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Nancy Pelosi and George Takei Deliver Calls to Action to Class of 2022 The House speaker and the actor-activist appear at UCLA Luskin's dual commencement ceremonies

UCLA Luskin celebrated its Class of 2022 with two commencement ceremonies on June 10, one for public policy, social welfare and urban planning scholars earning advanced degrees and a second honoring students awarded the bachelor’s in public affairs.

U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi spoke to undergraduates on the patio of UCLA’s Kerckhoff Hall, and actor and social justice activist George Takei addressed students earning master’s and Ph.D. degrees in UCLA’s Royce Hall.

Each of the speakers issued a call to action to graduates who are entering a troubled world. They shared a message of empowerment, encouraging students to look within themselves, identify their unique gifts and use them to make a difference.

“Recognize who you are, what your strengths are, because our nation needs you, you, you, you,” Pelosi said, pointing to individual graduates.

Takei, too, called on his audience to tap into the primal urges that move them to action.

“Let us seek out our own human essence,” he said. ‘You are all infinite in diversity, working together in infinite combinations. And yet you are one, all aligned to contribute to making this a better society.”

The speakers were introduced by UCLA Luskin Dean Gary Segura, who had his own charge to the Class of 2022.

“We are in a critical moment in the history of this nation and of this society,” Segura said. “We’re deciding who we are as a people, what values matter to us as Americans, what is our role in human history. …

“So beyond merely congratulating you, I want to thank you, perhaps prematurely, for all that we expect you to do with what you have learned.”

Segura acknowledged that the graduates’ time at UCLA was upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, a theme echoed in speeches from students selected to represent their programs: Anahi Cruz of Public Policy, Vanessa Rochelle Warri of Social Welfare, Paola Tirado Escareño of Urban Planning and  Samantha Danielle Schwartz of the undergraduate Public Affairs program.

Following each ceremony, graduates and guests gathered at outdoor receptions to take photos and offer congratulations before entering the ranks of UCLA Luskin alumni.

The two Class of 2022 commencement speakers are known for blazing trails in their fields.

Pelosi, a member of Congress for more than three decades, made history in 2007 as the first woman elected to serve as speaker of the House. She has championed legislation that has helped to lower health care costs, increase workers’ pay and promote the nation’s economic growth. In 2013, Pelosi was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame at a ceremony in Seneca Falls, New York, the birthplace of the American women’s rights movement. 

Takei is best known for his role as Lt. Hikaru Sulu in “Star Trek,” the groundbreaking sci-fi series that featured a multiethnic cast and a plot centered on peace among all peoples. He is also a bestselling author with an immense social media following, which he has used as platform to advocate for the LGBTQ and Asian American communities and educate his audience about U.S. internment camps for Japanese Americans, where he and his family were held during World War II.

Both speakers described the tumultuous era awaiting the Class of 2022, one of political division, racial hatred, gun violence, housing injustice, a climate emergency and a battle to defend democracy at home and abroad.

“When people ask me, ‘What gives you hope for the future?’ I always say the same thing: young people,” Pelosi said.

Since the nation’s founding, “It has been young people who have refused to remain silent, led the civil rights movement, taking to the streets, casting ballots, making change happen. …

“So right now, you and your peers, you’ve seized the torch in so many ways, marching for our lives, your lives, sounding the alarm on climate, demanding justice, justice, justice for all.”

Pelosi had a special message for the women in the audience: “I want you to know your power. … And I want you to be ready.

“You don’t know what’s around the next corner, and that applies to all of you but especially to the women. Because nothing is more wholesome to the politics and the government and any other subject you can name than the increased participation of women.”

To those considering entering public office, she advised. “You have to be able to take a punch, and you have to be able to throw a punch. For the children, always for the children.”

Takei called on the graduates to use 21st Century tools to “create a new version of our future.

“You today live in an incredibly complicated universe, empowered by technology that can extend to the outer reaches of space as well as penetrate down to the very core of this planet,” he said. “Perhaps, just perhaps, might we have developed an overabundance of tools and know-how?”

He recalled the unexpected silver lining of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic: the blue sky, crystal-clear air and restoration of nature as cars, trucks, trains and planes were stilled.

“Our planet was new again. And this was not virtual, it was breathtakingly real,” Takei said.

“Can we reprioritize our goals to reclaim our planet? We look to you, the high-tech generation, the urban planners, the policymakers, those who work to better the welfare of our society, to seize this moment.”

A double Bruin who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at UCLA in the 1960s, Takei reminded his audience of the long line of dignitaries from science, politics and the arts who had taken the Royce Hall stage: Albert Einstein, John F. Kennedy, Ralph Bunche, Marian Anderson, George Gershwin and many more.

“All these notables made history,” Takei said. “They transformed their times. They confronted the world they found and made it better with their brilliance, their vision, their talent and their humanity. …

“You, the graduating class of 2022 of the Luskin School of Public Affairs, are the heirs to their legacy. Take their accomplishments as your inspiration.”

View a video of the UCLA Luskin undergraduate commencement ceremony featuring House speaker Nancy Pelosi.

View pictures from the UCLA Luskin undergraduate commencement celebration.

View pictures from the UCLA Luskin graduate commencement celebration.

 

Public Policy Students Take On the Health Care Digital Divide Effort to widen access to telemedicine is one of 15 immersive projects aimed at developing policy solutions for real-world clients

By Mary Braswell

When Sophia Li decided to apply to graduate school to pursue her interest in health policy, she could not have known that the field would soon be upended by a protracted global health emergency.

Along with most of her peers in the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs’ master of public policy program, Li began her studies in September 2020, when COVID-19 had already taken more than 1 million lives worldwide and the arrival of vaccines was still months away.

When the time came to embark on the public policy program’s exacting capstone project, Li chose to focus on an inequity brought into sharp focus by the pandemic: As they isolated in their homes, more people turned to telemedicine for their health care needs — but that option was not available to people who lacked computers, smart phones and internet service.

“The pandemic really did shine a light on the possibilities that telemedicine brings,” Li said, “but it also showed that, while the upper half are benefiting from this, what does this mean for the lower half that have these barriers to access?”

Li was part of a team that explored this question on behalf of their client, the nonprofit Community Clinic Association of Los Angeles County. On an evening in May, Li and teammates Stacy Songco, who is earning a master of public policy and a doctorate in medicine, Xinyuan Qi, Ziyi Wei and Yixuan Yu boiled down a year’s worth of policy research and analysis into a 20-minute summary.

They were among nearly 70 second-year students to complete 15 applied policy projects this year, a rite of passage before receiving their UCLA master of public policy degrees. The capstone projects challenge students to find solutions to real-life policy dilemmas on behalf of clients in Los Angeles, across the state and nation, and around the world.

Networking with UCLA Luskin alumni had connected Li with the Community Clinic Association, which supports 65 neighborhood clinics in underserved areas. At the time, the nonprofit was “just dipping their toes into the digital divide issue,” she said.

The team spent months speaking with medical staff, local policymakers, internet service providers and, of course, the patients themselves. The conversations took place via Zoom because of COVID restrictions, but also in person, to make sure those without the means to gather virtually would be heard.

By year’s end, the team had developed more than a dozen recommendations, including the creation of a new role of digital navigator — a clinic staff member trained to guide individuals through the often-confounding world of broadband access, as well as benefits they may be entitled to, which change from ZIP code to ZIP code.

The students proposed a mechanism to receive federal funds for this new position. They stressed that information should be provided in multiple languages, and not just online but in printable formats, for those unable to access the internet. And they quickly determined that unlocking digital doors would open up a world of services and opportunities beyond telemedicine.

One of their focus groups spoke of their experiences with the California Lifeline program, which provides discounted landline and cell phone services to low-income households. While some found it confusing, “we had one unhoused individual who said, ‘Actually, you know what? I can walk you through all the paperwork, I can talk to you about how to use this,’” Li said.

“If people from the community could tap their experiences to guide others and receive compensation as a digital navigator, imagine the possibilities.”

The project culminated in a full published report for the Community Clinic Association and a formal presentation before Luskin faculty, staff and students, including the team’s advisor, Public Policy chair Martin Gilens.

Other capstone projects completed by the class of 2022 dealt with how to protect the rights of car wash workers, whether to expand the number of seats on the Los Angeles City Council, how to balance public health and humane treatment of asylum seekers at the border, as well as homelessness, mass transit, criminal justice and more.

“It’s an immersive experience. The students value that, and the marketplace also values that,” said Wesley Yin, an associate professor of public policy and economics who has served as coordinator and advisor in the applied policy projects program.

“There’s a professionalism that makes it much more than a class project,” Yin said. “It equips students with the rich experience and knowledge to seamlessly integrate into an organization.”

Li said her team emerged with unexpected areas of expertise. “The digital divide is a really complicated issue that has everything from some little niche funding source that you need to know about, to complex infrastructure issues and these really technical things that you need to understand,” she said.

As she looks toward graduation, Li reflects on the turns in her education that brought her to this point.

She transferred from Chaffey College to UC Merced, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in public health, then managed the rigors of earning her master of public policy at a time of pandemic. Selected as a Presidential Management Fellow, Li will spend the next two years in a program that helps train young scholars to become the next generation of leaders in federal government.

“It’s been a lot of these 90-degree turns that keep putting me on the right path,” Li said. “So let’s go explore new things.”

View photos of this year’s applied policy project presentations on Flickr.

Applied Policy Projects 2022

Yin on Burden on U.S. Medical Debt

Associate Professor of Public Policy Wesley Yin’s research into the soaring cost of medical debt in the United States was featured in the UCLA Anderson Review. A study co-authored by Yin and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that medical bills sent to collection agencies totaled an estimated $140 billion as of June 2020. That sum, which is bigger than all other sources of debt in collection combined, was tallied even before the pandemic saddled COVID-19 sufferers with unpaid doctor and hospital bills. Medical debt is concentrated in low-income neighborhoods, in the South and in states that refused to expand Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act. “Communities that had been most burdened by medical debt have become even worse off, in absolute and relative terms, due to their leaders choosing not to expand Medicaid,” Yin said. “The results are important because they indicate that these problems are within the control of public policy.”

Bau Awarded Sloan Research Fellowship

Assistant Professor of Public Policy Natalie Bau has received a 2022 Sloan Research Fellowship, one of the most competitive and prestigious awards available to early-career researchers. Bau, who has a joint appointment in the department of economics, is one of eight young UCLA professors to receive the fellowships, making UCLA No. 1 among U.S. and Canadian colleges and universities in the number of new fellows. Bau studies a variety of topics in development and education economics, with an emphasis on the industrial organization of educational markets. Her research has looked at how cultural traditions affect economic decision-making, how interpersonal skills facilitate intergenerational investment, whether government policy can change culture, and the effects of human capital investment in countries with child labor. Bau is affiliated with the Center for Economic and Policy Research and is a faculty research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research. This year, 118 scientists and scholars received a Sloan Research Fellowship. “Today’s Sloan Research Fellows represent the scientific leaders of tomorrow,” said Adam Falk, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. “As formidable young scholars, they are already shaping the research agenda within their respective fields — and their trailblazing won’t end here.” — Stuart Wolpert

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Lens Explores Low-Density Zoning Impact on Health

Associate Professor of Urban Planning and Public Policy Michael Lens published a policy brief in Health Affairs on the downstream effects of low-density residential zoning on health and health equity. Previous research on the relationship between housing and health has identified four important pathways for health equity: housing stability, housing quality and safety, neighborhood characteristics and affordability. While residential zoning ordinances are designed to address density-related concerns such as traffic and environmental harms, Lens explained that “the effect is often to artificially raise the cost of housing for everyone by limiting housing supply, as well as to exclude people who cannot afford to buy single-family homes on large lots.” As a result, low-density zoning practices have exacerbated segregation by income and race. “Safer and healthier neighborhoods tend to have the most restrictive zoning, pricing people out of those areas and increasing segregation and affordability problems,” Lens said. He acknowledged that zoning reform alone cannot fix disparities in housing or health; sufficient housing subsidy programs are crucial, as well as an increase in new housing developments that are required to set aside some units for lower-income households. “The downstream effects of exclusionary land use regulations on health should make scholars and policymakers pay more attention to reforming zoning and expanding housing subsidy programs to make housing more plentiful and affordable,” Lens wrote. Even if increasing density in more neighborhoods does not have an immediate effect on housing affordability, segregation or health, Lens argued that it is a necessary step toward a healthy and sustainable future.


Manville on Environmental Consequences of Driving

Associate Professor of Urban Planning Michael Manville was featured in an article in the Cut discussing ways to combat climate change at an individual level. “The thing that is heating up the planet is that people get into cars, turn the key and start burning fossil fuels,” Manville said. According to the EPA, personal vehicles account for about one-fifth of the United States’ total greenhouse gas emissions. Manville and other experts recommended reducing driving time by shopping local, consolidating errands into single trips and avoiding driving during rush hour. Manville also expressed support for policies that make driving less convenient and more expensive, such as raising parking fees, increasing gas taxes or implementing congestion pricing. Manville called zoning codes that require new construction to include parking “one of the biggest subsidies to car ownership and use that exists” and recommended getting rid of them in order to encourage more sustainable transportation habits.


Transportation Equity Scholar to Join Public Policy Faculty Tierra Bills, an expert on the socioeconomic impacts of transportation decisions, will hold a joint appointment at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering

Tierra Bills, an expert on the socioeconomic impacts of transportation decisions, will join the UCLA Luskin Public Policy faculty in January.

Bills’ research interests include equity analysis, travel behavior modeling, community-based data collection and transportation-performance measurement. In a joint appointment with the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, she will teach two courses, “Transportation Equity” and “Travel Behavior Analysis and Forecasting.”

“Too often in the past, political expediency led to the routing of transportation systems like freeways and rail lines without adequate concern for their negative impacts on poorer, mostly ethnic neighborhoods,” UCLA Luskin Dean Gary Segura said. “The health and economic fallout of those decisions continues to have severe societal impacts, especially in congested urban areas. Future city planners and civil engineers alike will benefit from the expertise of Professor Bills in learning how to create more equitable transportation systems that avoid repeating past mistakes.”

Bills’ appointment as an assistant professor of public policy and civil and environmental engineering is part of a UCLA-wide “Rising to the Challenge” initiative spearheaded by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies to expand the scope and depth of scholarship that addresses racial equity issues. Announced in June 2020 by Chancellor Gene Block and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Emily Carter, the program was established to help UCLA advance diversity, equity and inclusion. The plan includes the recruitment of 10 new faculty members over five years whose scholarly work addresses issues of Black experience.

“In order to help our students achieve technological breakthroughs that will improve the quality of life and society, we need to recruit faculty who understand the complex and entrenched inequities along racial and socioeconomic lines and address them in their research and teaching,” UCLA Samueli Dean Jayathi Murthy said. “Professor Bills brings the expertise at the nexus of engineering and public policy, which will greatly benefit our students as they tackle challenges in designing more equitable transportation systems.”

Bills is currently an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Wayne State University in Detroit. Prior to that, she was a Michigan Society Fellow and an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She has also served as a lecturer at Strathmore University in Nairobi, Kenya, and as a research scientist at IBM Research Africa, where she used data from smartphones to analyze the quality of transportation. Bills is a co-principal investigator on two current studies, funded by the National Science Foundation, focusing on transit issues in resource-constrained communities.

Bills received her B.S. in civil engineering technology from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University and her M.S. and Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering and transportation engineering from UC Berkeley.

LPPI Scholar Curates Special Issue of Health Affairs Journal

Health Affairs, a leading journal of health policy research, devoted its July edition to health issues relating to immigration along the southern border of the United States, with Arturo Vargas Bustamante of the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative (LPPI) serving as editorial advisor. He curated more than a dozen research studies that provide an in-depth understanding of the effects of U.S. immigration policy on the care, coverage and health outcomes for immigrants. The journal also published two research studies from Bustamante, the faculty director of research at LPPI and a professor of health policy and management at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. One study found that better access to insurance for aging immigrants would improve their health care and reduce emergency room costs for both immigrants and U.S. taxpayers. Another study, by Bustamante and LPPI Director of Research Rodrigo Dominguez-Villegas, focused on the health of immigrants repatriating to Mexico from the United States. Vargas Bustamante also took part in a Health Affairs podcast and a panel discussion with other featured authors from the issue. For those working at LPPI, the special issue represents a sign that public opinion may be shifting on immigration issues, particularly regarding the contributions made by Latino immigrants to America’s social and economic fabric. Such a narrative shift would be a particularly welcome change in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which further highlighted systemic inequities relating to U.S. health care for Latinos and other persons of color.


 

Bau on Intersection of Culture and Policy

Assistant Professor of Public Policy Natalie Bau was interviewed by the American Economic Association about her research on the effect of pension reform on traditional family arrangements in Indonesia and Ghana. Bau explained that she was curious about how traditional customs of sons and daughters living with their parents after getting married might incentivize parents to make educational investments. She found that pensions led parents to invest less in the education of children who would have traditionally supported them in old age, and it also resulted in more of those children leaving home after marriage rather than continuing to live with their parents, as was the customary practice. She noted that even though her research shows that the pension program in Indonesia is reducing female education, there are still benefits. The best solution would be to “combine the pension policy with other policies that mitigate these negative effects on female education,” she concluded.

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