By Ruby Bolaria, Urban Planning 2014
Today I met my senior fellow who will mentor me for this academic year. To what end remains to be seen but I was filled with excitement, anxiety and anticipation nonetheless. The UCLA Luskin School’s unique Senior Fellows program was established to “connect the world of political and policy action to education for the public interest.”
Each Fellow mentors two to four students and contributes time and expertise through site visits, mentorship and career advice. The Senior Fellows represent a wide variety of policy interests: health, youth, trade, security, education, transportation, and poverty – from all political viewpoints and many social backgrounds. Honestly, all I kept thinking about was meeting with this mentor who could become a potential lifeline in my career – no pressure.
Breakfast and a brief introduction are standard since the program started in 1997 by the Fellows themselves (surprisingly, not the students). Students staggered in at 8 am wide eyed and bolted to the coffee, myself included. It felt like orientation all over – people looking around trying to locate a familiar face and figure out what to do next. There were about 60 or more students, a healthy mix of MURP, MSW and MPP students. I was curious to know the specific break down by major, when these students completed their undergrad and who had work experience. Basically I was trying to size up the sincerity of the program by the participants. Were these fellows going to really play a significant role or was this just another thing on their “To Do list”?
My reason for participating in the Fellowship program is simple: I want to gain insight into a career path that interests me but I have relatively no experience in. Since graduating from UC Santa Cruz in 2007, I worked for various nonprofits and political campaigns as an organizer. Food security issues, water and sanitation, challenging corporate abuse, campaign finance reform, domestic violence prevention, promoting environmental legislation – these are all familiar and comfortable. I decided to pursue a master’s in Urban Planning because I believe it is the lynchpin in many of these issues and can address systemic inequities. Hidden by my resume is my interest in disaster management and transportation security issues – particularly how it relates to civil liberties. When I read Erroll Southers’ bio, “an internationally recognized expert on counter-terrorism, homeland security, aviation terrorism and infrastructure protection,” I thought “Ding ding ding!” Here is an opportunity to learn more about this alien career and decide if it is right for me, how to get in and where.
I was curious to learn why others had chosen to participate and what they expected at the end. Another MURP student, concentrating in Regional and International Planning, was interested in how something as vast and widespread as international planning could be applied in the real world. She wanted to see how this major looks outside of UCLA and learn more about her career options. An MSW student interested in homelessness and mental health wanted to learn how she could marry her research interest with the field work she enjoyed, too. An MPP student, also being mentored by Mr. Southers, was in the National Guard and had already started applying for an FBI position. The room was brimming with a diversity of interests and everyone seemed unsure of what to expect let alone what to hope for at the end of the year. Like me, most were eager to learn more about a particular interest and discover how they could pursue their passions.
Dean Gilliam kicked off the event with a rousing speech that felt like a graduation ceremony. Faculty and Fellows alike clearly expected us to change the world and would accept no less. It was inspiring in a daunting way – the kind of push some students like me appreciate. We were called on to join the ranks of innovators and revolutionaries to make positive impact in the world. My very own Fellow, Erroll Southers, invited us to this new world of possibilities, as emerging leaders of whatever field we choose, while reminding us to have fun doing it. Dean Gilliam echoed his words and in that moment I felt less like a pupil and more like a peer. Their intention, it seemed, was to empower us to serve the public interest and pay it forward.
Networking, strong public speaking and connections are the new currency in the job market, Southers confided. This is how he planned to pay it forward – sharing his network, becoming a human rolodex or palm pilot or whatever people are using these days. In the first hour of meeting him I was already taking copious notes of potential people to meet or programs to think about. He was brimming with knowledge and was eager and excited at its disposal. He took his time talking with us, never looked at his watch and turned his phone’s sound off. These may sound miniscule but as someone who has sought out mentors these details are telling of person’s commitment to helping others. He was proud of his seven years’ experience as a Fellow and mentioned fondly his past students and where they are now – from the EPA to an analyst at the United States Air Force Security.
Most surprisingly, he was easy to talk to, likeable and appeared to have a good sense of humor. Maybe brainwashed by movies and television, I imagined a more brooding, stern-faced security professional who was all business and lacked personable skills. I am happy to say how wrong I was. I mentioned a few interests, such as working abroad this summer in Brazil or India and he immediately started talking about work he is doing or did do in both countries. When he discovered I was from the Bay Area he gushed about his wedding at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco.
Needless to say I’m already a fan of my mentor, the program and am looking forward to learning more about this potential career throughout the year.