Banners portraying the essence of UC Santa Cruz’s identity and powerful ethos | Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta

Dozens of new banners have been going up across the UC Santa Cruz campus, bearing a bold, powerful message that expresses the campus’s identity and ethos: “Our voices will define the century. The real change is us.”

The inspirational language and images on these signs—which will also appear in other places such as the UCSC website, promotions, and communications—are part of an ongoing project to celebrate UCSC’s identity as a proudly socially conscious, diverse hub of hands-on learning that celebrates positive change; works to reimagine inequitable systems; and pushes societal, intellectual, and research boundaries.

“Look around the world today, and we can see just how much we need thoughtful, educated, informed voices to protect the environment, to preserve free speech, and to advance diversity of all kinds,” said UCSC Chancellor Cynthia Larive. “We need those voices to press forward on social equality and to push back against racial inequity. It’s good to remember that change is something that is happening here and now on our campus, every day.

“That inclusive message about our defining voices, and taking responsibility for change, is deeply personal,” Larive added. “It is not ‘us’ in an institutional sense. It’s every one of us—all the voices of students, staff, faculty, alumni, the wider community, and anyone else who engages meaningfully with UCSC.”

The message reflects the scientific advances that have taken place on this campus, where researchers are opening new fronts in the war against cancer, exploring the cosmos, studying the effects of climate change, examining and addressing environmental challenges, and unlocking the secrets of the human genome.

It also speaks to the campus’s tradition of real-time, across-the-disciplines collaborative problem solving, as well as a commitment to bold creativity, as evidenced by several programs in the  Arts Division, with its strong emphasis on excellence, inclusion, and social responsibility. Students are learning and thriving in the Social Documentation MFA program and in the new Environmental Art and Social Practice master’s program. 

And it speaks to the campus’s engagement with literature, as reflected in The Humanities Institute’s The Deep Read initiative; its commitment to undocumented students in California who are known as “Dreamers,” after the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act; and its ambition of bridging the representation gap in STEM careers.

Isabel Dees (Merrill ’08, politics), associate vice chancellor of the Equity & Equal Protection Office | Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta

That ethos—“The Real Change Is Us”—is already inspiring UCSC community members across the campus. 

“I love it,” said Isabel Dees (Merrill ’08, politics), associate vice chancellor of the Equity & Equal Protection Office, referring to the credo of action and change. “I love the collective value of change at UCSC. It implicates and involves our whole community. It is a call to action as part of a group. It’s about my sense of responsibility, my desire to do good work, to make change possible.”

Dees herself is a product of bold change and community values. She is the daughter of immigrant parents. 

“I’m the first in my family to go to college, and I was an Educational Opportunity Programs student,” Dees said. “All the work I do is about change in the community, and that comes from who I am. I’m the product of community care, with a strong sense of responsibility and service.” 

A proud Slug, she he is now responsible for the administration of UCSC’s policies and procedures regarding discrimination and harassment on the basis of race, religion, disability, sex, gender, age, and other protected identities. 

Her office is responsible for UCSC’s compliance with state and federal laws relating to discrimination. 

“I make sure UCSC is exemplary of the values it holds,” Dees said. “And that is something only a Slug can do.”

The ethos of “real change” is deeply ingrained at UCSC, where it is part of the culture. But what does this motto mean to the next generation of Banana Slugs? Students have also adopted the “real change” credo as their own. Several undergraduates, interviewed for this story, spoke about the promise of real change that brought them to UCSC in the first place, and the idealistic and highly skilled faculty and fellow students who informed that value with practical experience, advice, and a deep sense of common cause. 


Engineering for good

Stephen Hwang (Merrill, ’21 biomolecular engineering and bioinformatics) arrived at UCSC eager to follow his ambitions and

Stephen Hwang, Biomolecular engineering and bioinformatics student | photo by Anastasiia Sapon

increase his technical knowledge. He has achieved those goals at UCSC, but he also had a full immersion in the value of “real change” when he started to focus on engineering as a social value and projects designed for the public good. 

Hwang arrived at UCSC searching for a deeper focus. He took a lot of programming, chemistry, biology, and physics courses, but open-minded professors changed his perspective by teaching much more than important fundamentals.

“They also emphasized creativity, allowing a more open structure instead of a very rigid idea, the sense that ‘there is only one right solution,’” Hwang said.

The sense of openness led him toward the ethos of real change, “the sense that you can really explore and go in a different direction that is unique to yourself.”

Later in his UCSC career, Hwang spent a summer in the International Genetically Engineered Machine project with a group of fellow students. As part of this research program, his adviser, biomolecular engineer David Bernick, emphasized the idea of engineering for social good. 

Inspired, Hwang became co-captain of a group that used CRISPR technology to target bacteria associated with E. coli outbreaks, causing the recall of romaine lettuce and other produce. 

“Often, when people think of a classic engineering career path, they think about going to a big company and developing algorithms for software applications,” said Hwang, who is now pursuing an M.S. in the Biomolecular Engineering Department at UCSC. “But I became more oriented to using our intelligence, our skills, and our creativity to tackle big problems that are relevant to and have lasting impact on our society and our environment.” 


Speaking the language of real change

Maria Cecilia Soto (Merrill, applied linguistics and multilingualism) is thrilled to be on the UCSC campus after spending a

Maria Cecilia Soto, Applied linguistics and multilingualism student | photo by Anastasiia Sapon

year of her undergraduate experience online taking classes remotely. Now, Soto—who speaks fluent Spanish and is also immersing herself in Korean and Japanese—is looking forward to making meaningful change in the world with her firm emphasis on the power of language and her commitment to education. 

“Real change is what I am most passionate about,” she said. “There is so much beautiful art and identity and culture that comes with languages. I want to keep working hard on my studies here, and, in conjunction with my linguistics training, get certified to teach English as a second language.” 

Her post-graduation goal is to travel to other countries, including Korea, “and help other people reach out across cultural boundaries.” Soto also hopes to teach English to Spanish speakers in other countries. 

Soto attributes some of that practical idealism to the innovative and free-spirited thinkers she has met in and out of the classroom at UCSC. 

“It is so invigorating to be here,” Soto said. “I absolutely never get bored in a conversation. I’m a humanities major, but the cross-disciplinary learning environment inspired me. I’ve made friends in science, engineering, and game design. I’ve met so many people who are working on projects, all these undergraduates who already have such powerful ideas about how they are going to impact the world. It’s amazing.”


Environmental ambitions

Alcides Fuentes (Merrill ’21, environmental studies) started at UCSC as a transfer student from Diablo Valley College in Contra Costa County. Now, he’s immersing himself in environmental issues with a concentration on global environmental justice. 

These days, he dreams of having a high-profile podcast about environmental justice. 

Alcides Fuentes, Environmental studies—global environmental justice, Latin American and Latino studies student | photo by Anastasiia Sapon

“When I am 80 years old, I don’t want to look back on my life and ask myself, ‘What have you done about the biggest issues of our time?’ It’s so easy to fall into despair when you think about the magnitude of climate change, but the more I find out about it, the more I hunger for that knowledge. Knowledge is power.

“It’s hard not to think about real change when you’re studying climate change in the middle of a pandemic,” he continued. “If we want to reduce emissions, if we want to make a positive difference, we need to act now. Living in this period of history, it just makes me think about what I am going to do with my life and how to make it impactful and worthwhile. 

“I don’t know if you’ve heard that one quote—‘You’ve got nothing left to lose but your chains,’” he said. “I have some friends who are learning all about climate change and it just devastates them. But the more I learn about it, the more I crave that kind of knowledge because it allows for real change. I want to be an agent of change, and my whole immersion process at UCSC—not just being in classrooms, but also doing environmental field studies—has really clarified that mission.”

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