Zoom, social anxiety, new fun — and sleep: UCSC student body president talks remerging student life

Campus felt alive Thursday afternoon as UC Santa Cruz settled into the first week of spring quarter. Greek organizations engaged with the crowd in Quarry Plaza, itself loud with the bustling of students — most without masks — walking to and from class. The sun was shining. It felt… normal.

Shivika Sivakumar, 21, expresses her delight and shock. In her fourth year on campus and her second year as UCSC Student Union Assembly president, she’s seeing students reemerge from the chaos and uncertainty of the past two years.

The Student Union Assembly is the university’s student government and is made up of a president, five vice presidents, interns and about 40 representatives. The president, vice presidents and some of the representatives are elected, but many representatives are also appointed by the colleges or are the leaders of student groups. They manage a budget of about $500,000, which goes to clubs, events and initiatives.

Sivakumar, who served as a representative her freshman and sophomore years before running for president, said she always knew she wanted to be involved in community service. From the southern Indian state of Kerala, Sivakumar grew up moving often as her dad worked for the Indian Air Force. She learned how to adapt to constant change, become a problem-solver and embrace her background of international and global perspectives — which is the theme of her college, College Nine.

She lived there her freshman year but currently lives off campus. She’s enjoying having a car and slowly integrating herself into the greater Santa Cruz community.

A politics and computer science double major, Sivakumar just attended her first in-person class in about two years last Monday. It’s quite a final quarter at UCSC for her. She’s doing both what she can enjoy what’s left of her time before graduating — and reacquainting herself with campus as if it were all new again.

“I feel like a first-year, getting lost on campus,” she said, laughing. “But the professors have been understanding.”

In her two years as SUA president, she put a lot of time and energy into crisis management. The pandemic and the challenges of remote instruction combined to create an unprecedented situation for a student body head to confront. Now, as those challenges ebb, Sivakumar shifts her priorities, focusing on rebuilding student connections on campus.

The following interview has been edited for clarity.

Shivika Sivakumar stands for a portrait at the Geneva House on the UC Santa Cruz campus.

Shivika Sivakumar stands for a portrait at the Geneva House on the UC Santa Cruz campus.

(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: What is campus life like and how are students doing?

Shivika Sivakumar: Being in this online, pandemic setting for two years, we’re so used to the Zoom world. People are socially anxious, you don’t really know who your classmates are, and everyone’s new. So I think there was a slow start in fall quarter, but I call this the revival. So the campus is reviving, and it’s lively. And people are getting to know each other. There’s less social anxiety also physically — there’s still masks, but you’re way more comfortable outside. So it’s really exciting. There’s a lot more to do and I feel like, in terms of students getting to know each other, it may take more time. But there’s definitely steps in the right direction.

I think students want to find balance. Not only personally, but also figure out what they want to do at UCSC. And they want to understand how UCSC works, especially for newer students, but also for the older students. They want to get over the past and feeling like, “Oh my God, I didn’t get two years of college. I had this at-home experience and now I’m back. How do I make the most of it?” That’s what I’m feeling right now — I have one more month left at UCSC. And I’m like, “Oh my God, I missed out.” But I personally am trying to find that balance between embracing what I have and letting go of the past, while also addressing some of the problems. And then looking forward to the future and really excited about what else is in the store. So I think all students are just trying to figure out how to get up every single day and make friends, or go to that party or like be the change-maker or just, like, sleep. I know my housemate and I were just talking today, we’re like, some days it’s sleep. Some days it’s meditation. Some days it’s gym. Some days, it’s just like crying.

Lookout: How has the way you spend your time changed this year compared to last year?

Shivika Sivakumar: I think last year when everything was online, I was obsessed with Student Union Assembly projects. I just wanted to solve every problem. Even if one student was going through something, I was like, it’s my issue. I need to fix it. But then over time, I realized I can’t do it all. And there are loads of different people working on it. So sometimes I need to take a step back. So this year, I’ve been really focusing on that, finding that balance for myself, especially as a senior — I want to have some time for myself. So fall quarter, I was volunteering at the UCSC farm harvesting potatoes and carrots every Wednesday. I met one of my best friends there last quarter. I made that connection in the fall.

In winter, I switched it up. I started taking kickboxing classes, and I started taking volleyball classes, too. This quarter, I haven’t found that thing yet. I just want to do something random. Still looking for it. So that’s how I find my balance. I did try out the Santa Cruz Zen Center downtown, which was really fun.

Lookout: As SUA president, you’re involved in and launching projects that help improve the student experience. What is one of your current favorite projects?

Shivika Sivakumar: We have a mobile application, that’s my most exciting one. We’ve got official licensing from UCSC, which is very huge for a student group to do. We have a team of three developers working on it. The hope for the app is letting students know where the different events are happening. So right now, as we’re coming back on campus, there are fairs and events happening. But it’s only when you have those connections, or you’re enrolled into an email list, that you find out about them. And the newer students, who have never been on campus, don’t know who to go to or to ask about events that are happening. Events like a tabling event, or it could be like a fair, or Holi [Festival of Colors]. Or it could be like a group giving out testing supplies or a painting event.

Lookout: What are other examples of student-led projects you’ve been involved in?

Shivika Sivakumar: Back in September, this academic year, a student reached out to me and they were like, “Hey, I have this really cool idea. I love hosting concerts, could you help me with it?” And as student body president and being a CS major, I see myself like a CEO of a startup. So if you’re giving me a cool idea, I’m gonna help you bring it to fruition and make it happen. So everything was done by the student, but I was there in order to help book the place and navigate the bureaucracies of things — which is a lot. And also to just support them and do outreach to students. And there is now a division within my office called Slug Life Productions Board.

Shivika Sivakumar stands in front of a mural on the UC Santa Cruz campus, on March 31, 2022.

Shivika Sivakumar stands in front of the “Peace Starts Here” mural at College Nine on the UC Santa Cruz campus.

(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

In my first year, I used to be in the rec lounge in College Nine coding till 5 am, and then at 8 am I had my class. So we were able to be in study spaces until late which helps because dorms are so packed. We’re crammed into this tiny room, and there’s three people in there. So I would use the study spaces to study and have that balance. So now, however, all of these study spaces, they’re closing at like 9 pm, or the library closes at 9 pm But three years ago, it would close at 2 am And that helped a lot because I would study till 2 am and have that access. So the student who reached out to me wanted to increase study space hours, and they were finding it hard. Oftentimes, my job is making those connections over time with admin and others. And then when a student is running into an issue, basically bridging that gap. So when they reached out to me, they didn’t know who to reach out to, so I connected them with a bunch of programming office staff, as well as those in charge of the buildings. And they were kind of running into some blocks. Then I contacted the chancellor’s chief of staff, and slowly now we’ve started hearing responses. So our hope is to have all these study spaces open again, because you see how lively our campus is, so it’s time that students get more of their resources back.

Lookout: What is your favorite part of campus?

Shivika Sivakumar: [The College Nine “Peace Starts Here” mural] is my favorite part of the campus. This was like my first-ever introduction to UCSC. This wall right here, it definitely changed. It used to say something else and had different pictures, but it still represents international and global perspectives. Every college has their own theme. And being an immigrant myself, I relate a lot to it. I’ve moved around a lot throughout my childhood. So being here reminds me it’s OK to be different. And it’s OK to embrace who you are.

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