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Black Surf Week: Catching Waves and Building Community

Black Surf Week participants gather on the beach for a group photo.
Black Surf Week participants gather on the beach for a group photo. Photos by Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego

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Beneath the San Diego sun and amidst a symphony of crashing waves, members of the UC San Diego campus community recently came together to immerse themselves in a week filled with surfing, community-building and more. 

Hosted during the university’s Triton Weeks of Welcome (TWOW) festivities, the annual Black Surf Week kicked off the academic year by inviting a cohort of over 30 student participants to dive headfirst into educational sessions and activities that explore and discuss Black and African Diasporic relationships to land and water.

Black Surf Week—a program of Black like Water—is a collaboration of UC San Diego Recreation, Black Diaspora and African American Studies, Black Studies Project, Black Resource Center and the Undergraduate Colleges. The comprehensive program transitions students from the classroom to the pool to the ocean. And, while participants are provided with the tools and techniques to learn how to surf, the goal of Black Surf Week extends far beyond discovering how to conquer the waves.

“The goal was to have a program that is not simply recreational athletics. It's fundamentally about Black relationships to water and to the land, as well as the fluidity of Black identity,” said K. Wayne Yang, provost of John Muir College and professor of ethnic studies. 

Yang, who has been involved in Black Surf Week since its inception in 2019, is among the program’s faculty advisors who provide mentorship to the surfers. Current faculty advisors also include Angela Booker, provost of Eighth College and Keolu Fox, assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. 

Yang shared that the program primarily arose from conversations among Black staff members who were exploring ways to increase a sense of belonging for the Black community on campus. They posed a fundamental question: what is UC San Diego’s most distinguishing feature? The resounding answer: the beach. 

Two surfers holding boards on the beach.
Black Surf Week participants are provided with the tools and techniques to learn how to surf. 
Surfers out in the water.
Tritons enjoying the waves at Scripps Beach. 

UC San Diego not only holds a reputation as one of the top schools for those who love to surf, but is also home to Scripps Institution of Oceanography, a global leader in ocean and earth sciences. With the ocean so central to the university's identity, Black Surf Week sprung out of the desire to help increase accessibility and build a stronger sense of connection to the ocean. 

“We found that our Black students weren't participating in ocean activities as much as they could have,” said Caroline Collins, co-founder of Black Like Water and Black Surf Week. Collins— who earned her doctorate at UC San Diego—is a researcher with the university’s Democracy Lab and the Indigenous Futures Institute. She is also a scholar of the Black Pacific, where she examines public remembrances of Blackness in the Pacific through a spatial justice framework.

“This is a place where we want them to connect—not with just themselves to the water, but also with one another,” said Collins. She emphasized that Black Surf Week is “a really wonderful way of getting kids out of the confines of the physical university into space where they can build community with one another.”

Some of the program participants are learning how to surf for the very first time, such as first-year psychology undergraduate and Los Angeles native Josiah Polk. After he unpacked his last moving box, he jumped into the program and quickly found a sense of community alongside other new and returning participants. Polk pinpointed several moments during the program as among his favorites, including watching a documentary about the history of Black surfers and viewing the San Diego sunset alongside his peers.

The guidance provided by the faculty advisors resonated deeply with Polk: “It's not just about learning the mechanics of surfing; it is about being out there with the water and understanding that you can't control the water … You have to create a relationship with it and be consistent with whatever you're doing.”

UC San Diego campus members cheer each other on as they learn how to surf.
UC San Diego campus members cheer one another on and celebrate achievements on the water as they learn how to surf. 

When Olivia Griffin, a graduate student in linguistics, initially enrolled in the program, she also had never surfed before. Hailing from Ottawa, Canada, she had grown up far from the ocean and was uncertain about how to get started with the sport. 

Now, it is her third year participating in Black Surf Week, and she credits the program with offering a safe space where she could give the sport a try. The program has also inspired her to incorporate ocean science into her own educational journey. 

For Griffin, the program affirmed how “a relationship with water is our heritage and our right … I think that made me feel very empowered to pursue an academic approach to a relationship with water, which I didn't feel like I had the background to do before.”

She is now involved with collecting people's “Water Stories,” recording their experiences and early memories as part of an ongoing project about narratives on Black relationships to water. 

Olivia Griffin participates in the Haku Lei making session at the UC San Diego Craft Center.
Olivia Griffin participates in the Haku lei making session at the UC San Diego Craft Center.

Several previous participants of Black Surf Week have also returned to the program to serve as guides and instructors for the students, such as Latifah Safiei. The recent UC San Diego graduate, who earned a degree in global health, has been part of Black Surf Week for four years. She is also a surf instructor at the university and has been trained in surf therapy as well as in big wave safety. Safiei joins Nick Jobe and Aaliyah Vaden as this year’s program managers.

“My favorite memories are made every single year,” said Safiei, reflecting on her time in the program. “You get people that are almost scared of the water—and that's when surf therapy comes in—and then at the end, they're ripping on white water! It's crazy!”

Black Surf Week participants pose for a group photo.
Black Surf Week participants pose for a group photo after the lei making session.

First-time participant Bethel Habtemariam—a 2023 alumni who majored in public health—described her Black Surf Week experience as “heartwarming,” sharing how welcomed and supported the community made her feel. “Everyone was really open to both learning and helping me learn. It felt nice to encourage each other, so that was awesome,” she said.   

All the Black Surf Week faculty advisors and program coordinators echo the sentiment that the program is a safe space for everyone—no matter one's experience with surfing or familiarity with the water.

“We all start somewhere. It's not about coming out and being proficient in a certain set of skills. It's about feeling comfortable in yourself, your body, your surroundings and the natural world and feeling like you have every right to be here,” said Collins.

To learn more about Black Surf Week and Black Like Water, visit the online website. The program is open to all UC San Diego undergraduate and graduate students. 

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