Behind the Story: An “Unrooted” Botanist Living on Cal Poly’s Empty Campus

While many people are sheltered-in-place with family or roommates, Nishi Rajakaruna, a botany professor and Faculty-in-Residence, is in the yakʔityutyu dorms alone with just his cat and three pet fish. After the pandemic hit San Luis Obispo, Cal Poly decided to relocate all campus residents to the apartment buildings, leaving Rajakaruna’s building empty.

Tanner Lechner-Luke and I (Charlotte Ross) were lucky enough to be squeezed into Rajakruna’s busy virtual social life for a Zoom interview to hear how he is coping in isolation.

Before the shelter-in-place order, Rajakaruna hosted tea parties with his yakʔityutyu residents.

Sadly, this is not Rajakaruna’s first time socially and physically distanced from people. Growing up in Sri Lanka during the civil war, he got used to strict curfews and tragic deaths of loved ones. He moved around from country to country and state to state after following his dream to attend a university and become a biologist, which is where his “unrooted botanist” term came from.

Rajakaruna shared with us stories about the challenges he faced in life and what it is like to have no real home in any one place. He is the kind of person who overflows with optimism and gratitude. Despite all the tragedies and changes throughout his lifetime, he maintains a smile.

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,” he told us. 

Rajakaruna has used his time in isolation to connect and reconnect with past and current students. He said he has met their children, their parents, their grandparents, and even their pets – all through Zoom.

I think both Tanner and I felt we left our interview with Rajakaruna with a sense of hope and a new outlook on life. The way he views the world and finds the good in small details was an inspiration.

“Nishi is the kind of guiding light I wish I could have had while I was a freshman embarking upon my college journey. He is devoted to his yakʔityutyu community, goes the extra mile to help students succeed and he makes everyone feel like they belong. I’m humbled to have gotten the opportunity to interview him for this project, and urge freshmen in yakʔityutyu to connect with him if they haven’t already. Adapting to college life is stressful enough as it is, and if I could have found a mentor like Nishi early on, I could have saved myself a lot of heavy-lifting throughout my time here at Cal Poly,” Tanner says.

While I worked on putting the Q+A together, Tanner created the 60-second video and a photo gallery, depicting a small glimpse of Rajakaruna’s life pre-lockdown, when he hosted tea parties, taught students about plants, and went on various hikes.