Iza Lopez McGawley is graduating with a degree in critical race & ethnic studies.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Higher Ed

UCSC Class of ’23: Strikes, storms, pandemic made for turbulent four years, but some are grateful for the experience

College is often branded as a time for young adults to engage in self-discovery. While a series of campus strikes, power outages and a pandemic meant that this year’s UC Santa Cruz graduating class might not have received the romanticized ideal of college life, many say the experience was nonetheless a positive one.

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When Iza Lopez McGawley started at UC Santa Cruz four years ago, they were hoping to slowly ease into college life. But Lopez McGawley, who uses they/them pronouns, quickly learned that would not be an option.

In their first two quarters at UCSC, there were two worker strikes and multiple power outages. By the end of the winter quarter, the COVID pandemic hit, forcing students off college campuses and back to their hometowns. Then in their final year, even as campus was reopening, a University of California systemwide graduate strike began, followed by a series of winter storms, causing even more disruption to daily student life.

‘The graduate school of life’

Now, as Lopez McGawley looks back on the unprecedented past four years of school, the soon-to-be graduate of the Critical Race & Ethnic Studies department says all the disruption and social unrest has actually helped them find joy, purpose and a sense of connection that has clarified their priorities for life after graduation.

College is often branded as a time for young adults to engage in self-discovery. While the series of campus strikes, power outages and the pandemic meant that this year’s UCSC graduating class might not have received the romanticized ideal of college life, many say the experience was nonetheless a positive one. For some, the extra effort required for social interaction during COVID lockdowns motivated them to engage with their local communities. For others, the past four years of challenges led them to develop a much more critical view of the world and of the institutions that make up their lived experiences, as well as a deeper understanding of their beliefs and life priorities.

“I thought I was going to get my teaching credentials right away,” Lopez McGawley said. “But these past few years [have shown that I need] to be in the graduate school of life.”

A first year of strikes and blackouts

The Class of 2023 has certainly been on a bumpy road over the past four years. In just the first few weeks of the 2019 school year, the UC Santa Cruz campus was hit by multi-day-long blackouts. The power outages left most dorms with no hot water and dining halls without generators were shut down. That created long lines outside of the few dining halls that were still open and caused many students to shift their attention to meeting their most basic needs and finding spots on campus that still had Wi-Fi.

UCSC grad students participate in a systemwide strike in fall 2022.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

On top of the blackouts, AFSCME 3299, the UC’s largest employee union representing service workers, went on strike over concerns about wages and unfair labor practices.

Then, toward the end of the fall quarter, members of UAW 2865, which represents academic student employees such as teaching assistants and graduate student instructors, began a wildcat strike, a labor action unsanctioned by their union. They withheld grades as a form of protest for a cost of living adjustment.

The UAW 2865 action inspired a host of strikes once students and staff were back on campus in 2021. In the fall of 2021, lecturers, nontenured or tenure-track instructors who are hired through contracts and who teach the majority of UCSC courses, went on strike through their union, UC-AFT, demanding higher wages, job security and more transparent workload requirements.

During the historic UAW wildcat strike, the UC fired 54 graduate student teaching assistants of the 233 graduate students who withheld grades (41 of them were later reinstated). Police arrested 17 students.

Lopez McGawley attended the picket line at the entrance of UCSC’s campus almost daily. They channeled their frustration into joining student organizing groups such as Worker Student Solidarity Coalition (WSSC) and the Critical Race & Ethnic Studies group. These communities became essential to their growth during their time at UCSC, they say.

When the pandemic shut down in-person classes for spring quarter 2020, Lopez McGawley, who had just become familiar with campus organizing, was forced to leave Santa Cruz and return to their hometown of Chula Vista, where they became a caregiver to their abuela, who was struggling with Parkinson’s disease.

The experience emphasized for Lopez McCawley the importance of care as a form of activism. They say that being their abuela’s caregiver “showed me what was wrong in the world, but also what another world could be based on. It changed how I organized.”

The benefits of online learning

Emma Guzman.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

For Emma Guzman, a student with autism, the switch to online learning during the pandemic provided the psychology graduate with more control over her learning environment and relieved the mental drain of being around others in person.

“If it’s an online class, I only have to focus on doing work and just focus on that,” she said. “It is a lot earlier than being in class around people. If I am having a day where my mental health is not great, I can stay in. I also participate better online. No one else is talking so it feels less awkward.”

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Rose Klein, a master’s student in the digital arts and new media program, quickly noticed as a teaching assistant during the pandemic that marginalized students benefited from the shift to online learning.

As a nonbinary and queer person with autism, Klein knew that classroom discussions around race, class, gender and disability are often more comfortable for students’ with marginalized identities through an online format, providing distance and allowing them to open up about their experiences.

“Some need it due to social stigmas,” said Klein, who uses they/them pronouns. “In in-person classes, people who are marginalized or oppressed sometimes have fewer tools available to manage their experience.”

Emily Butner
Ecology and evolutionary biology major Emily Butner.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Ecology and evolutionary biology major Emily Butner returned home to Salt Lake City to study remotely during the pandemic. She said that one of her professors organized a highly effective learning environment where students watched recorded lectures on their own time, followed by discussions in small groups over Zoom. “The interactive classes helped to hold my attention span,” she said. “It was the first time I was in an online class where I felt like I was learning as much as in-person.”

There were some drawbacks to the switch to remote learning. As someone whose major required them to closely study flora and fauna local to Santa Cruz, Butner had to ask for accommodations to receive two extra weeks to work on a project to collect California plants, as she didn’t return to Santa Cruz from Utah until halfway through the class session.

Finding a calling during COVID lockdowns

Desperate for human interaction during the summer of 2020, Camila Sánchez joined a volunteer organization in her hometown of Berkeley that distributed Chromebooks and workbooks to students. What was initially just an activity to escape the solitude of lockdown solidified a turning point in Sánchez ’s college career. “[It] made me realize how much I enjoyed working in the community and helping with specific needs,” she said.

The psychology major also began attending events hosted by her department. The two activities — volunteer work and getting involved in her department — made her realize that she no longer wanted to be a teacher. Instead, Sánchez says she found her calling conducting psychological research as a way to better communities.

Psychology major Camila Sánchez.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Struggling with an extended period of online learning during the pandemic, Lopez McGawley took a break from school after their third quarter and used the time to get involved in community fridges, community gardens, WSSC, and community radio in Chula Vista. It was during this time that Lopez McGawley realized that the most important things they learned came from outside of the classroom.

What was initially a let down of leaving college because of the pandemic became what Lopez McGawley describes as transformative in how they approached the remainder of their time in school and how they envision their role in their home community. “Ever since having time with my abuela, I have been waiting to be in my home community,” they said. “Ultimately, the people I want to organize alongside are in Chula Vista.”

‘A utopian educational community’ on the picket lines

The return to in-person classes in January 2022 didn’t end the disruptions to campus life. More than 2,000 UCSC graduate student workers went on strike as part of a UC systemwide action in fall 2022. Some of those students say the strike offered an opportunity to define for themselves what they want out of education while on the front lines of the battle for better pay and working conditions.

Rose Klein
Rose Klein, a master’s student in digital arts and new media, with an art installation they created for their program.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

For Klein, who picketed in the UAW strikes alongside their fellow graduate students, the campus labor action actually helped create what they considered a utopian educational community. “We were teaching each other all sorts of things,” they said of their experience on the picket line. “That is the model of learning that I care for the most. It is informal and we meet up every so often and get in a circle and do this and teach each other stuff. There is no leader.”

The strike was transformative in developing their small, tight-knit department of 14 graduate students. “During the strike we were self-organizing meetings every week with other programs as well as with a larger art-division group,” Klein said. “After the strike, we didn’t have a professor for our class for a while because our program was in disarray. So we organized our own stuff and set up our own seminar. We have kept that attitude since then.”

Lopez McGawley returned to Santa Cruz at the beginning of their junior year, helping to rebuild the Worker Student Solidarity Coalition after the organization’s inactive period the previous school year. While they were scared to start up the organization again, being with family encouraged them to be an organizer. Lopez McGawley, along with their colleague Adria Valdez, brought WSSC back to life and ended their senior year advocating for a $25 minimum wage for AFSCME workers through the 25/5% Campaign.

Similar to Klein’s experience, Lopez McGawley’s college education was rooted in the communities they formed that were built upon the struggles they endured over the past four years.

Having abandoned plans to go to teachers college, Lopez McGawley says they are now focused on learning how to be a political educator without formal credentials as a teacher.

Early in their college career, Lopez McGawley had visions of exploring the world immediately after graduation. But four years of organizing on campus and returning to Chula Vista during the pandemic provided them with a stronger sense of what is important. And that turned out to be much closer to home.

“I thought I wanted to travel more when I started college,” Lopez McGawley said. “But now I’ve been homesick for so long.”

Naomi Friedland is a member of UC Santa Cruz’s graduating class of 2023 and is receiving bachelor’s degrees in feminist studies and psychology.