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.
By Mary Braswell
In a landmark year for UCLA, the celebration may be loudest in the northwest corner of campus, home to the Luskin School of Public Affairs.
This year marks both the university’s centennial and the Luskin School’s silver anniversary — a quarter-century dedicated to advancing the public good through teaching, research, advocacy and innovation.
It’s clearly a time to party, and a record 620 students, alumni, faculty, staff and friends answered the call in September, gathering at the annual Block Party to raise a toast to UCLA Luskin. But it’s also a time to reflect on lessons from an initially rocky union and, most importantly, to create a roadmap for the future.
As 2020 dawns, Dean Gary Segura is confident that a collaborative spirit among the three pillars of planning, policymaking and social welfare will invigorate UCLA Luskin and extend its reach into the community, nation and world.
“What ties us together as a School is our focus on human well-being, broadly conceived,” Segura said. “The Luskin faculty have received Ph.D.s from 14 different fields of study. Our disciplines may encourage us to focus on well-being at the individual, family, community, metropolitan, polity or even global levels of analysis. But what we share in common is the conviction that social fabrics and social institutions are best when they facilitate human security, dignity and opportunity.”
In the three years since Segura’s arrival, the School has seen remarkable growth. A signature achievement is the creation of an undergraduate major in public affairs, which melds critical thinking, experiential learning, research methodology and a public service ethos. More than 250 students have already come on board.
The undergraduate curriculum draws in faculty from every UCLA Luskin program, all with the common goal of providing a holistic, transdisciplinary public affairs education. As part of that effort, explorations are underway for an additional degree: the executive master’s in public affairs, designed to equip professionals and public servants to step into leadership positions.
Expanding knowledge is at the core, fueled by the scholarship of faculty and a wide range of research centers. In just over two years, UCLA Luskin has launched several new ventures:
• Latino Policy and Politics Initiative combines policy analysis with civic engagement, and recently received $2.5 million in support from the California Legislature.
• International Development and Policy Outreach focuses on research aimed at empowering women and children around the world.
• Latin American Cities Initiative, commonly known as Ciudades, builds ties among planners and policymakers across the Americas.
This year, they will be joined by the Hub for Health Innovation, Policy and Practice, which conducts research to improve community health, particularly among the LGBTQ population and other marginalized groups. In addition, the School expects to launch a global policy initiative to foster safe and welcoming schools and communities to demonstrate that good science can be used to better the lives of students around the world.
The schools initiative will be directed by Professor Ron Avi Astor, an internationally recognized expert on school safety and violence, who joined the faculty in Social Welfare this academic year. His appointment is part of an effort by Segura to broaden the faculty’s expertise and diversity. Of the 19 faculty appointments Segura has made, 14 are women and 12 are people of color.
“Our School is now one of the most diverse and interdisciplinary units in the University of California system,” Segura said. “We are growing in a way that reflects the state’s diverse and dynamic population, and this makes us profoundly well-positioned to engage, educate and contribute to the world around us.”
That commitment to reach beyond the campus was underscored in April 2019 at the first Luskin Summit, a cross-sector conference bringing public officials, civic leaders, philanthropists and other advocates together with UCLA Luskin’s faculty — all in pursuit of a “Livable L.A.”
The summit, which officially launched the School’s 25th anniversary celebration, will return to campus April 22 under the unifying theme “A Call to Action.” Participants will search for solutions to problems centering on housing, immigration, health, education and — fittingly, as the summit will take place on Earth Day — sustainability.
The legacy of doing good reaches far past the quarter-century mark, of course. Social Welfare’s graduate program dates to 1947. Urban planning at UCLA launched in 1969 in conjunction with architecture. A newly created public policy program was added in 1994, in what many viewed at the time as a shotgun marriage.
The new School of Public Policy and Social Research emerged in an era of reckoning triggered by post-recession budget cutbacks. Among other belt-tightening measures to contend with a loss of tens of millions of dollars in state support, UCLA decided to reconfigure all of its professional schools.
The early years were unsettled, as three disparate entities forged their identity under one roof. Many people believed the merger damaged the stature of respected programs and UCLA overall. Some questioned the motives of university leadership, and others were determined to preserve their departments as singular entities rather than seeking a cohesive whole.
“It wasn’t a happy transition,” said Allan Heskin, an urban planning professor at the time. “They didn’t take a vote and ask us.”
Longtime staff member Marsha Brown B.A. ’70 said that the late professor John Friedmann was the urban planning department chair at the time. He asked Brown to take a walk with him. “And he said, ‘They are going to be splitting urban planning and architecture and forming a new school.’ It was shocking.”
The move was very controversial. “People were really very upset about it and writing letters of protest,” she said.
“Quite frankly, a lot of us were really fairly strongly alienated by the decision,” alumnus Jeffry Carpenter recalled. “There was a superficial presumption on the part of university administration that there was some sort of linkage or relationship there that they imagined should exist. It is not so much of a relationship because the actual practice tends to be very, very different.”
Gerry Laviña, director of social welfare field education at UCLA Luskin, also had a front-row seat for the School’s difficult birth.
“There was a lot of anger among both faculty and students,” recalled Laviña, who earned his master’s in social welfare in 1988, then joined the field faculty in 1993. “What would this mean for our MSW? Would we be seen as lesser than?”
But he added, “What started out as a forced venture became a beautiful outcome.”
Over the years, resentments have faded, faculty from different disciplines have increasingly sought to learn from one another, and students have benefited from a wider array of cross-departmental resources.
“We know relationships, organizations, people need time to grow and come together as one,” Laviña said. “I don’t know if we’re fully there yet, but we’re so much better than we were even five years ago. I look forward to the next five years and beyond.”
Throughout the early years, there was one consensus: Very few cared for the new school’s name or awkward acronym, SPPSR. They lived with it until being rechristened in September 2004 as the UCLA School of Public Affairs. In 2011, the current name — the Meyer and Renee Luskin School of Public Affairs — came along with a transformative gift of $50 million that brought the resources and ambition to launch a period of expansion and innovation.
At the Block Party, benefactor Renee Luskin reflected on the journey.
“I want to express how much it means to Meyer and myself to be connected to such an outstanding school here at UCLA,” she said, thanking the faculty, staff, students and advisors for their unflagging passion and dedication. “As they say,” she concluded, “we’ve come a long way, baby.”
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.
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.”
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.
UCLA Luskin’s just-launched undergraduate program is off to an exciting start. A month into the new academic year, 90 students have declared public affairs as a pre-major, and dozens more have reached out. The ambitious program combines critical thinking, social science methodology and deep engagement in the community. Freshman Callie Nance was immediately attracted to the public service ethos at the heart of the major. “This major doesn’t just expand knowledge,” she said. “It shows us how to do something with that knowledge, to make an impact.” That sentiment is reflected in the undergraduate program’s motto: Developing Leaders Engaged in Social Change. “Our students are developing knowledge and skills in the service of solving society’s most pressing problems, which is really what distinguishes this major from others,” said Undergraduate Affairs Chair Meredith Phillips, who is also an associate professor of public policy and sociology. The energy surrounding the major was on display during an undergraduate open house during the first week of school. Phillips led the welcoming committee, along with more than 20 faculty from across the School and Dean Gary Segura, who noted that he too will teach an undergraduate course this year, Foundations and Debates in Public Thought. The event offered a glimpse of the resources available to students pursuing the B.A. in Public Affairs. Freshman and sophomores freely mingled with professors who teach graduate-level courses and conduct cutting-edge research. And the undergraduate staff, who came together this summer to ensure the major was launched without a hitch, was out in force to answer questions and offer encouragement.
View more photos from the Undergraduate Open House.
By Mary Braswell
The Luskin School’s world-class resources in public policy, social welfare and urban planning will soon be available to a much wider circle of UCLA students.
Beginning in the fall of 2018, the School will offer a Bachelor of Arts in Public Affairs, a major that is unique in the University of California system. A clear public service ethos lies at the heart of the program, which combines critical thinking, social science methodology and deep engagement in the community.
The major will connect the dots between theory and action, said Meredith Phillips, newly named chair of the undergraduate program. Phillips is an associate professor of public policy and sociology who has taught at UCLA for two decades.
“Every class will be focused on societal problems, issues that students care about, and how we can develop reasonable solutions,” Phillips said. “In our classes, we’ll discuss competing values, empirical data and evidence, and different conceptual frameworks for understanding the world. Our students will be developing skills in the service of solving problems, which is really what distinguishes this major from others.”
The impetus for the new program is simple, said UCLA Luskin Dean Gary Segura: “It’s part of our mission.
“This is a land-grant university that was created to serve the public, to serve California,” Segura said. The program, he said, will attract students “who wanted to come to a prestige institution and take that degree back to the communities they came from and create change there.”
“We hope to play a great role in the community service learning opportunities for undergraduates because we already have a lot of experience … with community-based organizations.”
— Laura Abrams,
Social Welfare chair
The B.A. in Public Affairs will provide a wide-ranging education, Phillips said. Students will delve into power politics, microeconomics and human development. They will look at competing social science theories with a critical eye, and master tools for collecting and analyzing data. And they will learn to make written and oral arguments with clarity and conviction.
Unique to the program, she said, is a yearlong capstone project that will immerse seniors in a field and research setting where they can apply their scholarship in the real world.
“The students will be embedded in these organizations, learning from staff and clients about what’s going well, what’s not, and thinking about how to do things even better,” said Phillips, who has co-founded two educational nonprofits.
“They will apply the skills they’ve learned in our classes to those experiences. And what they’re learning on the ground will undoubtedly turn out to be quite informative and will change how they think about what they’re learning in the classroom,” she said.
The emphasis on service learning is what drew UCLA freshman Leyla Solis to explore the Public Affairs B.A.
“All throughout high school, I did a lot of field work in areas I was passionate about,” said Solis, who attended a Northeast Los Angeles charter school that encouraged political engagement. Before coming to UCLA, Solis advocated at the United Nations for the rights of indigenous people, and developed a keen interest in effective governance and environmental law.
A political science major, Solis had been considering the Luskin School’s minor offerings and even looking ahead to a graduate degree. Now she is mulling whether to go for a double major.
“What the people in the Public Affairs Department are doing is not just studying it but going out and experiencing it firsthand,” said Solis, who mentors students from her charter school and tutors low-income children at Santa Monica’s Virginia Avenue Park.
“This is a real opportunity for us to give back to the undergraduate community, to include them in our mission as a school to improve the performance of government and nonprofits.”
— J.R. DeShazo,
Public Policy chair
No other campus in the UC system offers a public affairs bachelor’s degree that draws from the three fields UCLA Luskin is known for: public policy, social welfare and urban planning. Faculty from each department were instrumental in developing the major, making it a true multidisciplinary partnership, Phillips said.
Creation of the major had been in the works for several years, in response to rising student demand. The Luskin School’s current undergraduate courses draw around 1,500 students a year, and its minor programs are among the most popular at UCLA, said the School’s undergraduate advisor, Stan Paul.
Last year, UCLA Luskin faculty voted unanimously to proceed with the undergraduate major. Jocelyn Guihama MPP ’03, deputy director of the Institute on Inequality and Democracy, helped turn this aspiration into reality, shepherding the effort through every stage. UCLA’s Academic Senate gave final approval on April 19, 2018, and the first of an expected 600 students will enter the major this fall, though many more are expected to take courses offered as part of the major.
The creation of an undergraduate major at a UCLA professional school is a rare occurrence, Segura said. “It represents a substantial addition to the undergraduate offerings at UCLA, and we think it’s going to be broadly attractive to a whole swath of incoming young people,” he said.
The B.A. in Public Affairs is just one sign of “a new infusion of energy” under Segura, said Meyer Luskin, who, along with his wife, Renee, is the School’s major benefactor and namesake. “I think he’s going to do a lot of outstanding projects for the community and the School, and I’m very enthused about our future.”
“I expect so much energy and commitment coming from our students in the undergrad major. That is going to have tremendous ripple effects in what we teach in our graduate programs.”
— Vinit Mukhija,
Urban Planning chair
The new major comes at a time when a growing number of students are seeking the scholarship and training to effect social change.
“These young people are not simply resisting political and social forces with which they disagree — they’re also resisting knowledge-free policymaking,” Segura said of the spreading youth movement on such issues as gun violence, Black Lives Matter and immigration reform.
“They want to be informed by facts. What we do at Luskin is provide them with the infrastructure to think analytically, with enough training so that they can solve the problems they’ve identified as important to their generation,” he said.
Creation of the major greatly expands undergraduate access to UCLA Luskin’s faculty and resources, and it will also benefit the entire School, Segura said.
“There will certainly be an infusion of energy that only undergraduates can bring. All of a sudden we’re going to have 600 change agents running around the building who are youthful and energized,” Segura said.
In addition, the hiring of new faculty members to support the expansion of class offerings has also opened up avenues for graduate research, he said, and master’s and Ph.D. students in UCLA Luskin’s other degree programs will gain access to teaching assistantships and other leadership roles.
“I think from a scholarly perspective, from a resources perspective, from an experience perspective, it’s a big, big win for the School,” Segura said.