Graduating senior Selina Stasi brings a whole new approach to fitness at UCLA
Skateboards abound on UCLA's hilly campus, as do kick scooters and, of course, bikes. But when graduating senior Selina Stasi takes a fast turn around Wilson Plaza on her inline skates, her blond hair flying from beneath her helmet, it's hard not to take notice. She whizzes by so fast, though, that you might not catch the look of pure joy on her face.
"When I'm skating, I feel like I know who I am and I know where I'm going," said Stasi, 22, a double major in sociology and Asian American studies from San Jose who will graduate June 15. "I feel like I can do anything" — which, to hear her classmates and campus leaders tell it, is close to the truth about this petite athlete-turned-student who has brought a whole new approach to fitness to the campus.
Ask anyone: She was the driving force in launching a fitness program for student leaders, which she and her supporters dubbed FITTED (Fitness Improvement Training Through Exercise and Diet). And she's played a key role in the annual Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander Health and Fitness Day, aimed at ethnic groups that are highly prone to childhood obesity and other health disparities. This spring, the event brought 350 participants to the campus.
Stasi, who is part Hawaiian herself, said that she was motivated to bring a new approach to fitness to UCLA after observing student leaders who seemed almost proud of eating on the fly and skimping on sleep or studies to get the job done. This was especially true of the fiercely loyal leaders who led underrepresented populations, including ethnic minority, lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender, low-income, nontraditional and undocumented student communities.
"People laughed about it," said Stasi, who at that time was active with the Pacific Islander Student Association. "I really didn't like it, but I saw myself falling into that kind of habit." She wondered how she and others could provide effective leadership in their individual communities if they were always tired and not feeling their best — not to mention the kind of role models they were being. "What their community saw was low retention rates at the college, a lot of dropouts, a lot of tired, frustrated students," Stasi said. She became so discouraged that she considered dropping out of her campus activities.
Luckily, a heart-to-heart conversation with Anthony Sandoval, director of UCLA's Community Programs Office (CPO), challenged her to try to change the culture of unhealthy habits instead of walking away. CPO, as UCLA students know, organizes student-initiated community service, retention and outreach projects.
"I told her she didn't have to wait until she went to grad school to get engaged in physical fitness training," Sandoval said. "I said, 'You can do it now, right here in CPO.'"
The next thing Sandoval knew, Stasi showed up at his office door with a proposal to create FITTED. She had drawn up a budget for what she wanted to do and had devised a program motto: "The change starts with me." There was even a FITTED logo.
Seeing her passion and ability to organize, CPO quickly provided staff support for a pilot program which, as Sandoval put it, "has become permanent, pretty much" — since Stasi has of course developed a plan of succession for after she graduates at the College of Letters and Science commencement ceremony. "It's my little baby project," Stasi said of the program that will be her legacy at UCLA.
To get FITTED off the ground, Sandoval helped Stasi tap the rich resources of the UCLA campus, including the Office of Recreation and Cultural Affairs, the Bruin Resource Center and the Arthur Ashe Center for Student Health and Wellness — all part of the Office of Student Affairs. That brought her not just high-level mentors who could help her think through her ideas but advice and support from nutritionists and experts in fitness and community organization. She also gained access to venues where fitness sessions could be held, as well as funds for student staffing, materials and retreats.
Now, almost two years later, FITTED has helped nearly 300 students to incorporate fitness and health into their daily lives. Activities run the gamut from nine-week group workout sessions to classes on healthy eating to afternoons of beach volleyball. "We test out different fitness activities to see what really sparks their interest and see what they can feasibly continue when we're not there," Stasi said. She said the goal is to inspire a culture of fitness that benefits students and also is something they can take back to their families and communities.
As evidence of the program's growing influence, Stasi and three of her student staff members at FITTED recently earned certificates as personal trainers through the National Strength and Conditioning Association.
"She has an unbelievable work ethic, commitment and thirst for development and education," said Mick Deluca, executive director of Recreation and Campus Life at UCLA, who helped Stasi every step of the way. "As FITTED project director, she is an integral change-maker in activating fitness, wellness and health-promotions initiatives."
Keith Camacho, an assistant professor of Asian American studies at UCLA, is familiar with Stasi's classroom work, as well as her volunteer activities in the community, where she mentors high school students, with a focus on Pacific Islanders in Los Angeles' South Bay community. "Selina in many ways exemplifies the kind of work we strive to do on campus, particularly in bridging academic work with broader-based community and youth initiatives," Camacho said.
JoAnn Dawson, the former director of the Ashe Center, who also was among the first to provide counsel to Stasi, said she believes that Stasi is part of a leading edge of young people who can help foster better health for everyone by putting good health behaviors into everyday practice.
"She is helping students make the shift from passivity to active engagement in a way that they then share with others," Dawson said. "She recognizes the connection between good health and self-appreciation. And she sees that improving health doesn't have to be boring."
This is especially important because, as Dawson noted, the U.S. is faced with many chronic health issues resulting from unhealthful choices and behaviors. Communities of color, including those of Pacific Islander and Native Hawaiian descent, are heavily burdened with a disproportionate prevalence of chronic health problems.
Stasi has avoided this pitfall in large part because she became an athlete at a young age, when she began inline speed skating, eventually competing nationally. As a teenager, the path to becoming a professional was open to her, but she was also an honor student at San Jose's Gunderson High School, and she decided that college would provide her with a better and more secure future.
"It was pretty tough growing up," she said, adding that neither of her parents went beyond high school and that her father was absent much of her childhood. Finances were a constant struggle. "So I wanted to be stable and successful enough to where I could have my own family," she said. "It was more like deferring gratification, which was hard, because as a teenager, you see big lights and fame and winning — or, like, study? But it was the best decision that I could have made."
Once at UCLA, however, she wanted to find a way to replicate the kind of training she did for competitive skating. But as she opened her eyes to others' need for more healthful living habits, she saw that any type of fitness improves health, relieves stress and makes people feel good about themselves. Even if it's hard. Or maybe especially if it's hard.
"The pain, the discipline, the training, the soreness — all those great aspects that students tell me they hate, but then the next week, they're, like, 'Thank you,'" she said. "Because it's their hard work, they can feel it, they can remember it."
Stasi credits much of her spirited take on life to her mother. "She would say things like, 'I'm not smart enough to help you with your homework, but I'm going to tell your teacher to give you extra homework because I want you to be smarter than me,'" Stasi said. "It's a big reason why I work for the community, because I know how hard it is when you don't have a lot, and I know how helpful it is to have people whispering positive things at you."
Given her focus on fitness at UCLA, it comes as no surprise that her interests have turned toward a career in public health. After graduation, she is headed for the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine program in epidemiology and public health for her master's degree, with an eye toward fostering healthier communities.
She will be leaving FITTED in the hands of her protégé, Sergio Guevara, who has been with the organization since the start. But now there is a buzz of fitness on campus that wasn't there before FITTED.
"A lot of people would talk about losing weight or looking healthy," Stasi said. "But the most important thing that people gain from FITTED is feeling healthy, energized and confident."