from the top of their lungs. OPERS with its lights out is something out of a horror movie, and the Porter Squiggle just looks lonely.

On my walk, I end up back at my freshman residence. Stevenson College, House Eight. It now sits abandoned.

I can see the window of my old dorm room,the one where I stared into the comfort of the redwoods in Pogonip. The room where I cried with my floormates after hearing the news we’d be sent home in March. 

Now, six months later, everything is different. 

Life inside the UCSC bubble is uncertain, and I hope I can stay here as long as possible. I know I can’t control that, but I can control how I appreciate this place I find myself in. Even with all the uncertainty, I will never take this campus for granted again.