Young boy with school workbook and tablet computer

Through UCLA course, students deliver funding to L.A. nonprofits

Young boy with school workbook and tablet computer

Young boy with school workbook and tablet computer

 

Philanthropy as Civic Engagement class has distributed $780,000 to local organizations over past decade

Thanks to an unusual undergraduate course at UCLA, students have distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past decade to Los Angeles nonprofits.

The latest edition of the class, Philanthropy as Civic Engagement, concluded in June. Students distributed funds to three beneficiaries: Open Paths Counseling Center, which received $40,000 toward training clinicians to support the mental health needs of underserved communities; School on Wheels, which received $25,000 to provide laptops for homeless K-12 students; and Jazz Hands for Autism, which received $15,000 to provide musical training, career support and advocacy for musicians who have autism.

And since 2012, when the course was first offered, students have distributed a total of $780,000 to 27 local organizations.

The course enables students to explore their sense of responsibility to care for and improve their communities. While many of the students are already engaged in volunteerism, the experience provides a different perspective, introducing them to the process that individuals and grantmaking organizations go through when deciding how to allocate their charitable giving.

“People sometimes assume that to be philanthropic, you must be abundantly wealthy,” said Jennifer Lindholm, UCLA’s assistant dean of undergraduate education, who has led the course’s teaching team for the past five years. “That mindset can disempower us from engaging actively to strengthen our communities.

“Through this course, we aim to help students understand the work of nonprofit organizations, consider different perspectives on philanthropic giving, and challenge themselves to consider the myriad ways they can contribute — both now and in the future — to enhancing the common good.”

The money the students give away is provided by UCLA donors who have chosen to invest in cultivating a new generation of philanthropists. Since 2019, the course has been supported by Women & Philanthropy at UCLA, which continues to raise funds toward the class endowment.

In the 2021 class, students were divided into eight-person groups, each of which researched a pool of 14 potential nonprofit beneficiaries. Based on what they learned, each group chose eight semifinalists and held meetings with those organizations’ leaders.

One of those meetings was especially meaningful for Adriana Perez, a psychology major from Chatsworth, California, who is studying how to make mental health resources more accessible. During an online interview with representatives from Open Paths, Perez said, she connected deeply with the counseling center’s mission. But she had never before seen herself as a philanthropist.

“The ability to grant a real monetary award was incredibly empowering in that, as a class, we were able to decide what issues were most important to us, and the ability to encourage change was within our hands,” she said. “Philanthropy was not an area I thought I would ever be involved in, but this course definitely changed my perspective.”

Following those meetings, each group zeroed in one nonprofit as its chosen beneficiary, and presented a funding proposal for that organization to the other students in the class. A class-wide vote determined how much of the class’s total funds should go to each of the three organizations.

Students are free to consider and debate which criteria are most important to their funding decisions. In the latest iteration of the course, which ended in June, some students prioritized pandemic emergency relief, while others were more concerned with programs’ long-term viability or organizations’ prospects for sustained growth. Most were focused on social justice and equity.

Johnny Perez, a psychology major from Whittier, California, was a member of this year’s class. One of his long-term goals is to open a drug treatment center, and he took the course to better understand how funding decisions are made, which could come in handy when he seeks financial backers for his own nonprofit.

Course discussions helped him realize that all of his classmates had their own perspectives and priorities.

“We all had different views, and one was not necessarily better than the other,” Perez said. “I wanted to listen to other people’s views, to have the ability to want to learn and expand, and learn about other people’s values.”

Michael Lima-Sabatani is a public affairs major from Yorba Linda, California, with an interest in organizational governance. He said the course provided real opportunities to evaluate how his and his classmates’ skill sets could determine who was best equipped to serve certain roles on the team.

“I had done a lot of research on one organization and was passionate about it, but from listening to the other presentations, I knew one particular classmate would be the best advocate and presenter,” he said. “She had the most poise and was the best storyteller. And I took on an editorial position, which I know was a good fit for my writing skills.”

Lima-Sabatini said he also appreciated the opportunity to meet with leaders of the nonprofits he researched. “Gaining the first-hand experience in a setting where you are being supported was super valuable,” he said.

For other students, the course highlighted the importance of diversity in philanthropy.

“Being in this position gave me a lot of insight into philanthropy, and how diversity in board rooms is a hugely important issue,” said Aaron Tann, a communications major from Baldwin Park, California. “Different communities have different needs, perspectives and diverse opinions. We also need that diversity at the highest level of power where money is being distributed.

“A lot of us think we know what a community needs, but the organizations that are hands on with the community have a much better idea about the best use of the money.”

Armed with insights like that, those who completed the 2021 edition of the course have already laid the groundwork for the UCLA students who will take the class after them. Damola Adeyemo, a physiological science major from Rancho Cucamonga, California, shared her thoughts in an open letter that will be shared with students who might enroll in the 2022 class.

“This UCLA class is very different and you will be astonished by how much you will grow in 10 weeks. I do not think I will ever have another class as unique and exciting as this one in my time as an undergraduate.”

Raves from the beneficiaries

“It was a great experience working with the students. They were fully engaged in the project and asked questions to deeper their understanding of the work we do.”
– Charles Evans, executive director, School on Wheels

“It was a pleasure working with the Philanthropy as Civic Engagement class. They were very thoughtful and professional in their approach and inquiry. Their enthusiasm for our work was palpable, which made working with them an absolute delight.”
– Sierra Smith, executive director, Open Paths

“Working with the UCLA Philanthropy as Civic Engagement students was an incredible and emotional experience. Through their interviews and questions, the students were able to construct a cohesive narrative about the work JHFA does that I don’t think would have been possible without their help.”
– Ifunanya Nweke, executive director, Jazz Hands for Autism

This article, written by Elizabeth Kivowitz, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of Anne Nguyen.

Graduating senior forged new connections to Vietnamese heritage through UCLA class

A photo of Anne Nguyen.

UCLA senior Anne Nguyen. (Photo Courtesy of Anne Nguyen)

Anne Nguyen started observing the economic and emotional tolls of the pandemic before a lot of others.

Having grown up in a community of mostly Vietnamese immigrants, she knew families who owned nail salons, people who worked as nail techs and also was familiar with some of the health concerns given the exposure to chemicals in that industry. It wasn’t until she came to UCLA in 2017 that she realized the severity of some of the health problems associated with spending hours in a salon.

Then in March 2020, nail salon workers were being laid off even before shutdown orders because of the rapid decline in business after false reports that the virus was spreading in nail salons. Soon after there was the rise in anti-Asian racism.

“The impact on this community feels close to home,” said Nguyen, a soon-to-be UCLA graduate from San Jose, California, who is determined to help the broader immigrant community that raised her.

During her time at UCLA, Nguyen spent four years volunteering with the student-run Vietnamese Community Health organization, or VCH, which operates mostly in Orange County offering screenings for hypertension, blood glucose, cholesterol, as well as women’s health services like mammograms or OB-GYN consultations.

Nguyen and the group have also focused on offering connections to mental health providers who speak Vietnamese. She says the community, especially the elderly members, have historically stigmatized the use of mental health resources, but that these resources are invaluable to refugees and immigrants who are adjusting to a foreign culture and experiences.

“I think that my work with VCH was particularly meaningful to me because it introduced me to community-based medicine,” said Nguyen, who is on track to earn her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and a minor in Asian American studies. “I loved the focus that the organization had on educating their patients, as well as treating/screening them. It really helped me establish my service philosophy of giving communities the tools they need to commit to long-term change themselves.”

This past winter quarter, Nguyen’s desire to help Asian immigrants, took a more academic turn. She enrolled in a course put on by the Asian American studies department and the UCLA Center for Community Engagement called “Power to the People: Asian American Studies 140XP.”

The Center for Community Engagement supports community-engaged research, teaching and learning in partnership with communities and organizations throughout Los Angeles and beyond. This particular course was borne out of the hunger strike at San Francisco States University in the 60s, during which students demanded the school offer ethnic studies classes and that the school diversify its faculty and student body. This course, which has been taught at UCLA for seven years exposes students to different Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in greater Los Angeles and creates opportunities to work directly with those organizations.

During the course, Nguyen met with the instructor and her classmates two hours each week to discuss history and theory, and met virtually with community organizers, advocates and members of the nail salon industry through the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative. The statewide, grassroots organization addresses health care, environmental factors, reproductive justice, and other social issues faced by low-income, immigrant and refugee women from Vietnam.

Dung Nguyen, program and outreach manager for the collaborative, supervised Anne Nguyen (no relation) and previous UCLA students who interned at the organization. Dung said there is nothing like working directly for an organization to bring social activism to life.

“Our student interns often reflect how civic engagement, advocacy, community organizations and collective power in a text book are very different than seeing this all play out in reality,” Dung Nguyen said.

Nguyen and another student phone banked to raise awareness about two bills in the state legislature — assembly bills 15 and 16, which were intended to protect tenants from being evicted during the pandemic and beyond. The pair created packages of Lunar New Year cards and masks for members of the nail salon collaborative to reinforce social bonds with the group during the isolation of the pandemic. They ran a small fundraiser to support nail salon workers who lost income during the pandemic and couldn’t meet their most basic needs. They also conducted a survey to see which members had been vaccinated, and then helped women get vaccination appointments so they could return to work safely.

“I did not expect to take a class like this when I came to UCLA since I never thought of volunteering/interning as something you can structure into a curriculum,” Nguyen said. “Every organization had a different method of organizing to best fit their communities and this class really reinforced that this was valid. The class gave me a greater appreciation for all the thought that went into the creation and continuation of the nail salon collaborative and all of the other class partners.”

Community organizer and course lecturer Sophia Cheng said that all the community partners tend to see themselves as part of the ethnic studies movement that started in the 1960s.

Cheng, who is the primary liaison for all the organizations, pushes students to go beyond critiquing, analyzing and dissecting situations, instead asking them to come up with real solutions to real issues. She said that she’s not trying to train every student to join the non-profit sector; there aren’t enough jobs in the Asian American nonprofit sector. Instead, Cheng focuses on different ways students can serve their communities in whatever career path they take.

Nguyen’s trajectory continues to be influenced by Cheng’s approach.

“I want to be a doctor, and I am focused on community health,” Nguyen said. “The course taught me to be more cognizant of cultural fit when it comes to health care, and other needs. A lot of Asian American and Pacific Islander patients might not trust or have resources like in typical western health care. The older generation also might not trust the younger generation. I’m using approaches from class to figure out how to approach medicine and how to help people, from the place where they are. I try to figure out what are the needs of the people, how can I serve them, and help them strengthen what they have to improve themselves.”

This article, written by Elizabeth Kivowitz, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of Dr. Scott Wilke and Jovian Cheung.

Two Bruins win prestigious Goldwater Scholarships

A photo of Dr. Scott Wilke and Jovian Cheung.

From Left; Dr. Scott Wilke and Jovian Cheung (Photo Credit: Jovian Cheung)

UCLA undergraduates Jovian Cheung and Kevin Jiang have won this year’s prestigious Goldwater Scholarship, among the 410 natural science, engineering and mathematics students from across the U.S. to be awarded scholarships from a pool of 1,256 college sophomores and juniors.

A photo of Kevin Jiang.

Photo courtesy of Kevin Jiang

The scholarship covers tuition and other academic expenses for one to two years and is geared toward students in STEM who are preparing to pursue an M.D. or Ph.D.

Cheung is a junior majoring in cognitive science and minoring in neuroscience. For the past three years, she has worked in Dr. Scott Wilke’s lab in the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, helping to conduct research on how neural activity in the brain influences behavior. She presented her research at Undergraduate Research Week and is part of the Undergraduate Research Scholars Program. Cheung also mentors undergraduate researchers in the Collaboration in Undergraduate Research Enrichment (CURE) club and reviews submissions for the Undergraduate Science Journal.

Her goal is to work at the intersection of neuroscience and psychology to study psychiatric disorders and processes, and she hopes to contribute to understanding how the brain processes information and emotions.

“It’s really encouraging to gain affirmation for the work that I’ve been doing,” Cheung said. “At the same time, it pushes me to want to continue to put in more effort to improve myself.”

Also a junior, Jiang is majoring in biochemistry and minoring in statistics. He is working with Dr. Jonathan Braun, former chair of the UCLA department of pathology and laboratory medicine who currently leads the Braun Laboratory at the Cedars-Sinai Inflammatory Bowel and Immunobiology Research Institute. With Dr. Braun, Jiang researches inflammatory bowel disease and presented his research at Digestive Disease Week, one of the world’s largest medical conferences.

He also works with Dr. Alexander Hoffman, professor in the UCLA department of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics and director of the Institute for Quantitative and Computational Biosciences, to use machine learning to study macrophage immune responses. Like Cheung, Jiang works at the Undergraduate Science Journal as managing editor and mentors other undergraduate researchers in CURE. After pursuing a Ph.D., he hopes to create effective, personalized treatments for patients with cancer and other diseases.

Jiang said that receiving the scholarship has made him proud of his accomplishments. “My PI put it really nicely: he said it’s not often that you can take a short break in your career to just appreciate the things that you’ve done so far,” he said. “This is one of those moments.”

This story was written by Robin Migdol. 

A photo of Royce Hall.

Lessons Learned: UCLA Symposium on Remote Teaching during COVID-19

Students haven’t been the only ones navigating a new college experience during the COVID-19 pandemic. For faculty, switching to fully remote teaching posed a challenge unlike anything they’d experienced before.

UCLA’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching, along with its partners CEILS, EPIC, and OTL,* hosted its third annual symposium for UC faculty and staff in April. “Teaching at UCLA – Looking Forward with 2020 Vision” featured panel discussions, talks and workshops centered on lessons learned during remote teaching since March 2020.

A central theme was how to keep students engaged in a virtual classroom. At the faculty roundtable, professors discussed the effects of holding classes and office hours virtually from home, with some noting that the newfound flexibility of remote teaching had enabled them to make stronger connections with students.

A photo of Royce Hall.

A view of Royce Hall from the southwest, across the Shapiro Fountain.

“[Remote teaching] brought us together in ways I have never experienced in 24 years at UCLA. I felt a level of humanity with my students that I had not experienced before,” said Abel Valenzuela Jr., professor of Chicana/o and Central American studies and of urban planning and director of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment.

Valenzuela said that hosting virtual informal hangouts with his students to talk about anything on their minds was particularly impactful.

English professor Danny Snelson shared different gaming tools he used to make lectures fun and engaging for his students, including Discord, Animaze, Gather Town and Snap Camera.

Other faculty discussed the various ways they adapted their assignments and class organization to be mindful of the challenges of remote learning and the pandemic. Being flexible with deadlines, offering smaller, low-stakes assignments, and giving students space in discussions or journals to express their thoughts and concerns were all successful in keeping students engaged and supported.

Student panelists noted that although it was challenging to connect with their classmates in a virtual setting, working in small groups and spending more time discussing topics as a class helped them feel part of a community.

Imani Easton, graduate student in civil and environmental engineering, said that remote learning has equipped students with valuable communication skills that will prepare them for life after graduation.

“We’ve gotten to a point where we have to speak up and contribute. Before we used to just sit in lecture and take notes,” Easton said. “When we go back to campus, I’m looking forward to having more of a dialogue and open communication.”

David Schaberg, senior dean of UCLA College, dean of humanities and professor of Asian languages and cultures, said that despite the successes of remote learning, he wants to get as many people back on campus as possible.

“Nothing can truly replicate the excitement and personal growth students experience on a college campus,” Schaberg said. “We cannot give up the ideal of the campus space where people interact with their full selves. This is where students come to test out their adult selves, and you can’t do that online.”

Watch recordings of all sessions from the symposium here.

*Center for Education Innovation & Learning in the Sciences (CEILS), Excellence in Pedagogy and Innovative Classrooms (EPIC), Online Teaching & Learning (OTL)

This article was written by Robin Migdol.

A photo of Michael Carli and Christopher Zyda

The AIDS pandemic of the 1980s and ’90s forms the backdrop for written works by two Bruins, born generations apart

As part of his senior thesis, English major Michael Carli is putting the finishing touches on “Malfunction,” a short story about two gay men living in New York City from 1984 to 1986, and English alumnus Christopher Zyda ’84 recently published his memoir “The Storm: One Voice from the AIDS Generation” (Rare Bird Books), centered on losing his partner to AIDS in 1991.

Carli will interview Zyda on January 26 as part of an online author discussion hosted by the UCLA Creative Writing Program and moderated by Assistant Professor Justin Torres.

For Carli, writing about the AIDS epidemic stemmed from wanting to examine the era from the unique perspective of his generation.

A photo of Michael Carli and Christopher Zyda

From left: Michael Carli, Christopher Zyda

“I grew up with the worst of the AIDS epidemic behind me, but in a period in which my contemporary artistic heroes, particularly when I was a teenager and in my early 20s, were the ones who were left, who had witnessed the destruction [caused by AIDS] firsthand,” Carli said. “It’s important for me to examine that history now because I feel in a way that it’s been forgotten or misunderstood by my own generation.”

Like so many writers, Carli has always been a voracious reader. It was his love of literature that lured him back to school after a stint selling shoes at a Jimmy Choo boutique in Boston. Six years ago, he moved to Los Angeles and worked as a nanny and chef for a family in Santa Monica while attending community college. In 2019, he transferred to UCLA and discovered his passion for creative writing.

Carli said, “Years ago I was afraid to admit to wanting to write novels. The creative writing program has changed things for me. Not only do I feel secure in the education itself and the technical skills I’m attempting to master here, but I feel more confident I can do it. I’d read works by [my professors] Mona Simpson and Justin Torres before I came to UCLA, and it’s really a dream to be in the same room with them. All of my professors in the Department have been incredibly instructive and supportive.”

After graduating from UCLA, Carli plans to pursue an MFA degree in creative writing and complete his first novel. Through his fiction writing, he hopes to have a positive impact on environmental issues such as climate change.

“Moving through this century, facing ecological collapse, those of us working in the humanities have a special responsibility to engage with and respond to the work that scientists are doing. We have the power to translate, as it were, that work to the public by appealing more directly to readers’ emotions,” Carli said. “I hope to do that with my writing.”

Like Carli, Chris Zyda planned to write for a living after graduating from UCLA, but he ended up setting aside his book-writing ambitions for more than 35 years.

Zyda came of age in the early years of the AIDS epidemic and, like most, had no idea of the devastation to come. Then in 1986, his partner Stephen was diagnosed with AIDS. Knowing that sky-high medical expenses were on the horizon, Zyda decided to obtain his MBA from the UCLA Anderson School and pursue a career in corporate finance. He went on to serve in high-level financial roles for industry giants like The Walt Disney Company, Amazon, and eBay before founding his own boutique investment management firm, Mozaic LLC, in 2007.

The idea for “The Storm” began with a journal entry in 2011 on the 20th anniversary of Stephen’s death, but Zyda didn’t start writing the book until 2017, a disciplined process that took only six months alongside running his business. In the book, he recounts the highs and lows of his life through the lens of family dysfunction, Stephen’s battle with AIDS, grief, the gay rights movement, the scientific quest to understand the virus, and the big cultural moments of the era.

Zyda said, “When I first started, one of my fears was that I wouldn’t remember what had happened because I had spent 26 years trying to forget it and stuffing it all away. Fortunately, I am a packrat and save receipts, ticket stubs, photos, and letters. I also made a playlist of music from that time to help me remember. Writing “The Storm” became a cathartic, healing experience.”

As for the central message of “The Storm,” Zyda said, “At some point in life, everybody has to deal with some version of what I call ‘the storm.’ Whether it’s divorce or losing a loved one or losing a job or any other personal challenge in life, remember that you can get through it. My book is a story of survival, of coming through a really challenging situation and having a wonderful, positive life afterwards.”

Author discussion with Chris Zyda: Tuesday, January 26, at 4:00 p.m. To register, please click here.

UCLA’s English department has offered creative writing courses for more than 40 years, including undergraduate concentrations in fiction and poetry writing, as well as workshops in fiction, poetry, screenwriting, and creative nonfiction. Learn more: https://english.ucla.edu/creative-writing-faqs/

This article was written by Margaret MacDonald.

A photo of Hana Abdirahman.

Diagnosing Hidden Brain Injuries Drives Student Success

A photo of Hana Abdirahman.

Hana Abdirahman (Photo Credit: Reed Hutchinson)

Hana Abdirahman has always focused hard on something: In high school it was sports. Later on, it was work. But she wasn’t ready for college when she tried, right out of high school, and she dropped out pretty quickly. A few years later – in her mid-20s – she decided to try focusing on higher education for real, on her own terms. Two years at a community college showed her she could succeed as an undergraduate; she just needed to find the next step if she was going to study the brain, a subject of longtime fascination, at a high level. She was looking for a large university, with a hospital and network of labs, to get deep into the subject.

That’s when she found UCLA’s highly regarded neuroscience program and the Division of Undergraduate Re-entry Scholarships, which allow students past the traditional undergraduate age to return to school when they’re better suited to a university’s rigor. Abdirahman was able to help support her own education as the recipient of several re-entry scholarships from donors to the division of Undergraduate Education.

“What’s expected of people is to go to college right after high school,” Abdirahman says. “The reentry scholarship gives older students an incentive to go back to school: at UCLA, there’s no one path to higher education.”

When Abdirahman enrolled at UCLA, she was able to take advantage of a university lab on brain injury. Brain injury had interested her ever since she’d heard about an athlete who’d had part of her brain removed because of seizures, and who went on to compete after the operation. Her work in the lab led to a research project, in which Abdirahman measures proteins in the bloodstream, a process that helps doctors diagnose injuries they can’t see in an MRI. Some of the findings will be part of a paper she and her colleagues expect to publish; and the research also became the basis of her senior honors thesis.

Abdirahman has made an impact at UCLA doing what she loves, and hopes to use her skills to help others. She couldn’t have done it without the Scholarship Resource Center, a no-charge support program established to provide scholarship information, resources, and support services to all UCLA students, regardless of financial aid eligibility.  “The Center connects you with a counselor; it really helps people like me who haven’t had the normal college experience. Every quarter I would go in and talk with them about how I was doing.”

Now, after graduating from UCLA this past June, Hana is still on track to succeed.  She’s pursuing her dream as a first-year medical student, hoping to specialize in neurology or surgery. Both the Re-entry Scholarship and the Scholarship Resource Center paved the way for her future success.

“The support I received helped me stay on course at UCLA as an undergraduate.”

Vahagn Aldzhyan Selected as Second Arthur Ashe Jr. Scholar

While volunteering with the UCLA undergraduate-led International Collegiate Health Initiative (ICHI), which aims to provide healthcare to underserved communities in Los Angeles, UCLA senior Vahagn Aldzhyan and his coworkers completed a needs assessment survey on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. When they asked the people there if they had access to medical care and health insurance, most said no.

“I always knew about Skid Row, I always drove past South LA, but just being there in person, talking to the people and getting a glimpse of what these people have to go through every day made me want to do a lot of work to empower people who are living in those situations,” said Aldzhyan, a molecular, cellular and developmental biology major and Los Angeles native.

A photo of Vahagn Aldzhyan.

A portrait of Vahagn Aldzhyan. (Photo Credit: UCLA)

The desire to bridge healthcare gaps and disparities has been the driving force throughout Aldzhyan’s time as Bruin. And it’s also part of what landed him the 2020-21 Arthur Ashe Jr. Scholarship, an annual award that recognizes and supports students who exemplify the attributes, values, commitment to service and pioneering spirit of the legendary Arthur Ashe ’66.

In addition to working as a grant writer for the ICHI, Aldzhyan is a research assistant in the lab of Dr. Richard J. Pietras and Dr. Diana Marquez-Garban, developing therapeutics to treat triple-negative breast cancer. He presented his research about this aggressive form of cancer, which disproportionately affects young black women, at Undergraduate Research Week this year.

Aldzhyan works as an undergraduate learning assistant in the departments of chemistry and biochemistry and physics and astronomy and a board member of the Armenian Engineers and Scientists Association. He’s also an Emergency Medical Technician, and a Health Scholar at COPE Solutions, where he volunteers and rotates through different departments at a local hospital.

After graduation, his goal is to apply to medical school and complete dual degrees in medicine and business so that he can have a greater impact on underserved communities, including in Armenia where his parents both immigrated from.

“I feel like when I’m working directly with patients, I’m impacting one life, but with a business degree, I can do a lot more to implement community service programs and reach an audience at a much greater level,” he said.

Aldzhyan said he is inspired by Arthur Ashe’s commitment to helping people facing discrimination, racism and hatred even after he had already achieved astronomical success as an athlete. Although Ashe himself had experienced the same challenges, he didn’t let it stop him from succeeding as well as creating opportunities for others.

“He was able to reciprocate positive energy and help communities and people that were in the same kind of situation as he was growing up. So that was really inspiring.” Aldzhyan said.

And the advice he’s taken away from Ashe’s story?

“When you hit a roadblock, don’t stop, just go through it. And then when you get to a goal and achieve it, don’t forget who helped you and help them too,” he said.

Aldzhyan said that while he’s grateful that the scholarship will help him with his tuition this year, he’s even more humbled to be part of The Arthur Ashe Legacy at UCLA as a recipient of the scholarship named in Ashe’s honor. He’s already looking forward to aiding future students who find themselves on a similar path.

“I can come back 10, 15, or maybe even a couple years from now and give back to those students who are interested in embodying what Arthur Ashe stood for as a community leader and as a Bruin,” he said.

That’s a legacy worth leaving.

This article, written by Robin Migdol, originally appeared on The Arthur Ashe Legacy website

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.

Image on the bottom left: A painting by Ambrogio Lorenzetti is an example of art in Europe before the bubonic plague. Other images show how art changed after the plague.

Faculty get creative to teach perspectives on the COVID-19 pandemic

Image on the bottom left: A painting by Ambrogio Lorenzetti is an example of art in Europe before the bubonic plague. Other images show how art changed after the plague.

Art historian Charlene Villaseñor Black showed her class how art changed before and after the bubonic plague struck Europe to help her students see how artists might adapt their work to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo Credit: UCLA)

The screen shows the familiar grid of small faces but everyone’s focused on the guest speaker, a student joining the class from his home in Wuhan, China, eager for their chances to ask questions.

“Can you describe the Chinese health care system and any differences you have experienced between its workings and that of the U.S. health care system?” Jonathan Gong asked Shengan Zhan. The UCLA geography graduate student was joining geography professor Michael Shin’s seminar class called “Global Experiences and Perspectives on COVID-19” via Zoom.

“It is usually very easy to see a doctor,” Zhan said. “However, with the coronavirus outbreak, the system was just flooded and overwhelmed by the high number of people seeking treatment.”

Gurugowtham Ulaganathan asked, “How has this affected you and your family personally?”

“The lock-down is inconvenient but most people are coping,” Zhan said. “My parents are professors at the university in Wuhan, and they are teaching online like we are here at UCLA.”

Hearing directly from Zhan the students see how COVID-19 has connected experiences around the world.

Opportunities like this, to participate in intimate conversations with someone who can share what it’s like to live in the global ground zero of the novel coronavirus pandemic are part of what make a UCLA education so special.

As the world grapples with COVID-19 and governments, institutions and individuals adapt to meet this moment, UCLA has been forced to change not only how it teaches — since late March, all courses have been conducted remotely — but just as importantly, what it teaches.

A shining example of how UCLA fulfills its mission

UCLA’s Fiat Lux seminar program has provided a platform to give faculty and students a global, multidisciplinary perspective of the pandemic, continuing a long tradition of teaching students to better understand the complexities of the world and forming community around current events. Founded in 2001, Fiat Lux seminars (named after the University of California’s Latin motto “Let there be Light”) were born in the wake of 9/11 as a way for students and faculty to explore, discuss and make sense of the terrorist attack.

Patricia Turner, dean and vice provost of undergraduate education and one of UCLA’s biggest Fiat Lux champions, said educators are always looking for teachable moments. Offering seminars about events like 9/11 and now COVID-19 provides students with an opportunity to research, discuss and make sense of these events.

A photo of Patricia Turner.

Patricia Turner (Photo Credit: UCLA)

“Each Fiat Lux provides its own lens through which to understand the virus’s impact on the world, whether the subject is public health, nutrition, sustainability or something else entirely,” Turner said. “Ideally, students will feel like they are in a caring academic community and come away with a perspective from which to examine their own feelings about the virus and its impact. It’s just one of the ways UCLA supports students in tumultuous times.”

With the support of Fiat Lux’s faculty advisory committee, a call for proposals went out at the end of winter quarter, but with a strict deadline: seminars would be taught the very next quarter which would begin in just a few weeks.

Pia Palomo, academic coordinator for undergraduate education initiatives in the UCLA College, and Scott Chandler, faculty advisory committee chair, said they thought they’d be lucky to receive 10 proposals. Instead, they got 25.

“Ray Knapp, professor of musicology, had talked with some other colleagues about, ‘Hey, this is a great opportunity to use the spirit of Fiat Lux to build community to talk about what’s happening, and there’s already a mechanism to do it,’” Palomo said. Faculty in other schools, including Kyle McJunkin in the Fielding School of Public Health, were also eager to begin teaching about COVID-19 as soon as possible.

The topics were as varied as the faculty who submitted them — from political science and public policy professor Susanne Lohman’s “The Ethics of Pandemics” to music professor Frank Heuser’s “Responding to Coronavirus Through Song.” Faculty in departments spanning English, gender studies, African American studies, sociology and education all taught COVID-19 seminars. Chancellor Gene Block even led a seminar titled “University Leadership During Pandemics.”

More than just classes

For faculty and students, the Fiat Lux COVID-19 seminars were not just an opportunity to study the pandemic. In fact, building community around this unprecedented and at times frightening crisis as Bruins are scattered across the world under quarantine and stay-at-home orders was equally if not more important.

Art history professor Charlene Villaseñor Black is a veteran in teaching Fiat Lux seminars and jumped at the chance to teach “Art in Times of Contagion,” which examines artistic responses to pandemics of past and present.

A photo of Charlene Villaseñor Black.

Charlene Villaseñor Black (Photo Credit: UCLA)

The course has included examinations of historical art, such as Mexican art in the 16th and 17th centuries during the wave of epidemics brought by European colonizers and artistic responses to the medieval European plague of the 14th century. Students also looked at modern examples including the 2013 film “World War Z” and engaged in a writing exercise to create their own artistic response to COVID-19.

“I want students to have an awareness that we’ve been here before and an awareness of how the arts can provide sustenance, respite, and hope for us,” Black said. “This is the moment to really think about how the humanities and the arts make us more human.”

As faculty-in-residence in Sproul Hall, it was the sight of her students moving out of their dorms as the campus shut down that most profoundly affected Black and motivated her to think about what she could do to help them.

“We couldn’t even help them move out really because of social distancing. So it was heartbreaking. I didn’t get to say goodbye to a lot of people,” Black said. “I was thinking deeply about what is the role of the faculty-in residence in the current pandemic? How are we going to reach out to our students?”

She thought the idea to offer COVID-19-themed Fiat Lux seminars was “perfect.”

“I thought a lot about the arts at this moment,” she said. “We’ve seen so many arts offerings on social media, Facebook Live broadcasts, artists doing workshops, artists doing live talks about their practice. So I was struck by how the arts became a refuge for us.”

Seminars connect students forced into separation

Aileen Carey, a senior English major, took three Fiat Lux seminars including Black’s from her apartment in Westwood, where she decided to stay for her final quarter instead of going home to New Jersey. She also took Robert Kim-Farley’s “COVID-19 From the Perspective of a Public Health Medical Epidemiologist” and Caroline Streeter’s “Viral Media During a Viral Pandemic: Social Media, Music and COVID-19.”

Carey said listening to her professors discuss the pandemic from an academic point of view helped her get a more objective perspective on what she hears on the news every day. And it’s “oddly soothing” to spend time with fellow Bruins discussing the issues.

“It highlights that this is a collective experience because everyone in the class is here and wants to talk about it,” Carey said. “It’s surreal seeing my classmates sitting in their houses on Zoom but it helps show that these people are all going through the exact same thing I’m going through.”

Her art history seminar in particular has made Carey more aware of how art — including her own — is influenced by major events in history.

“That fascinates me because I wonder how my writing will change after COVID-19 and I wonder how mainstream media will change, because every industry is different now,” she said.

An image of COVID-19 cases in China as of April 9, 2020

COVID-19 cases in China as of April 9, 2020 (Photo Credit: Photo by KOBU Agency on Unsplash)

In his seminar about global experiences on COVID-19, Shin wanted to offer students the opportunity to meet people from around the world and hear directly from them about how their lives have been affected by the pandemic. He invited guest speakers including Zhan who is his former teaching assistant and professors at the University of Milan and Hong Kong University to share their experiences with the class and answer students’ questions.

Freshman human biology major Victoria Li was interested in taking Shin’s seminar to gain a more global perspective of COVID-19. The seminar has already inspired her to continue pursuing public health in her studies.

“In the U.S. we get a very one-sided story of this epidemic and we don’t get to hear how real people are living through the same thing but in a different way around the world,” Li said. “With this whole situation and the class on COVID, it’s reaffirmed my interest in public health and how to deal with situations like this.”

Both Li and Carey said they’re proud and grateful that, through Fiat Lux, UCLA is offering students the opportunity to learn about the COVID-19 pandemic, to think critically and lean on each other to get through it.

“Having this moment to appreciate the staff who are excited to talk about these issues and the students who are volunteering to learn shows the best of academia and what this institution could be,” Carey said.

Fiat Lux has always offered students and faculty alike a way to explore new areas of interest and expand their perspectives, said history professor Vinay Lal, who is teaching a Fiat Lux seminar on pandemics throughout history. As we all grapple with COVID-19 together, the Fiat Lux mission seems to adopt a new and urgent meaning.

“Fiat Lux is a way for the faculty to engage themselves, to indulge their intellectual curiosity. And for the students, it’s a chance to say, let me see if I can become intellectually aware of the world around me,” Lal said. “Coronavirus is something that is out of our realm of experience. And so we need to be able to find some way to comprehend it.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of Priscilla Stephanie Molina.

Thanks to family, graduating senior is driven to bridge cultural gaps

Growing up in Los Angeles, Priscilla Stephanie Molina would frequently go to work with her parents, doing homework while her mom cleaned houses or her father fixed someone’s leaky pipes. While some may have seen them as laborers, she saw leaders.

A photo of Priscilla Stephanie Molina.

Priscilla Stephanie Molina (Photo Credit: Idriss Njike)

“My parents are both immigrants from Guatemala and I’m very proud of that,” said Molina, a first-generation college student graduating from UCLA June 12. “My mom runs her own housekeeping business. She has people who work for her and she organizes everything. My dad didn’t know much about plumbing, but he learned by working with his cousin, and then he started teaching people who now work under him.”

Whether at home, work or church, she saw her parents stepping in to lead the community and help those in need. Molina, who plans to attend medical school, has done the same at UCLA. She created cultural sensitivity training for her classmates before leading them on medical missions to Mexico, and she helped form a tutoring and mentorship program for K-12 students at her church who would be the first in their families to go to college. She served as a resident assistant for two themed floors in UCLA residence halls, helping build communities with activities like organizing empowering events for other first-generation college students one year, and cultural celebrations like a Dia de los Muertos event for the Chicanx/Latinx floor another year.

“My parents were a great example,” Molina said. “This is what we do. If my parents can lead, then I can, as well.”

Molina plans to become a psychiatrist so she can research and find better ways to support underserved communities that often lack psychiatric resources. Born and raised in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, she’s seen how obstacles like language barriers, poor cultural awareness by doctors, and a lack of access can harm families. One of her older brothers was diagnosed with schizophrenia not long after she turned 10, and her parents didn’t know where to turn. Molina would join her mother at her brother’s doctor appointments to translate.

“They would give her information without explaining what it meant,” Molina said. “That has to change, and I want to help change it. We didn’t know what resources to connect to, what medicine to trust, or how to help my brother. I think a lot of that was because of cultural barriers. Public health, prevention and resources have to be culturally appropriate and meaningful to reach people. I want to be a doctor who is culturally sensitive.”

Molina’s sense of navigating and uniting two distinct worlds is apparent even in her name. Her parents and family friends know her by her middle name, Stephanie, while places that rely on registration forms use her first name, Priscilla.

“I always think of myself as Stephanie,” she said. “While Priscilla has always been my school-self. I enjoy it.”

By majoring in psychobiology and double-minoring in public health and in Latin American studies, Molina hopes to unite the three disciplines to address the problems she encountered growing up.

She already put her skills to use a few times with the Global Medical Missions Alliance. Her studies, combined with regular family summer trips to Guatemala, prepared her well to lead medical missions to Mexico. Though her friends in the university’s GMMA chapter prepared by studying Spanish, she didn’t see enough emphasis on learning about — and from — the people they were helping. She created cultural-sensitivity training for the group that was soon adopted by Global Medical Missions Alliance chapters in the United States, Australia and Canada.

“I wanted to emphasize how important it is to value the local people’s mindset, culture and knowledge, and not go in thinking we know better than they do,” Molina said. “There are things we can learn from them. The most important thing I advocated for was staying connected to the community’s leaders. They know best what their community needs.”

For her senior research project, she was able to combine all three of her academic interests in UCLA’s Psychology Research Opportunity Programs. Molina used a fotonovela, or graphic novel, in which a Latina character experiences symptoms of depression, and talks about it with her family and friends. She hoped that using this creative, culture-specific approach would make the Latino population she worked with more likely to seek out treatment themselves.

A photo of the Molina Family.

Courtesy of the Molina family

Her research found that people were more comfortable with the idea of seeking treatment if they had read the fotonovella showing someone from their culture. Unfortunately, she also found that readers with more barriers to mental health treatment still weren’t as likely to reach out for services as people who had fewer pre-existing barriers.

It’s an issue she hopes to research more. This summer, she has a paid position in a summer program with AltaMed Health Services, a health care provider that works in underserved communities. She hopes to either continue working with AltaMed or become an assistant resident director at UCLA while she takes some time off from school, and then apply to medical school.

Her parents always emphasized the importance of education, and encouraged her to think early on about a job that required education, she said.

“They always told me they didn’t want me to work a job the way they have to where they’re laborers,” she said. “And when I was little, I saw doctors as people who helped, and who made me feel better. So I wanted to be a doctor, but for a long time I didn’t really think I could.”

Living in the Valley, her schools had field trips to UCLA, and the university quickly became her goal. Though she’s disappointed that the current coronavirus pandemic and quarantine means there will be no graduation ceremony in Pauley Pavilion this June for her family to attend, she knows they are excited and proud of her for graduating.

“UCLA was my dream school,” Molina said. “I heard about all the optimistic goals. I knew I wanted to go into medicine, and you always hear that UCLA is one of the top schools for science and medicine and research. I felt like I belonged here. When I got in, it was a very happy moment for me and my family.”