Every spring, thousands of students graduate from UCLA. The campus becomes suffused with a sense of excitement and anticipation. On the Hill, UCLA’s residential community, another small group goes through commencement too, but they aren’t students. They’re employees who have completed the UCLA Housing and Hospitality Mentoring Program. I’m one of them.

This intensive professional development course, which graduated its first class 20 years ago this month, helps entry-level and frontline employees — among them mechanics, custodians, food service workers and administrative assistants — cultivate their skills and marketability and pairs each with a senior UCLA staff member who mentors them in their area of interest.

UCLA has other great programs that bolster the aspirations and careers of employees —notably the Professional Development Program and Staff Enrichment Program — but the Housing and Hospitality course is unique in that it is designed exclusively for a single department.

I’ve only been working on campus since early 2020, but I was keenly interested in the program. In 2019, I graduated from the University of Oregon with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and returned home to Los Angeles. With work in journalism scarce, I was grateful to find a job at UCLA, right before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. I currently work in the call center for housing maintenance, answering phones and routing work orders through our database. Though I’ve learned a lot — namely that people will put anything down their garbage disposal — my passion has always been writing.

Participants enter the program with a variety of goals. Some are looking to transition to new careers like myself, while others hope to move up in their department or simply further develop their skills. I was hoping to be exposed to the world of university communications and to work my way into professional writing. For my mentor, I requested Rebecca Kendall, the editorial and communications manager for UCLA Administration.

Taking a leap of faith

The program’s first major meeting was in December 2022 at the Sunset Canyon Recreation Center, a daylong retreat of workshops and icebreaking activities. Over the coming months, I would grow close not only with Rebecca but my entire 13-person cohort, but this is where all the mentees and mentors got to know each other for the first time. The most thrilling activity of the day was a trust-building exercise that gave us the opportunity to climb and leap from a tower on a ropes course.

Rebecca Kendall (left), instructor (center, with back to camera), and Christopher Bower (right) prepare to ascend the ropes course tower. Bower and Kendall are in helmets and climbing gear.
Felicia Caldwell
Bower and his mentor, Rebecca Kendall (left), prepare to climb the ropes course tower.

I persuaded Rebecca to climb the tower with me. It was designed for two people, so why not? “Come on, it’s here, give it a shot,” I cajoled. “When else are you going to get to use a climbing tower?”

My do-anything-once attitude apparently convinced her, and we soon found ourselves 30 feet in the air, standing on a tightrope and taking a leap of faith. Attached to harnesses, we jumped together and were gently lowered to the ground by the group of mentees and mentors. Sometimes life is subtle, and sometimes it hands you metaphors on a silver platter.

There were other, less daring but equally productive activities that day. In workshops, we hammered out our personal plans; for me, that meant writing again and making arrangements to assist or shadow Rebecca over the coming months. Beyond her communications skills, we clicked on a personal level. And Rebecca had once been where I was, looking to get her foot in the door. Her empathy and support during the mentoring program were invaluable.

With Rebecca’s encouragement, I spent much of early 2023 getting back into the habit of writing — mainly film criticism and analysis because that is what inspired me. I wrote pieces on “The Fabelmans” and “Babylon,” and forecasted who would win the Oscars. And while these were unpublished pieces, the effort helped get me back in the groove and re-familiarize myself with storytelling and the writing process.

All the while, I attended the program’s monthly workshops, where we learned about presentations, communicating and emotional intelligence and met with senior leaders in Housing and Hospitality. For me and for the other participants, it was a crash course in becoming an even more valuable employee and attractive potential candidate for future opportunities.

Eleven members of the mentoring program’s graduating cohort, men and women, stand in two rows. Bower is in the back row, second from the right.
Felicia Caldwell
Members of the mentoring program’s graduating class of 2023. Back row, from left: Esteban Rodriguez, Rea Amor Andaya, Ana Castro, Bower, mentoring program director Carol Huang. Front row, from left: Hector Velazquez, Youssef Abdelmalek, Samuel Dorham, Leslye Montgomery, Jose Arechiga, Robert Witoski. (Absent: Victor Velasco)

Connecting with resources across the UCLA campus

As we moved into spring, Rebecca connected me with senior staff in UCLA Strategic Communications for informational interviews and welcomed me to her office for a day of job-shadowing, which included meetings, helping to review and revise advertising and social media copy, and attending a menu tasting at Plateia.

And while the mentoring program doesn’t explicitly require a capstone project, I began to focus on one as the logical endpoint of the work we’d been doing all these months. Rebecca and I agreed that if I could get an actual, real-world byline or writing clip, it would be incredibly beneficial to my path going forward. With 2023 marking the 20th anniversary of the Housing and Hospitality Mentoring Program, she suggested I write a short piece on that for News & Views, a UCLA Administration quarterly newsletter, interviewing people involved with the program and highlighting its value to the university.

Christopher Bower stands at podium. The tops of audience members’ heads are visible in the foreground.
Felicia Caldwell
Bower addresses the audience at the program’s June 7 graduation ceremony. He was one of four featured mentee speakers.

When I spoke with team members for that piece, their love and appreciation for the program came through in everything they said, and it was obvious why the course has endured for so long. I understand where that feeling comes from. The program surrounds you with people who want you to not only learn but succeed.

While I was working on that initial article, Rebecca suggested I take the project even further by approaching UCLA Newsroom to write a first-person piece on my experience — the one you’re reading now. I leapt at the opportunity. Shepherding both these pieces from pitch to final, published product helped me see firsthand how university communications works, which is what I’d hoped to learn when I started this journey.

And though my June 7th graduation marked the end of my time with the program, the skills I learned and the support system I cultivated is something I’ll always carry with me — and something I’m tremendously grateful for.

As I said in the speech I delivered during our program’s graduation ceremony: “This experience has brought us clarity on the careers we wish to pursue and given us a vision of how we can forge our future.”