After an academic reinvention, the UCLA Luskin undergraduate blazes a trail toward graduation amid a worldwide health crisis
reporting and visual direction by Hon Hoang
photography and caption information by Adah Perez
The First Public Affairs Graduates: One in a series of profiles
Uncertainty can be an insurmountable barrier for many people to overcome. But for UCLA Luskin undergraduate Adah Perez, uncertainty was just another bump along the road leading to fresh possibilities.
When Perez was admitted to UCLA in 2017, it was to pursue a degree in business economics. She came to realize, however, that the major was a poor fit.
“I was barely learning how to navigate through a space that catered to people who were not like me,” Perez recalled about her freshman year. She found herself lost for direction, unsure who she was and why she was at UCLA. So she began to look at other educational options, eventually finding her way to a newly created degree program, the bachelor of arts in public affairs launched in 2018 by the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.
Changing her major partway through her undergraduate career meant that Perez would join others like herself, plus several transfer students, in the first group of students formally admitted to the new major. This cohort — dubbed the Trailblazers — is now set to become UCLA Luskin’s first class of undergraduate degree recipients this June.
In the public affairs program, Perez found a great match for her interests and identified a new career path — she plans to pursue a master’s degree in social welfare. Her career focus is on working with the unhoused population, and Perez hopes to be “a vessel” to the community and local government, providing “assistance to future generations to bridge the educational gap that exists in low-income communities.”
‘Quarantine was really hard to adjust to at first …’
Perez is the daughter of Latino immigrants who emphasized education and the opportunities it brings. Still, higher education was never a sure thing for her.
“University seemed so out of reach, almost like a fantasy,” Perez said of her youth. After almost four years at UCLA, “I am amazed as to how much I have grown and learned. This is all thanks to the people who have supported me — my parents, my extended family, my roommates, even some professors.”
When she switched majors to become one of the Trailblazers, Perez had no way of knowing that her educational journey would soon be radically changed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Everything — her classes, her internship, her capstone, perhaps even her graduation ceremony — would need to take place in a virtual setting.
“Quarantine was really hard to adjust to at first, especially since it felt as if the whole world was crashing down,” Perez recalled. “Not only was it the fear of getting sick, but the shutdowns, the panic, and having to leave school and hurry back home.”
All of her academic plans for senior year completely changed. Her daily life was upended too.
“I relied greatly on the many walks I had to and from campus in order to stay physically active,” said Perez, noting that such physical and mental breaks suddenly became more difficult amid the pandemic. “My neighborhood isn’t the safest to be walking around, so finding a place to walk, where I didn’t have to be constantly looking over my shoulder, was hard at first.”
‘It was such a stressful time …’
Before COVID, a visit home from college presented a chance to just lie in bed and decompress. After COVID, she was forced to drop out of a lease and potentially might never go to Westwood again. Suddenly, home was not just her refuge, it was her academic workplace.
Feeling a need to pitch in financially amid the pandemic’s economic uncertainty, Perez started looking for part-time work.
“I never had an official part-time job in college — my scholarships would be able to cover most of my costs and I had some internship money to help,” she recalled. “It was such a stressful time, applying for jobs and being denied or not getting any call-backs.”
Perez finally got an offer of employment — the same day she learned that “my great-grandmother had died after battling with kidney issues for three years.”
So, completing the final months of her undergraduate degree program also has been a tale of perseverance amid hardship for Perez.
‘There are some people who are doing amazing work …’
The Trailblazer program itself “has had its ups and downs, just as any program that is starting off would have,” she said, noting that her educational experience often feels detached and distant, given the online circumstances. “I do admire and appreciate how much of an effort the staff makes to ensure that our voices were heard and considered” as the new major evolved.
Perez also appreciates the resilience and strength of her public affairs cohort.
“There are some people who are doing amazing work in their respective fields,” she said, noting that although the Trailblazer experience was drastically altered by the pandemic, the passion of the students never changed.
Despite the obstacles, Perez has remained active and involved. She was part of an organization called Voto Latino that encouraged the Latinx demographic, if able, to register to vote and participate in the 2020 U.S. Census. She took part in the Undergraduate Students Association Council’s Finance Committee, which supports clubs on campus in need of financial help. She interned for the 9th District office for the City of Long Beach. And she has served as a caseworker for the Mobile Clinic Project at UCLA, a student-led project assisting people who are experiencing homelessness throughout Greater Los Angeles.
In her studies, Perez has learned about policies that affect her and the communities around her. And she said she has witnessed professors who not only teach a subject but actively seek change outside their classrooms.
Trailblazer Adah Perez gravitated toward the public affairs degree because she wanted an opportunity to take whatever she learned in a classroom and apply it in the real world.
“This program has been that for me,” she said.