Friday evening a terrible tragedy occurred at my alma mater. This hits home incredibly close since it was merely a month ago in April that I spent five days visiting campus, walked around Isla Vista, and met the young, bright dance students both just beginning their years at the university and others at the cusp of graduation. I also had the opportunity to once again spend time with the UCSB Dance Faculty as a graduate - taking class, having lunch, coffee, and dinner with the mentors who shaped my time at the university and still do so to this day. The innumerable fond and quite challenging memories reflected as if it was yesterday.
As the media blasts the news on ABC, CNN, Buzzfeed, and every national news outlet swarms to put UC Santa Barbara on the map, it’s difficult not to reflect on my time at there. I have no clue what was going in Elliot Rodger’s mind, nor would I even claim to understand the trials he was going through. I also don’t fully understand what circumstances could have avoided to prevent this tragedy.
What I do know is that I would not exchange a thing about my experience at UCSB.
Not only were they the best years of my life, but in addition to the fondest memories, I too struggled in my later years to wrap my head around a personal tragedy. Only when I endured those trials, could I understand the bountiful rewards that came with it - many years later. It got better, but it had to get worse first.
In September of 2004 I arrived as a young teenager at the ripe age of 17. The draw of the beach, a home away from home, and the freedom of college life lay ahead of me. I would make fast friends in the dorms before Francisco Torres was called Santa Catalina, before the Koegel Autism Center was built and just as the San Clemente Village was opening to the new graduate class. Memories of university life included several alcohol-induced nights in IV, lectures abound in Campbell Hall, and of course surfing at Sands Beach and Devereux Point. My years as a male B.F.A. Dance Major were critical to my development, as were my fellow dance major friends and faculty.
My first year was shaky, trying to understand the meaning of identity, whether I had chosen the correct major, and trying to comprehend being one of the handful of men in the Theatre & Dance Program. By the time sophomore year rolled around I was still a young dancer, having started later in life compared to my peers. That summer, I attended two summer dance intensives in San Francisco. That summer changed my life and my perspective on dance shifted. Upon returning to the university, I had a renewed sensibility of movement once again, I enjoyed each moment with my professors and my fellow classmates.
Junior year was filled with late night rehearsals in the modern dance studio at HSSB, the rigors of mainstage concerts on the Hatlen stage. What we endured as a student body each year brought us closer together and the identity we had were dance majors as UCSB - having spent three years together day in and day out in technique class, choreographing and dancing in each other’s works, cracking jokes about how many more hours we spent compared to other majors at the university: we felt like a pro sports league training for the Olympics. The next year was the highly anticipated UCSB Dance Company - a tried and true initiation to tour nationally and internationally together as a company. It was also the year that senior B.F.A. students would present on the mainstage, this was our year.
In August 2007, it would get worse.
My nephrologist would then diagnose me with end stage kidney failure. Three months later in October I would be put on thrice weekly dialysis treatments. Just weeks after my 20th birthday after three years of pursuing a major I assumed would secure a career in dance was brought to a halt. Dreams of ever joining the prestigious UCSB Dance Company were at a standstill. I put my bachelors on hold and returned home to Fremont, CA in order to prioritize what had now become my life.
That quarter brought a time of reflection of attempting to come to terms with the card that was dealt. Why, when I was at the peak of my art, did it come crashing down? Hadn’t I already gone through enough struggle with my kidney transplant at the age of eight? After many nights crying myself to sleep and purposefully denigrating my situation I drew strength and started to slowly take ballet classes in San Francisco. It was dance that brought me back, that gave me the determination to start again. By December 2008 I vowed to return to Santa Barbara, with six months left of courses, and begin my senior choreography work in order to complete my B.F.A.
The return wasn’t easy. I started out bit by bit, enrolling in the courses that would fit within my dialysis schedule. Sometimes missing rehearsals or class if the treatments took a toll. I recall when my fellow classmates saw me return, they surrounded me with hugs, kisses, embraces that were filled with the innocence of college life, the carefree social atmosphere that was tied to the university, but also the bond we all shared as UCSB dancers. It was the right decision to come back, there was no doubt about that.
This is when it got better.
The next four months were spent deep in rehearsals, creating a dance work that brought a visceral, very personal experience to the stage. A work that was a tribute, but also an outlet to cope with the happenstance of what had occurred the last six months. Thus was born “Vicissitudes”.
Through my plight, the solo work allowed me to choreograph on the basis of very real pain, anguish, and seclusion. The emotions that were pent up transpired into tangible movement. Dance was my form of dealing with the situation.
In April it was time to present my work amongst my peers, and also to the incredible dance faculty that had mentored me through many hours both on and off the clock. My parents made the trip down from the Bay Area and it was the first time I saw my mother tear up; when seeing work on stage, she knew all too well the struggles her son had undergone just months before.
By the time I walked across that stage on the Faculty Club Green on June 13, 2008, I knew that the best four years of my life now behind me. But today I think of those students, the ones we lost this weekend with their entire lives ahead of them. For the survivors, the burden of living through the trauma, the pain will never cease. However, creating, making, shaping something, anything tangible to cope with the situation that is healing and not hurtful wins a thousandfold over this tradegy. For me it was movement I the studio, for others a candlelight vigil.
To this day I return to campus and walk along the streets of Isla Vista, seeing students on longboards riding past Freebirds, guys and gals in half-zipped wetsuits riding to Campus Point with a surfboard tucked under their arms, and young minds biking to and from class on beach cruisers. For that to be taken away in a matter of minutes breaks my heart. In just a weekend, a university is turned upside down. The tragedy of losing a friend, roommate, family member, is all too real.
But like all Gauchos, we must endure, we must learn resilience, we will get through.