Professor Paul Jesilow rolled his wheelchair to settle in front of the desk in his office on the second floor of Social Ecology II. He smiled and gestured toward a picture frame resting slanted upon the tabletop, the aged black-and-white photograph beneath the protective glass capturing a scene of him and a few other guys when they were younger. Among these youthful faces was the esteemed Manuel Gómez, who recently retired a little more than a year ago from his position as Vice Chancellor Student Affairs at UC Irvine. They were all fellow students at UCI, and in the picture, they all looked young, bright, sharply dressed and smiling at the camera, living and studying on a campus and in time so much like our own and yet so different.
“The good old days,” Dr. Jesilow said.
Dr. Jesilow has been at the UC Irvine for nearly 40 years. Beginning with an undergraduate education, Jesilow continued on to graduate school as well as achieving a doctorate before returning to teach in the School of Social Ecology. All through his journey, Jesilow witnessed the growth and change of the campus as the years passed.
“It was Humanities Hall and what is now Gateway Plaza,” Jesilow said, as he recalled the first time he gazed upon the sparse yet new edifices that formed the campus of UCI. “At the time I was walking, I wasn’t injured yet.”
At the time, the fledgling campus of UC Irvine had only been in existence for less than a decade. The campus, like those of any newly founded universities at the time, seemed tiny in comparison to the halls and towers rising above Aldrich Park.
“I was in the social sciences. Graduated high school in ’68 and took a year off,” Jesilow said. “I was going to start school here in the spring of ’70, but the spring of ’70 is notable because that was when the students went on strike across campus and across the United States. And, this campus closed. I mean, if you wanted to start with something on how different things are now then back then: the students walked out of classroom and didn’t come back. The school was closed; there were no students here. The place was empty.”
At that time, the United States began military incursions in Cambodia during the Vietnam conflict in an effort to combat what had been deemed as North Vietnamese troop movements past the borders the Southeast Asian neighbors. Outrage ensued as the student population across the United States rose up in protest, leading to the tragic Kent State shooting where soldiers of the National Guard open fired on protesting campus activists and killed four college students.
Here at UCI, students joined in solidarity with the national youth movement as they abandoned their classrooms and refused to return.
“Students were much more involved in the university than they are now,” Jesilow said, explaining the change in activism.
“The students are active now, but not at the same level. When the university was brand new, there was so much to do and not enough bodies to do it. Students were more active and they had more of a stake in things.”