A Platform for Elevating Student Voices As UCLA's student body president, public affairs major Breeze Velazquez embraces the role as an advocate for her peers

By Mary Braswell

During UCLA’s year of remote learning, Breeze Velazquez spent much of her time advocating for other Bruins.

Working one-on-one with students who believed they had been unfairly accused of academic dishonesty was not a role she had ever expected to play.

But it was one step on a surprising journey that led the senior public affairs major to seek and win the office of president of the UCLA Undergraduate Students Association Council.

“The crazy thing is, I never saw myself ever running for USAC,” Velazquez said. “I was an introvert. I had no social media up until last year.”

But in her public affairs coursework, as well as through internships with organizations like JusticeLA, MALDEF and Unite-LA, Velazquez found her own voice by helping others find theirs.

Her campaign for student body president focused on meeting the unique needs of first-generation, low-income students of color.

“I drew upon my own experiences and the experiences of my peers,” she said. “I grew up with a single mom. I grew up low-income, as well. And you know, I’m the first in my family to attend college.”

Those experiences helped shape a platform based on listening to the concerns of a wide range of students, then helping them connect with the right contacts in the UCLA administration. So far this year, this has included helping undocumented students navigate the university’s financial aid system and advocating for the creation of a special office to provide resources to those accused of academic dishonesty.

During the COVID-19 lockdown last year, UCLA saw an uptick in these cases, with students struggling to defend themselves over Zoom, said Velazquez, who at the time was the student body’s academic affairs commissioner. While providing guidance in these cases was not a formal part of her responsibilities, she decided to step in.

“One of the things I liked most about the role was the work that I got to do one-on-one with students,” she said. “I really fell in love with this project because I really see myself advocating for students in the future.”

Velazquez acknowledged that managing her academic workload, juggling several part-time jobs and serving in student government — which can be a lightning rod for criticism — has been physically and emotionally draining, especially during the pandemic.

She has leaned on friends and a tight-knit family, and has drawn support from the public affairs department she joined as a freshman pre-major.

“I just really found a community within the major. The students are so compassionate,” she said.

“And I look back on some of the professors I had who really supported me. Meredith Phillips, she was amazing,” Velazquez said of the undergraduate program’s founding chair. “I have gone to her for advice time and time again, even right now.”

Her coursework in public affairs, as well as Chicana/o and Central American studies — both intimate, interdisciplinary programs — has also helped bring her life goals into focus. Each department encouraged her to engage in the community and take advantage of course offerings from across campus, including in policy, education and law — fields she is interested in pursuing after graduation.

Until then, she’ll spend her year as student body president working to elevate the voices of students and helping them access UCLA resources.

“As difficult as it has been and as much as I never pictured myself taking on this role, … I know that I care about this and I’m strong enough because I was raised the right way,” she said. “My mom taught me that I’m a strong woman and no one’s going to deter what I need to get done.”

UCLA Luskin Undergraduate Open House

The Luskin School of Public Affairs faculty and staff invite you to attend the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs Undergraduate Open House to (re)connect with your Luskin community. Whether you are new to the public affairs major or are a continuing student looking to reconnect with your Luskin network, this is the event for you!

The Public Affairs Undergraduate Open House will feature a welcome from the Luskin Dean and Chair of the Undergraduate Program, and offer social activities for you to connect with your Luskin faculty, academic counselors and peers. Can’t make it? Follow us on Instagram @UCLALuskinUG during Welcome Week and connect with a Luskin academic counselor at www.luskin.ucla.edu/undergrad.

Registration is required to attend the UCLA Luskin Public Affairs Undergraduate Open House. Please register by Tuesday, Sept. 21, at 11:59pm (PST). REGISTER HERE

Keeping Our Community Safe

To ensure the safety of everyone in attendance, we will follow the UCLA COVID-19 health and safety protocols as outlined on the UCLA COVID-19 Resources website (https://covid-19.ucla.edu). All attendees will be required to wear a face covering. If you are feeling unwell or are unable to come to campus we invite you to join us online by following us on Instagram (@UCLALuskinUG). All registrants will receive electronic copies of the materials shared during the event.

How the Weinstein Scandal Ignited a Movement Gains made in the #MeToo era are tempered by unresolved questions of accountability, journalist Megan Twohey tells a UCLA audience

By Mary Braswell

The New York Times investigation that exposed producer Harvey Weinstein’s long history as a sexual predator set off a chain of events that led to prison for the Hollywood power broker and empowerment for women around the world who stepped up to share their own stories of abuse.

Today, the story continues to unfold, with contours of the investigation now coming to light and nagging questions of accountability still unanswered, journalist Megan Twohey told a UCLA audience during a March 9 virtual lecture.

Twohey and Jodi Kantor shared a byline on that first blockbuster piece in the fall of 2017, part of a body of work that would earn their newspaper the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Both reporters were bowled over by the whirlwind of events that followed.

“One day we were working on this incredibly difficult story, and then just a few days later we started to see change happening everywhere,” Twohey said. “The #MeToo movement turned out to be more sweeping and durable than we could have ever predicted.”

Twohey’s talk was the latest in the UCLA Meyer and Renee Luskin Lecture Series, which brings together scholars as well as national and local leaders to address society’s most pressing problems, such as the culture’s long history of men getting away with abusing their authority. Though hundreds of powerful men have lost their jobs since Twohey and Kantor’s story broke, the fallout continues, including in the recent mini-series “Allen v. Farrow,” which documents the sexual abuse case against filmmaker Woody Allen.

As the team’s reporting continued over months and years, “there was also growing confusion and frustration that in some ways it felt like everything was changing — and then it also felt like nothing was changing at all,” Twohey said.

‘At a time when everything can feel stuck, and the very notion of “truth” is collapsing, we want you to know that journalism and facts can win.’ — Megan Twohey

The story, they realized, was less about one man’s misdeeds and more about a sprawling system of coercion and complicity that had facilitated predatory behavior for generations.

“The real moral of the Weinstein story began to dawn on us,” Twohey said. “For decades this man had racked up allegation after allegation and, instead of stopping him, more and more people had helped him.”

During the event, which drew viewers from around the world, Twohey described the pervasive use of non-disclosure agreements to buy the silence of women who lodged complaints.

“Nobody would say that a victim of sexual harassment or sexual assault shouldn’t receive financial recompense for what’s happened to them,” she said. “I think the real question here is the secrecy … that allows predators to cover their tracks and to keep hurting other people.”

The #MeToo movement transformed cultural norms, but there is still no consensus on how to handle sexual abuse cases, Twohey said.

“What is the scope of behavior under scrutiny?” she asked. “Are we talking only about allegations of rape and sexual harassment, or are we talking about grayer areas, like a boss’ awkward hand on an employee’s back?”

Complicating the conversation are charges that the #MeToo era has led to false accusations and quick ousters without due process.

But Twohey assured the audience that, “at a time when everything can feel stuck, and the very notion of ‘truth’ is collapsing, we want you to know that journalism and facts can win.”

Twohey and Kantor reveal details of their reporting journey, including information that was originally off the record, in their 2019 book “She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement.”

“When we started we had no idea whether Harvey Weinstein had done anything wrong. Remember, he was considered a humanitarian, a philanthropist,” Twohey told the Luskin Lecture audience.

Over the next several months, the two journalists approached a long list of sources, persuaded them to tell their stories, then appealed to them to go public. They also amassed records including Weinstein Company accounting records, human resources complaints, notes from internal conference calls, emails and more.

“When we went back to women to ask them to go on the record, we were asking them to stand on a body of evidence,” Twohey said.

Satisfied that the story was air-tight, the New York Times prepared to publish, knowing that Weinstein had launched a campaign to discredit the women who had come forward — and also aware that another journalist, Ronan Farrow, was racing to break the story. His reporting for the New Yorker, published a few days later, earned a share of the Pulitzer for Public Service.

Days after the stories went to press, Weinstein was fired from the film studio he co-founded. Within months, he was arrested and charged with rape in New York. In February 2020, he was sentenced to 23 years in prison.

At the Luskin Lecture, Twohey spoke with UCLA’s Meredith Phillips, an associate professor of public policy and sociology and chair of the undergraduate program at UCLA Luskin, about parallels between investigative journalism and social science research, two fields that require strict adherence to evidence from many sources.

Twohey said that throughout her coverage of the Weinstein story and its aftermath, she honored the distinction between journalism and advocacy.

“We reporters gather the facts, pick up a pen and hope that by revealing the truth we can help bring about change.”

A Milestone for the Undergrad Class of ’21

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. 

Phillips’ Research Illustrates Achievement Gap

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.


‘Trailblazers’ Take the Lead as New Major Takes Flight The diverse members of UCLA Luskin’s undergraduate Class of 2021 immediately connect with the program’s mission to inspire and equip the next generation of leaders

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.

UCLA Luskin's Undergrad Trailblazers

Phillips and Reber on Virtual College Advising

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.


 

Phillips Receives Grant to Develop Undergraduate Research Opportunities

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.”

A Public Affairs Outreach to Local Students

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.

Public Affairs Undergrads Host Gear Up 4 LA event


 

Undergrads Share Feedback at Forum

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.