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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.”

An Immersive Education in Public Affairs Courses on urban trees, safe schools exemplify innovative undergraduate curriculum at UCLA Luskin

By Mary Braswell and Joanie Harmon

Growing up amid the ancient redwoods of Sonoma County, Amy Stanfield developed a deep connection to trees, even greeting her favorites by the names she gave them as a little girl.

“You can stand in the forest and then look up and you just have this very awe-inspiring feeling looking up at these insanely tall, old, historic trees,” Stanfield said. “Redwood trees are really just a symbolic and beautiful part of my life.”

So when the third-year public affairs major spotted a new course on offer in spring quarter — “Trees in the City,” taught by Associate Professor of Urban Planning Kirsten Schwarz — she quickly enrolled.

“I think all the students came to this course with a love of trees,” Schwarz said. “I don’t want them to lose that, but I do want them to think a little bit more critically about the role of trees in the city, and who might benefit from them.”

Trees tell a complex story, touching on water use, climate change, gentrification and even mundane considerations like sap falling on cars.

Schwarz’s course examines urban forestry through an environmental justice lens, weaving together social sciences, natural sciences and fieldwork with the Los Angeles nonprofit TreePeople.

It’s one of several innovative courses that illustrate the UCLA Luskin public affairs major’s emphasis on deep engagement in civic life and rigorous scholarship that draws from many disciplines.

Also new in spring 2021 has been Public Affairs 125, “Creating Safe and Welcoming Schools,” taught by Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor, an authority on school safety and student well-being.

Astor, who has a joint appointment with the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies, said he designed the curriculum with a holistic approach to enhance how universities prepare future educators, social workers, psychologists, administrators and policymakers.

“The new vision proposes that schools won’t just respond to crisis,” Astor said. “It will recognize the current inequities in the system and create school settings that uplift and inspire students — graciously creating a community of educators, peers and families that will elevate the aspirations of each child.”

The course incorporates lessons from more than a year of upheaval endured by schools around the country.

“The dual global pandemics of COVID-19 and our national reckoning with systemic racism after the murder of George Floyd focused a bright light on many blind spots we have as a society when we discuss and research school safety,” Astor said. “The two pandemics highlighted well-documented health, racial and geographic inequities, and started a widespread public conversation about them.”

Students in Public Affairs 125, “Creating Safe and Welcoming Schools,” learn to develop strong policy positions and convey them to the public using the power of media.

With her keen interest in education policy, Stephanie Tapia Onate was glad she could take the new course in her final quarter as an undergraduate.

“I like that it focused on improving the school environment. As a former student of the LAUSD public school system, I know that there’s a lot of work to be done,” said Tapia Onate, who will soon graduate with a public affairs bachelor’s degree, then pursue a master of public policy at the Luskin School in the fall.

What sets “Creating Safe and Welcoming Schools” apart, she said, is the opportunity to personally engage with a wide variety of experts and to develop the practical skills needed to deliver a policy message to the general public.

Astor’s lineup of guest speakers comes from an impressive array of disciplines, including education, public policy, social welfare, psychology, neuroscience, medicine and law. Scholars from UCLA and across the nation, as well as top officials from the Los Angeles Unified School District, have spoken to the class on topics that included racism, bullying, weapons and drug use, mental health and the unique needs of LGBTQ, homeless or undocumented students.

The course has an expansive view of how to make schools a safe space not just for students but for teachers and staff, Tapia Onata said.

“Teachers do deal with a lot of secondary trauma and sometimes they’re often forgotten in the conversation about mental health resources in schools,” she said. “They are one of the communities at school that we do need to support.”

Students in Astor’s class learn to develop strong policy positions then communicate them to the public through op-eds, TED Talks and TikTok campaigns.

Tapia Onate chose to create a series of one-minute policy videos on TikTok, a platform now used frequently for educational outreach as well as entertainment.

“It’s straight to the point, it can deliver your message really fast, and people are more likely to remember what you say in a short video,” she said.

Immersion in civic life is also central to the “Trees in the City” curriculum. During their quarter-long partnership, students worked with TreePeople to fill the nonprofit agency’s most immediate need — turning a voluminous amount of information about the benefits of trees into messaging tailored to local communities.

One team of students developed a school curriculum on the importance of trees that aligned with Next-Generation Science Standards; they even identified sources of potential funding that TreePeople could pursue.

“Students were really interested in ways that environmental stewardship and curriculum centered around trees could be introduced early on,” Schwarz said.

Amy Stanfield said her team chose to highlight the wisdom of those who “lived on the land the longest and most successfully” — Los Angeles’ Indigenous communities.

Through case studies and an infographic, the team demonstrated how to incorporate time-tested traditions into Westernized systems and provided resources to residents who want to connect with local Indigenous leaders.

“We wanted to center our project on amplifying Indigenous people’s voices in the science world and in this type of urban ecology setting,” Stanfield said.

In a happy coincidence, her work with TreePeople will continue next year as she interns with the nonprofit group for her senior capstone research project.

“Trees in the City” has been a perfect match for Stanfield’s interests, which blend ecology, policy and urban planning, as well as film. She is grateful for the personal attention that Schwarz gives each of the 14 students in the upper-division class, and for the interactive curriculum that has deepened her understanding of urban greenspaces.

“Everyone in my college life can’t hear me say enough about it,” Stanfield said. “I get done with class and say, ‘You guys, my tree class is making me so happy!’ ”

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. 

Understanding — and Preventing — Suicide

Students in UCLA Luskin’s undergraduate program came together Jan. 9 to gain a better understanding of suicide and practice ways to identify risk and offer a lifeline. Sandra Rodriguez of Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services’ Suicide Prevention Center led the training session, part of the undergraduate program’s community impact requirement. Among Americans between ages 15 and 24, suicide is the second-leading cause of death, after car accidents, Rodriguez said. Despite the stigma that surrounds mental illness, many people contemplating suicide are relieved when asked to share their feelings, she added. Empathy is key when approaching someone exhibiting warning signs. “As helpers, we need to be able to sit in that dark place with them, to not judge those emotions, to not try to offer quick fixes,” she said. “Unless we really get in touch with why they want to die in the first place, we’re not going to get to the point where we’re turning them to the side of life.” Understanding suicide is valuable for those seeking careers in public health policy, research or outreach. For the students at the training session, it was also personal. Many said they knew someone who had committed suicide or made an attempt, and some shared their struggles with trying to provide real help to those in need. Rodriguez offered practical advice and stressed that people offering support should protect themselves by setting clear boundaries. She also shared several suicide prevention resources, including the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, Teens Helping Teens, Know the Signs and the My3 app.

‘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

Events

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.