Students + Campus

4 students to receive UCLA humanitarian award for community service

Four fourth-year UCLA students have been awarded the 2009 Charles E. Young Humanitarian Award for their unwavering commitment to public service.

They will be honored at a private ceremony for their friends and family on Wednesday, May 6, at 3:30 p.m. in the Charles Young Grand Salon on UCLA's campus.

The Young Humanitarian Award, formerly known as the Chancellor's Humanitarian Award, was established by UCLA in 1986 as an annual tribute to recognize and encourage projects that address the social needs of the community. It is one of the most prestigious honors given to UCLA undergraduates.

This year's student honorees — Frank Rodriguez, Wendy Tseng, Jonathan Lee and Laura Petry — each will receive $700, to be donated to a public service project of their choice.

Frank Rodriguez, who will graduate in June with a double major in political science and Chicano studies and a double minor in civic engagement and labor and workplace studies, is being honored for his leadership in Proyecto de Jornaleros (Day Laborer Project), in which UCLA students assist Los Angeles–area day laborers in learning English and computer skills.

Rodriguez was born in Santa Barbara, Calif., to immigrants from Jalisco, Mexico. His parents worked in service industries — his mother cleaning homes and his father busing tables and eventually bartending at a local country club. A group of country club members who befriended his father paid for Rodriguez to attend a private, four-year Catholic high school, which he says set him on the track toward college.

After high school, Rodriguez thought the only way to give back to his community was to become a lawyer. But during his third week at UCLA, he joined the group Conciencia Libre (Free Conscience), where he came together with other students to learn about how oppressed communities have organized to affect change in society and improve their lives. Rodriguez quickly changed course and began working to facilitate dialogue leading to increased empowerment for various communities he saw around him, including service workers at UCLA and day laborers at sites around Los Angeles.

For the past four years, he has worked Fridays and Saturdays with day laborers, or jornaleros, helping them learn English and become computer literate to enable them to communicate more effectively with bosses and apply for jobs.
But more important to Rodriguez is the time he spends with the jornaleros at the beginning of the sessions, facilitating dialogue on important issues so that the "laborers help each other, exchanging ways of thought."
Rodriguez has also organized events surrounding an exhibition of photographs taken by day laborers called "A Travs de los Ojos del Jornalero" ("Through the Eyes of the Day Laborer").

"Art can be one way for jornaleros to gain agency, to open up their voice," Rodriguez said. "We speak about what the pictures mean, the struggles that day laborers go through — they create dialogue and encourage everyone to interact."
Rodriguez is also chair of the Community Programs Office Student Association at UCLA, which helps run access and retention programs for students and more than 24 student-initiated community service projects.

Next year, he will be a part of the prestigious Coro Fellows Program in Los Angeles, a leadership training program that prepares promising young individuals for effective and ethical leadership in the public affairs arena.

Wendy Tseng, who is working towards both a bachelor's degree and a master's in physiological science, is being honored for her leadership in creating the HOPE 4 Homeless project, which brings UCLA students to skid row in downtown Los Angeles to tutor homeless residents hoping to pass the GED exam and gain employment.

Tseng, who grew up in Taiwan and various parts of Southern California, was inspired to pursue a career in health by her father, a neurosurgeon, and her grandfather, a cardiologist. Her grandfather had helped find the cause of blackfoot disease, a gangrene-like condition that afflicted villagers living near the southwestern coast of Taiwan.

In 2006, Tseng became a patient escort at UCLA Medical Center, bringing patients from recovery rooms to their family's cars, and was recognized for providing 150 hours of service. But after being tipped $5, she realized that while she was improving UCLA's hospitality services, she wasn't doing enough to improve people's lives.

She had read stories in the Los Angeles Times about patient "dumping," in which hospitals simply dropped homeless patients off in the downtown skid row area. She was curious as to how people became homeless and what circumstances in their lives had led them to a place where they had no support system.

Tseng partnered with the Fresh Start Rehabilitation Program. The program, which is run by the Los Angeles Mission, a downtown shelter, helps homeless individuals transform their lives and re-enter society. Each week, as part of the program, about seven UCLA students head to the Los Angeles Mission and tutor residents to help them pass the high school equivalency exam. In just a year, the group has grown to include more than 40 members, who, in addition to tutoring, have come together to help establish a library for the residents and to provide them with information on cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity in order to encourage healthy lifestyles.

"Part of the UCLA experience, besides getting a great education, is to mature and learn about society by interacting with others and sympathizing with other people's experiences," Tseng said. "There are a lot of prejudices and stereotypes of the homeless, but they are not any different from how we are — some even went to college. Some made bad decisions, but they are not bad people. They have just really lost all their connections and broken a lot of bonds with their families. It's important to understand other people's experiences and let go of these stereotypes we have."

Jonathan Lee, a political science major who will graduate in June, is being recognized for founding the group Swipes for the Homeless, which organizes donation drives that encourage students to cash in their unused dining hall meals at the end of the quarter to purchase food for the homeless.

Growing up in Santa Monica, Calif., Lee saw homeless people often but never felt that he had any resources to help out.

After attending UCLA for a few quarters, he observed that at the end of each quarter, students who had paid more than $1,000 for meal plans would be left with unused meals. In an effort to recoup these costs, students would purchase large cases of beverages and excessive amounts of pizza, much of which also went unused. It seemed a waste of resources to Lee.

In the winter of 2006, he organized the first Swipes for the Homeless food drive; he set up a table outside Bruin Caf during the 10th week of the quarter and encouraged students to buy sandwiches and beverages with their unused swipes and to donate them. Later, he and a few others drove a truck to skid row and distributed the sandwiches and drinks to homeless people they saw on the streets.

Since that first effort, Lee has helped organize food drives every quarter and has expanded the effort to include clothing drives, knowing that students often throw away unwanted clothes at the end of the year when moving out of the dorms.

Lee likes the simple idea of bringing resources from people who don't need them to people who do, but he says participation in the drives also increases public service activity by his peers.

"For many students, involvement in Swipes for the Homeless leads to service with other organizations that focus on issues they have been exposed to, such as mobile clinics and tutoring projects," he said. "In a fragmented and frequently self-absorbed city like Los Angeles, homeless people are mostly rendered an afterthought. Students are busy with schoolwork and finding jobs, but their dedication to Swipes for the Homeless demonstrates that they value serving the community despite their significant personal obligations and time commitments."

In addition to the Swipes for the Homeless project, Lee has taken lead roles in raising hundreds of dollars for children who became orphans after the 2008 earthquake in China, developing materials to prevent violence against immigrant women and teenage girls in Los Angeles, and mobilizing the Latino youth vote during the 2008 presidential election.

Laura Petry, an English major, is being honored for her innovation and leadership in the Bruin Partners project, which connects UCLA student mentors with sixth, seventh and eighth graders at Marina del Rey Middle School.

Growing up, in part, in Orange County, Calif., Petry was involved in various volunteer and fundraising activities in high school, but she yearned for a more hands-on experience where she could learn about a different community.

When she came to UCLA, she hit the ground running, volunteering for three different student-initiated tutoring programs, which exposed her to communities in Malibu Hills, Vernon and Culver City.

Petry, who moved from Pittsburgh to California during her early teens, said she had a tough time adjusting in middle school. At UCLA, she became focused on mentoring middle school students because "it doesn't matter which community you are coming from or what your socioeconomic situation is — middle school is hard for everybody." 
"I was not coming from the same background as these kids, but I don't think that that is necessary to be able to help," she said.

In addition to organizing volunteers and weekly site visits, Petry instituted "parent nights" so that UCLA mentors could connect with their mentees' parents. Petry says interacting with parents has provided some real insights into different students' situations and has even inspired some of the students to work harder.

"One boy had struggled for three years in the program. When we met with his stepdad and mom, the stepdad said that he wanted so much more for his son than he could provide. Since then, the kid is taking everything much more seriously," Petry said.

Petry said she had no idea how positively the program had affected her own mentee until she spoke to her mentee's mother on parents night. She found out that before starting the program, the girl had had a very difficult time in school, especially in math, earning Cs and lower, and had gotten so down and discouraged about it that she didn’t even want to go to school. Her Spanish-speaking mother had tried to help her with homework but found it difficult because of the language barrier. With regular help from Bruin Partners, Petry's mentee now consistently earns As and Bs, takes honors courses and is more involved with other school activities, including the school newspaper.

Petry is well aware of the high dropout rate at LAUSD high schools and is organizing college nights to educate middle school parents about the path to college.

"We're opening up the college night program to the entire school to educate parents and students early on what happens after high school," Petry said. "In middle school, students may fail classes and there are no consequences for them. If they get to high school and carry on the same habits, they won't graduate. We want to get them to take their high school careers more seriously so they don't have to drop out of school."
Laura also points out that the program does not just benefit the students and their families. It has also helped her to grow as a person.
"I was awkward, shy and unsure of myself when I got to UCLA," she said. "Bruin Partners and other community service projects forge strong communities here on campus and have helped me, and others, grow as leaders."
For more news, visit the UCLA Newsroom.
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