In an effort to stem the tide of COVID-19, state and national policies have enforced safe physical distancing. But these measures quickly brought into sharp relief the deep vulnerabilities and inequities that already existed in our economy and culture — the effects of which will reverberate long after the virus’s most pressing threat has passed.
But the ways in which communities have rallied to address and mitigate those vulnerabilities and inequities will also reverberate. And as a result, our creativity will be enhanced, and our commitment to one another will be strengthened. At UCLA, that sense of community in the face of inequity emerged early.
As soon as UCLA realized the need to shift to remote teaching, Patricia Turner, senior dean of the UCLA College of Letters and Science, recognized that many students would lack the basic technology to thrive in such a scenario.
She immediately pledged her entire $90,000 discretionary fund — raised during the Centennial Campaign for UCLA — to ensure students in need were able to acquire the technology required for remote learning. Grants for laptops and Wi-Fi access were given on a first-come, first-served basis. Other deans and department heads also committed support from their own discretionary funds, and the Bruin Tech Award was launched. Ina Sotomayor, UCLA’s financial aid director, immediately agreed to support the effort by overseeing the application and vetting process, ensuring that the most eligible students received the funding.
“That money was set aside for unorthodox situations, to help when a student looks like they are going to fall between the cracks — sort of a rainy day fund,” Turner says. “Well, it’s raining. I couldn’t think of a better use for it.”
And contrary to what outside perceptions might be, Turner knew there would be a lot of students who would need help. “UCLA does have a financially vulnerable student population,” she says. “Obviously, they are smart as a whip because they were admitted, but with lower-income students, there is always a risk we will lose them in the spring quarter. To let Wi-Fi access or the lack of a laptop be the deal breaker this year — we couldn’t let that happen.”
UCLA launched a fundraising campaign around the Bruin Tech Award, and alumni showed up in a big way. Hundreds of donors chipped in on the first day of the campaign. As of April 15, more than $200,000 had been raised from 1,069 donors, in increments as small as $8.
“We’ve heard from a lot of donors about how grateful they are to have a chance to help,” Turner says. “There is a story behind almost every gift. People are writing on the website’s donor wall and dedicating their gift to a specific teacher or department, some UCLA entity that was instrumental in that giver’s life. It’s very moving.”
Turner hopes the generosity that provided the much-needed discretionary funds will extend beyond this crisis, with donors helping to refill the coffers.
Alumni gather to support well-being
In addition to helping students and faculty during the COVID-19 crisis, UCLA Alumni Affairs is also committed to supporting the worldwide network of Bruins through events and connections. Shortly after safer-at-home policies went into effect, the UCLA Alumni Association organized a mindfulness webinar, which more than 500 alumni attended. Due to its success, the webinar has become an ongoing series.
“I was stunned at the turnout,” says Kristine Werlinich, senior director of regional communities and Future Bruin Initiatives. “The feedback has been great. We were happy to be able to provide something like this and to be able to do it so quickly. Our alumni are proud to be associated with UCLA and are so consistently generous.”
The Alumni Association is also focused on sharing its career-networking portal UCLA ONE, helping Bruins find work during challenging economic times.
Amid the shockwaves of COVID-19, there’s an immediate need for mental health solutions, and UCLA is uniquely suited to rise to that challenge, especially during a time of global anxiety, stress and distress.
The Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) has been researching and teaching about mindfulness and meditation for more than 14 years. Last year, it launched UCLA Mindful, a free meditation app. There are also guided meditations at uclahealth.org/marc. In addition, MARC quickly transitioned its free lunchtime meditation sessions at the Hammer Museum at UCLA to a virtual environment — they’re now available as a podcast and a live event online.
During public briefings, political leaders and policymakers regularly broach the topic of mental well-being in these unprecedented times. In response, MARC has stepped up efforts to reach underserved communities in virtual ways, connecting with schools and local nonprofits, says Diana Winston, MARC’s director of mindfulness education.
“It’s an important time for our center. We know what we have to offer is part of the mental health solution,” Winston says. “What we are doing is what we have always done. It’s just that suddenly people are listening more, admitting they need some help, some tools. And we have them at the ready.”
“[Together], we can solve problems that none of us can solve alone. And the best insurance policy has always been knowing that others have your back.”
Director of the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute
Love sparks involvement
UCLA alum and professional basketball player Kevin Love, an outspoken advocate for the dialogue and research around anxiety and depression, was one of the first celebrities to offer financial support for some of the hardest-hit workers in America. He pledged $100,000 to pay the salaries of workers at the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, the home arena for his team, the Cleveland Cavaliers.
In June, UCLA announced that Love donated $500,000 in a Centennial Term Chair Matching Gift — a $1 million investment that establishes the Kevin Love Fund Centennial Chair in UCLA’s department of psychology.
“I’m concerned about the level of anxiety that people are feeling,” Love said. “Recent events, including the novel coronavirus outbreak have put our society under enormous stress. I’m happy to help UCLA, my alma mater, work toward solving some of society's biggest underlying issues.”
Even in the wake of anxiety, uncertainty, and very real security and privacy challenges, the shift to virtual operations for a campus as massive as UCLA has also brought an unsurprising influx of creativity.
Shortly before safer-at-home policies went into effect, the university’s a cappella group shot a lighthearted hand-washing instructional video for social media. Around the same time, UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance brought South Africa’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo to the stage in a nearly empty Royce Hall. The concert was livestreamed, in partnership with local radio station KCRW.
Students began building versions of Royce Hall and other parts of campus in the video game world Minecraft, hoping to hold commencement ceremonies in the virtual space.
The Hammer Museum joined the social media campaign #MuseumMomentofZen, in which museums from around the world share photos and videos of their art collections.
The UCLA centennial edition of LA Hacks pivoted from its Pauley Pavilion gathering to a virtual event. More than 1,000 college and high school students from across the country participated in the online hackathon, creating about 200 software projects aimed at improving the quality of life in Southern California. One of the winning apps would help people keep track of where they go when stepping out of self-isolation, also providing real-time information from L.A. County on COVID-19 cases in the app user’s neighborhood.
And we might be better for this
With millions of people working, learning, creating, sharing and connecting from home, environmental scientists and activists are keenly observing the effects of mass changes in human behavior. Just three weeks into L.A.’s extensive restrictions on movement, a study on air quality revealed that the city had some of the cleanest air in the world. But UCLA environmental experts are also aware that these changes are temporary. After all, the ability to work online isn’t necessarily widespread.
With web-based services like Zoom, Houseparty, Google Hangouts and similar platforms taking the spotlight in the wake of COVID-19, it’s easy to get excited about revamping popular support for net neutrality laws. But that notion isn’t simple, says John Villasenor, professor of electrical engineering, law, public policy and management at UCLA Samueli School of Engineering.
“The current situation has underscored how vital internet access is,” he says. “Everyone deserves good internet access. That said, it’s also important to not lose sight of the inequities in the role it plays. For a computer programmer, internet access can make it seamless to work from home. But for someone whose job is stocking shelves in a food distribution warehouse, there’s simply no option to work from home, regardless of how good their internet service might be.”
A critical element of our ability to create effective and lasting solutions to the virus is cooperation, which comes part and parcel with kindness, says Daniel Fessler, director of the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute.
In April, the UCLA Volunteer Center launched a letter-writing campaign to show support for the health care workers who were effectively risking their own lives during the height of the spread of the virus.
Around the same time, a group of parents from China whose children are attending UCLA started a grassroots fundraising campaign for UCLA Health. The philanthropy was their way of saying thank you to the university for taking care of their family members.
Social media accounts began to show video footage of New Yorkers cheering from their windows and balconies every night at 7 p.m. — the time when medical workers change shifts. In Los Angeles, buildings across the city and the UCLA campus began to #LightItBlue as a thank you to first responders and health care workers. This kind of visibility is so important, Fessler says, because people are more apt to show kindness to each other when they witness kind acts in their environments. And that’s hard to see in a stay-at-home environment.
“But throughout human evolution, being part of a cooperative prosocial group has been critical to meeting many of the challenges that we face working together,” he adds. “We can solve problems that none of us can solve alone. And the best insurance policy has always been knowing that others have your back.”