A Milestone Year for the Public Affairs Major First undergraduate commencement marks a growing program filled with energetic students already making an impact

By Mary Braswell

People across the country are speaking out against educational inequities in their communities, but how can they get the tools they need to turn that passion into action?

 Answering that question has guided Valeria Moedano this year as she became one of the first UCLA Luskin undergraduates to put their public affairs training to the test in a real-world setting.

Moedano’s work with a national nonprofit committed to expanding opportunities for children fulfilled her experiential learning capstone, the signature feature of a major that integrates civic engagement with social science research.

The capstone was the last step before Moedano’s early graduation at the end of winter quarter, making her one of the first students to earn UCLA’s bachelor of arts in public affairs. In June, about 70 other Trailblazers, as this cohort is known, joined her, taking part in the Luskin School’s inaugural undergraduate commencement.

Moedano’s capstone project provided her internship host, Leadership for Educational Equity, with a toolkit to measure its members’ strengths and weaknesses as they enter the community organizing arena.

“We created an assessment that works like a quiz or rubric that our members can take to identify skills they need to develop,” Moedano said.

“A lot of these members are classroom teachers, so they don’t necessarily have skills like writing a policy memo or doing research or using data to tell a story,” she said. “But that’s what they have to do to get wins within their school districts or their states.”

As part of her research, Moedano interviewed organizers from campaigns in Louisiana, Texas and South Dakota that scored big legislative or policy victories in the fight for educational equity. Her aim was to identify strategies that could be shared with the nonprofit’s nationwide network of advocates.

Moedano presented these case studies and unveiled the skills assessment at a virtual gathering of more than 30 of the nonprofit organization’s leaders
in March. The audience included Mollie Stephens MPP MSW ’16, who served as both capstone advisor and career coach. After graduation, Moedano stayed on at the organization as a research and data associate.

Each member of the Class of 2021 completed the rigorous capstone requirement, which includes a seminar series, at least 220 hours of field work and creation of a plan or project designed to bring tangible benefits to the internship host.

Interest in the major has soared as more students have become aware of its multidisciplinary curriculum firmly rooted in public service. Next year’s graduating class is expected to number about 115; the year after that, about 140 and then 165 in 2023-24.

And of the record-shattering 139,463 students who applied to UCLA for freshman admission in fall 2021, 748 selected public affairs as a pre-major.
These numbers put the program on track to meet its enrollment capacity of 600 by the 2022-2023 academic year, which would allow the major to expand its selection of courses. 

Among the classes now offered is an examination of the roots of democracy and the forces that threaten to undermine it, taught by UCLA Luskin’s Gary Segura — the rare dean to embrace the opportunity to teach a lower-division foundational course.

“I love teaching undergraduates,” Segura said. “This course gives me the opportunity to open their minds to the core concepts of American democracy and the core cleavages in American society.

“Our major is attracting amazingly talented and committed students who want to be a force for positive change!”

Launching the capstone program amid a pandemic had one silver lining: Internship hosts need not be located within commuting distance of Westwood. The 40-plus capstone sponsors included sites in San Diego, Sacramento, Washington state and Washington, D.C.

Trailblazer Juliette Frank landed a spot in the San Francisco mayor’s office, where she helped craft communications in the department of housing and community development. Hearing the city’s top official use talking points she wrote was a thrill, Frank said.

For her capstone project, Frank and other UCLA interns developed strategies to better inform vulnerable communities about services offered by the city.

“I realized after starting this internship that communication is so key to everything,” she said.

The internship’s location appealed to the New Jersey native, who was considering relocating to the Bay Area as graduation approached. And working remotely helped her manage a hectic schedule.

Frank’s typical day started at 5:45 a.m. on the waters of Marina Del Rey, where she joined her UCLA women’s rowing teammates to prepare for competition. She completed a second internship with the regenerative farming nonprofit Kiss the Ground for her food studies minor. And she’s pursuing her interest in health, digestion and the body’s microbiome as an undergraduate researcher at the university’s G. Oppenheimer Center for Neurobiology of Stress and Resilience.

“Food touches every aspect of everything in our world, but our food system is so broken,” said Frank, who aspires to use her UCLA training to help build sustainable food systems.

“I am now fully connecting the dots in terms of my major and minor, and it made me realize my interest in improving our food systems through a policy lens specifically.”

The Luskin undergraduate program has marked one milestone after another since the first public affairs class was taught at UCLA in fall 2018.

 Social Welfare Associate Professor Ian Holloway taught the course — PA 80: “How Environments Shape Human Development” — and memorialized the moment by taking a selfie with his students.

“They’re bright and they’re engaged and they come from such a diverse set of life experiences that they’re just a pleasure to teach,” Holloway said of the undergraduates.

Holloway taught PA 80 again this year, this time via Zoom. He looks forward to the resumption of in-person classes, which better suits his teaching style of encouraging dialogue and letting the interplay of ideas guide instruction.

Because the pandemic was tough on students, academically, financially and emotionally, he expanded his office hours to open up time to speak with them one-on-one. “That’s what’s required of this moment,” Holloway said during winter quarter, when the coronavirus was at its peak in Los Angeles.

Ever since the major debuted, Holloway has served as a sounding board for students mulling over whether public affairs is a good fit.

“I try to emphasize the point that our major is a great balance of critical analysis and exposure to theories used to formulate arguments, but also practical skills that equip them to go out and actually do the work of changing the world.”

Marcos Magana’s capstone experience took him back to rural eastern Coachella Valley, where he grew up.

Magana connected with the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, a nonprofit that partners with local residents to fight for equitable housing, transportation and environmental policies — and, this year, to educate the community about COVID-19 resources. 

For his capstone project, Magana developed a catalog of the area’s scattered clusters of mobile homes, noting who owns the property and the conditions of the surrounding land.

“When our organization does any type of work out here, this will be a resource,” he said. “When you need to communicate with this population, you’ll know who they are, where they are and what their circumstances are.”

As one of a handful of Trailblazers completing an honors thesis in the major, Magana also researched the unintended impacts of Indio’s transformation into a tourist destination since the surrounding Coachella Valley became a mecca for music lovers.

Redevelopment catering to short-term visitors and an increased police presence year-round can have a negative effect on the city’s long-established residents, said Magana, whose honors advisor was Michael Lens, associate professor of urban planning and public policy.

Concerned about protecting the health of the population, Magana has also measured the effects of contaminated dust storms from the shrinking Salton Sea for his minor in geospatial information systems and technologies. He’ll continue to hone these data-mining skills in the fall when he enters UCLA’s master’s program in GIS.

Magana was already thinking of minoring in public affairs when the new major was announced, and he is glad he made the switch.

“The public affairs major just opened my mind to different ways of thinking,” he said. “They force you to look at issues, problems and life, and just a multitude of things, through different lenses and to understand how other people see the world.”

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