Editor’s note: the date of the “Bonding with BoJack,” event has been corrected.
As students prepare to dive into their remote classes and activities at the beginning of a school year like no other, one of the barriers to connecting with each other is the lack of opportunities to talk in real life about their shared interests, like a favorite TV show, meme or spot in Westwood. UCLA’s Common Experience program, which launches during True Bruin Welcome Week, is trying to fill this gap by providing a series of programming centered around the critically acclaimed Netflix show “BoJack Horseman,” which delves into the topic of mental health and wellness.
“Bonding with BoJack,” the first Common Experience event, will be held on Friday, Oct. 2 at 4 p.m. This event is accessible to all interested students, regardless of whether they have watched the show. UCLA Newsroom spoke with Carmen Garcia-Shushtari, assistant director of First Year Experience about how they chose an animated show about a former TV star, who is a sentient horse, for this year’s common experience.
What is the general idea behind the Common Experience Program, and has it changed this year?
The Common Experience Program is a series of engagements and events throughout the year that also includes academic integration into the classroom. The program centers around the idea of having a common theme that students can discuss as well as staff, faculty and alumni. We want students to have a common language to talk about a topic, usually social justice centered or related to the collegiate experience in some way or another. Last year was the first year that we transformed the program from common book to common experience to expand the mediums that we can use to facilitate these dialogues and discussions.
Why transition to a television show after previously using books and podcasts?
We’re really excited to have chosen a television show this year. Last year we chose the theme of Los Angeles to coincide with the centennial, and this year we’ve chosen the theme of mental health, with the theme being “Minds Matter.” Our committee has been wanting to focus on mental health for years and emphasize it as a university, so we decided that this was the year. This was actually decided pre-COVID, but the choice obviously became even more relevant as a result of the pandemic affecting everyone’s mental state. Our committee, which is made up of faculty, students and staff, had several meetings to whittle down the selections, and then chose “Bojack Horseman.” They felt that considering the reality of where we are now, with students all in their remote environments, giving them a long and heavy text to read would be challenging because people are just exhausted and going through their own individual mental health struggles. We felt that we know a lot of people are marathoning Netflix right now, so why not go to them where they are and contribute to that kind of lifestyle that we’re all in right now.
What does “BoJack” do as a show to uniquely address mental health issues?
“BoJack Horseman” is the story of a 90s sitcom star who is trying to revitalize his career while also battling substance abuse and bouts of depression. It’s very raw in how it portrays both of those things. We really liked how the show talks about mental illness in a very creative way that’s still very real. It really goes deep into this concept of loneliness and the power of us reinventing ourselves and we felt that these concepts are so relevant right now to where we are right now. But beyond that, we actually really liked the fact that it also talked about other intersecting identities that include first-generation college students, and students from small towns and rural areas, which is something that First Year Experience is engaging more with. There are also topics related to LGBTQ populations and a special focus on Asian Americans. We felt that those issues are also very relevant to the UCLA community, and so we liked the possibility of expanding beyond mental health depending on how we are engaging with the campus community.
Could you take me through what the event will look like in practice?
The chancellor will introduce the program with the announcement of this selection at This is Bruin Life, which is the kickoff of welcome week, and then we are planning to have an event later that week that will start the conversation about “BoJack Horseman” and the mental health focus. That first event is called “Bonding with BoJack,” where people will be getting to know one another via games and activities centered around the show and the issues that it tackles.
Will students still be able to participate in the event if they haven’t seen BoJack?
Absolutely! We want to stress that the “Bonding with BoJack” event is very inclusive and that anyone can participate regardless of whether or not they have seen the show. But, we’ve also curated a selection of less than 20 episodes that we feel are the most relevant to what we want to discuss, so people don’t have to watch seasons of the show to understand what we’re talking about.
How will the programming overcome the virtual barrier to discuss a topic that is so personal to many students?
Well, for one thing, we want to make sure that we protect the privacy of every student, so for the “Bonding with BoJack” event we’re letting people know that they don’t have to have their camera on or even use their real name. We’ll be using the chat to communicate and share, and we’re trying to be as mindful as possible to respect people’s privacy while also encouraging them to find some community around these topics. In terms of other programming elements that will happen we’re trying to keep that in mind as well, because we recognize that mental health can be a very personal and private issue. So we’re trying to navigate that and still have a way for people to share their struggles and find that there’s actually a lot of commonality and universality in what they’re experiencing.