‘We’re on a bridge to some new normal’: Cabrillo, UCSC summer sessions in full swing

Art instructor Tobin Keller helps a student in a beginning drawing course at Cabrillo College.
(Hillary Ojeda / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Summer school at Cabrillo College and UC Santa Cruz kicked off in June, and with the COVID pandemic entering a new phase, officials are rebalancing in-person and remote learning, opening up new opportunities for both continuing students and high schoolers. 

This year, summer school at Cabrillo College and UC Santa Cruz is quiet, but still very much alive.

In one of the art department buildings at Cabrillo on Wednesday afternoon, Bibi Bartlett focused on the lighting and shadows of a pear on top of a cube as they sketched the objects in a beginning drawing course. Sixteen other students did the same in the large studio — which had alternative rock music playing and was lit with only several lamps focused on the different stands of objects.

Bartlett — who prefers he and they pronouns — finished their first full academic year of classes at Cabrillo this year, with all instruction being remote. Drawing was their first in–person course.

“The first day [of drawing] I was really anxious about everything,” they said. “Just thinking, ‘Oh, where’s my classroom? Do I have everything?’ ... Now I got everything. So I feel better.”

In the fall, Bartlett thinks they’ll be taking two in-person classes and one remote class.

With conditions getting closer to pre-COVID times, instruction at Cabrillo and UCSC appears to be settling into what could be a new normal since the pandemic pushed all instruction online in spring 2020. While enrollment numbers are not yet final for this summer, both schools estimate slight declines.

This is the first summer since 2020 that UCSC is offering in-person instruction, while at Cabrillo the story is slightly different. In 2020, about 45% of its instruction was online; last year 78% was online compared to 61% this year.

“It feels like we’re on a bridge to some new normal,” Cabrillo College President Matt Wetstein told Lookout on Wednesday. “And that new normal has a higher percentage of online learning.”

Bibi Bartlett adds shading to a project in their drawing class at Cabrillo College.
(Hillary Ojeda / Lookout Santa Cruz )

Summer courses began June 13 at Cabrillo; courses range in duration from four to eight weeks. Wetstein said the experience of students this year will likely be similar to last summer: of all the students enrolled, 71.3% are returning Cabrillo students, while first-time Cabrillo transfer students, first-time college students and high school students make up the remainder in almost equal parts.

Compared to last summer, Wetstein said enrollment for full-time-equivalent students is down about 14% — a trend mirrored by colleges and universities across California and the country. At Cabrillo, math, biology and chemistry are seeing the biggest drops in enrollment, while enrollment in visual and performing arts is up, he said.

On Wednesday afternoon, the campus was calm. Occasionally, students outside of the art department buildings walked from studio to studio. One student, on their knees, painted on a large canvas that leaned against the wall of one of the buildings that faced the small courtyard.

Tobin Keller teaches Bartlett’s six-week drawing course. He is a tenured, full-time faculty member who’s been teaching at Cabrillo for more than 30 years. He’s also the president of the faculty union, Cabrillo College Federation of Teachers.

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Cabrillo hadn’t offered offered summer art courses since 2019, he said. He’s glad to be back this summer because he sees a different mix of students — most often more high school students — in the summer.

For four days a week, students come to the studios for five hours of instruction. They start with morning drawing exercises, then watch an art film followed by a discussion. After a lunch break, they continue drawing.

“I missed watching students work,” Keller said. “Because, you know, their Zoom camera is maybe not even on sometimes. [In-person] is far more personal, far more enriching this way, and more and more satisfying as a teacher.”

At UC Santa Cruz, summer session started June 20, with eight-week and 10-week courses. Session 2 doesn’t start until July 25. Students attending classes in person have the option of living on campus at Porter College.

UCSC spokesperson Scott Hernandez-Jason said while summer school enrollment increased in 2020 due to the pandemic’s wide-ranging impacts, it appears enrollment will be slightly lower this summer, as at Cabrillo and other colleges. UCSC’s enrollment numbers won’t be finalized until after the sessions end.

Monica Parikh, director of UCSC’s summer session, said the majority of students taking courses are continuing students and fall “admits,” while a small number of students are from other colleges and universities, and more than 100 are high school students.

“So my top priority is providing classes that UCSC continuing students can use to make degree progress,” she told Lookout on Monday. “And then second up would be helping the fall admits, or new Slugs, get started early.”

This summer, UCSC is bringing back summer courses that weren’t offered for in-person instruction last year such as theater improv, metal fabrication, screenprinting, game design and the art of bookmaking. The campus has also relaunched classes that involve field studies, including a photography course that takes students to do a desert field study.

But of all the summer session courses, the most popular is personal finance.

“You don’t teach us that in high school,” said Parikh. “It’s got 250 students, which for the summer session is definitely the largest.”

As for the general atmosphere, the campus is quiet and feels almost empty — something the local wildlife is already enjoying. Campus recreation facilities are open and several dining options are also operating. While on campus, students have access to the Porter Dining Hall, Ivéta Cafe, Global Village Cafe in McHenry Library and Perk Coffee Bar at the Physical Sciences Building.

The summer session saw a slight influx in traffic last Friday when UCSC’s summer concert series kicked off with a performance from singer-songwriter Carla Morrison.

“The libraries are nice and quiet — and there’s smaller class sizes, plus access to all the resources, the libraries, the tutoring center, the fitness center,” said Parikh. “It just seems like a win-win.”

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