Before freshman year, Santa Cruz was the “Murder Capital of the World” to me. Tucked in the upper corner of the Monterey Bay, its redwoods are foreboding, its boardwalk dense with character. My first impressions of Santa Cruz, influenced by movies and TV shows like “The Lost Boys,” “Mindhunter,” and “Us,” gave me the sense that Santa Cruz was a mysterious, even dark place. In my first two years at UC Santa Cruz, I started to see it wasn’t the nefarious place I thought it was. 

Now, back at home, I picture Santa Cruz as empty and bleak. Granted, during the pandemic, I picture most places as empty and bleak. Despite evidence to the contrary, I can’t help but see that image whenever I read a headline or email from the chancellor.

For myself and the students who are staying home for fall quarter, the impressions we get of Santa Cruz are through those emails and articles. Our experience with the community has changed, and we are suddenly more disconnected. Every time I launch Zoom for a school 500 miles away, there is that persistent, nagging thought – I could be going to any university right now

A student placing themself onto a pixelated photo of Quarry Plaza in their browser window
Illustration by Joss Borys

The elements that made UCSC unique are gone. It’s not the same experience on Zoom as it was when I was sprinting to the perpetually far away Oakes college for my next class. Now, all my classes start with the same Zoom pop-up, followed by a triple check that my mic is off. With everything and everyone online, there is no longer anything that makes class inherently UCSC. 

Talking with friends about the whole what-the-fuck-is-going-on quality to the situation, there is aprevailing feeling of detachment between themselves and their schools. 

“It feels like some weird episode of Black Mirror where this is the only way we can communicate now,” said Peter, a UCSC senior from College Nine. 

Peter has spent his quarter traveling between Jalisco, Mexico, and San Diego. As a film major, most of his time is dedicated to working on projects and watching movies for class. The travel is good for him, he says, as it breaks up the rhythm of the quarter. Instead of staying in one place, he goes to see different family members that he usually would only get to see two weeks out of the year. 

“It’s been nice being able to hang out and see them for so long, especially now,” Peter said.

While the projects and travel help him stay busy, he feels like he isn’t going to college anymore. The assignments for his class are generally the same, consisting of watching movies and analyzing them with everyone else. For him, college felt like going to the movies with his classmates every week, and Zoom lectures and breakout rooms don’t measure up. It feels as much like a MasterClass course on film as it does a UCSC class. He can no longer be a part of the community that drew him to Santa Cruz.

Coming from Los Angeles, a campus with trees appealed to Peter over the usual concentration of buildings and traffic. For many students, though, it’s not just the campus setting that’s attractive, but the environment within it. For students visiting their empty college campuses, the experience is surreal. 

“I feel like an alumni,” remarked Maddie, a UCLA junior, as she paced up Bruinwalk for the first time in six months.

Maddie is spending fall quarter at home in northern California with her parents and siblings. Her days follow a common pandemic format: work and attend class in the same few rooms, only leaving to run or go grocery shopping.

“There is not that unique atmosphere anymore,” Maddie said. “Without seeing people and being around campus, it doesn’t feel like it’s college.”

This struck me. I forgot that half of the campus’s character was the students, faculty, deer, and turkeys that populated it. That each college’s attraction was not just the campus itself, but the ambiance provided by the students who decided to attend the same school as you. 

Staying at home for the quarter has its benefits. I don’t have to worry about rent, I can see my high school friends while remaining socially distanced, and everything around me is extremely familiar and comfortable. With unpredictability heading into every quarter, staying home provides me with certainty and security.

As I’m adapting to new circumstances, the attributes that made UCSC unique for me and others have changed.  Everybody is making adjustments on the fly.  There is value in being independent in a new community for the first time, not just exploring a new location, but finding an atmosphere you are comfortable in.  That’s an experience that’s now absent for most students. 

When I first attended UCSC, I enjoyed discovering the aspects of Santa Cruz that made it less daunting than I thought it would be.  I expected to miss all the small parts of UCSC, what I didn’t realize is that they added up to a larger whole.