Hot coffee was the first thing on his mind as he walked down North Perimeter Road toward Campus Market. Approaching the corner onto University Drive, he heard someone calling his name from a car window. As he tried to make out who was calling his name, the car abruptly pulled to the side and a young woman approached him.
Nishi Rajakaruna, a biology professor at Cal Poly, prides himself in his ability to teach and build connections with the students he has met over 17 years of teaching. Elizabeth Picazo was a botany student of his during the summer but was located in Chicago during the term. Picazo was never able to physically meet him but last week that changed when she caught him on his way to coffee.
“I was driving to campus market with my girlfriend when we zoomed right by him. We both immediately recognized each other and I made her pull over so I could get out and say hello,” Picazo said. “Although it has already been a couple of quarters, he remembered my name and where I was from right away which goes to show how well he connects with his students.”
That’s the sort of bond that Rajakaruna has always had with his students. As the pandemic continues on, he is inevitably unable to build the strong connections the way he once did as a faculty in residence (FIR) professor. Now, he is forced to avoid students which directly combats the purpose of the FIR program.
Rajakaruna has an extended history of teaching. For the past four years, he has been an associate professor in plant biology and within the biological sciences department at Cal Poly. The remaining 12 years were spent elsewhere, including the College of the Atlantic in Maine, but the students that he made connections with are still very much active in his life today. Making those same connections recently has not been easy.
Currently, he is living in a one-bedroom apartment with his cat, Kalu, in San Luis Obispo among 1,500 freshmen within the yakʔitʸutʸu dorms. He begins his day at about 5:30 a.m. for a walk; he does this early to avoid the not-so-socially-distant freshman. The freshmen have proved to be a large factor in his daily routine.
Fall quarter he neglected his laundry entirely and decided that ordering socks and underwear would be safer than trying to share a laundry room with students. He explained he was able to do laundry once while staying at a friend’s house when they were out of town.
“I’m sure some students don’t even know that I exist,” Rajakaruna said. “The laundry room used to be such a great place to chat and get to know my student neighbors, and now I’m avoiding them and that’s very sad.”
As a member of the FIR program, he explained that pre-COVID it was the “best job in the world,” but as his dorm continues to go through cycles of quarantine, it has been a stressful experience to live with students.
“The biggest difference now is that I don’t have the same opportunities I had before to get to know students, also, even the limited interactions I do have are not the same, especially with masks,” he said. “It is really hard to make the kinds of connections I used to make with students while adhering to COVID-19 guidelines.”
Rajakaruna has been trying hard to build connections regardless of his obstacles. He has been hosting watch parties over Zoom and works to sustain his tea club with virtual tea parties, but said that it isn’t the same. He also used to host Sunday hikes with students and staff to bring together like-minded individuals.
He said this activity was perfect because he was able to exercise during his busy teaching schedule while also meeting and connecting with students. A previous student of his attributes these hikes to where she is today.
“Nishi was the first person to reveal to me my love for plants and my skills as a naturalist. That realization ultimately led me to a career in outdoor/nature-education,” Hazel Stark, a previous student from the College of the Atlantic said. “I have always wanted to inspire people about the natural world as much as Nishi inspired me about plants.”
Occupied by teaching and his network of students, Rajakaruna stays busy. He said that he has cooked more in the last year than he has in a long time. The obligation of remaining indoors has allowed him to reach back into his Sri Lankan roots and rediscover the comfort food that he adored as a child.
“Teaching is what keeps me on a schedule, I try to keep early mornings or late afternoons available for a walk to get out once or twice a day,” he said. “Cooking is on the rise while exercise is on the decline.”
Interaction is the keyword to explain what he calls his “hybrid role.” In the past four years of working at Cal Poly, he says that he has met so many students and staff; the more he can interact, the better that he is at doing his job. He thinks that if he was a regular faculty member, his experience would not be the same.
He said that he thinks of himself more as an advisor where he interacts with both teaching and research opportunities while also offering personal advice in the way that a mentor would. Rajakaruna said that he finds himself complaining to his friends about how busy he is but that he has come to realize that he is the happiest when he is the busiest.
“Who in their right mind would live in a dorm during their early fifties?” he said. “I think it gives me that kind of energy that you lose when you age, and that keeps me going, the positive drive, enthusiasm and opportunism for the future.”
One thing he is most proud of is the fact that he has never lost touch with students who wanted to stay in contact with him. He has now created relationships with students’ parents, spouses and children. Rajakaruna mentioned that he has received calls from past students in need of job advice, someone to talk to after a break-up and within hours of having their first child.
“I have an extended global network of a family and it makes me so happy to realize that people are still holding onto me,” Rajakaruna said.
Avoiding the cynicism that sometimes comes with age, he has remained less pessimistic than he thinks he would have been because of the drive and passion that he can see in students’ eyes. He attributes his positive energy and young heart to the students that surround him.
“Nishi has not only helped me but has helped, undoubtedly, every student that’s crossed his path,” Amber Wolf, a previous College of the Atlantic student said. “Whether the student is interested in botany and Nishi is able to point them in the right direction and help them under his guidance, or if it’s a student interested in another field, Nishi is always there to provide the moral support, academic support, words of wisdom, and encouragement.”
Now he wonders if he has found a new calling in his life. After spending the last 17 years teaching, he is curious if becoming a full-time advisor could be his next transition. Rajakaruna insists that he is still very passionate about teaching others and always has been, but is optimistic about what could be on the horizon.