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Amateur radio thrives at UC Santa Cruz

UCSC ARC members from left to right: Natalie King, Kevin Han, Tim Bensch, Chris Villalpando, Sarah Mitchell
UCSC ARC members from left to right: Natalie King, Kevin Han, Tim Bensch, Chris Villalpando, Sarah Mitchell
Friday, January 11, 2019
Erin Foley

Now that 95% of Americans own a cell phone, it's easy to believe that amateur radio has been replaced as a means of communicating over long distances. But, in fact, it continues to be an important way to communicate, and members of the UC Santa Cruz Amateur Radio Club (UCSC ARC) want to spread the word.

Also known as ham radio, amateur radio is not only a fun way to communicate with other “hams,” as amateur radio operators are often called, it’s also a valuable tool in disaster relief.

“When power lines and cell service go down, amateur radio is still active. It’s a way to make long distance communications and contacts with minimal infrastructure. We’re talking a rod of metal strapped to your roof as an antenna and a handheld or desktop radio,” said Natalie King, UCSC ARC vice president.

With UCSC ARC, King and Sarah Mitchell, club president, are striving to cultivate a larger amateur radio community on campus, which they believe is important in keeping the communication method effective in the event of a disaster.

“If there’s an emergency and I need to reach people in Maine, I can talk to someone in Colorado and they’ll pass the message on to someone in Wisconsin, and so on. This daisy chain of amateur radio operators will pass the message reliably and in full to its destination. As amateur radio dies out and loses members throughout the community, it becomes a less effective way to communicate during a disaster—or even in non-emergency situations,” explained King.

At UC Santa Cruz however, amateur radio is very much alive. The thriving UCSC ARC student organization currently has about 50 members who meet up to practice talking on the radio. The club hosts antenna-building parties and tours of industry workplaces including local antenna companies, and participates in the annual National Association for Amateur Radio Field Day, which sees over 40,000 hams across North America set up off-grid, temporary transmitting stations in public places to demonstrate their skills and the services amateur radio can provide.

This quarter, UCSC ARC will host the first-ever on-campus licensing session at UC Santa Cruz, during which students can take a short test to become a licensed radio operator. The club also plans to replace their antenna, located on the roof of the Baskin Engineering building. The current antenna only meets very basic requirements of transmitting and receiving communications.

“The beauty of ham radio is that you can make an antenna out of garbage. Mine is made out of a stick and some old measuring tapes,” explained King. “But the new antenna is exciting,” Mitchell added. “It will enable us a wider range of communication and more frequency bands to operate on than our current antenna.”

The two women strive to reach more students with UCSC ARC and provide opportunities for them to engage with industry professionals and the community. “We’d like to do a lot more outreach and get our club members out in the world to see the industry workplaces. We discovered UCSC ARC late in our academic careers and we want to make this a more widely available opportunity to younger students, especially,” said Mitchell.

“I like to say that amateur radio club kind of changed my life because being affiliated with the club and having a license is part of why I got my current internship,” said King, whose boss, a fellow ham, was impressed with her involvement with amateur radio. “The club has given us opportunities to speak at events with industry professionals, including Kristen McIntyre, the Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL) Pacific Division Vice Director, and Ron Sheffield, Hubble Space Telescope Extravehicular Activity Manager.”

To find out more about UCSC ARC, visit