Jessica Watkins, who earned her Ph.D. in geology from UCLA in 2015, has been selected by NASA to join the 2017 astronaut candidate class. She will report to the Johnson Space Center in Houston for duty this August.
Anita Ortega, a former UCLA basketball star and the first African-American woman to become a Los Angeles Police Department area captain, will be the distinguished alumna speaker for the UCLA College commencement on June 16.
Cailin Crockett ’10 made history as one of UCLA’s first Astin scholars, an undergraduate scholarship program supporting hands-on experience in civic engagement. We featured the Astin scholars in the College Report in 2010 and recently caught up with Cailin to find out what she’s been up to.
Cailin Crockett is out to change the world for the better, particularly on behalf of survivors of domestic and sexual violence—and she credits UCLA with igniting her passion for activism and public service.
“UCLA encouraged me to become a compassionate, conscientious and global citizen,” she said.
Based in Washington, D.C., Crockett has carved out a niche in public service focusing on policy in support of women and girls. The political science alumna most recently served as policy advisor in the Office of Vice President Biden, where she worked to strengthen government policies that address the human rights of underserved trauma survivors in the U.S. and around the world. She has also been a special assistant for gender policy and elder rights for the Department of Health and Human Services, and a gender specialist in the Bureau for Policy and Program Support at the United Nations Development Program.
She said that her UCLA education, both inside and outside the classroom, laid the strongest possible foundation for her career.
“UCLA is where I honed the skills that I use every single day in my work, especially critical thinking and the ability to analyze a large amount of information about an issue, take in the key points, and advocate a defensible position,” she said.
Crockett said that she saw UCLA as a place to immerse herself in learning and discover her passions. She was particularly drawn to the study of political theory for its distillation of concepts such as human rights and equality into a set of logically arguable points. Her political science courses gave her an appreciation for the power of research, data and statistics to inform and persuade.
And she recalled a freshman cluster course on the environment taught by professors from all over campus, who “urged us to use our privilege in getting a top education to make the world a better place.”
During her sophomore year, Crockett was selected to represent UCLA at a forum in France at which youth from NATO-member countries interacted with youth from Afghanistan, in order to deepen understanding about what was at stake in the war against the Taliban. She later went on to earn a master’s degree in Politics from the University of Oxford.
Crockett, who minored in Spanish and studied in Spain for a semester, said that her language proficiency has benefited her international work. But it was her civic engagement experience in her senior year that ignited her passion for activism and feminism.
For her project, Crockett focused on the causes of homelessness, specifically the impact of domestic violence and veterans’ issues. She accompanied community workers providing financial literacy and life skills workshops at the VA and a women’s center in downtown L.A. There, she interviewed scores of people about their journeys in and out of homelessness.
“It was incredible to be immersed in the experiences of these vulnerable populations,” she said. “It’s even more meaningful now because of my work with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, many of whom are homeless as a result.”
Crockett, an Alumni Scholar and third-generation Bruin, said that having chosen a career in public service, she is particularly proud that she graduated from a highly respected public university with a reputation for local and global leadership.
“No matter where I go in the world, people know about UCLA,” she said.
UCLA graduate and iconic basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was among 21 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom honored by President Barack Obama at the White House on Tuesday afternoon.
On June 1, 2016, UCLA alumna and NBC4 Southern California reporter Hetty Chang returned to campus to cover the dramatic events of the murder-suicide on campus at UCLA.
As a sociology graduate of the Class of 2000, Chang said covering the story at UCLA hit especially close to home. But the incident also gave Chang an opportunity to reconnect with the campus. She spoke with the UCLA College to discuss her trajectory since graduation and some of the defining moments of her broadcasting career to date.
As a child, Hetty Chang rarely missed the evening news, especially Asian American newscasters whom she saw as role models.
“The reporters I saw were pretty, confident, poised and smart,” Chang said. “And they were Asian, which made me believe I could someday be like them.”
Today, the UCLA alumna has her own television role as a reporter for NBC4 Southern California, where she can be seen weekdays during the 5 p.m., 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts, breaking the big stories of the day. Chang covers much of Southern California and, in particular, Long Beach, the South Bay and Orange County.
She has also covered national stories such as the hunt for ex-LAPD officer Christopher Dorner and the O.J. Simpson robbery case. She has received an Emmy Award, and is the first recipient of the Asian American Journalist Association New Media Fellowship as part of a pilot program with NBC4.
Before she set her sights on journalism, Chang dreamed of attending UCLA; however, after graduating from Whitney High School, one of the top public high schools in the country, the Cerritos native did not get into UCLA the first time around. She was undeterred and after two years of tenacious study at UC Irvine, she was accepted to UCLA in 1998 as a transfer student majoring in sociology and Asian American Studies.
“When people hear UCLA, it’s a tremendous honor,” Chang said. “So I kept my eye on the prize.”
After graduation, she had a brief stint as an intern with Channel 35 News, L.A.’s cable station. She soon realized that she would need to move to a smaller city to get her big break.
“Journalism is a unique field in the sense that you have to move to a smaller market to gain experience,” she said. “Very few reporters actually start out in a large city.”
Chang worked at KRNV, an NBC affiliate in Reno, for nearly four years before landing a job at the NBC affiliate in Las Vegas. There, she covered one of her most memorable stories, an interview with then-Senator Barak Obama—10 days before he won the 2008 presidential election.
“That was an unforgettable experience, to have a precious few minutes with the future president,” Chang said. “It was getting a front row to history being made.”
After covering several major stories in Las Vegas, Chang earned sufficient recognition to be a competitive candidate as a reporter in Los Angeles, the second-largest media market in the country. She was hired by NBC4 in 2013.
Getting to meet individuals from all walks of life is Chang’s favorite part of the job at NBC4. In addition to breaking news, she often tells inspiring stories through NBC4’s Life Connected series that airs every Sunday during the NBC4 News at 11 p.m., where she reports on the many unique ways people and communities come together.
Chang recently covered a 94-year-old Torrance, California resident who holds the Guinness Book of World Records title for most Olympics attended, with the Rio Olympics being his 19th.
“I get to meet all these interesting and inspiring people I would never cross paths with in any other industry,” Chang said. “I also feel a great responsibility for telling their stories.”
Chang said her studies at UCLA prepared her to approach every story with sensitivity and authenticity.
“I cover a very large swath of Southern California, which is so tremendously diverse, as is UCLA,” she said. “UCLA really gave me a great foundation from which to approach the news stories that I come across every day.”
She said UCLA’s competitive academic environment also helped her learn to face every challenge head-on and never to take ‘no’ for an answer.
“There were a lot of people who told me, ‘This is a very competitive field; you’ll never make it back to L.A.,’” Chang said. “But if I’d listened to them I wouldn’t be here. You have to be persistent.”
Even in the most challenging moments, Chang said she always remembers where she came from to keep her moving forward.
“I want to make my alma mater proud, much like I want to make my hometown proud and my family proud,” Chang said. “I think it really comes down to that great sense of pride.”
Nickoll Family Chair to be awarded to renowned history scholar and UCLA faculty member
History alumnus Ben Nickoll ’86 was brought up in a family in which helping others and giving back were the norm. Now, he has given back to his alma mater by establishing the Nickoll Family Endowed Chair in History, which will have a focus on women’s history. The inaugural holder will be renowned scholar and writer Brenda Stevenson, who will be formally installed on October 24.
“I am proud to have known Ben Nickoll since my days as Dean of Social Sciences,” said Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Scott Waugh. “His professional career, values and character are testaments to the importance of a liberal arts education.”
He said that the gift would help to ensure the quality and relevance of UCLA’s history department for decades to come.
“As a historian myself, I am deeply touched.” He said.
History chair Stephen Aron said that the gift would bolster the department’s efforts to attract and retain world-class faculty like Stevenson, whose research focuses on the history of slavery in the U.S. and Atlantic World, particularly of enslaved women.
“With this wonderful gift, Ben Nickoll has signaled his belief in the enduring value of a history degree, of excellent teaching, and of studying the past to shape a better future,” Aron said.
Nickoll grew up near UCLA, so it was a familiar fixture in his childhood. He recalled skateboarding through the campus, hanging out in Westwood with friends and attending basketball games with his dad at Pauley Pavilion. His parents were actively involved in the local community and in politics.
“They stood up for what they believed and gave to causes where they could have an impact,” he said.
When he first enrolled at UCLA, he had no idea what he wanted to study.
“Then I took a class taught by Prof. Roger McGrath, a gifted storyteller who brought historical characters and events to life in the classroom,” Nickoll said. “I was hooked and became a history major soon after that.”
After graduation, despite a lack of investment experience, Nickoll moved across country and talked his way into a job on Wall Street. He held high-level positions at top investment banks before co-founding investment firm Ore Hill in 2002. After that firm was sold in 2011, he founded El Faro Partners, an investment firm focused on real estate, private equity, credit and agriculture.
Nickoll is a member of the history department’s Board of Advisors and gave the commencement address at the department’s graduation ceremony in 2008. He is also a founding member of the board of the Fink Center for Finance and Investments at the Anderson School of Business.
“My wife, Chrissy, and I acknowledge that there are many worthy causes and organizations,” Nickoll said. “We believe in focusing the majority of our energy in our local communities, not just financially but also with action when possible.”
And he said he felt the time was right to make a major gift to his home department at UCLA.
If the liberal arts and subjects like history continue to be overlooked in favor of the sciences and engineering, he said, students might not develop a sufficiently broad, informed world view.
“I believe that the study of history is relevant to all aspects of life,” he said. “Take the investment world—an investor needs to understand context and how elements affecting past performance can affect a company today and in the future.”
For her part, Stevenson said that the Nickoll chair would allow her to take her work to a different level.
“Thanks to the Nickoll chair, I will now have the resources to undertake larger projects more efficiently and expediently,” Stevenson said. “I’m also going to be hiring some undergraduates to do a long-term project that deals with the history of racial violence in America. Private funding is so important for research initiatives that really do make positive contributions to our lives and to the world and to educating students.”
A professor of history and of African American studies at UCLA, she is the author of several books, including Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South.
Although most of Stevenson’s work focuses on the 19th century, and particularly the Southern U.S., she received the Ida B. Wells Award for Bravery in Journalism award for her 2013 book about more recent events in Los Angeles, The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender and the Origins of the L.A. Riots. Stevenson has been awarded several fellowships, including a Guggenheim in 2015.
Stevenson is at work on two new books: a history of the slave family from the colonial through the antebellum eras and a history of slave women. Her work continues to shed light—on the page and in the classroom—on important parts of human history with a view to creating a more just society.
Jonathan Dotan appeared in the inaugural edition of the College Report magazine in 2004 in an article highlighting his internship in war-torn Bosnia. The College recently caught up with Dotan to find out about his post-graduation endeavors and career.
Jonathan Dotan ’03 has three great passions: technology, film and international affairs. By connecting the dots between the three fields, Dotan has found a way to build an exciting career.
Dotan is currently a co-producer and lead technical advisor for HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” which wrapped its third season in June. His work helps to ensure that the show, whose storyline revolves around modern compression technology and computer science, is accurate in its dialogue and representation of the tech industry.
“I’m drawing from my own experience working in tech and film to make sure that the show, which is really dependent on accuracy, remains authentic,” Dotan said.
Dotan credits UCLA with laying the foundation for his future career. He created his own major, Information Policy, through the UCLA honors program, integrating coursework from the College, UCLA Law School, Theatre, Film & Television, Graduate School of Education & Information Studies and UCLA Anderson School of Management. He said having the freedom to take a wide spectrum of courses across disciplines allowed him to graduate with a degree that prepared him perfectly for the future.
However, Dotan said even more vital than the classes he took at UCLA were the people he met there and the valuable friendships that emerged. He teamed up with classmate Robert Davari to enter the Anderson WWW Challenge in 2000, a campus-wide competition challenging students to create solutions to real consulting and technology problems. The two won first place and took their partnership into the real world. Today, Dotan serves as a consultant for Davari’s live event ticket app, Tixr.
He has particularly fond memories of his close mentor Jennifer Wilson, former assistant vice provost for honors in the UCLA College. He said her wisdom and approach to learning have stayed with him.
“She taught me to go the more unconventional path, which is an interdisciplinary path,” Dotan said. “The honors program prides itself on working across departments and disciplines, and I can tell you that my career is almost entirely related to the intersection between the arts and sciences.”
Another piece of advice she gave him, he said, was to pursue work that would bring about social change.
During their fourth year, Dotan and another student traveled to Bosnia as interns on a year-long war crimes project through the United Nations, thanks to funding from the honors program and UCLA’s Burkle International Institute. There, he drafted indictment recommendations to the State Court to charge three Bosnian government officials, ultimately achieving a 100% conviction rate.
“It was the largest corruption case in the Balkans and we helped crack it while we were just students at UCLA,” Dotan said. “It was some of the most meaningful work I’ve ever done.”
After graduating with a master’s in International Relations from Oxford University, Dotan travelled to 30 countries as an envoy for the Motion Picture Association of America. He worked on behalf of the major U.S. studios to engage with foreign film industries and governments to develop local markets and ensure fair market access. On a trip to India, he formed a relationship with India’s maverick retail mogul, Kishore Biyani, who ended up appointing Dotan to run his investments in film and technology.
Transplanted to India for the next five years, Dotan worked on dozens of ventures and notably one of the most-watched TV shows in the country’s history, “Satyamev Jayate” (Truth Alone Prevails), which reached an audience of more than 500 million people. Starring one of India’s most popular actors, Aamir Khan, the talk show brought to light Indian social issues such as inter-caste marriage and domestic violence. Dotan developed a social media platform to allow viewers to submit their own stories to the show.
“In two hours every Sunday morning, we brought people together to put a face on the most taboo issues in India society,” Dotan said. “We explained through stories of hope how people can overcome social ills.”
According to Dotan, the show, combined with the digital platform’s 15 million user stories and 1 billion impressions, became a powerful means to lobby Indian government, and 12 new laws—including the first child abuse law in the country—were enacted.
When he returned to the U.S. in 2013, he was invited to work with producers Mike Judge (“King of the Hill”) and Alec Berg (“Seinfeld”).
“When we sat down to talk about ‘Silicon Valley,’ I realized this was a really special opportunity to develop a show in a different way,” Dotan said. “While it’s primarily a half-hour comedy, the show is also a unique platform to use satire to discuss contemporary issues tech startups face in this golden age.”
Dotan enlists the brainpower of over 200 tech specialists to advise every episode of the show. His TV think-tank includes a team of Stanford researchers who specialize in compression technology and even an intrepid team of UCLA law students who build out pivotal legal plot lines.
Now at work on season four, Dotan said he never could have imagined working on a hit TV show – domestically or internationally – while he was a student more than a decade ago. But what he did discover at UCLA, he said, was the importance of being curious and willing to collaborate.
“The key is simply to ask good questions. People in the world are passionate about solving problems, and if you can bring innovation and dedication to your career, that type of talent will take you farther than you could ever dream,” he said.
Rachel Sumekh, 24, co-founded Swipe Out Hunger when she was a student at UCLA. The nonprofit that she now leads as executive director allows college students to donate excess dollars on their meal plan to fellow students in need or to the broader community.
World-renowned guitar maker Bob Taylor, of Taylor Guitars, has donated $400,000 to support ebony conservation research and restoration efforts in Cameroon.
Work will be coordinated by UCLA professor Thomas B. Smith, co-director of Congo Basin Institute, UCLA’s first foreign affiliate in its 97-year history. The gift was announced at th star-studded fundraising gala in March hosted by UCLA’s Institute for the Environment and Sustainability (IoES).
Ebony is an exotic but endangered species coveted for the beauty and tonal qualities of its wood, making it a sought-after material for guitars and other stringed instruments.
“Making a difference in central Africa is very hard. Bob is making a difference at the nexus of poverty alleviation and conservation, and along the way he is creating jobs, supporting cutting edge science, and being a terrific partner for IoES and UCLA,” said Peter Kareiva, director of the IoES.
Bob Taylor made his first guitar at the age of 16. A few years later, in 1974, he founded Taylor Guitars with business partner Kurt Listug. Now a world-leading builder of premium acoustic guitars, the company produces hundreds of guitars a day and has an artist roster that includes stars like Taylor Swift, Prince, Jason Mraz and Zac Brown.
Taylor Guitars had long been committed to eco-conscious practices. About five years ago, Taylor began visiting Cameroon and saw firsthand not only the depleted state of the ebony forests but also the impoverished conditions of its people. In 2011, the company partnered with Madrid firm Madinter, which sells tone woods for musical instruments, to buy CRELICAM, Cameroon’s leading ebony sawmill, in a move to transform the ebony trade for the better and engage the community in the process. The mill now employs more than 70 people and continues to invest in the community’s future through employee training and the exploration of ebony propagation, including an onsite seedling nursery.
“We’ve accomplished much over the five years we’ve been in Cameroon, first by elevating the income of our employees, then training suppliers, adding equipment for greater yield, leaving more money in the country, all the while increasing legality and transparency in the forest,” Taylor said. “Now it’s time to plant trees in a meaningful way, but little is known about how to do it.”
It was on one of his trips to Cameroon that Taylor met Smith, director of the Center for Tropical Research at IoES and professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in the UCLA College. Smith has been conducting biodiversity and conservation research in the Congo basin for 35 years.
According to Smith, the ecology of West African ebony remains poorly understood despite its economic importance.
“Thanks to Bob Taylor, the Congo Basin Institute is thrilled to help bring the best possible science to promote the sustainable harvest of ebony,” Smith said. “Bob cares deeply about the future of ebony and African hardwoods generally. The project is a true ‘win-win’ for people and for biodiversity.”
Taylor’s gift will fund a multi-pronged effort that includes engaging local farmers to propagate and steward ebony seedlings in rural areas; creating predictive models of West African ebony distribution and identifying suitable harvesting and planting areas; research on the basic ecology of ebony; and lab testing to identify optimal conditions for ebony cultivation.
“We must expand the range of ebony in the Congo Basin,” Taylor said. “It’s the right thing to do, and Congo Basin Institute is able to develop the science to assure the work is successful. With viable regrowth and conservative use, we can help to achieve sustainability.”
Laurence D. Fink, chairman and CEO of BlackRock, was awarded the UCLA Medal, the campus’s highest honor, in recognition of his service to the community and his legendary career in business and finance.
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