UCLA Luskin’s undergraduate Class of 2021 came together virtually at an event launching the signature element of the new public affairs major: a yearlong capstone project that will call on each student to bring tangible benefits to a community partner. This fall, through internships and a seminar series, students will delve into an organization, assess its needs, then craft a solution — perhaps in the form of a strategic plan, fund-raising campaign, research project or other endeavor. “It’s a great opportunity to do something that is genuinely useful for an organization,” Meredith Phillips, chair of undergraduate affairs, told the June 4 gathering. By design, the experience will be demanding, even stressful, mirroring real life. But Phillips assured the students that their public affairs coursework has prepared them for the challenge. Nicknamed the Trailblazers, the inaugural class of about 70 undergraduates has already shown tremendous resilience and adaptability, capstone coordinator Kevin Medina said. The spread of COVID-19 upended internship programs at some organizations, requiring a number of students to seek new matches. In addition, remote contacts may replace on-site internships, but Medina pointed out that this could open up new opportunities as intern hosts need not be within commuting distance of campus. A highlight of the event was the formal announcement of internship matches, delivered as a congratulatory card to each student’s email inbox. At the end of the evening, students expressed gratitude for the undergraduate staff’s “care, planning and ingenuity” and “creative programs and leadership” before continuing their celebration on a chat group launched by the undergrads to stay connected.
Recent articles by KCET and CalMatters noted Public Policy Associate Professor Meredith Phillips’ research contributions regarding the persistent achievement gap in education. In its discussion of the disparities in California education, the CalMatters article cited the 1998 book “The Black-White Test Score Gap,” co-edited by Phillips, which analyzed the causes and significant consequences of the achievement gap, as well as options for closing it. The KCET article highlighted the findings of a 2017 UCLA study co-directed by Phillips that investigated the college enrollment rates of Los Angeles Unified School District high school graduates. The study found that high school counselors’ large caseloads got in the way of helping students with college and financial aid applications. Counselors at 75% of the schools reported that some students were not getting the help they required.
By Mary Braswell
Tessa Azani remembers the look on her mom’s face when they came across the new major outlined on the very last page of UCLA’s transfer admission guide.
“Developing leaders engaged in social change,” began the text describing the bachelor of arts in public affairs.
“I start reading the description to my mom and I swear I saw her jaw fall on the floor. And she says, ‘They literally made this major for you. They knew you were coming,’ ” Azani recalled.
The transfer student from Moorpark College, who had been struggling to find a course of study that fit her goals, is now one of the “Trailblazers” — UCLA Luskin’s undergrad Class of 2021, the first group of students formally admitted to the new major.
Azani joins 69 other other students who launched into upper-division public affairs coursework in the fall. It’s a diverse group: Three-quarters are women, 67 percent identify as nonwhite, 13 are transfer students, and more than 20 percent come from outside California, traveling to UCLA from every region of the nation and from countries including Mexico, India, Great Britain and Austria.
In just its second year, the UCLA Luskin undergraduate program has grown to a total of more than 270 students, including 200 lower-division “pre-majors.” The Trailblazers are the program’s pioneers. They’ll be the first to experience one of the major’s signature elements: a three-quarter internship and seminar series in the senior year that will immerse students in their community. Their feedback will be crucial in shaping the program.
“I am in awe of our Trailblazers,” said Alexis Oberlander, director of student affairs for the program. “These students had other plans for their time at UCLA, they had other majors, but once they learned about our program they immediately connected to our mission and shifted gears without hesitating.”
That was true of the very first student to join the program. Long Hoang was a freshman in the spring of 2018 when he read about the major in the Daily Bruin. He sought out Oberlander, asked many questions, then eagerly registered as a pre-major.
As more joined the ranks, they forged a tight bond as they moved, almost en masse, from class to class, all trying to complete prerequisites in just one year.
“I really feel like we’ve connected as a class,” Hoang said. “It’s funny because moving from high school to a school with 30,000 people, I did not expect to have such a close-knit community.”
The public affairs major resides in a School known for its top-ranked graduate programs, and Hoang found an important mentor in a student pursuing a master’s in urban planning. As a teaching assistant, Michelle Einstein shared her passion for data science and digital mapping, and Hoang got hooked. He’s now pursuing a minor in Geographic Information Systems and Technology with an eye toward bridging his interests in data analysis, environmental health and community outreach. And he remains in touch with Einstein, who graduated last June.
Nate Singer’s journey to a public affairs education began when he moved from Sacramento to Los Angeles as he began high school. To get around town, he started taking the Metro public transit system, and the more he rode, the more he became fascinated with the way the region was stitched together.
“I realized how integral transportation is to the social structure of a city, the economic structure of a city,” he said. “The beauty of being interested in something like cities is they’re so dynamic and they’re so interconnected that you can kind of have your foot in many, many places at the same time.”
As a transfer student from Los Angeles City College, Singer knew two things: He wanted to study urban planning and he wanted to stay in Southern California. Google led him to the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs site, and he realized the undergrad program was a great fit. He became an early ambassador for the program by sharing what he learned with his LACC counselors.
Singer once owned a motorcycle but now travels by bicycle and bus. “I figured I can’t say car-based infrastructure is destroying our cities while also utilizing it on a daily basis,” he said.
While all the Trailblazers must show great discipline to meet their major requirements, Rimsha Saeed has a unique challenge: She aims to complete her degree in three years.
“The counseling team has been amazing, so accommodating and always trying to make sure that I’m on track,” said Saeed, who is interested in human rights law and policy.
She had looked at UCLA’s majors in political science and international development studies but gravitated toward the hands-on learning in the public affairs curriculum.
“I want to do something that makes real change in the world, and that was exactly what the public affairs major was offering,” she said. “It literally gives us the tools to make actual lasting change.”
Saeed says she is grateful for the “extras” the staff offers, such as bringing in dynamic speakers and sharing off-campus opportunities. “They’re always trying to help us get connections out in the world, and that’s really helpful for someone who’s trying to figure out what they want to do,” she said.
She has only praise for Associate Professor Meredith Phillips, the department’s chair who also teaches a course on using data to understand society.
“Professor Meredith, she’s probably really busy, but she would literally sit with me and explain everything as many times as I needed it. That really left an impression on me,” said Saeed, who had no previous statistics experience but is now motivated to pursue upper-division coursework. “I found it really interesting how you can combine two fields that seem so different, like social science and coding, and make it into something that’s used out there in the real world.”
For Tessa Azani, “everything fell into place” after she discovered the public affairs major. She had been seeking an education that paired policymaking and social welfare but wanted to veer away from politics, with all its “arguing and debating and winning and losing.”
“My brother and I both talked about how we loved the idea of being able to create change using government and politics — but we hate actual politics,” she said.
Her dream, she said, is to launch a nonprofit that encourages sports teams — and their fervent fan bases — to sponsor local schools. “Since almost every kid in America, K through 12, has to go to school, why don’t we make school the best place in the entire world?”Azani said.
The Trailblazers, Oberlander said, “are passionate about their life goals, all of which involve making our world a more equitable and just place, and they are willing to take the chance and put in the hard work to achieve those goals.
“I can’t wait to see them in their experiential learning capstones and beyond as they become the future leaders of our world.”
View more pictures of the Trailblazers on Flickr.
Meredith Phillips, associate professor of public policy and sociology, and Sarah Reber, associate professor of public policy, wrote a working paper on virtual college advising that was featured on Campus Technology. Their research found that students randomly assigned to virtual advising were more likely to feel supported during the college application process and apply to more four-year colleges, but they were not more likely to be accepted or enrolled in those schools. Their research used Virtual Student Outreach for College Enrollment (V-SOURCE), a virtual counseling program intended to reduce barriers to applying to college for low-income students. Phillips and Reber found that while V-SOURCE increased the number of students completing college application milestones, the improvements were modest. “Ultimately, many low-income students will likely need more hands-on help with the application process or more intensive and expensive interventions addressing fundamental financial, academic and institutional barriers to successfully enroll in and complete college,” the report concluded.
Meredith Phillips, chair of undergraduate affairs at UCLA Luskin, has received an inaugural Chancellor’s Award for Community-Engaged Research. Phillips will use the $10,000 grant to develop a new undergraduate course that will bring students and local organizations into a research partnership for the benefit of the wider community. Titled “Making Data Useful for Educational Improvement,” Phillips’ course will equip students to analyze student and staff survey data from elementary, middle and high schools, and present those data to educators and administrators who are seeking to improve their schools. “Community-engaged research creates outstanding learning opportunities for undergraduate students, advances the research of our faculty and benefits our community,” Chancellor Gene Block said in announcing the six faculty recipients of the new award, which is co-sponsored by the UCLA Center for Community Learning. In the coming year, the award recipients will work together to establish guidelines for elevating the learning experience for undergraduates. Their courses, which will be offered in the 2020-21 or 2021-22 academic years, will cover a range of issues, including minority communities, health disparities, environmental justice and education. “This award recognizes faculty for their community-engaged research efforts and at the same time creates a new set of community-engaged course offerings for undergraduates,” said Phillips, associate professor of public policy and sociology. “This first set of courses is just the beginning of what I expect will eventually be an extensive suite of courses, across a wide range of disciplines, that will connect UCLA students’ research training with the needs of our local community.”
Fifty students from four local high schools spent a day with UCLA Luskin undergrads to hear how they can use a college education to improve their own communities. The May 23 visit was organized in conjunction with Gear Up 4 LA, a federally funded program to put underserved students on the road to college. The visiting 10th- and 11th-graders came from four schools: Bernstein High in Hollywood, STEM Academy of Hollywood, West Adams Preparatory High in Pico-Union and Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in Koreatown. Students and staff from the Luskin School’s undergraduate program led the visitors on a campus tour and answered questions about UCLA and its new Public Affairs major. They also guided group discussions about what unites and divides the visitors’ communities. The alumni host for the day was Kevin Johnson MURP ’17 of Alta Planning + Design, which sponsored the visit.
View photos from the visit on Flickr.
UCLA Luskin Dean Gary Segura responded to questions and concerns raised by Public Affairs pre-majors at this year’s Annual Undergraduate Forum held Wednesday, May 22. Chair Meredith Phillips and the Public Affairs staff were also on hand to answer questions. Prior to the event, the team conducted a survey to gather feedback from pre-major students about their experience. The undergraduates expressed appreciation for the interdisciplinary nature of the major, the close-knit environment and staff enthusiasm, and raised some concerns about curricular coordination, enrollment issues and reciprocal agreements on course requirements between UCLA Luskin and the College of Letters and Sciences. Segura addressed the issues raised in the undergraduate survey and fielded questions from students in attendance about upper-division courses and the experiential capstone projects that Public Affairs majors will complete in their senior year. The undergraduate major in Public Affairs was launched in fall 2018. As its first year comes to a close, the staff thanked students for their patience as they finalize the nuts and bolts of the program. The entire university has responded to the creation of the Public Affairs major, they noted, adding that UCLA Luskin staff are engaged in an ongoing dialogue with other programs, including the Honors College and Academic Advancement Program, as they smooth out the details of the major. Students collectively expressed appreciation for the undergraduate program’s responsiveness to their feedback. — Zoe Day
View a Flickr album of images from the Annual Undergraduate Forum.
Dean Gary Segura and key members of the UCLA Luskin leadership team fielded questions from graduate students at an informal Town Hall on March 14, 2019. Joining Segura and his staff were Public Policy chair JR DeShazo, Social Welfare chair Laura Abrams, Urban Planning professor Chris Tilly and Undergraduate Affairs chair Meredith Phillips. Students submitted questions in advance and from the floor, and the dialogue touched on diversity in admissions and hiring, space issues in the Public Affairs building, teaching assistantships and other financial support, and opportunities to connect UCLA Luskin graduate and undergraduate students, among other topics. As the Town Hall coincided with Pi Day, members of the Association of Masters of Public Policy Students served pie to those present. A separate Town Hall for undergraduate students is planned for the spring quarter.
View a Flickr album of images from the Town Hall.
By Mary Braswell
The rising excitement over UCLA Luskin’s new undergraduate program increased by at least a hundredfold as the first prospective Public Affairs majors stepped onto campus this fall.
Just weeks into the fall quarter, more than 100 students had formally opted in and dozens more had reached out to hear about the ambitious program, which combines critical thinking, social science methodology and deep engagement in the community.
In a year when young people are leading the charge for gun reform, transgender rights, climate change and more, the new major provides an avenue for activism.
“There will certainly be an infusion of energy that only undergraduates can bring,” said Dean Gary Segura.
Freshman Callie Nance was immediately attracted to the public service ethos at the heart of the major.
“I was undecided and feeling a little anxious about that, so I looked through all the majors on the UCLA website. When I came across Public Affairs, I realized it hit all of my passions,” said Nance, who spent time in high school working to create educational and employment opportunities for young people.
“This major doesn’t just expand knowledge,” she said. “It shows us how to do something with that knowledge, to make an impact.”
That sentiment is reflected in the undergraduate program’s motto: Developing Leaders Engaged in Social Change.
“Our students are developing knowledge and skills in the service of solving society’s most pressing problems, which is really what distinguishes this major from others,” said Undergraduate Affairs Chair Meredith Phillips, who is also an associate professor of public policy and sociology.
No other campus in the UC system offers a Public Affairs bachelor’s degree that draws from the three fields UCLA Luskin is known for: public policy, social welfare and urban planning.
This partnership has created an infectious energy that was on display during an undergraduate open house during the first week of school. Phillips led the welcoming committee, along with more than 20 faculty from across the School and Dean Segura, who noted that he too will teach an undergrad course this year, Foundations and Debates in Public Thought.
The event offered a glimpse of the resources available to students pursuing the B.A. in Public Affairs. Freshmen and sophomores freely mingled with professors who teach graduate-level courses and conduct cutting-edge research. And the undergraduate staff, who came together this summer to ensure the major was launched without a hitch, was out in force to answer questions and offer encouragement.
The networking continued the following evening at the Schoolwide Block Party, where the entire UCLA Luskin family — students, faculty, staff and alumni — came out to celebrate the new academic year.
“It was a good chance to talk to some alumni, to see what they are currently doing,” said freshman Navkaran Gurm, whose interests lie in law, politics, economics and public service.
Over the summer, another alumni connection led Gurm to the new major. He had enrolled in a Fresno City College economics class taught by Nelson Esparza MPP ’15, and ended up volunteering for Esparza’s campaign for Fresno City Council.
In the classroom and on the trail, Gurm spent hours talking to Esparza, who urged him to take a look at the Luskin School’s new bachelor’s degree. Gurm was sold. He plans to double-major in Economics and Public Affairs, with an eye toward attending law school.
“What I saw in the Public Affairs major was a way to show us how to make the world a better place, and that was something that really appealed to me,” said Gurm, who is keenly interested in battling disparities that put youth in rural communities, like his hometown, at a disadvantage.
A poll ahead of the November 2018 midterm elections found a remarkable level of civic engagement among young Californians. They talk politics, volunteer and allow political values to guide their purchases, the survey of 16- to 24-year-olds found. A full 80 percent said they considered themselves part of a social movement, according to the poll funded by the California Endowment.
Rising student demand led to creation of the Public Affairs major, which UCLA Luskin faculty unanimously endorsed in 2017. The university’s Academic Senate gave final approval in April 2018, and the first cohort was recruited over the summer.
Ricardo Aguilera switched to the pre-major as soon as it was announced. “For me, it was right on, concentrating on social advocacy within the community and just giving back,” he said.
Aguilera is one of several dozen sophomores who are working closely with the undergraduate staff to complete pre-major requirements in a single year. The School also continues to offer undergraduate minors in Public Affairs, Gerontology and Urban and Regional Studies.
Aguilera, Nance and Gurm have been struck by the personalized attention they receive in the relatively small Public Affairs program. Weekly emails share information about jobs, internships and campuswide events, and keep the cohort connected, they said.
Gurm said he attended informational sessions for other majors where students clamored to get their questions answered. At the Public Affairs workshop, “there were four of us and Brent, and it was as if we were having a one-on-one conversation,” he said, referring to undergraduate advisor Brent Showerman, who explained both the vision and the requirements of the program.
“I really like that whole support system, the feeling that they are guiding us in the right direction,” he said.
UCLA Luskin’s just-launched undergraduate program is off to an exciting start. A month into the new academic year, 90 students have declared public affairs as a pre-major, and dozens more have reached out. The ambitious program combines critical thinking, social science methodology and deep engagement in the community. Freshman Callie Nance was immediately attracted to the public service ethos at the heart of the major. “This major doesn’t just expand knowledge,” she said. “It shows us how to do something with that knowledge, to make an impact.” That sentiment is reflected in the undergraduate program’s motto: Developing Leaders Engaged in Social Change. “Our students are developing knowledge and skills in the service of solving society’s most pressing problems, which is really what distinguishes this major from others,” said Undergraduate Affairs Chair Meredith Phillips, who is also an associate professor of public policy and sociology. The energy surrounding the major was on display during an undergraduate open house during the first week of school. Phillips led the welcoming committee, along with more than 20 faculty from across the School and Dean Gary Segura, who noted that he too will teach an undergraduate course this year, Foundations and Debates in Public Thought. The event offered a glimpse of the resources available to students pursuing the B.A. in Public Affairs. Freshman and sophomores freely mingled with professors who teach graduate-level courses and conduct cutting-edge research. And the undergraduate staff, who came together this summer to ensure the major was launched without a hitch, was out in force to answer questions and offer encouragement.
View more photos from the Undergraduate Open House.