Meet the "Unrooted Botanist" Braving the Pandemic In Cal Poly's Newest Residential Community

By, Charlotte Ross

Graphic Design and Videography by Tanner Luke

Growing up in Sri Lanka during the civil war, Nishi Rajakaruna got used to self-isolation and uncertainty. Now, at 51, he is doing it again, but in a campus apartment.

Rajakaruna is a botany professor and faculty-in-residence for Cal Poly’s yakʔitʸutʸu freshman dorms. For the past two years, he has lived on the fourth floor in a one-room apartment with his black cat, Kalu, two goldfish, Castilleja and Lasthenia, and his betta fish, Nil (all either Sinhalese names or Latin plant names).

In his time in the dorms, Rajakaruna has gotten used to the loud noises of freshmen talking into the wee hours of the morning, and waking up at 7 a.m. on Sundays to wash his laundry before the machines fill up. He used to host tea parties and movie nights for students, teach them about plants, take them on hikes, and even drive them to the grocery store.

But now, with the campus’ response to COVID-19, Rajakaruna is the only one living in a normally 1,650-person community. All of the freshmen who remained on campus were relocated to campus apartments, leaving yakʔitʸutʸu’s hallways empty. Normally there are between 7,000-8,000 residents living on campus during the academic year, but at the moment there are roughly 450 residents, and the only sounds Rajakaruna hears are the faint meows and pitter-patters of his cat wandering up and down the building.

Why did you first decide to become a Faculty-in-Residence?

I am a teacher and a researcher; that is what I was trained to do. I took on the Faculty-in-Residence position because I wanted to be more than that, and I wanted to try to figure out ways to reach out to freshmen who are transitioning into university life and be there when they need help. As a professor I would just teach, I would have research students, I would have office hours, and then students may come and talk to me because they knew I was a botanist or from Sri Lanka or we had something else in common, but this position gives me a large audience and it also helps me bring other faculty and resources to the students.

You describe yourself as an “unrooted” botanist because of the constant moving around and traveling from place to place for work or exploration. How has this influenced the way you experience the world?

I have always felt I am kind of stuck between worlds. There is beauty in it, but there is also a little bit of sadness in it. I have never really been able to call any place “home”, and this kind of feeling of having no home makes me do what I do: my desire to connect with people, my desire to fulfill my passion to be a part of something larger, to share with and learn from people of all ages. Over time I have realized my strengths and one of those is building community – I am not afraid to say it is one of my life’s callings and I have a “knack” for it.

How did the “un-rootedness” begin?

I have been traveling since I was born in Sri Lanka. When I was three years old, my parents moved to Japan, so I spent my early childhood years in Japan and learned Japanese as my very first language. In fact, Nishi is not the name my parents gave me. At birth they named me Nishanta (meaning dawn or peace) but my Japanese friends in school could not pronounce Nishanta so they started calling me Nishi, which means “west” in Japanese.

When I returned to Sri Lanka, I was about 6 years old, and then of course there was some kind of normalcy in terms of being rooted in a place. I lived in campus housing until I was about 14 and then went back to Japan with my father for about three months – it was great going back but it was also a little sad because I had lost my first language. I remembered a few things but really couldn’t communicate, and that was tough.

I came back to Sri Lanka for high school, and that was when the civil war was at its worst. There was a lot of chaos, a lot of uncertainty – universities were shut down; schools were open one day and then closed for weeks. I lost friends in the war, mostly to suicide bombers and random shootings. I had friends who had joined the army or the navy and got killed in the war. Two of my uncles died in shootings - being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Growing up, I saw people die and felt very unsafe. Sadly, at the time, there was not a lot of hope for a future in Sri Lanka for me because I really wanted to go to university and was passionate about becoming a biologist.

How have your past experiences helped you in life?

When you are feeling challenged, or when you are feeling that you don't have a sense of belonging, you have two options: You can decide that you want to be a hermit, an introvert hiding somewhere and just kind of dealing with life on your own, or you can get out there and try to fit in. And so that is what I have done everywhere I have been. And I think it has worked for me, I think this feeling of un-rootedness has been the force behind who I am. I don't quite belong in any one place. And that can sound a little sad. But I have tried to make the most out of life wherever I have been.

When I go back to Sri Lanka, I never really feel that I am fully Sri Lankan either. I don't feel I belong there in the way that I belonged there when I was a kid because I have changed and everyone there has changed. And the same goes for here; I have been in North America for 30 years, but I don't necessarily feel that I truly belong here. And so that is what I call this kind of “half a life” problem – you have half a life here, the other half a life there. And the more I travel, the more I feel that way, but I think overall, these experiences have enriched my life and of those I get to know.

What has shelter-in-place been like for you?

I love interacting with students in a classroom setting, and I especially love connecting with people on a one-on-one basis. During this virtual learning and virtual connecting, I have definitely gotten busier, being on Zoom for over six hours a day. Through these times I have come to realize that I always do more when I feel disconnected, and I wonder, if it is because I do not have that personal connection anymore; and maybe that is why I am trying to put all these events together?

I am doing a lot more than I would be normally, but it is different. Usually I would be talking to people as we pass through the corridors or we run into each other outside my apartment, or in the community center, or the mailroom. And those things happened in short intervals, but there were many of them. And now I get together with students for an hour or longer to talk. I have said yes to every interview or Zoom chat a student has requested, not that I would say no in the past, but I would have had a harder time juggling things and finding time.

What sort of connections have come from saying “yes” more?

I have used this time to connect with students more, and I think that comes from my desire to stay connected. It is still not the same as talking to a person face to face, but I have transitioned well to make it as personal as possible. I get to meet parents, siblings, friends and even pets when they appear on the screen. I get to know students' inner circles from home as well.

When I call my parents, most of what I say is, ‘Hey, I had this Zoom event’ – they don’t know what Zoom is, so first I had to explain it to them– and then I tell them about the tea party I had or the interview I had, and I share a lot with them that I may not have had enough time to share with before. These last two or three months, I have been calling them two to three times a week, which is the most I have ever connected with them since leaving Sri Lanka in 1990.

There is definitely a part of me wanting to stay connected with people that plays a role in my desire to build community, and it may come from the fact that I do not have a family of my own. I need to have people in my life.

What is the overall atmosphere of campus like right now?

The first word that comes to mind is quiet. It is really quiet. It is a place that used to be beaming with life. It was like a zoo with so much going on, noises everywhere and people everywhere and even having to wait in a 30-minute Starbucks line for a cup of coffee every day. And all of these things are no more. There are very few people on campus. I can walk in the middle of Grand Avenue and not have to move onto the pavement because of cars.

It is deserted and it is lovely to see a person on the street to say hello to. I see that people are looking for that human connection because everyone I do say hello to might not stop on a normal day, but now they do. Campus has become quiet and peaceful, but it has also become a place for people seeking out connection.

What has this time in isolation meant to you?

I really feel that we are not in this on our own. We really have to stay connected and believe in people and friendships. We must appreciate the people in our lives, as well as our surroundings.

I feel I am so blessed to be where I am right now. I am surrounded by plants and the mountains and the ocean. I don't meditate, but every time I am outside it gives me a lot of clarity. I feel very connected to this earth and I think that kind of connection is becoming less important in people's lives, sadly, because of the internet and phones and choosing to stay indoors. To me, there is nothing like taking a leisurely stroll through campus. I have explored every corner of campus over the last two and a half months!

What would you say we, as a community, can take away from it all?

I always tell people to make the most of this time. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Sadly, this is the second time in my life that I have had to be isolated or socially or physically distanced from people, but I can look back 10 years from now and be grateful to have had this time to connect with so many students at Cal Poly, even through Zoom.

If not for COVID, I would not have had this time to ‘socialize.’ I am always trying to find the good in bad experiences or challenges or failures, because there is always something to learn from every experience we have in our lives.

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