Undergrads Come Together During a Year of Staying Apart UCLA Luskin student group works to build peer-to-peer connections guided by the major's public service ethos

By Mary Braswell

In the fall of 2020, Kaylen Gapuz was excited to begin her life as a Bruin but anxious about how to make campus connections at a time when COVID-19 demanded learning from afar.

So when she spotted an email invitation to pair up with a mentor through the Luskin Undergraduate Student Association, she quickly applied.

Throughout the first months of her freshman year, the public affairs pre-major talked weekly with senior Hannah Feller, who answered questions, offered advice and became “a good mentor, resource and friend, all in one, which I will forever appreciate,” Gapuz said.

This year, more than 70 students were matched with mentors, one of several initiatives launched by the association to strengthen the bonds among UCLA Luskin’s undergraduates, even as the pandemic kept them apart.

LUSA, as the group is known, came into existence in 2019, not long after the public affairs major debuted at UCLA. This year, by necessity, it greatly expanded its virtual reach.

A new website includes a blog inviting members to share their own takes on the issues that move them, and the group has hosted several remote gatherings guided by the public service ethos the major is known for. 

Throughout the year, members have come together for conversations on topics such as policing, environmental justice, gentrification and, of course, the tumultuous 2020 election. In the fall, a panel of candidates running for local office across California — including Nithya Raman, who would go on to win a seat on the Los Angeles City Council — appeared at a LUSA event to share personal stories of why they chose politics as an avenue for change-making. 

To draw Luskin undergrads to these gatherings at a time of chronic Zoom fatigue, LUSA’s leaders have been careful to choose timely topics while also offering social contacts, insights on navigating the major and advice on preparing for the working world. 

“The whole point of LUSA is to be a peer-to-peer environment,” said Feller, a public affairs and economics double-major who serves as the group’s president. 

At one LUSA session, Feller shared tips from her personal experience landing several internships — well before she was placed with the nonprofit World Trade Organization Los Angeles for her senior capstone experience.

“I’m by no means an expert on this topic, but I have had a fair share of finding internships, and a lot of this is information that older students taught me while I was going through the process,” Feller told the gathering. 

This type of programming offers a student’s eye view that complements the major’s curriculum and the resources offered by UCLA.

As one strategy to keep members engaged during an age of virtual connections, LUSA expanded its leadership team, Feller said. In addition to five elected executive board members, several other students stepped up to edit the blog, manage an active social media presence and organize special events.

Third-year public affairs major Samantha Schwartz was inspired to take on the mentorship initiative, an outreach to first- and second-year students at UCLA interested in learning more about the public affairs program.

In her weekly check-ins with Feller, Gapuz said, “Hannah was very much able to tailor the experience to the two of us,” and the women would chat about classes and professors, how to juggle the workload, and their shared interest in business consulting. 

“Especially this year, because of the remote nature of everything, it was just good to have a link to someone at a regular time when you know you can ask questions and not have to wonder what to do,” Gapuz said.

“Our mentorship pairing is what convinced me that the public affairs major is right for me.”

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