“Though we have to stay distant, we can come together in spirit as Tritons…”

Alumni Board President, Jeff Belk ’83, on the university and alumni community’s COVID-19 response and overcoming his own mild case.

Jeff Belk '83
Jeff Belk ’83, Alumni Association President

This is a strange time to be the current president of the UC San Diego Alumni Association. No surprise, as it’s a strange time for everything right now. As 2020 began, the Alumni Association, our Board of Directors, and the great professional staff that runs programs on behalf of over 200,000 UC San Diego alumni globally, had a packed calendar of activities, meetings, and events in the pipeline—our spring meeting, our Alumni Awards Celebration in mid-May, Commencement in June, as well as Homecoming and a host of planned events for the fall.

For me, my two-year term as Alumni president is up at the end of June, and we were working toward our transition into the next slate of volunteer leaders for the Alumni Board of Directors and continuing to implement a range of initiatives focused on the Student Experience, Alumni Engagement, and Alumni Philanthropy.

But in the middle of January, while traveling for work in India, I started to hear news about what would later be indelibly burned into our consciousness as COVID-19. I’m from Warren College class of 1983 and my major was econ, so I was at the time pretty useless at figuring out what was going on with coronavirus. However, one of my daughters is a UC San Diego Biology grad (BS ’16, MS ’18), living in the Bay Area. I first reached out to her regarding the coronavirus via text on January 26th, after I stumbled upon Twitter threads by epidemiologists in varying states of alarm. At the time there were less than 3,000 cases in China, and much of the world wasn’t really paying attention, although I’m sure many at UC San Diego were. My text threads with my daughter have been constant over the last three months, with her teaching me the science, and me sending her arcane academic articles for her to decipher.

Anybody who knows me understands I’m often on the road for business, and I traveled from February 23rd-27th in London then back through New York City March 2nd-4th. I got sick when I returned to California but did not think anything of it, as I frequently get bronchitis/sinusitis during travel, especially during the winter months. However, after a week plus, with several days of chills and coughing and miserableness, my doctor prescribed antibiotics. I was still messaging him 17+ days into my illness, and in mid-March, I asked for a coronavirus test if there was broad availability, as I did not want to bump anyone who needed one more. Unfortunately, at the time, I did not make the cut, as the early guidelines required confirmed contact with anyone who had tested positive for coronavirus, and London and New York hadn’t yet had their explosion of confirmed cases.

Fast forward a few weeks—I got healthy again, and on April 17th, I learned UC San Diego Health announced public availability of a new COVID-19 antibody test. I was tested the following week and received my test results the next day: COVID ANTIBODY POSITIVE (details: igG reactive, igM non-reactive). The result explained a lot of my month of March, and I was thankful that I had locked my family and myself down as soon as I got ill.

Coronavirus has impacted much more than health…

But like it has for most families, the coronavirus has impacted much more than health. One of our daughters is stuck in an apartment in Israel, where she had gone for a five-month internship. My daughter in the Bay Area is looking for a new biotech job, having joined tens of millions of others across the nation on the unemployment rolls. Our third daughter is finishing a truncated senior year of high school, now having to accept a slot into college without the ritual college visits that would have been occurring in April and May. We have our senior citizen parents on lockdown as well, as they run high risk should they catch the disease. And along with millions of others, I’ve had to learn to move my work, volunteer life, and socializing to online platforms and adapt to the myriad of new challenges anyone reading this will now recognize.

But there have been bright spots—many of which bring me back to UC San Diego. In spite of numerous challenges on the academic side as well as in our health system, the response of our university to this crisis has been incredibly uplifting. Chancellor Khosla’s messages to the UC San Diego and broader San Diego community have been candid, informative, and inspiring. He has had to make difficult decisions for the 50,000+ members of the UC San Diego community, as well as oversee the response of the UC San Diego Health, which in turn needed to coordinate with resources across the county to help San Diego prepare and respond to this crisis. If you have not kept up with his frequent messages on the state of our university, I encourage you to do so here.

Current students have had to adapt to online distance learning that no one could have anticipated as 2020 began, and all of academia and staff have had every aspect of their work turned inside out as well. Researchers across the University have ramped up their response to COVID-19, and at the same time, the entire staff moved to remote work, and remote communications to their stakeholders—students, faculty, staff, the San Diego community, and our over 200,000 alumni worldwide. I’m sure it has been a challenge and is still adapting, but from my perspective, this activation has been amazing to see and is a testament to the proactive institution that UC San Diego has become.

In my case, all the organizations that I personally interface with have adapted their outreach to this new virtual normal in a matter of weeks, with online offerings from the Alumni Association, the Basement, UC San Diego Global Policy and Strategy, and especially UC San Diego Health’s regular series of updates on COVID-19. Look at pretty much any area you have an interest in, and there will be new outreach. Even the La Jolla Playhouse has moved to a broad array of virtual engagement with the arts community!

And although my COVID-19 case was mild, my family was safe and I did not need direct medical care, I am, like all of us, incredibly grateful for the dedication and sacrifice of healthcare workers at UC San Diego, our greater community, and all those around the country and world working to defeat this pandemic.

Which leads me to my last point, and potentially the most important. Everybody reading this letter has been affected by coronavirus. We each have our stories, and we all have our challenges—personal, familial, and professional. As parts of the country begin to “reopen,” we will be living with this new normal for many months to come. UC San Diego understands this, which is why May 14th, 2020 has been designated as the UC San Diego Day of Caring, a time to come together and help our community, whether through emotional support, funding support, or sharing messages of hope and compassion. Visit ucare.ucsd.edu for a message from Chancellor Khosla, and links to get involved as a uCare ambassador or supporter of our three response areas: the COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund, The Student Support and Success Fund, and the UC San Diego Greatest Needs Fund. Any effort or any contribution will be greatly appreciated and needed in these unprecedented times.

Living through these last few months has been no easy task, but it has been made easier knowing that we are all in this together. Our actions matter, as individuals and as a community. Though we have to stay distant, we can come together in spirit as Tritons—and together, we will come out of all this stronger and more united than ever. Until then, reach out, be in touch, thank you, and STAY SAFE!

Jeffrey Belk ’83
President, UC San Diego Alumni