The first time Nishi Rajakaruna was forced to live in isolation he was just a teen, living in Sri Lanka during the civil war. The second time is now, following shelter-in-place orders from his apartment in yakʔitʸutʸu.
Rajakaruna is a biological sciences associate professor and a faculty-in-residence at Cal Poly. Faculty-in-residences live on campus to help build community in the dorms. But now, in light of COVID-19, he is the only person living in a building that housed more than 250 students just weeks ago.
Finding himself in isolation for the second time in his life, he knows one thing for certain: keeping community is essential.
“I remember months of curfew and being stuck at home — and that was when there were no computers,” Rajakaruna said. “I’ve been having flashbacks to when I was a kid and realizing I had a hard time. And now, I feel like I have to do whatever I can to keep the community positive.”
His solution? Tea parties.
Since shelter-in-place orders began, Rajakaruna has hosted virtual tea nights every other Tuesday over Zoom. Anyone is welcome to join: students, faculty or community members. Even students’ parents have made appearances and, Rajakaruna happily mentioned, there is always a handful of cats, dogs and bunnies. More than 50 people have joined a virtual tea night at once.
Tea nights started as in-person get-togethers in Fall 2018, a year after Rajakaruna started teaching at Cal Poly and his first quarter living as a faculty-in-residence.
Rajakaruna has loved tea since a young age. He remembers, as a child, his parents would drive him to the tea plantation his uncle lived on for holidays. Miles away from their destination, he could already smell the tea being processed.
Tea is Sri Lanka’s number one crop and many Sri Lankans start their day with a strong cup of black tea. This is one activity Rajakaruna didn’t want to leave behind when he moved to the U.S. at age 20. Every morning, he brews a big jug of fresh black Sri Lankan tea with whole Sri Lankan cinnamon, cardamom and cloves. He visits home twice a year, and always returns with half his suitcase full of fresh tea and spices.
In addition to just connecting with community members, Rajakaruna uses tea nights to talk about his two loves: plants and travel.
In Rajakaruna’s words, all teas have their beginnings somewhere else. For example, during the tea nights he has talked about Honeybush, which is native to South Africa. He has seen wild Honeybush growing there during his time as an adjunct professor at North-West University.
Honeybush is in the same plant family as legumes, as is Rooibos, also from South Africa. Rajakaruna said that he likes to share this fact because it usually surprises people.
However, tea nights aren’t just for those who like to drink tea.
Agricultural and environmental plant sciences sophomore McKenna Sorenson was one of the founding members of tea nights during her freshman year. She often was too busy to attend the in-person meetings, but now finds herself looking forward to the next Zoom.
“Nishi’s tea Zooms have provided that social interaction we’re all missing so much,” Sorenson said. “Even if someone is not directly interested in tea, going to it and seeing people talk about something as safe and calming as tea is so refreshing, especially in this time.”
Sorenson first met Rajakaruna in her botany class fall quarter freshman year. She said he helped make her feel comfortable in her transition to college.
“You can just watch Nishi go up to each group during tea nights and be like, ‘Oh, you should talk to this person,’” Sorenson said. “He’s so good at relating people to each other. In group settings, it can be difficult to just walk up to someone, but Nishi is that mediator that makes it so easy to make friends with anyone.”
Agricultural and environmental plant sciences senior Reid Dawley describes Rajakaruna as incredibly friendly and intelligent. Rajakaruna is Dawley’s senior project advisor, and the two first met at a California Native Plant Society meeting. Dawley said in the room of 50 people, Rajakaruna said hello to everyone. Most of the people he seemed to already know.
“He’s like a battery, gives charge to everyone around him,” Dawley said. “He has energy all the time, and everyone feeds off it and gets more stoked about life.”
Dawley also said Rajakaruna always seems to have new ideas popping out of his head.
In addition to tea nights, Rajakaruna also runs a hiking club called Plants, Peaks and Pals. Before quarantine, Rajakaruna would coordinate group hikes with students around San Luis Obispo. Now, he wants students to continue hiking wherever they are. Every other Sunday, he encourages students to go on a hike and send pictures in the club’s group chat and on his Facebook to spark discussion.
Even with these two bi-weekly community-building events, Rajakaruna wants to do more.
Rajakaruna would like anyone who has an idea of how he can better be of service to the San Luis Obispo community to email him suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“It’s important we break down those walls, those artificial barriers, that keep people separated,” Rajakaruna said. “A lot of what I have achieved is with help and direction from other people. I want to set the stage for those types of interactions to be cultivated. I feel like if it helps me, it might help somebody else as well.”
Even during social distancing, Rajakaruna is actively recruiting new people to join his growing community.
With a couple hundred students left on campus, he goes on daily walks and introduces himself to new students, all while remaining six feet apart. Rajakaruna says he meets about a dozen new students each week of quarantine and often adds them to his address book.
If you want to join any of Rajakaruna’s virtual events, email him your phone number at email@example.com and he will add you to his events GroupMe, a group chatting app. Currently, around 300 people are getting updates from Rajakaruna through GroupMe.
“Building community is my life’s calling,” Rajakaruna said. “I was busy doing that before quarantine, and I’m just as busy doing it now.”
McKenna Sorenson’s major was updated May 18 at 9:55 a.m. to agricultural and environmental plant sciences.