‘Their own intersection of pandemics’: Oral historians reflect on stories from UCSC’s year of crisis
Oral history project “The Empty Year” preserves the firsthand accounts of 22 students and staff at UC Santa Cruz who — from near or far — navigated the successive crises the campus faced in 2020.
To call 2020 a year of crisis for UC Santa Cruz might put it too mildly. From a heated graduate student strike to the pandemic to a near brush with a ferocious wildfire — it seemed as if waves of challenges, from upheaval to existential threats, would never end.
Decades from now, scholars and students will presumably seek to better understand that remarkable moment in time with memories and they’ll have 22 carefully compiled first-person accounts to draw on to aid their work.
Those accounts are gathered in “The Empty Year,” an oral history project released in April. Its 548 pages are mostly made up of transcriptions of lengthy interviews conducted by students with their peers and others in the campus community.
The project’s authors, Irene Reti and Cameron Vanderscoff, recently sat down with Lookout via Zoom to reflect on preserving those stories.
Reti directs UCSC’s Regional History Project. A UCSC alumna, she joined the university’s oral history team in 1989, just in time to help document the fallout from the Loma Prieta earthquake — through another oral history project that she credits as inspiration for “The Empty Year.”
Vanderscoff is an oral historian based in New York. A second-generation UCSC alum, he graduated in 2011 with degrees in history and literature.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: “The Empty Year” is a striking title. Can you talk about what that means — and where it comes from?
Vanderscoff: So the title came from one of our students, Isabella Crespin, who’s an undergraduate. We chose it for a variety of reasons. Empty can mean all of these different things. Empty can mean negative, it can mean hollow, it can mean you’re devoid of something, you’ve lost something. But it can also be something that’s waiting to be filled with meaning. That seemed to fit 2020. It was a title that didn’t downplay the heaviness of the year, and the darkness of the year and the challenge of the year for many, but also didn’t leave it in that place and asked, what kind of meaning do we as a community now want to put there? So we hope that these 22 stories are maybe, you know, the first few drops into that.
Q: Has there been a year approaching the level of crisis and uncertainty the campus community saw in 2020?
Reti: In my experience at the campus, which goes back to my years as a student from 1978 to ‘82, I don’t think there’s been a period where this many crises came together. Certainly, going back to the years when we had, you know, chancellors who were asked to leave and we had reorganization of the campus, which really gutted the colleges as they were originally conceived — there were major upheavals in the campus’ political history, there were budget crises, these kinds of things. But this kind of confluence of crises I have not seen.
The very first student oral history that I was involved with was a student-conducted series of oral histories on the [Loma Prieta] earthquake. And that actually was the direct inspiration for this project 32 years later. But that earthquake, although it damaged buildings, and certainly huge, terrifying upheaval in the lives of those of us who were here, it didn’t have the same kind of disruptive, extended impact that we were talking about.
Q: Why approach the year through a lens like oral history?
R: The kind of highly subjective, textured, story-based aspects of oral history lend themselves well to not only helping us understand right now what happened, but in the future. If we had more oral histories of the 1918 flu pandemic, we would have more understanding about what had happened back then. So in a sense, it’s about archiving for the future, but it’s also about how we create meaning in the present.
Q: What do you hope people take away from the project?
V: What I hope that people remember is the range of experiences that people had in this time, because we have such a tendency in our American culture to flatten things into a single memory of time. This is how we remember World War II or like the Vietnam War was “tumultuous” — which, of course, it was, but sometimes those memories can be flattening and they don’t allow for human nuance and for difference.
When Irene first conceived this project, the idea was that it would be strictly about COVID-19. But instead, it became an oral history of the pandemics, plural, of 2020. And each one of our 22 interviewees interpret and have experienced their own intersection of pandemics. Some folks emphasize racial justice; other folks emphasize climate change. Other folks emphasize, of course, COVID itself. So 10-20 years down the road, I hope that people can remember that there were multiple experiences of this time.
Q: What themes did you see emerging from these interviews?
R: A major theme in this book is how the educational experience of the undergraduates, and a couple of graduate students, was just absolutely shaken up — altered — by COVID. That suddenly they find themselves living with their parents, renegotiating relationships with family as individuated adults. Suddenly they find themselves doing online learning. And the whole question of, where’s higher education going from here? Does this throw into question the residential college? And how necessary is that? UCSC thinking about those questions is certainly part of the text here.
V: I think a major, major theme was the relationship between community and resilience. Often in American history, we make the mistake of kind of atomizing history to be the history of the individual. But I think a good oral historian asks questions not just of the individual, but of their communities, of their connections. We really seek to see someone in their living context. And so the ways in which the people experienced this pandemic had everything to do with their communities.
There’s a lot of resistance to wearing masks and to seeing this pandemic is real. And I think a lot of that has to do with communities. So I hope that people reading this would say, “Who are your communities? How can you expand your communities?” because you’ll be stronger. Another major theme in these interviews was adaptability — people had to find new ways to get old effects. And the bigger your community, the more able you were to improvise to a certain extent. Isolation is a huge thing in these interviews, huge thing.
Q: So many specific memories are packed into these 548 pages. Can each of you share something that has stuck with you?
V: One is a really haunting image shared by one narrator who lost their home to the fires. And they shared this really vivid image of burning leaves’ embers suspended in the air and there’s just something that cuts through about that. Another one is another narrator, who talked about how much she missed dancing, and how important dance was to her. And she really explores dances like a metaphor, and then also literal that you can’t have that. At the time she gave the interview, especially you couldn’t have that contact with other people. Right? And dancing is all social cues, right? Like someone’s leading, someone’s following, you’re pushing, you know, you move. And it’s like, we lost all of that. We lost all of our choreography of life.
R: I’m thinking of a student we interviewed — she had lived in Atlanta, and she went to college there. And then she transferred to UCSC after the pandemic was already happening. In Atlanta, she just had this, kind of, dark little apartment. And when she got here, she keeps going to the beach and sitting on the beach in Santa Cruz and breathing, and how much that sustained her — just the fresh air and the sunshine and the beach.
Q: Having just immersed yourselves in this past year, I want to ask something a little bigger picture. What should we make of 2020, and carry forward from it?
V: I guess what I would say is, don’t close off. I think we have this tendency, when a crisis is over, to put it behind us. World War II was not discussed very much for generations afterward. And there’s all sorts of reasons for that. But I guess oral historians who are doing this project about the present tense, our hope is that we don’t need to wait 50 years to do this. We can keep trying to understand what this time meant, and holding on to what’s most important about it, which to me is that so many people passed away. That’s just crucial. And that can’t be decentered. And it tells us that when the next pandemics come or when the pandemics continue to come what are our communities? What are our connections? Who do we consider expendable as society, because sadly, that was on display here.