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Close to Home: Building back better, together at SSU

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

There is something about back-to-school anticipation that delivers excitement and anxiety in equal portions. Especially this year, where we find ourselves gathering in person, as if everything is absolutely fine. Even though the pandemic is not over, COVID has not evolved out of existence, and we face a new normal that is not yet defined. What does our future hold? From my vantage point as interim president of Sonoma State University, I believe it is critical that we decide, as a community, what and who we will be in this new reality.

Ming-Tung “Mike” Lee
Ming-Tung “Mike” Lee

Sonoma County is made up of many different overlapping and intersecting communities, of which SSU is a part. What we do, who we are and how we work impacts our neighbors, and vice versa. The past several years have been bittersweet for all of us at SSU, with the fires and the pandemic and the power outages, all of which have left deep scars and a deeper awareness of how important it is that we remain compassionate, open and hopeful about our national recovery. We recently welcomed students back into the residence halls. Our campus was alive with so much energetic potential. Thousands of students and their families participated in myriad campus events, and the sense of excitement was a visceral charge. It was truly a beautiful and hopeful introduction to this new academic year.

Still, these gatherings are not risk-free. COVID cases tend to surge following such large events, and we are still painfully aware of the delicate balance between a full embrace of campus life and the need for caution and maintaining healthy habits. We know we must make changes to accommodate the unforeseen and unpredictable circumstances that have become part of our daily lives. Jill Biden encouraged the idea of “building back … better than before,” and I think this sentiment applies to every corner of our shared public space.

And that is what I want to focus on: how we can continue to build back better as a community. The governor’s California Higher Education Recovery with Equity Taskforce notes that “California succeeds when it builds fully on the talents, creativity, and energy of its people.” We all have a stake in how and to what extent Sonoma County recovers from a number of critical challenges, including cost of living, employment attrition, political divisiveness, racially motivated acts of aggression and the mental health challenges of such a tumultuous time.

Drawing on my 30-plus years of professional experience, as well as numerous articles and presentations and conversations, I would like to offer several suggestions for how SSU hopes and is poised to participate in this recovery, as well as some possibilities for community engagement:

We have several faculty research groups working on local issues. For example, the Mathematical Epidemiology Research Group has been studying mathematical, statistical and economic models for COVID-19, and several grant-funded fire and local ecosystem research projects are underway.

The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria have donated almost $3 million to expand the Fairfield Osborn Preserve, an outdoor learning environment dedicated to tackling environmental challenges. The preserve is a unique resource open to conferences and meetings, as well.

With the Green Music Center and our beautiful campus as a whole, we can and do partner with community organizations to host productions, conferences and other programs, and we are always seeking ways to better engage in community outreach.

We want to hear from you. How can we do a better job of engaging with Sonoma County, and what can we do to be a better community partner? You can reach me at president@sonoma.edu with your ideas.

Finally, I am going to ask for some patience and grace for all of us. Despite the county opening up, not everyone is ready to move on without a backward glance. Not every office or service is staffed to the max right now, and there are many among our hardest working communities who are still struggling with basic needs such as food and housing. People are tired, overwhelmed and wary. And we do not yet know what will happen over the next several months of traditional fire season. So, please let us all have a care, with ourselves, and with each other, as we continue to lay the foundation of our new, better normal.

Ming-Tung “Mike” Lee is interim president of Sonoma State University.

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The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

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