Building the Raft


Photo by: Mario Muñiz

August 28, 2020

What’s in store for students as they navigate new waters this semester

By Walter Ryce

The term “raft” is a fitting metaphor for this time at CSUMB, one that turns to the university’s otter mascot, Monte Rey. California sea otters gather on the water in large social groups called rafts, often holding hands or wrapped in kelp to keep from floating away. So the word, here, can symbolize strands of connection, keeping afloat, staying together.

With a pandemic that makes physical closeness risky, that togetherness has to manifest from a distance. The metaphorical raft has become a virtual raft. And for a Fall semester without precedent, it’s acutely needed.

The Students

Sarah Leff, 23, grew up in Foster City, midway between San Francisco and San Jose. She’s a transfer student who’s been at CSUMB two-and-a-half years, and Fall 2020 is her final semester as a Liberal Studies major working toward becoming a teacher. She had lived in the North Quad residence hall, but is back at home with her parents since the campus shut down in mid-March.

“It was really stressful,” Leff said. “My parents were both still working. They couldn’t drop whatever and come get me. [But] we worked it out.”

Leff believes it was better to vacate campus housing because it didn’t allow for safe social distancing. The pandemic has altered, but not stopped, her campus involvement. She’s President of the Pride Club and intends to conduct its meetings online.

She feels that the professors had more time to prepare for virtual teaching for the fall, and that so far her classes—mostly ice-breakers and course introductions—have gone well.

“Today [Aug. 27] we started getting into course content by watching a documentary about segregation,” she said. “We’re talking about our personal identities and oppression and government policies.”

With all that, and a heavy load of classes, and wildfires near her home, it’s been a difficult start to her last semester. She hopes to be able to walk the stage in a graduation ceremony in December.

“Everyone likes to have that,” she said. “I would be sad if I couldn’t, but I would understand why. I wouldn’t want to have one until it’s safe to do so.”

Rebecca Harbison is also a senior student living and sheltering at home—in her case, Sacramento—with her family. She’s 21, a kinesiology major, and came to CSUMB to reinvent herself. The last time she had played any organized sport was soccer in elementary school. Now she’s on the CSUMB women’s rugby club.

She remembers clearly the March day she got the email announcing that CSUMB would close the physical campus. She felt shocked, but she supported it. The ramifications have been difficult.

“It breaks my heart that I'm most likely never gonna be able to play with my [rugby] team again,” she said. “I hate that my final year here is most likely all online, but I understand. Every day I'm hoping for some magical cure that can fix everything.”

She believes that the virtual learning mode is not ideal for many.

“All but one of my classes have gone asynchronous in our learning which I find to be a blessing and a curse,” she said. “I like the idea of not being on Zoom all day but it's weird not having a set class time and basically having to teach myself.”

Like Leff, Harbison isn’t disengaging. In addition to being involved with the women’s rugby club, she’s Vice President of University Affairs for Associated Students.

“I have had a great three years at CSUMB,” she said. “I hope we can be in person in the spring if that is possible.”

Student Life

Derek Gutierrez, a first year experience coordinator in the Office of Student Life, says that he and his colleagues manage orientation programs for all undergraduate freshmen and transfer students, and coordinate campus traditions like Otter Days and RAFT.

Note the all caps.

“The second meaning of ‘raft’ is that it is an acronym—Reunion And Family Traditions—and it is meant to showcase CSUMB's homecoming week that occurs every fall,” Gutierrez said.

RAFT Week coincides with the prospective student events of Discover CSUMB, the Associated Students and Athletics Department team-up on the all-sport Midnight Madness, the OSU’s Werk Witch drag show and Common Read author visit in October .

When Gutierrez and his colleagues got news of the fall semester going virtual, they were in the middle of planning in-person and on-campus orientation events. They quickly had to change course. But they had some precedent to draw from.

“We had the benefit of onboarding our first online orientation program last year before COVID hit,” Gutierrez said. “It was largely to support international students and others who may not be able to attend in person. We were able to adapt this module to expand it for all students.”

Student organizations, mentorship programs and orientation leaders are all available to help students navigate the virtual fall semester. There is also an informative newsletter called Otter Be Involved that is sent out weekly to keep students updated on upcoming deadlines and events.

“We and Admissions are working to see which of our campus traditions can still be conducted virtually,” Gutierrez said. They are also implementing some new traditions like sending students boxes of branded swag to stoke school pride, and they’re thinking about conducting a virtual 5k or 10k run.

Leslie Williams, Ed.D, associate vice president for Student Affairs and the Dean of Students, put it this way: “We want our students to participate and be active just as if they were on campus.”

Tutoring Services, Cooperative Learning Center

This is what Lauren Reagan, director of tutoring services and the Cooperative Learning Center (CLC), would like students to know about Fall 2020: “We’re here for them this semester, virtually, and while it's not the same as physically studying and learning together at the CLC, we provide the same commitment.”

Reagan points out that a Student Resources page, created by different divisions, compiles easily digested videos about the people and offices supporting students, including health and well-being, academic support, campus safety, financial support, employment, and student life and engagement.

To help students succeed academically, the CLC staff rethought how to train their tutors and supplemental instruction leaders, and how students can access tutoring services through Zoom, iLearn and other modes. Tutors and student leaders begin their sessions Aug. 31.

Reagan urges students to connect with classmates in these spaces.

“Learning online does not mean we are learning alone,” she said.

The Cooperative Learning Center is open seven days a week, until 9pm on most days, via Zoom appointments, an iLearn page, and an Online Learning Tips feed.

Otter Student Union

The new Otter Student Union building is currently under construction, heralding that all this social distancing and virtual reality will one day end and we will congregate again. Until then, the Otter Student Union and the Otter Cross Cultural Center have not slowed their roll.

OSU has programmed more than 75 virtual events in the fall, accessible via the Dashboard, the OSU web page, the Facebook page, and @osu_csumb.

That includes fun stuff like Monte’s Music (from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sept. 1) in which people can step up as the DJ, and Feminist Fitness Friday (from 11 a.m. to noon) that combines Zumba dance with teachings on feminist icons and history.

There are substantive pursuits like the Social Action Dialogues (from noon to 1 p.m. on Sept. 9) about the 2020 elections and democracy, and Cafecito con Cherrie Moraga (from 10 to 11:30 a.m. on Sept. 18), a chat with the famed Latinx scholar and writer.

And there are what could be called marquee events: An Evening with Dr. Ibram X. Kendi is a Zoom talk (at 6 p.m. on Sept. 9) with the acclaimed author of How to Be an Antiracist (which has been embraced by the university) and the National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning.

One student commented: “Ibram Kendi, Bettina Love, now Cherrie Moraga???? You all are awesome!”

“We have tried to create a variety of opportunities and resources to help each of us as we move through these uncertain times,” said Michelle Czarnecki, Otter Student Union’s Assistant Director of Programs and Communications. “The Otter raft at CSUMB continues to bond us.”

Health & Wellness Services

Part of all the purpose of all the activities and outreach is to stimulate the mind, stoke the spirit and foment friendship. But sometimes it’s not enough. And that’s when Health & Wellness Services (HWS) steps in.

Its senior director, Ana Hernandez, said that students have been utilizing counseling services in response to stressors like news of police violence, systemic racism, and civil unrest; COVID-19 and its attendant isolation, anxiety, and economic havoc; uncertainty about online learning. And more.

“Within the last week and a half, I would include the fires,” Hernandez said. “It's heartbreaking what is going on all at once.”

HWS has looked for ways for students to find and access them as easily as before.

The Personal Growth & Counseling Center is performing phone screenings for students requesting mental health services, including a certified clinician available after 5pm for students and staff with student concerns. They have launched YOU@CSUMB, an anonymous, online well-being platform that students can explore on their own. The Campus Health Center is serving students through TeleMedicine and students can schedule appointments by clicking a button on the CHC webpage.

And Hernandez said that the Student Disability and Accessibility Center (SDAC), as always, is only a phone call or email.

“Group counseling can be more efficient than individual therapy,” she said, because students can find commonality. Discussions also foster insight, and they don’t feel alone.

So PGCC expanded group services including for women, grief and loss, LGBTQ+ community, and anxiety. And for those who are in a place to give help, they offer virtual training in suicide prevention and mental health first aid.

Student Housing and Residential Life

The student experience this semester, this academic year, won’t be all virtual and distanced for everyone. About 350 students will live in East Campus apartments.

In years past, they would come to the Student Center to check in. This time, on Aug. 21 and 22, they were ushered into their housing by contactless drive-thru check-in from their cars in Lot 59. They received face coverings along with their keys.

“Our goal this semester was to be able to allow students with significant need to live on campus safely,” said Robyn DoCanto, Coordinator of Housing Operations. “We are lucky at CSUMB to have a housing structure like East Campus to allow for social distancing, while still being on campus and in a community environment.”

Like in years past, those students will have RAs who will try to involve them in campus virtual programming. Housing is also implementing virtual Living Learning Programs to support the students’ academic and interpersonal growth while here.

The idea, according to DoCanto, is for the experience to work the same way as before, even if it looks different.

Seasons Change

There’s been much nationwide focus on Fall 2020 as a test for how schools can withstand the hardships of this global pandemic. There are people at CSUMB who are working through the Fall, and looking beyond it.

“Similarly to others on campus, we are awaiting information and guidance from the state, CSU system, and our campus administration to determine next steps for winter break and spring semester,” said Jeff Cooper, Ph.D, director of Student Housing and Residential Life. “We do have various ideas and modes of operation in mind but will await final decisions in order to put plans into action.”

Rebecca Harbison, the kinesiology major, expressed skepticism about virtual learning and longed for a return to the way things used to be. But she conceded that the success of this fall semester depends on how engaged everyone is.

“I will try my best to continue the same level of involvement I have always had with this new modality,” Harbison said.

And in this time, in which forces around us seem almost out of our control, engagement is in our hands. And that can make all the difference.