A photo of seniors who are part of the first cohort of labor studies graduates. From left: Riya Patel, Mayte Ipatzi and Michelle Cervantes.

First labor studies graduates venture out ready to help and versed in struggle

A photo of seniors who are part of the first cohort of labor studies graduates. From left: Riya Patel, Mayte Ipatzi and Michelle Cervantes.

From left: Riya Patel, Mayte Ipatzi and Michelle Cervantes, all seniors and part of the first cohort of labor studies graduates at UCLA. (Photo Credit: Joey Caroni/UCLA)

The class of 2020 is stepping out of their UCLA studies into a world that is crying out for massive social change and racial justice amid an economic recession that is disproportionately affecting communities of color.

While for many people around the country this feels unprecedented, for UCLA’s first cohort of graduates to earn degrees in labor studies, an interdisciplinary major run by the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, this is much like every other health or economic crisis they’ve studied.

They’ve spent the last few years learning about workers’ rights, wage theft, peaceful protest, labor organizing and issues of race, class and gender in the workplace. They’ve conducted research that interrogates the very institution they’ve been studying within.

They are curious, passionate about community building and cautiously hopeful about what is a decidedly murky near future.

They’ve spent the last months of their college experience physically separated from the community they have built, but remain committed to forging connections, and forging ahead.

Riya Patel started out majoring in economics, a subject she fell in love with as a high school student in Chino, which is 50 miles east of UCLA. But as a first-generation college student whose parents emigrated from India in the 1990s, she didn’t always see herself reflected in the students and faculty in that department.

An introductory course piqued her interest in labor studies, and there she found not only a program that will inspire her future, but a community of UCLA students whose experiences and perspectives were more like hers.

“I admit, it was kind of a culture shock at first,” she said. “I didn’t look like the traditional UCLA economics student. Then I found labor studies and found out I wasn’t alone at UCLA and I wasn’t alone in that feeling, that sense of ‘impostor syndrome’ that happens to so many first-gen or immigrant students.”

While economics coursework remained fascinating to Patel, she’s grateful for that first labor studies class that led her to double major.

“Economics is such a great degree because I felt like I could do anything with it: consulting, marketing, investment banking,” she said. “I come from a working class background — both of my parents work at a liquor store — so learning the history of the community was really personal to me. In labor studies, learning about working-class movements, you get to see the economy from workers’ perspective.”

Students in the program have been keeping in touch throughout quarantine, sharing resources for grant funding, coronavirus information, support for undocumented people, help with housing contracts and other advocacy efforts.

Patel is realistic about an uncertain job market. She’s hoping to get internships or take more online courses.

“I’m interested in public policy research and economic justice, nonprofit work or think tank work,” she said.

UCLA was Patel’s dream school from a young age, so being off-campus for her final quarter has been difficult.

“Ever since seventh grade when I visited on a class trip I just fell in love with UCLA,” Patel said. “I love the location, the people and I really didn’t think I would make it here, so when I got in, it was obvious that I would come to UCLA.”

Working-class students bring a valuable perspective

It’s a fascinating time to be an instructor, said Toby Higbie, who serves as chair of the labor studies major.

“It’s a different kind of curriculum and a different kind of student experience,” said Higbie, who is also a history professor. “It’s populated by an amazing group of students who are mainly first-gen from across the L.A. region, coming from working class families. Often they have experience as workers in the labor market already so they bring a different level of engagement on topics like farm workers, industrial regulations, labor law and labor history. They bring their personal experience to the classroom, which changes the conversation.”

The goal of the major is not just to impart knowledge, but to endow its students with the tools to become active in society in whatever way they want to whether that’s working for a union or as a lawyer, community leader or entrepreneur, Higbie said.

The community-building ethos of labor studies is a sentiment echoed by other graduating students.

Michelle Cervantes has spent much of her time during the pandemic volunteering to help with the hotel workers union by calling policymakers, working on a food drive and packaging food supplies for those out of work. She’s hoping her experiences with this group inspire UCLA to create paid fellowship programs that allow students to do this kind of work as part of their education.

Growing up in downtown L.A., a middle child of seven siblings, with a single mom who emigrated from Mexico, Cervantes said her childhood memories center around watching her mom work many hours at multiple jobs and multiple side hustles.

“But, still, we never had enough money,” Cervantes said. “I didn’t understand and it really stuck with me. My mom came to this country when she was 12 and her dream has been to see her kids go on to higher education.”

Cervantes is graduating with a double major in history and labor studies. After a gap year, she plans to go to law school, and post-graduation hopes to work at a litigation law firm to gain experience.  She also plans to devote her free time to volunteering with nonprofits that focus on immigration to round out her knowledge of legislation and how it can benefit or detract from social justice movements.

Early in her time at UCLA, Cervantes felt first-hand some of the struggles of low-income workers, witnessing wage theft and experiencing personal intimidation at a now-closed Westwood restaurant where she worked during her sophomore year. In part, this is what drew her to the labor studies major.

“It made me want to be part of history, it made me want to organize,” she said. “One day I would love to work in an immigration law firm and also do something with civil lawsuits, protecting people from wage violations. Eventually I’d like to be an elected official, a D.A. or appointed official in a position of power to make changes in immigration legislation, in labor law.”

Cervantes also served as campus engagement director for the immigrant youth task force at UCLA. In some of her last work for the major, she completed a case study on immigrant workers as essential workers during the pandemic.

Labor studies students connect real-world research with their community

Students in labor studies participate in a summer intensive research class run by Saba Waheed, research director at the UCLA Labor Center and Janna Shadduck-Hérnandez, professor of labor studies one of the center’s project directors. For the last several years they have been working with labor studies students collecting and analyzing data that tells stories of student workers throughout the higher education system.

Seniors from the 2020 class said that real-world data gathering experience was invaluable.

“I fell in love with their way of teaching, their way of conducting research, their leadership as women,” said Mayte Ipatzi, who is graduating with a double major in sociology and labor studies.

Ipatzi is looking forward to the fact that data from this ongoing summer research project will be published soon, potentially by the end of June. It will also include information on how COVID-19 has affected working students.

“We’ve been analyzing identities and challenges for students who are enrolled full-time in L.A. County, and navigating also having to work,” Ipatzi said. “We’re looking at how this affects their mental health, and where do their paychecks go. I think the labor studies major does a really good job at inspiring us to really critique our economic systems.”

The lives of working students have changed dramatically over the last several decades as the cost of a college education wildly outpaces real wages.

Forty years ago, students who worked likely used some or all of that money for fun or leisure, but now paychecks are more likely going to tuition, housing, food, or even supporting their families, Ipatzi said.

Ipatzi has been serving as an academic peer counselor for UCLA, working 20 hours a week in spring quarter, along with her full course load and her internship with the Foundation for California Community Colleges

After commencement she has one last summer course to complete, then she plans to take a year off, study for the GRE to get into graduate school, and figure out the best trajectory for her goal to work as a counselor or social worker.

UCLA actually wasn’t her first choice, but Ipatzi got in to all of the schools she applied to, including UC Santa Cruz and UC Berkeley. A first-generation student born in Mexico City, but raised in Oxnard, California, Ipatzi accepted the UCLA offer sight unseen, thanks to a generous financial aid package.

“I really took a leap of faith, orientation was my first day on campus,” she said. “It was probably was one of the best decisions I have ever made and the best decision I could have made.”

Ipatzi has a brother in community college, who she is helping navigate the higher education process. She and her family are understandably disappointed at the fact that there will be no commencement ceremony this spring to celebrate her accomplishments in person.

“It’s that moment you play over and over in your mind like a movie, and it’s hard to know it’s not happening this year,” she said, “But if there is a ceremony later, of course I will come back and be the star of that movie.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of three UCLA students studying physics and engaging in their lab work.

Instructors’ foresight leads to remote learning success for physics labs

A photo of three UCLA students studying physics and engaging in their lab work.

Thanks to off-the-shelf kits, UCLA students studying physics could do their lab work in their homes and design their own experiments. (Photo Courtesy of Katsushi Arisaka)

When UCLA announced on March 10 that the final weeks of winter quarter — and later the entire spring quarter — would be taught remotely because of COVID-19, it immediately tested everyone on campus, but in particular students and faculty who had to figure out on the fly new ways to learn and teach.

Adapting was understandably easier for some classes, like introductory courses which could more simply turn a live lecture in a big hall into a video lecture delivered through Zoom. But what about classes built around in-person group work, or the performing arts, or science and engineering labs that require the use of equipment and materials for hands-on learning?

Fortunately for the students taking the Physics 5AL/5BL/5CL series (physics for life sciences majors) or the Physics 4AL/4BL series (physics for scientists and engineers), their professors and teaching assistants in the UCLA Department of Physics and Astronomy were uniquely prepared for this forced period of remote instruction.

For the past few years, the department has explored ways to improve engagement for the 3,000-plus students who take these classes each year by making the labs for these courses more student-oriented. The transition to remote learning made figuring out the best ways to do that more urgent than ever, and the department’s head start on adapting the class to better fit students’ needs helped make the transition much easier.

“The key to giving a satisfying experience to students working remotely is to offer real-time solutions as quick as possible,” said Katsushi Arisaka, professor of physics and astronomy in the UCLA College and also of electrical and computer engineering in the Samueli School of Engineering, who emphasized how much of a team effort this has been. “That’s why we need such a good group of TAs behind the scenes.”

For Arisaka, restructuring these classes has always been about finding new ways to prepare students for future success. He has worked with teaching assistants Javier Carmona, Shashank Gowda, Erik Kramer, Grant Mitts, Pauline Arriaga and many others, to find ways to give students more control over the labs, while introducing them to concepts and skills, such as writing computer code.

To make these lab classes work from home, students needed access to the right tools, which also meant affordable equipment, such as the Arduino UNO Starter kit for Physics 4AL and 4BL and the Snap Circuit Kit for Physics 5CL, which Arisaka and his teaching assistants have been using for a couple of years.

Arduino and Snap Circuit kits provide dozens of basic hardware components that allow those without backgrounds in electronics and programming to create low-cost scientific instruments, to prove chemistry and physics principles, or to get started with programming and robotics. Students have been able purchase these kits online or the UCLA Store and their wide availability has also made the transition easier.

Students were grouped to work together remotely via Zoom breakout rooms from day one. The highlight of the course was to conduct their group final projects during the last three weeks and present the results by Zoom video-recording. It seems the only limit to students’ projects was their imagination.

Projects included: comparing human versus automated coin flips; measuring the effect of music on human reaction time; observing the energy lost by a bouncing ball; predicting the trajectory of basketball shots; comparing use of force across five sports; studying how the shape of a rolling object affects its acceleration as it rolls down an inclined surface and comparing the observations with physics theory.

“Students seem to be enjoying it, and as TAs we enjoy their creativity,” said Gowda, graduate student researcher in UCLA’s Smart Grid Energy Research Center, who noted that these types of ideas will improve student learning even once in-person instruction resumes. “They develop experiments and projects that we wouldn’t even think of.”

While previous versions of the class covered the necessary material, said Kramer, their structure seemed antiquated. “The move to this more modern hardware platform, using the coding language Python, and Arduino, has really inspired students to do amazing final projects,” he said.

According to Carmona, the way these labs were previously run just didn’t capture the imagination of students as much as they should. Speaking on the transition, he says it was a difficult task, but one that was well worth the effort.

Teaching assistant Javier Carmona, left, leads a Zoom class on how to use the Arduino kits.

Teaching assistant Javier Carmona, left, leads a Zoom class on how to use the Arduino kits. (Photo Courtesy of Katsushi Arisaka)

“It required a lot of work to get to where it’s at, but I’m glad we put in the work because now we have hundreds of students who didn’t miss out on a hands-on laboratory they could do at home,” Carmona said.

To make the hands-on, labs-at-home work the instructors “flipped” the class, encouraging students to design and test their own experiments rather than making them follow strict guidelines from teaching assistants and professors. Abandoning the old ways for physics labs proved positive according to student responses.

Among the comments from students provided as part of the course feedback: “You all are doing great, by far the most fun class I have this quarter, thank you for all the effort you guys have been putting into this, I figure it’s got to be really hard putting together a remote lab, but you guys are doing a pretty dang good job :)”

“We are learning marketable skills with Arduino and Python and the course development team is very receptive to feedback and constantly tries to make the class better. Thank you!”

Another change that the group is proud of is asynchronous operation — which allows students to learn at their own pace. This switch has given students flexibility to work at a rate they feel comfortable with, a change that can be beneficial for students who may be struggling with the material.

“The videos demonstrating how to use python and how to set up experiments have been extremely helpful, especially to someone like myself who has no experience with this as I’ve not taken 4AL,” wrote another student.

At the same time, Arisaka said, letting students work at the own pace also allows students who really understand the material to finish their work faster, and he encourages them to go back and help their peers.

Arisaka, who has been teaching physics for more than 30 years, also said it’s time to move away from the notion that students should be competing with one another for grades.

“They can boost their grade if they do better, it has nothing to do with the student next to them, and this message is very important so they can learn something useful,” said Arisaka, who noted that students’ mastery of skills was better than ever this quarter, even though labs were conducted at home.

These changes to the lab structure were possible thanks, in part, to funding and support provided from the UCLA Center for the Advancement of Teaching. “That transition to students having ownership of the experiment is the kind of high-level learning experience that we seek for UCLA students, so we were happy to support that work,” said Adrienne Lavine, associate vice provost for the UCLA Center for the Advancement of Teaching and a professor of mechanical engineering.

For Lavine, the move to remote instruction has created an opportunity for faculty to reflect on their teaching and how that affects student learning. “I think there’s a lot of faculty out there who are doing an incredible job of being thoughtful in how to handle this, and they will learn lessons that can be taken back into in-person instruction,” she said.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Photo of community members at Royce Hall.

UCLA Announces Formal Launch of the UCLA Stavros Niarchos Foundation Center for the Study of Hellenic Culture

The UCLA College has announced the formal establishment of the UCLA Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) Center for the Study of Hellenic Culture following a two-year campaign that raised an additional $4 million in external match funds.

The Center was initiated in October 2017 by a $5 million grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF). The additional matching funds include major gifts from George and Tina Kolovos, who established the George P. Kolovos Family Centennial Term Chair in Hellenic Studies, and from Demos and Carol Anagnos, who established the Aris Anagnos Family Chair in Hellenic Studies.

Photo of community members at Royce Hall.

UCLA SNF Center faculty and community members celebrate a lecture by Artemis Cooper at Royce Hall in October 2019. Courtesy of the UCLA SNF Center.

In addition, endowments have been created to support graduate students—a major priority of the UCLA SNF Center—as well as undergraduate scholarships, expansion of library holdings in Hellenic studies, and annual performing arts programs. Multiple gifts from members of the Hellenic community and Hellenic organizations indicate strong support and sustained interest in the establishment of a Center at UCLA.

Said Dean of Humanities David Schaberg, “I am immensely grateful to all those who have contributed their vision, leadership, and financial resources to help establish a permanent home for Hellenic studies at UCLA. This new center will help scholars shine a light on one of the world’s great cultures and its continued impact on society today.”

Led by Professor of Byzantine Art and Archaeology and inaugural holder of the Kolovos Chair Sharon Gerstel, the Center brings together scholars in areas including archaeology, anthropology, classics, Greek language, philosophy, art history, history, digital humanities, and the sciences. Gerstel, an award-winning scholar who has conducted research in Greece for more than 30 years, has been instrumental in establishing the Center’s long-term vision. Under her leadership, the Center has established courses in Modern Greek language and culture, strengthened connections with cultural and educational institutions in the United States, Greece and Cyprus, and forged partnerships with Hellenic organizations in Southern California.

“We are well on our way to establishing UCLA as the premier destination in the country for scholars and students of Hellenic studies while engaging the local Greek community in the Center’s activities and events,” Gerstel said. “Our work will ensure that the rich history, language and cultural heritage of Greece—from its earliest days until the Modern era—will be studied, discussed and presented for generations to come, not only to the university community, but also to the general public.”

Since its inception, the Center has become a vibrant cultural hub for the Los Angeles Hellenic community. Collaborations with UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance and the Los Angeles Greek Festival have brought major artists to UCLA. The visiting professorship of the Greek film director Tassos Boulmetis introduced hundreds of UCLA students to the study of Greek cinema. The Center has also sponsored musical performances of rebetiko and is fostering the production of new works in theater and opera by local Greek and Greek American artists.

The Center’s initiatives like Kouvenda bring students and community members together for the study of Greek language and a new program Ergastirio, held in collaboration with The Ohio State University, initiates a series of conversations among academics, authors and cultural producers with the aim of promoting the practice of writing and teaching Greek America in the context of U.S. multiculturalism, the Greek diaspora, and European American culture and history. UCLA is also working with the prestigious Benaki Museum in Athens to create innovative programming, including at the Patrick Leigh Fermor House in Kardamyli, Greece, a cultural center housed in the late writer’s residence.

“Hellenic studies draws its vibrancy not only from Greece’s rich history, but also from the fact that its subject is living, lively, and global,” said Stelios Vassilakis, Chief of Programs and Strategic Initiatives at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. “This is reflected in the amazing show of support from members of the Greek-American community whose donations made the creation of the Center possible. SNF is proud to have been able to help kick this off, and we look forward to seeing all that the Center will continue to offer the field, the communities of the Greek diaspora, and the public at large.”