Life lessons beyond the lecture hall
Last month, on a hill above UCLA's bucolic Sunset Recreation Center, incoming freshman Sunny Brar learned to tend a community garden in what she considered UCLA's best civics project. Meanwhile, in the basement offices of the study-abroad center, first-year student Vaspour Antanesian analyzed data from a survey he helped design for what he considered the campus' best civics project.
Incoming freshmen Sunny Brar, left, and Job Sy worked in UCLA's community garden this summer. They were part of the first College Summer Institute, in which new students completed a couple of GEs and contributed to the campus through civic engagement projects. "I'm learning how to grow a garden and I'm out in the fresh air getting to relax," Sy said. Photos by Reed Hutchinson.
The two new Bruins both came to UCLA early to get a head start on college as part of UCLA's first College Summer Institute. The program gave 215 eager teens a six-week sneak preview of college life as well as a chance to live in the dorms, get a GE class under their belts and complete UCLA's writing requirement.
But what they may not have realized before they came here was that a unique opportunity awaited them: Each student would be taking a civic engagement class and doing a project that would deepen their involvement in the campus community.
Brar and Antanesian's summer projects are just two examples of how UCLA is expanding learning beyond the classroom. Kathy O'Byrne, director of the Center for Community Learning, led the way in finding 40 campus partners who could offer meaningful work that matched students' interests.
"College isn't just about academic development; it's also about personal development and the learning that happens outside the classroom," O'Byrne said. "Civic engagement is what we do at UCLA. From the first day, the message is that UCLA students are engaged."
The civic engagement course requirement gave the incoming freshmen a way to get involved with campus departments and organizations, helping students get familiar with the university at the same time they contribute to their new home. The Center for Community Learning strives to turn engagement into a habit for all Bruins, and offers students a roadmap to future opportunities, such as AmeriCorps programs, internships, service-learning courses and a civic engagement minor.
Incoming freshman Emma Devlin leads classmates in designing ways to educate new Bruins about the consequences of alcohol. The UCLA police department tapped new students for their insight into the best ways to reach out to their peers. Freshman Alberto Flores, right, and junior Lea Heller, a Student Health Advocate, offer ideas.
"Research shows that people learn best when they're actively involved," O'Byrne said. "The civic engagement component builds the community and creates the expectation that being engaged is part of what it means to be at UCLA and a global citizen. UCLA goes beyond lecture halls."
It was a great opportunity, said Antanesian, who was one of four Bruins who worked in the International Education Office. They helped develop, administer and analyze a survey of all Summer Institute students about whether they would study abroad and why.
The institute “was a good transition between high school and college,” said Antanesian. “It was a chance to see everything and take some smaller classes. But doing the survey was amazing. It was the most enjoyable part of the program." Antanesian, who chose UCLA in part for the university's travel-study programs, was fascinated to learn how other students decide whether or not to travel. The International Education Office will use the survey results to reach out to undergrads who erroneously assumed studying abroad is an unaffordable luxury or a waste of time that could delay their graduation.
"What we did was hands-on. We didn't just learn — we contributed," Antanesian said. He and a friend plan to start a study-abroad student club to encourage international travel experiences.
Robbie Totten, a graduate student coordinator, led the incoming freshmen in discussions that related civic engagement to their lives. Many students feel like they must chain themselves to their books to succeed, but research actually shows that students who engage with their communities fare better in the classroom, Totten said.
Incoming freshman Dan Ardis rakes in the UCLA student garden.
"The students had a lot of fun working on their projects, and they gained skill sets you can't obtain in the classroom," Totten said. "The idea is to be a participant, not a spectator."
The projects also helped introduce students to places and people they would have never otherwise visited and met.
New theater major Christopher Adams-Cohen was wowed when his project in the Department of World Arts and Culture introduced him to the dance school.
"Their performance spaces are absolutely amazing, so I definitely plan to take a dance class now," Adams-Cohen said. "I'm also seeing the way UCLA engages with the Los Angeles artistic community by opening up studios to them. UCLA is helping make dance a bigger part of the L.A. culture by getting involved in the community."
Across campus, staff and faculty benefitted from the new Bruins’ work. Professor Paul Bunje, executive director of the Center for Climate Change Studies in the Institute of the Environment (IOE), developed a project for six students. The IOE is leading the way in developing L.A. County's regional climate plan, and the students helped dissect similar plans from around the world.
"One of the challenges of writing a climate action plan is that you write it the way you've learned to write it," Bunje said. "The greatest thing about these students is that they don't know much yet. They've got unique perspectives and creative ideas."
Hopefully, the experience is also helping the students see everyday experiences as inspiration, Bunje said. "It's forcing them to think about what they do at the beach or with friends or how they drive to work: Those are places they can find ideas for a climate action plan."
Making those connections will help them gain more from their education. "The best scientists are the ones who are heavily engaged. The best politicians are the ones who can talk to all different people," Bunje said. "Those are the kinds of citizens we want to produce at UCLA."