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Thankfulness takes many forms in a challenging year

Kyle Watters, a Physics professor and director of Sac State's Planetarium, has plenty to be thankful for, as the smile of his son, Matthew, attests. (Photo courtesy of Kyle Watters)

Jenine Ursino is grateful for plenty of things this Thanksgiving, even in a year full of uncertainty and upheaval.

Amid a spiking COVID-19 pandemic, the holiday will look very different in 2020 for Ursino, a recent Sacramento State graduate, and other members of the University community: Many have canceled trips to see faraway relatives; fewer people will gather around the Thanksgiving table; and celebrations will include social distancing, face coverings, and other safeguards.

Despite the precautions made necessary by the pandemic, the spirit of Thanksgiving nevertheless resonates within the Sac State family.

Jenine Ursino, center, with her parents Claire, left, and Jon, says they will celebrate Thanksgiving even though adherence to safety precautions is limiting their festivities. (Photo courtesy of Jenine Ursino)

"It would be nice to have the holidays as usual," said Ursino, who graduated in May with bachelor's degree in Political Science. Normally, her holiday meal would be part of a large gathering at the home of her fiancé's parents. "But this year, everyone is staying home."

It was an easy decision, she said. Her parents, Claire and Jon Ursino, have medical conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, and several members of her fiancé Nathan Marschall's family became sick after contracting the virus. They have since recovered.

"We will cook a small Thanksgiving meal," said Ursino, who has been looking for work and volunteering at a pet sanctuary during the pandemic. "But we are going to do everything possible to be safe."

Since March, when Sac State pivoted to mostly online education to stave off the virus, the University community has faced unprecedented challenges. Conditions forced faculty to develop innovative ways to engage students. Job and internship opportunities for students diminished. And the struggle to balance child care, home schooling, and work continues for many.

Members of the Sac State community continue to reflect on the holiday and future while confronting these unique conditions.

Physics Professor Kyle Watters hosted large crowds at Sac State's popular Planetarium before the virus shut it down. Then his first child, Matthew Roland Watters, was born six weeks early and spent extended time in the neonatal intensive care unit. Matthew is healthy now and the center of his family's life.

Marcellene Watson-Derbigny, with her husband, Philip Wayne Derbigny Jr.,
and sons, Philip, left, and Zion, says, "Together, with gratitude and love, we will find the true meaning in Thanksgiving." (Photo courtesy of Marcellene Watson-Derbigny)

Watters said 2020 "has been a difficult year that has brought many struggles and painful situations. But it also brought into the world our firstborn, and we are completely in love with him. It is clear that we have so much to be thankful for."

This year, in addition to planning a small family celebration, Watters and his wife, Laura, are working with Fremont Presbyterian Church near Sac State to provide individual Thanksgiving meals to college students in need.

Amy Kautzman, dean and director of the University Library, had hoped to start her holiday at the annual Run to Feed the Hungry charity event, then head to Reno "to be with our chosen family, hugging on kids and dear friends," she said.

Instead, she and her spouse, Political Science Professor Kim Nalder, plan to cook a turkey and sides and deliver the food to elderly friends who no longer can prepare elaborate meals.

"It will be sad not to sit at the same table, but we adore (family) enough to wait a few more months," Kautzman said. After dinner on Thursday, weather permitting, "we'll join our neighbors, outdoors, for a glass of champagne and a slice of pie."

Despite the unusual circumstances, "our sense of gratitude is still strong," she said. "We wish health, housing, employment, and love to all."

Donna Walters, a graduate student in Sac State's Masters of Business Administration program, has faced her share of hardships this year. A grandparent died, and her stepfather underwent emergency surgery after falling. Walters' daughter at times struggled with the switch to online learning.

Things are slowly improving, however, and Walters' focus is on "little victories that push me forward," she said. "I'm grateful for the strangers who lift me up with friendly conversations and acts of kindness; for my family and our ability to support one another during difficult times; for my friends who share their love for me openly.

"My only wish this holiday season is to have the ability to help others find their own peace, happiness, and forgiveness during this insanely challenging journey called 2020."

For some people, the pandemic sparked new endeavors and fresh outlooks. Hakan Ozcelik, a professor of Management, has worked on videos and other projects to help people deal with the loneliness and isolationperpetuated by the virus.

"My only wish this holiday season is to have the ability to help others find their own peace, happiness, and forgiveness during this insanely challenging journey called 2020."

Marcellene Watson-Derbigny, Sac State's associate vice president for Student Retention and Academic Success, finds that the circumstances have "caused my family to pause and reflect on what is truly important," including health and emotional well-being. The pandemic "has brought life into perspective," Watson-Derbigny said.

"It has ignited even greater creativity within me, as well as fortified my resolve to be resilient and positive," she said.

Watson-Derbigny said she would spend a quiet holiday at home with members of her immediate family. "Together, with gratitude and love, we will find the true meaning in Thanksgiving."

Anthony Sheppard, a Recreation, Parks and Tourism Administration professor, will be thousands of miles away from his family in the United Kingdom during Thanksgiving. Nonetheless, he counts himself "very lucky" that his relatives, though far away, are safe and well.

Sheppard's wish for the holiday is that people "don't let down their guard," and that they protect themselves against the virus and consider "safely finding ways to help others" who are struggling. One option, he said, is contributing to the Associated Students Inc. (ASI) Food Pantry and other charities.

ASI President Noah Marty said that, as a Political Science major, he craves interaction with others and enjoyed mingling with crowds at events throughout the city. The pandemic-caused isolation has been difficult, Marty said.

Other than his roommates, his girlfriend and her family, "I pretty much haven't seen anyone since March," he said.

In a typical year, he would travel to see his mother, sister, and other relatives for Thanksgiving. But 2020 is anything but typical.

"The state of the pandemic has us making difficult decisions," Marty said. "As of right now, we're not sure what we're going to do."

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About Cynthia Hubert

Cynthia Hubert came to Sacramento State in November 2018 after an award-winning career writing for the Sacramento Bee. Cynthia believes everyone has a good story. She lives in East Sacramento with her two cats, who enjoy bird-watching from their perch next to the living-room window.

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