Vanessa Gaytan isn’t trying to spend her time at UCLA with blinders on, but she, like many students, can sometimes find herself stuck in a silo of her academic track and ambitions.

“I’m in my own clubs and organizations, and it’s hard to meet people out of that with our busy schedules,” said Gaytan, a third year psychology major looking to add applied linguistics to her studies. She is a member of the UCLA Academic Advancement Program, Alpha Gamma Delta sorority and the Program for Excellence in Education and Research in the Sciences.

To help accomplish her goal of building new relationships with her UCLA classmates, Gaytan was one of 22 students who recently went to Washington, D.C. with Chancellor Gene Block as part of his annual trip that offers a diverse array of students an insider’s taste of politics and also experiences outside of their prospective campus bubbles.

Gaytan had heard about the trip, now in its fourth year, from a friend, and knew she wanted to apply to be a part of the cohort.

“We did so many fun activities,” Gaytan said shortly after returning from the nearly weeklong trip. “My favorite part was getting to know the other students.”

In addition to the students, a few faculty and staff joined Block on the trip to the nation’s capital.

Different perspectives

“As a public university, UCLA has a strong interest in developing our students’ leadership and problem-solving skills,” Block wrote in his winter quarterly update. “That means helping them develop the capacity to wrestle with complex questions, understand the challenges of setting policy and appreciate the importance of dialogue and compromise — particularly as our nation struggles with its own deep divisions.”

The group achieved this goal by visiting the Washington Mall, Arlington Cemetery, Smithsonian Institute, Holocaust Memorial Museum, National Museum of African American History and Culture and conducting multiple panels with federal officials.

After each visit, or by the end of each day, the students would meet and discuss what they had witnessed and how what they learned affected them.

“By moving through this collective experience, students are challenged to shed preconceived notions and engage in dialogue across areas of difference,” said said Maria Blandizzi, dean for students.

A standout moment to several students was a performance at the Kennedy Center by Meshell Ndegeocello titled “No More Water | The Fire Next Time: The Gospel According to James Baldwin.” The genre-bending performance included a church service, concert, celebration, testimonial and a call to action, and it challenges audiences to engage in critical investigations into race, religion, sexual orientation, America and the status quo through celebration of James Baldwin’s ideas.

“Afterwards, when our day had ended and the itinerary was over, a lot of us met together in my and my roommates’ apartment and we were just debriefing on it and giving our different opinions,” Gaytan said. “It was really cool because we all had different perspectives and opinions and different beliefs, and it was very nice how everyone was sharing in a very respectful and positive manner.”

Several students identified directly with the performer, and felt empowered after, especially in regards to combatting oppression and discrimination. Others wondered whether the performance could come off as scolding to the audience, while several countered that its purpose was to educate and create social awareness. A few, even, wanted to discuss the more musical artistic elements on a less socially conscious level. The students were eager to listen to one another regardless of perspective.

Simran Saini, a fourth-year anthropology major, agreed about the power of the performance and the discussion with the group following. She is part of the Alumni Scholars Club, UCLA Undergraduate Students Association Council Office of the External Vice President and the pre-law society.

“They didn’t give us any background on what this play is about, just that we would all experience it in a different way,” Saini said. A lot of students in the group came away with a different message or feeling. Said said she saw herself filtering the art through the lens of empowerment and speaking against discrimination, and she was interested to hear from others, who came at it from a different perspective. “If it wasn’t for this group I never would have gotten that feedback.”

Students talking with Chancellor Gene Block during the D.C. trip
Scott Henrichsen/UCLA
Students get opportunities to talk with Chancellor Gene Block during the D.C. trip.
 

Government 101

Beyond the culture enrichment activities, students were exposed to a half dozen government panels, led by more than 20 UCLA alumni from both sides of the political spectrum representing federal agencies, Congress and other federal staffers.

“You think these things are so distant, but when you are actually in front of the chancellor or a congressional staff panel, you realize it’s not so much that way, you kind of unveil what’s behind the curtain and see the inner workings,” said Alonso Aquije, a fourth-year political science major and public affairs minor who is involved with Latin Lawyers, residential life and founded UCLA Forensics, which is a speech and debate club.

“There’s so much behind the scenes work we don’t know about,” Gaytan said. “Behind every person in political office, they have so many people working for them — supporting them, lobbying and conducting public relations outreach to get people involved. It really taught me how I can get more involved.”

Access to UCLA administrators

This was the first time many students had an opportunity to speak with the Chancellor and his staff and these faculty members.

Aquije said he felt an obligation to bring up topics that other students had brought to him, seeing as students don’t often have a direct line to the chancellor.

“I get a lot of people telling me what problems they are facing in UCLA, and the struggles they go through right now, and I wanted to come back with an answer and meet these people who almost seem unavailable,” said Aquije, who was a little surprised at how easy the dialogue progressed. “And then, after this week, you realize that is totally not the case.”

“Exposing ourselves to new ideas and exiting our own echo chambers are some of the most powerful ways we can grow, and these experiences are essential for our future leaders,” Block wrote. “It was again gratifying to see our students taking advantage of this wonderful opportunity and expanding their worldviews.”