Writing Place on Santa Rosa Island

As the new chair of English, I led a four-day, place-based writing retreat for fourteen students at the Santa Rosa Island Research Station (SRIRS) during the first weekend of October. While many may be daunted by a three-night trip with no cell service, no showers, and bunking with strangers, students leapt at the opportunity to connect with this space, one another, and their writing.

I was grateful to have two fantastic faculty partners on this adventure: my enthusiastic colleague in English, Kendall McClellan, and, for the first time since I started facilitating trips to the island in 2015, my spouse, Sean Anderson of ESRM. We were fortunate to be supplied by a robust bank of bespoke place-based writing prompts courtesy of another incredible colleague in English, Stacey Beauregard. We were also lucky to have SRIRS Director Russ Bradley lead us throughout the weekend, starting with our orientation and opening hike through Cherry Canyon and concluding with our Cloud Forest Restoration service project with the National Park Service.

There is no question that organizing a trip of this length and size can seem like a massive undertaking, and it’s mind-boggling when we consider the tiny and mighty team of staff that makes this possible, 52 weeks of the year. It’s also easy to forget that we have our own Research Station that “puts the ‘Island’ in Channel Islands,” as Russ Bradley is fond of saying.  Day trips are a wonderful way to introduce students to the island, but the students who participated in this trip agreed that every CSUCI student should take part in an overnight SRI experience.

Russ Bradley is also fond of saying that four-day trips are “where the magic happens,” and as the trip proceeded, my mind kept coming back to that thought. We ate our first lunch together in relative silence, a room full of people who had mostly just met one another; while breakfasts were still quiet compared to other meals, familiarity grew quickly, and our cacophonous, final dinner together was the culmination of progressively more boisterous and convivial gatherings.

I’ve also never seen student groups so eager to make use of the hours between when we clean up and close down the Bunkhouse and when we begin loading and boarding the Island Packers boat back to Ventura Harbor. Friendships had formed for students who had often only seen each other’s names on CI Learn, and relationships among faculty and students were forged. Students wanted to soak up as much time as they could at Becher’s Bay even as they had frequented the beach every day of the trip, both to swim in the waters during the day and to take in the mind-blowing bioluminescent plankton at night (an unexpected highlight of the trip for many).

Stories of our shared experiences emerged before we even walked down to the dock to head home. People who were relative strangers on our boat ride to the island now regaled one another with stories about various characters we had come across on our trip out and funny moments that we had encountered from various perspectives (Rashomon-style). We even looked forward to seeing those same characters on our voyage home. Without disclosing too much about the bystanders on our trip, I will say that many of us have a new appreciation for how, with a bit of sewing finesse, a long-sleeved shirt can be converted into pants.

By far the most strenuous challenge of our trip came on the second day, when we packed lunches, filled multiple water bottles, and took on the Torrey Pines Hike. I knew from experience that the most difficult part of this hike was the ascent, and as someone who is not a routine hiker, I was more than happy to take this part as slowly as possible and knew the payoff would be worth the effort. There is nothing that compares to seeing students who didn’t know what they were capable of discover that they “can do hard things.”  Students who were uncertain about this challenge now felt empowered to take on new ones, both on and off the island, having gained new perspective on the rewards—an incredible view, a college degree—yielded by productive struggle.

Our group was far from monolithic, but everyone valued this opportunity in ways that were even more meaningful than I had anticipated based on previous trips. After surviving so much flux in the past several years and still experiencing most of their learning remotely, these students treasured the chance to make new friends, engage in the kind of late-night conversations they’d always imagined having in college, and connect with faculty. One student echoed the thoughts of many when sharing that this was the most “college-feeling” experience she’d had, and she, like several of our participants, is graduating this spring.

I’ve had the chance to talk with a few of our participants since we returned from our adventure together, and they continue to thank me for this opportunity and for the memories they will take with them forever. They consider the trip to be a formative experience in their education and in their personal growth. We are all grateful for the Instructionally Related Activities (IRA) funds that make such trips possible.

In a post-trip conversation with one appreciative student, I shared how I was trying to access a website I had created following my first trip to the island in the fall of 2015 –a major project that included before-and-after video interviews of participants that the crack Teaching and Learning Innovations (TLi) team helped me record in the then-nascent Faculty Innovations in Teaching (FIT) Live Action Studio (and which inspired one of my very first blog posts). Sadly, I discovered that my “lifetime membership” for the web host for the site was only as enduring as the life of the service, which folded this past June.

Seeing that all of this work had disappeared without my knowledge, I couldn’t help but think of the race that I constantly find myself in to preserve digital content before it is purged due to space limitations or the ebbs and flows of commercial platforms. The digital world, for all of its advantages, is still ephemeral, and I don’t want to waste regret or energy on what may evaporate without my constant vigilance. In contrast, a jewel-like Santa Rosa Island was formed before human history, has endured through multiple eras of transformation, and, with our continued support and advocacy, will be preserved and protected for generations to come. Internet or not, the memories are indelible for those of us fortunate enough to immerse ourselves in the Channel Islands.

One thought on “Writing Place on Santa Rosa Island

  1. What a wonderful story Stacy. In a world where so much of our learning and communication is technology-mediated, those opportunities to immerse oneself in a technology-minimal space are becoming rarer — and more valuable.

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