In the fall of 2018, the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs welcomed the first class of undergraduates into the school’s newly launched bachelor’s degree program in public affairs, a major designed to foster future leaders dedicated to public service and social change.
That tight-knit cohort of about 70 students — the “Trailblazers,” the school calls them — is set to graduate June 11 after spending their senior year under stay-at-home orders and other pandemic restrictions. Those constraints may have seemed especially daunting for a program committed to active learning and community engagement, but the class of 2021 demonstrated that their resourcefulness, creativity and fortitude could overcome the obstacles.
“It didn’t stop us from making change,” said class member Adah Perez. “It didn’t stop us from progressing.”
Over the course of the year, four Trailblazers — Perez, Long Hoang, Niousha Farhangi and Candler Weinberg — kept photo journals and talked via Zoom about their experiences, inspirations and hopes for the future. Here is a glimpse of their stories. To view their full profiles and image galleries, visit the UCLA Luskin website.
Long Hoang: Pride and perseverance
Long Hoang, who was raised in a large Vietnamese community in Garden Grove, California, learned early on what it was to wrestle with adversity. “I remember applying for food stamps and going to food banks like it was yesterday,” he said. “I remember growing up queer and finding out that the world might not accept me.”
These struggles, and his firsthand experience of the health and economic disparities affecting his community, convinced him to pursue a course of study and career aimed at helping people. And while his first year as a UCLA premed student wasn’t precisely what he’d envisioned — “I decided being a doctor just wasn’t my thing” — he discovered a new sense of purpose and belonging in the UCLA Luskin program.
Finishing his senior year in the midst of the COVID crisis wasn’t easy, Hoang admits. The self-described extrovert suddenly found himself feeling isolated. His original summer internship was scuttled and he had to quickly pivot to a new remote one. Like many students facing similar circumstances, he struggled with anxiety and depression. Having long focused on helping others, Hoang decided to seek out therapeutic resources to help himself. “It was a time for me to finally practice the self-care that I desperately needed,” he said. “I just wish it didn’t take a pandemic for me to finally do it.”
Hoang has never regretted switching majors, and he credits the UCLA Luskin program with providing an atmosphere in which he and other students could thrive while pursuing their passion for public service. “I really feel like the public affairs major is like a giant family,” he said. “I love this major, and I love the community that I’ve found.”
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Niousha Farhangi: Not barriers, just hurdles
“Throughout my life, I found strength in my identity and my struggles,” said Niousha Farhangi, who at the age of 5 emigrated with her family from Iran to Orange County, California.
That early sense of dislocation and being an outsider, along with her experiences of the bureaucratic roadblocks that many minorities and immigrants face, fueled her desire to be an agent of societal change. “Since graduating high school, I knew that I wanted to utilize my experiences for good toward the public sector and social issues.”
Farhangi, a community college transfer student who will graduate from the program with a minor in global studies, has put those experiences and her UCLA Luskin training to work at the intersection of community advocacy and public policy, particularly in the area of housing access and equitability. Working alongside a community-based organization, she provided research and recommendations aimed at combatting corporate consolidation within the residential housing market.
“Broadly speaking,” she said, “my project addresses issues of housing financialization and how to return the power of property ownership back to community members.”
As she prepares to graduate, Farhangi hopes that her educational experiences will inspire other low-income students and students of color. “I hope that I can provide guidance for students with similar backgrounds as me and ensure that they too are capable of succeeding.”
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Adah Perez: Fortitude amid uncertainty
After her first year at UCLA, as a business economics major, Adah Perez felt academically and personally adrift. “I was barely learning how to navigate through a space that catered to people who were not like me,” she recalled.
But the child of Latino immigrants for whom a university education had once seemed “so out of reach, almost like a fantasy” ultimately found her footing — and a great match for her interests — in the public affairs program.
The Long Beach, California, native, who plans to pursue a master’s degree in social work after graduation, has packed much into her time at UCLA, helping register Latinos to vote, interning for a Long Beach City Council member, serving on the University Students Association Council’s finance committee and working for the Mobile Clinic Project at UCLA, a student-led initiative that assists people experiencing homelessness throughout Los Angeles.
She intends to continue her work with the unhoused population as a career, while also providing “assistance to future generations to bridge the educational gap that exists in low-income communities.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic presented some obstacles — she had to find part-time employment to help support her family while finishing her final year’s studies — Perez stayed active and involved throughout, a testament to both her fortitude and the support she received from her parents, her extended family, her friends and her professors. “I’m amazed as to how much I have grown and learned,” she said.
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Candler Weinberg: Inspiration from tragedy
When wildfire tore through Northern California in October 2017, Candler Weinberg was a community college student studying pre-nursing and public health. But the blaze, which decimated his family’s Santa Rosa home, changed everything.
Forced to relocate to Southern California, he began to rebuild his life and rethink his goals. “After losing everything but the clothes on my back,” he said, “I realized that I could make far more impactful change working in emergency management rather than public health nursing.”
Accepted as a transfer student into the UCLA Luskin program in 2019, Weinberg has focused his research on how government agencies and other stakeholders can best prepare for, respond to and mitigate the effects of natural disasters, particularly among more vulnerable populations.
“After the fire, it became clear to me that marginalized, low-income communities suffer from natural disasters at vastly disproportionate rates,” said Weinberg, who completed an internship with the U.S. Forest Service’s Office of Emergency Medical Services.
Following graduation, Weinberg will continue to focus on helping communities through wildfires and other disasters by pursuing a master’s in public affairs with a concentration on environmental policy and natural resource management.