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A photo of a researcher in the lab.

12 UCLA College scientists among world’s most influential researchers

A photo of a researcher in the lab.

A researcher in the lab. Photo Credit: iStock.com

Thirty-six UCLA scholars have been named as the world’s most influential scientific researchers. Twelve are from UCLA College.

Clarivate released its annual list of the most highly cited researchers, which includes dozens of UCLA scientists across various disciplines. The list is compiled by the Institute for Scientific Information at Clarivate using data based on scholarly publication counts and citation indexes. The selected researchers wrote publications that ranked in the top 1% by citations in their field for that year, according to the Web of Science citation index.

Current UCLA College faculty members and researchers who were named to the list, noted with their primary UCLA research field or fields, are:

For the full list and article, written by Max Gordy, please visit the UCLA Newsroom

Center for Community Engagement Debuts New Name, new Website, and Campus Database for Community Partnerships

Jessa Calderon (Tongva and Chumash) Photo credit: Kote Melendez

The UCLA Center for Community Learning has a new name.

As of November 10, the Center will be known as the UCLA Center for Community Engagement, reflecting the Center’s continued goal to connect UCLA students with community partners to provide both a learning experience for students and a benefit to the communities, locally and globally.

The Center for Community Engagement promotes and supports community-engaged research, teaching and learning in partnership with communities and organizations throughout Los Angeles, regionally, nationally and globally. The Center facilitates faculty and student work that integrates sustained, reciprocal engagement with the public and helps transform UCLA’s mission to support the cocreation, codissemination, copreservation and coapplication of knowledge.

A photo of Gaye Theresa Johnson, meeting with cilantro workers.

A recipient of the Chancellor’s Award for Community-Engaged Scholars, Gaye Theresa Johnson, meeting with cilantro workers as part of her ongoing community-engaged research on food justice. (Photo Credit: UCLA)

The Center is tasked by the Undergraduate Council to administer the university’s “community-engaged course” framework. It does this by supporting faculty across the university who are interested in developing such community-engaged courses, and ultimately approving the “XP” course suffix that identifies these courses.

The Center also coordinates the Chancellor’s Awards for Community-Engaged Scholars, a program that recognizes outstanding scholarship and supports faculty to develop new courses to integrate undergraduates into their ongoing community-engaged research. The Center’s student-facing programming includes 195CE internship courses, the community engagement and social change minor, the Astin Community Scholars research program, the Changemaker Scholars program, and AmeriCorps volunteer programs.

The name change was inspired by Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Emily A. Carter at a meeting last year with the vice chancellors and Chancellor Gene Block. Center for Community Learning director Shalom Staub and Vice Provost for International Studies and Global Engagement Cindy Fan gave a presentation about UCLA’s new strategic priorities for local and global engagement.

Staub said Carter took note of the reciprocal nature of the Center’s community-engaged programs. She noticed that the Center’s name only notes the value for student learning but ignores the ways that the work is intentionally designed to create value for community partners. The name “Center for Community Learning” didn’t convey both sides, she said.

“This name change highlights the importance of meaningful engagement as the cornerstone of effective community-based research and education,” Carter said. “It is a stronger reflection of the center’s philosophy and work, and it emphasizes the idea that our relationships with communities and organizations throughout Los Angeles are true reciprocal partnerships.”

Dean of Undergraduate Education Adriana Galvan said the new name represents the meaningful learning and authentic community-engaged experiences students have with community partners as well as UCLA’s commitment to creativity, community engagement, research, and learning across disciplines.

“Community engagement is a crucial ingredient to the undergraduate experience because it brings to life the learning that happens in a classroom and ensures that our students have the opportunity to reflect on the ways in which the university connects to the broader community,” she said.

In addition to the name change, the Center launched a new website and will soon debut a new online database of community engaged work at UCLA. Through an online platform called Collaboratory, community-centered research or teaching at UCLA will be logged, categorized and searchable, allowing users to see how community-engaged work at UCLA is connected across campus and across community partner organizations.

“Rather than talk abstractly about community-engaged work, or rather than describe just the work of a specific course, this is going to allow us to aggregate and to visualize community-engaged work at UCLA,” Staub said. “The scale and scope of this work is going to start to become much more real.”

This article was written by Robin Migdol. 

 

 

Astrophysicist France Córdova to deliver UCLA’s Luskin Lecture for Thought Leadership

France Córdova, internationally renowned astrophysicist and the first woman to be appointed chief scientist for NASA, will deliver UCLA College’s fifth Luskin Lecture for Thought Leadership on Nov. 10, titled “The Learn’d Astronomer Discovers the Policy World.” Córdova is the former director of the National Science Foundation and served in five presidential administrations.

A photo of Astrophysicist France Córdova.

Astrophysicist France Córdova (Photo Courtesy of France Córdova)

Córdova will discuss the world of science policy, which affects scientific progress as much as scientific discoveries themselves. Through examples such as the writing of the U.S. Constitution to the present day challenges faced by universities and federal science agencies, she will illustrate how difficult — and important — it can be to form good policy.

Registration is required for this virtual event, which is free and open to UCLA students, alumni and the general public. Following her talk, Córdova will take part in a moderated discussion informed by questions submitted by students and alumni.

“As an influential leader and trailblazer in science, engineering and education, France Córdova offers invaluable perspective on meeting the challenges of our rapidly changing world,” UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said.

During her career as a scientist, Córdova specialized in multi-spectral research on X-ray and gamma ray sources and in developing space-borne instrumentation. She was the first woman to be appointed president of Purdue University and the first Latina chancellor of UC Riverside. She previously served as vice chancellor for research at UC Santa Barbara. Córdova also served as chair of the board of regents of the Smithsonian Institution and on the board of trustees of Mayo Clinic. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University and a doctorate in physics from the California Institute of Technology.

Among her numerous honors, Córdova is the recipient of NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal — the agency’s highest honor, and the Kilby International Award, which is presented for significant contributions to society through science, technology, innovation, invention and education. She is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a National Associate of the National Academies, an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy and a fellow of both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Association for Women in Science. She was appointed to the board of trustees of Caltech in June.

“France Córdova’s groundbreaking achievements are inspiring to all who value progress and discovery,” said David Schaberg, senior dean of the UCLA College. “Her Luskin Lecture will undoubtedly motivate and challenge all of us to create a better world through education and exploration, as she herself as done.”

The Luskin Lecture for Thought Leadership was established in the UCLA College by Meyer and Renee Luskin in 2011 as part of a transformative gift to UCLA. Their vision in establishing the endowed lecture series gives the UCLA College an opportunity to share knowledge and expand the dialogue among scholars, leaders in government and business, and the greater Los Angeles community.

This article, written by Melissa Abraham, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

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 the Rev. James Lawson.

UCLA’s Rev. James Lawson Jr., civil rights icon, eulogizes Rep. John Lewis

A photo of the Rev. James Lawson.

Center: Rev. James Lawson (Photo Credit: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA)

Acclaimed civil rights activist and UCLA College Lecturer Rev. James Lawson Jr. stood among national leaders including former Presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush on July 30 to eulogize late civil rights leader U.S. Representative John Lewis.

Lawson and Lewis met in the 1960s, when Lewis attended Lawson’s classes on nonviolent confrontation and civil disobedience. Lawson recalled Lewis and other civil rights workers, linking their early struggle to today’s ongoing racial strife.

“John Lewis must be understood as one of the leaders of the greatest advance of the Congress and the White House on behalf of we the people of the USA,” Lawson said.

He added, “If we would honor and celebrate John Lewis’ life, let us then re-commit our souls, our hearts, our minds, our bodies and our strength to the continuing journey to dismantle the wrong in our midst.”

Lawson co-teaches UCLA students in a unique course called “Nonviolence and Social Movements” with Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center.

In 2017, the UCLA Labor Center published “Nonviolence and Social Movements: The Teachings of Rev. James M. Lawson Jr.,” a book that emerged from the class.

In 2018, Lawson himself was presented with the UCLA Medal for his contributions to the civil rights movement, the highest honor bestowed by UCLA. Read more about Lawson here: https://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/civil-rights-activist-james-lawson-awarded-ucla-medal.

A photo of Jason De León.

Second annual cohort of Chancellor’s Award for Community-Engaged Research to incorporate social justice into undergraduate courses

A photo of Jason De León.

Professor Jason De León, one of five 2020-21 recipients of the Chancellor’s Community-Engaged Research Award. (Photo Credit: UCLA)

UCLA undergraduates will soon have the opportunity to gather primary source documents about California Indian dance, interview migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, study emerging online platforms for community organizing, and other community research-based subjects.

Five faculty have been chosen to receive the second annual Chancellor’s Award for Community-Engaged Research.  The five $10,000 research grants, offered by the UCLA Center for Community Learning and the Chancellor’s office, will support the faculty in developing courses that will engage students in research projects in conjunction with community partners.

In each course, students will carry out research activities in partnership with local community organizations. The course will advance their professor’s research goals and also benefit the communities that the partners serve.

Over the next academic year, the five faculty will participate in a workshop on best practices for teaching undergraduate community-engaged research and attend quarterly meetings to advance their course design. By the end of spring 2021, each faculty will have a new course syllabus, ready to be offered to undergraduates in 2021-22 or 2022-23.

Shalom Staub, director of the UCLA Center for Community Learning, said that the faculty selected for this year’s award will employ anti-racist and decolonial methodologies to tackle critical issues.

“The five award recipients embody the highest standards of scholarship combined with a deep commitment to racial, economic, and gender justice,” Staub said. “Through the new courses emerging from these awards, undergraduates will have the opportunity to learn community-engaged research methodology, contribute to their faculty’s ongoing research, and produce work of value to community partner organizations.”

Though the course topics vary widely, each one places an emphasis on studying the act of community engagement in itself: How can academic institutions and researchers remain respectful, ethical and collaborative when working with the communities they are studying?

Tria Blu Wakpa, professor of world arts and cultures/dance, will develop a course called “The Politics and Possibilities of California Indian Dance.” Students will gather primary and secondary documents about and related to California Indian dances and write annotated bibliographies. They will share all of this information with California Indian representatives of the Tongva, Chumash, Ohlone, and Winnemem Wintu nations, who will draw on these texts to revitalize and innovate their dances.

“The course will show that collaborating and consulting with Native peoples when writing about their dances is vital given the problematic relationships between universities and Indigenous peoples, tribally-specific contexts and understandings that undergird Native dances, and Indigenous protocols around what information is appropriate to share,” Blu Wakpa said.

Another course, “Community-Engaged Approaches to Environmental Toxicants, Chronic Illness, and Gender,” will introduce students to the UCLA Center for the Study of Women’s Oral Histories of Environmental Illness Archive, which has recorded interviews with women who have experienced illness as a result of chemicals and environmental toxins (in beauty products and while working in nail salons, for example).

Rachel Lee, professor in the departments of English, gender studies and the UCLA Institute of Society and Genetics, will teach the course. She wants students to investigate and make contact with community organizations that could benefit the individuals in the oral history archive, enabling the students to learn from them about advocacy and activism.

“It’s always striking to me how much knowledge is had by the organizers. They are the teachers here,” Lee said.

Jason de Leon, professor of anthropology and Chicana/Chicano studies, said community-engaged coursework can show students that they are capable of doing fieldwork and taking ownership of research projects.

“There is no substitute for hands-on learning,” de Leon said. “There’s a transformation that happens when you put people into a situation where they’re no longer passive learners, and they’re put into the driver’s seat to do the work.”

In De Leon’s course, students will interview and conduct focus groups with migrants who have been held in federal detention centers at the U.S./Mexico border, as well as people who have worked in the detention centers or live in the cities where the centers are located. Their work will be incorporated into an art exhibition called Hostile Terrain 94, part of the Undocumented Migration Project.

“We really hope that we can develop a rich collaboration with the communities, to feel like they are really collaborating with us,” he said. “What can we do in the community to help?”

Rounding out the 2020 cohort is Jennifer Chun, department of Asian American studies, and Gaye Theresa Johnson, Chicano/Chicana studies and African American studies. In conjunction with the Asian Pacific Islander American Leadership Development Project, Chun’s course will instruct students on developing relationships and practices of accountability, transparency, and reciprocity in the writing of organizational case studies and movement histories.

Johnson’s course will assign students to different local social welfare organizations such as Hunger Action LA to complete a project for that organization, while studying the intersecting social justice issues that determine the organization’s central organizing principles.

“In these tumultuous times, it is more important than ever for students to be actively engaged in the world around them,” Chancellor Gene Block said. “The Chancellor’s Award for Community-Engaged Research recognizes and supports those faculty who are providing exceptional undergraduate learning opportunities, empowering students to conduct research that will benefit the community and amplify voices that are often silenced. I look forward to seeing the positive impact the courses will have on both the Bruins who take part and the communities they will serve.”

 

A portrait of Adriana Galván

Neuroscientist Adriana Galván named dean of undergraduate education

A portrait of Adriana Galván

Photo Courtesy of Adriana Galván

Neuroscientist Adriana Galván will become UCLA’s next dean of undergraduate education on July 1.

A member of the UCLA faculty since 2008, Galván is a professor of psychology, holds the Wendell Jeffrey and Bernice Wenzel Term Chair in Behavioral Neuroscience and is director of the Developmental Neuroscience Lab at UCLA.

Emily Carter, UCLA’s executive vice chancellor and provost, announced the appointment in an email to the campus community today. “Chancellor [Gene] Block and I are confident that undergraduate education will continue to thrive under Adriana’s capable leadership,” she wrote.

Galván is a faculty affiliate of the UCLA Brain Research Institute and the UCLA Neuroscience Interdepartmental Program, and is an executive committee member of the UCLA Staglin Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and co-director of the NICHD T32 Predoctoral Training Program in Adolescent Brain and Behavioral Development.

“I am tremendously excited to serve as UCLA’s next dean of undergraduate education,” Galván said. “During this extraordinary time in history I look forward to working with the high-caliber students who make UCLA a leading institution of higher education.

“I am honored to work with community members across campus to uphold the mission of this innovative public university and to help enrich our students with a transformative environment where they all have the tools and resources they need to thrive, grow and become engaged members of society.”

Her research focuses on adolescent brain development and behavior, particularly in the domains of learning, motivation, and decision-making. She is a board member and on the leadership team of the Center for the Developing Adolescent, a standing member of the NIH Child Psychopathology and Developmental Disabilities Study Section, and a consultant for the Annie E. Casey Foundation. She has been a member of the Board of Scientific Affairs of the American Psychological Association (APA), the Russell Sage Foundation Biological and Social Sciences Working Group, and the Society for Research on Adolescence Interdisciplinary Committee. She has also served as amicus curiae for numerous U.S. Supreme Court cases pertaining to youth behavior and development.

In addition to serving on the psychology department’s executive committee and academic personnel review committee, and as chair of the department’s 2018 strategic planning committee, she has been actively involved in the UCLA Academic Senate, having served on the executive committee, the Committee on Undergraduate Admissions and Relations with Schools, and the Undergraduate Council — mostly recently as the council’s chair from 2019 to 2020. She is also a member of the Life Sciences Diversity Advisory Committee and was on the University of California Committee on Educational Policy.

Among her many honors and awards are the American Psychological Association Boyd McCandless Early Career Award, the William T. Grant Scholars Award, the 2015 UCLA Psychology Department Distinguished Teaching Award, the 2016 APA Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contributions, the 2016 Cognitive Neuroscience Society Young Investigator Award and the 2019 Troland Award from the National Academy of Sciences. In 2018, she was a Fulbright scholar at the University of Barcelona and in 2019 she was awarded the Presidential Early Career Award for Science and Engineering.

Galván earned a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience and behavior at Barnard College, Columbia University, and a doctorate in neuroscience at Cornell University.

The position has been held since 2013 by Patricia Turner.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo montage of 2020 Virtual Celebration speakers. Top: George Takei, featured speaker during the UCLA College’s 2020 virtual celebration. Lower left: UCLA Chancellor Gene Block. Lower right: student speaker Kristie-Valerie Phung Hoang.

Graduates encouraged to envision and build a better future

A photo montage of 2020 Virtual Celebration speakers. Top: George Takei, featured speaker during the UCLA College’s 2020 virtual celebration. Lower left: UCLA Chancellor Gene Block. Lower right: student speaker Kristie-Valerie Phung Hoang.

Top: George Takei, featured speaker during the UCLA College’s 2020 virtual celebration. Lower left: UCLA Chancellor Gene Block. Lower right: student speaker Kristie-Valerie Phung Hoang. (Photo Credit: UCLA)

UCLA’s class of 2020 celebrated their graduation today while scattered across the globe. For the first time, the university’s largest graduation celebration took place remotely, honoring the roughly 8,800 students of the UCLA College.

“Today we gather virtually to celebrate the conferral of your degrees in a uniquely 21st century high-tech way – but, rest assured, your hard-earned degrees will be real. You guys are so futuristic!” the graduates were told by actor, activist, alumnus and social media icon George Takei. The man who helped others imagine a brighter future through his role on “Star Trek” called on graduates to build a better world. “With the experience of the pandemic, challenge yourselves to imagine the unimagined. You have technology that dazzles the mind. Soar with it. Aspire as no others have.”

Though the pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus means most students haven’t set foot at UCLA since March 13, classes continued remotely. While in-person ceremonies are planned once group gatherings are safe again, graduating students more than earned a celebration on what would have been their commencement day. Among the Centennial class, graduating at the close of UCLA’s first 100 years, nearly a third are first-generation college students, and more than 35 percent come from low-income households.

The ceremony opened with a moment of silence to recognize and honor victims of COVID-19 and also racial oppression. This was followed by a pledge by the six College deans to continue to fight social injustice.

“While we have all been affected by recent events, we have not all been affected equally,” said Darnell Hunt, dean of the division of social sciences. “We will continue to shine a light on inequality.”

Speakers borrowed from an array of real and fictional inspirational figures, quoting the words of activist author James Baldwin, historian Rebecca Solnit, wizard Albus Dumbledore, and Vulcan Starfleet officer Mr. Spock. The virtual celebration featured views of familiar buildings, fountains and hilltop vistas to soothe homesick Bruins, and senior Margaret Miller sang the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Students viewed the livestream or the later recording from couches with their parents, in apartments with roommates, or on laptops in empty rooms. Some added homemade pomp and circumstance by crafting their own mortarboards or using free graduation profile frames and yard signs from the Alumni Association they would soon join.

UCLA Chancellor Gene Block praised the graduates’ resilience at completing their studies and acknowledged those who also found ways to get involved, whether by treating COVID-19 patients, making face masks to slow the spread of the virus, or joining the nationwide wave of protests against the murder of Black men and women by police.

“A global pandemic has upended our lives and prevented us from being together,” Block said. “We’re all reeling, once again, from the pain of racial injustice … The horrible killings of unarmed African Americans have reminded us of our society’s inequities, but strengthened our resolve to address them.”

History shows that catastrophic events can expose “the failings of the status quo” and lead to reforms, Block added, referencing Solnit before calling on the graduates to build a more resilient, compassionate and just society. Though in almost any year, graduates are asked to make the world a better place, current events added extra resonance to that plea.

“The imagination to envision better times, especially in hard times, is vital,” Block said. “James Baldwin wrote that ‘not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’ … Now is your time to envision the role you’ll play in changing our world and creating a new one.”

UCLA Broadcast Studio

 

Filmed in an empty Royce Hall, student speaker Kristie-Valerie Phung Hoang grieved the loss of the students’ final months on campus, but reminded her fellow graduates that they have already begun to improve the world.

“It is at UCLA where we’ve felt compassion for each other, and drove our support toward undocumented students, first-generation students and immigrants working to make a better life of their own,” she said. “We poured our minds towards driving research in hopes of finding life-saving cures … We created paths towards a greener, healthier planet … We lived and breathed the spirit of equality.”

Though the campus’ graduation season shrank from the usual 60 or so ceremonies and celebrations to a little more than 30 virtual events because of the pandemic, UCLA awarded degrees to nearly 14,000 students from its undergraduate and graduate programs. Other speakers include guitarist Carlos Santana for the Herb Alpert School of Music, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder for the UCLA School of Law, and California’s first surgeon general, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris for the David Geffen School of Medicine.

In introducing Takei, Block praised his activism in speaking up for Muslims, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community, and tied Takei’s activism to his days as an actor playing Mr. Sulu beginning in 1966.

“George made history on a multi-ethnic new TV show called ‘Star Trek,’” Block said. “The show premiered at the same time that the Vietnam War was fueling decades of anti-Asian bigotry. As a Japanese-American child during World War II, George had endured that bigotry first hand in America’s shameful internment camps. George’s presence as one of the heroes of the show was a rebuke to the prejudice of the time. Star Trek imagined a future in which all of Earth’s races lived together in peace.”

Sixty years after his own graduation from UCLA, Takei observed the highs and lows of the pandemic, from tireless medical and frontline workers, to unemployment and economic havoc.

“We live in a time of heroes and menaces,” Takei said. “And where we expect leadership, we find shocking dysfunction. It is a virtual dystopian state.”

But amidst this “dark moment,” he added, the air has cleared from the decreased use of fossil fuels for vehicles and factories, giving the world a glimpse of a cleaner planet. He urged the graduates to learn from it and find ways to improve the human condition.

“We look to you, the high-tech generation, to seize this moment,” Takei said. “Revitalize our civilization. Discover new challenges. Stretch as far as you can. Boldly go where no one has gone before. May the UCLA Centennial 2020 class live long and prosper.”

The virtual celebration closed with a bittersweet view of the Inverted Fountain, where graduating seniors traditionally take a dip to celebrate their years of hard work.

“Our 2020 graduates will be the class that persevered,” said Patricia Turner, vice provost and dean of undergraduate dducation. “Let this moment of adversity forge in you a strength to overcome, to persevere, to know that the world is inherently beautiful, and that your future has only just begun.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Join UCLA College for the Virtual Celebration

Q&A: George Takei on activism, humor and social media

George Takei, once best known for his role as Mr. Sulu on the original Star Trek, has since become known to the next generation of fans as a social justice activist, author and social media star. The UCLA alumnus will speak at the virtual celebration of the UCLA College’s class of 2020 on June 12, publicly viewable online. In advance of the big day, Takei talked with UCLA Newsroom about some of the forces that shaped his activism, his advice for the class of 2020, and a couple of his guidelines for harnessing humor and social media in support of human rights.

George Takei, pioneering actor, social justice activist, author and social media star

George Takei majored in theater at UCLA. (Photo Courtesy of George Takei)

As a child during World War II, you were among thousands of Japanese Americans imprisoned in internment camps by the U.S. government, based solely on your heritage. How did that early experience inform your understanding of authority and your commitment to social justice today?

I was 5 years old when my family and I were imprisoned in a barbed wire camp in the swamps of southeastern Arkansas — too young to understand the experience. But, as a teenager, I became intensely curious about my internment. I couldn’t find anything in the history books of the time about the camps. So, my father and I had many after-dinner discussions about our imprisonment — some became quite heated.

He explained to me that ours was a “peoples’ democracy” in which the people have the capacity to do great things, and, at the same time, people are fallible human beings. Presidents are human with the fallibility of all humans. They make mistakes. However, our democracy is a participatory democracy. It is existentially dependent on people who cherish the ideals of our democracy to actively participate. In the early 1950s, my father took me to downtown Los Angeles to the Adlai Stevenson for President campaign headquarters and we volunteered. Actually, he volunteered me and I understood what he meant by participatory democracy. Since then, I have been active in electoral politics and social justice campaigns.

You are an activist known for speaking up for human rights, and you also have a big social media presence with a very specific brand of humor. How do you think about using humor to shine a light on injustice?

Politicians, like all of us, sometimes say ridiculous things. They become ripe for lampooning. When their proposals reflect their silly statements, they become wide open to mockery. It’s fun to kill those bills by laughing them to death.

On social media, you publicly call out prominent people when you think they are wrong. What guides your decisions on how to engage with people who disagree with you?

I put the statement of the person with whom I disagree in a larger context that that might underscore the inappropriateness or the unjustness of their point. If humor can do it, I avoid using ridicule or parody.

The class of 2020 is graduating into a global pandemic, a depressed economy, a climate crisis and what some are calling the biggest civil rights demonstrations since the late 1960s. What advice do you have to help these graduates tackle the problems they face?

It certainly is a dauntingly challenging world into which the 2020 class enters. As I wrote in my speech, they face a tough new world where they will be severely tested. They have to rise to the challenge — be as tough, even tougher, than the challenge. Be innovative as we have never been. We are counting on them to invent a new society we have never known before. Boldly go …

You became a theater major at UCLA despite warnings from friends that an Asian American would have limited acting prospects, and you went on to become an icon as Mr. Sulu on Star Trek in the late 1960s and beyond. You lived through a time when you couldn’t be openly gay, and now you and your husband are gay-rights activists. For others who need similar perseverance, what is your advice?

Same advice I gave above. When my father warned me about the Hollywood scene and its history of stereotypes, I, more out of audacity than thought, said, “Daddy, I’m going to change it!” And perhaps I ultimately nudged it a bit.

But that same teenager, as a man, was “closeted” most of my adult life because I desperately wanted my acting career. It was torturous for me as an activist on myriad social issues to be silent while other bold and determined people sacrificed their jobs, careers, everything, fighting for LGBTQ equality, an issue so personal to me. It wasn’t until I was in my 60s when California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the Marriage Equality bill in 2005 that I was angry enough to make the decision to “come out.” And I came out roaring! But I am not that heroic man I urge the 2020 generation to become. I, too, am a fallible man.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.