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Making the Most of the Student-Mentor Connection Annual Senior Fellows Leadership breakfast puts spotlight on a successful partnership

By Mary Braswell

A student and mentor brought together by UCLA Luskin’s Senior Fellows Leadership Program shared stories of their rewarding yearlong partnership at an Oct. 24 breakfast launching the initiative’s 23rd year.

The gathering at the UCLA Faculty Center gave this year’s class of 45 Senior Fellows a chance to meet the graduate students they were matched with and hear insights from Tom Epstein, president of the California Community Colleges board of governors, and Irma Castañeda, a second-year master of public policy student.

“The best thing about being a fellow here is you get to work with so many smart, conscientious and diverse students,” said Epstein, a UCLA Luskin Senior Fellow since 2015.

Castañeda said she applied for the program last year to broaden her understanding of career options in the public policy field.  She accomplished that and much more, she said.

“I’m a first-generation college student and a first-generation professional, and I was navigating this space as a new student,” she said. By the end of the year, Epstein had helped her to build a professional network in Los Angeles and Sacramento and land a summer internship tailored to her interests in higher education.

At their monthly check-ins, Epstein and Castañeda talked about classes, career goals, internships and job prospects. Epstein also provided email introductions to key figures in his field and invited Castañeda to a meeting and dinner of California Community Colleges governors.

The life of a graduate student can be filled with coursework, campus activities and outside jobs, Castañeda said, but “it’s really important to prioritize this experience.” The Senior Fellows Program offers a rare gift — sustained one-on-one access to a leader in the public, private or nonprofit sector — and students should make the most of it, she said.

She also encouraged her classmates to take full advantage of the resources offered by UCLA Luskin’s Career Services team, led by Executive Director VC Powe.

View more photos from the Senior Fellows breakfast on Flickr.

The first step, Castañeda said, is to ask questions — lots of them.

She learned this during her search for a summer internship that would help her learn more about the community college system. Finding none, she consulted career counselor Donna Lee Oda, who helped her edit her resume, craft a cover letter and pitch herself as a summer intern candidate.

Epstein connected her with the deputy chancellor of California Community Colleges, who created a research internship just for Castañeda. She spent the summer conducting analysis for the governmental relations division and presenting her findings at a legislative briefing at the state Capitol.

“It was something that I wouldn’t have imagined, and I wouldn’t have had the opportunity if I hadn’t asked,” she said.

Epstein said he is grateful for the chance to serve as a Senior Fellow, recalling that an internship while he was at UCLA Law launched a rewarding career. He thanked his own mentor, Zev Yaroslavsky — then a young city councilman and now director of the Los Angeles Initiative at UCLA Luskin — who was present at the breakfast.

Epstein’s career journey took him through politics, healthcare, insurance, media and the environment, in addition to higher education. He has worked in the White House, state government and the private and nonprofit sectors.

Students mentored by Epstein through the Senior Fellows program are now working at the California Endowment, Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, the California Department of Finance, Green Dot Schools and L.A. Care. One is a doctor with Kaiser Permanente and another is a teaching assistant at UCLA, he said.

Epstein addressed the public policy, social welfare and urban planning students gathered at the breakfast. “I’m grateful for your commitment to public service,” he said, “because our country needs you.”

This year, 37 returning Senior Fellows were joined by eight new mentors:

Warren T. Allen MPP ’03, founding member and attorney with WTAII PLLC

Nahtahna Cabanes MSW ’13, vice president of strategic partnerships with L.A. Works

Ken Chawkins BA ’85, business policy manager with the Southern California Gas Company

Elizabeth Forer CEO, Venice Family Clinic

Louise McCarthy MPP ’04, president and CEO at Community Clinic Association of Los Angeles County

Aurea Montes-Rodriguez MSW ’99, BA ’97, executive vice president of Community Coalition

Sarah Smith, senior director of education for the International Rescue Committee

Nancy Sutley, chief development officer with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power

Guiding the Next Gen of Leaders UCLA Luskin welcomes new and returning Senior Fellows from the public, private and nonprofit sectors

By Stan Paul

For more than two decades the Senior Fellows Leadership Program at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs has matched the School’s students with professionals.

UCLA Luskin Public Policy, Social Welfare and Urban Planning students have enhanced their academic experience with real-world, practical applications by making direct connections with individuals working in their areas of interest.

This year is no exception. Now in its 21st run, the program has fielded an outstanding class of fellows representing a wide range of professional expertise. The 2017-18 class includes a former U.S. Congresswoman, a current U.S. Foreign Service officer, the president of a popular local news media and cultural outlet, and an advocate for children’s rights.

“We are particularly proud of this group of Senior Fellows in part because it’s one of the largest groups of new and returning fellows,” Dean Gary Segura said in his opening remarks at an Oct. 26, 2017, welcome breakfast marking the kickoff of the 2017-18 Senior Fellows. “We are overwhelmed by your generosity. More importantly, we are overwhelmed by your willingness to share some of your valuable time with the next generation of leaders in Los Angeles and beyond. And, I mean by that, the 575 young people that make up the student body of the Luskin School of Public Affairs.”

Among the returning Senior Fellows is David Carlisle, president and CEO of Charles Drew University of Medicine. Carlisle, who also is an adjunct professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, served as keynote speaker for the gathering at UCLA’s Faculty Center.

“This is one of the most wonderful activities that I do every year … and I look forward to coming back because of the interaction with young people that this program provides,” Carlisle said to Luskin student mentees, faculty, staff and guests.

In his presentation, Carlisle, who has served as a Senior Fellow since 2007, stressed the continued importance of the mentor program. In an economic sense California is experiencing a “golden age,” Carlisle said. But “we are still challenged by meeting demands cultivating personal capital in the state of California and the United States … human capital. And, there are too many places in our state where people are still challenged to participate fully in the economic engine that is the state of California.”

For second-year Master of Urban and Regional Planning student Sonia Suresh, an interest in affordable housing development and working with homeless populations led to her choice of Anita Nelson as a Senior Fellow mentor. Nelson is the CEO of SFO Housing Corporation, a Los Angeles-based organization committed to providing housing and support services for homeless and low-income people.

“We had a great conversation on our backgrounds and interests, as well as the type of affordable housing her organization builds,” said Suresh, who is also a member of Planners of Color for Social Equity at UCLA Luskin. “We have set up a day for me to shadow her and her development team.”

Second-year Master of Public Policy student Bei Zhao and first-year urban planning student Alexander Salgado were partnered with returning fellow Steven Nissen, senior vice president, legal and governmental Affairs, for NBC Universal.

Zhao, a native of China who has worked in investment banking in Beijing, said that the breakfast and mentor program provided the opportunity to talk about participants’ backgrounds and professional experience. She said she was amazed by Nissen’s experience bridging the private, public and nonprofit sectors, “which is also the direction I want to build for my own career.” Zhao said she hopes to apply her public policy and finance experience in the public sector of a nonprofit organization.

Nissen and his mentees have already planned on continuing their conversation. “At the end of the breakfast, he invited us to visit NBC Universal for further meetings … which shows his generosity for the future generation,” Zhao said.

The Senior Fellows Leadership Program is part of the Luskin School’s Leadership Development Program which is led and organized each year by VC Powe, director of career services and leadership development.

In addition to Nelson, new members of the Senior Fellows are:

  • Elizabeth Calvin, senior advocate, Children’s Rights Division, Human Rights Watch
  • Rick Cole, city manager, city of Santa Monica
  • Efrain Escobedo, vice president, civic engagement & policy, California Community Foundation
  • Christine Essel, president and CEO, Southern California Grantmakers
  • Jennifer Ferro, president, KCRW
  • Anne Miskey, chief executive officer, Downtown Women’s Center
  • Erica Murray, president and CEO, California Association of Public Hospitals
  • Rick Nahmias, founder/executive director, Food Forward
  • Seleta Reynolds, general manager, Los Angeles Department of Transportation
  • Michelle Rhone-Collins, executive director, LIFT-Los Angeles
  • Lynn Schenk, former Congresswoman, California 39th Congressional District
  • Dan Schnur, director, American Jewish Committee; former director, USC Unruh Institute of Politics
  • Heather Joy Thompson, diplomat-in-residence based at UCLA Luskin; Foreign Service Officer, U.S. State Department
  • David Wright, CEO, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power

More information on the Senior Fellows Leadership Program, Senior Fellow bios and a full list of returning Senior Fellows are available online.