Being a new face in a big place can be overwhelming—nearly all UC Berkeley students will tell you that. You try to find where you fit in, but nothing seems to fit quite right at first. Classes are challenging, you’re away from home for the first time—it’s a lot to take in. Discouragement sets in and you might second guess your decision to be there. Then, maybe you meet someone from your hometown and they invite you over for dinner.
The Cal Alumni Association’s Cal Bears in the Desert Alumni Chapter started as a dinner during Homecoming and evolved into an organization serving students in the Coachella Valley. Since 2009, they have been guiding students from Coachella Valley, connecting them with resources on campus, and helping their families feel like part of the Cal community.
Cal Bears in the Desert board member Maximiliano “Max” Ochoa ’14 went to one of those early dinners in 2009. He was a first-year student and working at an internship at the Tribal Library on the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indian Reservation. There, he met Luisa Armijo, the library director and a Cal parent. “She had Cal Bears stuff everywhere,” Max recalls.
She invited him to a dinner she hosts with her family at Juan’s Place, a restaurant a few blocks away from the Berkeley Marina, for Coachella Valley students. “My particular experience as an undergraduate was more of a family dynamic,” he recalls. “It was like a home-away-from-home dinner.” Over the years, more students came to dinner and in 2014, Cal Bears in the Desert became an official alumni group.
“That was the idea: to create a safe space,” Max says. “A lot of the time, campus can be overwhelming.” He adds that there are so many students at Cal that it’s easy to get lost and it’s challenging to find your crew. “A lot of times you have to explain Coachella [Valley], not having to explain what Coachella is is pretty cool.”
Luisa Armijo has four kids who attended Cal, and she regularly attended Parents’ Weekend. She realized there was a notable absence. “I noticed that a lot of the kids from our area here, first-generation [students], their parents weren’t coming,” she says.
Generally, she noticed not many students of color from the Valley were applying to Cal. Of those students who did attend Cal, they came from families who couldn’t afford to come to Parents’ Weekend. Cal Bears in Desert mostly works with students from East Coachella Valley, a rapidly growing region with a significant migrant and immigrant population. In fact, for some, being at Cal was the first time they were away from home, which often contributed to feeling like they weren’t equipped for college life.
“Some of them have their old backpack from high school,” Luisa says. “It’s kind of sad when you’re moving in and the majority of the kids have brand new stuff, their parents are bringing all the trade stuff, and you have everything old. You don’t even want to be in your room.” The organization teamed up with companies like Bed Bath and Beyond to provide bedding and dorm sets for new students. Building momentum from the dinners during Homecoming, the budding organization partnered with the Cal Alumni Association (CAA) to expand Cal’s outreach in Coachella Valley. It quickly grew from an outreach organization into something more meaningful.
“Cal Bears in the Desert has evolved into [a] kind of a community presence support group because of the nature of our community,” Luisa says. “We work hand in hand as a parent group.”
When the pandemic began, they were faced with new challenges. Most of Cal Bears in the Desert’s outreach happens on campus where resources are readily available. “We want to ensure that students are being met with sufficient resources to successfully complete their undergraduate education,” Max says. The chapter immediately switched to virtual outreach.
“When the pandemic hit, we had to convert over to Zoom, so our voice was even more magnified because we started to bring in an awareness of the great [disparity] on technology and lack of resources.” Luisa says. In the Valley, it proved difficult to seamlessly continue classes.
Wifi is shoddy, access to computers may be limited, there are often no quiet places to study and more responsibilities at home; the pandemic came as a threat to students wanting to continue their education. However, Cal Bears in the Desert immediately stepped in and filled the gap when students needed them. They started a campaign and partnered with Staples to provide students with desks, ergonomic chairs, wifi boosters, masks, and Cal swag.
“Cal Bears, as a chapter, recognizes the unique challenges and circumstances our students face—especially amid an unprecedented global pandemic,” Max says of the chapter. That dedication to their students has gone far above beyond Luisa and Oscar’s dinners at Juan Place’s 13 years ago. “We have this huge generation coming in and they’re taking the baton and going forward with Max,” Luisa says. The chapter has no plans on slowing down, continuing to be a presence in Coachella Valley and a support system for students on campus.
To get involved with Cal Bears in the Desert, visit their Facebook page or email firstname.lastname@example.org attn. Luisa Armijo. Donations can be sent directly to Cal Bears in the Desert, 41990 Cook St, Ste. 501, Palm Desert, CA 92211. Learn more about our Alumni Chapters.