Kathy O’Byrne, the recently retired director of the UCLA Center for Community Learning, died Oct. 29 at her home in Glendale, California. She was 65.
A committed advocate for community-engaged scholarship, O’Byrne began her career at UCLA in 2001 as director of the Center for Experiential Education and Service Learning, which Chancellor Albert Carnesale renamed the Center for Community Learning in 2004.
Under O’Byrne’s 16 years of leadership, the center’s work became one of the cornerstones of undergraduate education at UCLA, advancing the university’s commitment to civic engagement, diversity, equity and inclusion.
Through sharing best practices developed at the center, O’Byrne sought to bring campus and community stakeholders together to learn from and with one another.
“Kathy O’Byrne made incalculable contributions to UCLA’s engagement with its community partners over the years,” said Darnell Hunt, dean of the division of social sciences in the UCLA College, who chaired UCLA’s 2017 Task Force on Civic Engagement, on which O’Byrne served.
Born in Toledo, Ohio, O’Byrne recieved her bachelor’s degree from Vassar College, her master’s in clinical psychology from Arizona State University and a doctorate in psychology from the University of Southern California.
O’Byrne’s pioneering work has not only been acknowledged by her colleagues, but at the state level as well. In 2004, she was the recipient of California Campus Compact’s Richard E. Cone Award for Excellence and Leadership in Cultivating Community Partnerships in Higher Education.
Mario Fedelin, executive director of Big Citizen Hub, worked closely with O’Byrne as a community partner. Reflecting on their work together, Fedelin said that O’Byrne approached collaboration as an opportunity to build lasting personal and professional relationships.
“Kathy loved Los Angeles, and we would talk for hours about the vibrant communities,” Fedelin said. “She was an L.A. institution and will be missed dearly.”
Whenever she could, O’Byrne advocated for undergraduates to receive what she called a “21st century education.” Her goal was to challenge students to put their critical thinking and research skills to work in collaboration with community leaders through service learning and internship courses and yearlong scholarship programs.
The center’s associate directors, Elizabeth Goodhue and Douglas Barrera, said among the initiatives that O’Byrne created at UCLA, she took the most pride in the civic engagement minor, the Astin Civic Engagement Scholars program, JusticeCorps and her Food Justice and Engaging L.A. service learning courses.
O’Byrne’s efforts have resulted in UCLA students serving more than 71,800 hours at more than 75 sites spread across 327 square miles of Los Angeles County each year.
O’Byrne not only shaped the way that UCLA students interacted with local communities but she was deeply invested in their personal growth.
“Kathy was an instrumental mentor during my time at UCLA,” said Jesse Flores, who graduated in June 2017 and was an Astin Civic Engagement Scholar and minored in civic engagement. “When I was contemplating the idea of pursuing a Ph.D. as a first-generation student, Kathy helped me see the importance of connecting theory with practice when working with disenfranchised communities. Our long conversations were constant reminders of why I chose to pursue a master’s in urban planning and do community-based work with veterans. All of the fulfilling community partnerships that I have formed are products of her guidance.”
O’Byrne also inspired countless graduate students whose teaching and research positions with the Center for Community Learning have led to successful careers working for community-based organizations and universities.
“Kathy had such a big impact on so many of us, and her philosophy of community-engaged learning is being spread throughout the country by those of us who benefitted from her mentorship,” said Mark Kaswan, who graduated with a Ph.D. in political science from UCLA in 2010 and who is now an associate professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
Beyond her academic and civic work in Los Angeles, O’Byrne’s passions also included reading, cooking, playing the piano and spending time with her family.
O’Byrne is survived by her mother, two siblings, three children and one grandson.
In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations be made in O’Byrne’s name to one of the following community organizations, all of which partnered regularly with her service learning courses: Kindred Spirits Care Farm, Big Citizen Hub, Bresee Community Center, Food Forward and MEND (Meet Each Need with Dignity).