When Liliana Leon, a recent UCLA graduate, first learned that she would be talking to workers she didn’t know during her summer internship in Los Angeles, she felt intimidated.

But now, eight weeks after she started working at the United Food and Commercial Workers union office in Los Angeles, conversing with strangers has become almost routine for her. In fact, talking with workers has become the most interesting part of her job, when she learns about their deepest struggles and dreams.

“I’ve become a little bit more outgoing,” Leon said. “I guess I’ve developed more confidence. The work pace was hectic, but it was also eye-opening. And I learned a lot that I may not have otherwise gotten to know had I been placed elsewhere.”

Leon is one of 15 participants in the Student Leadership Academy internship program, an eight-week, full-time, paid internship program sponsored by the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment and the UCLA Labor Center. The program places recent university graduates with different social justice organizations and labor unions in Southern California. Many graduates go on to pursue careers in public service and organizing in Los Angeles and across the country.

“There are very few internship programs of this kind nationally,” said Elizbeth Espinoza, student programming coordinator at the UCLA Labor Center. “It is a program that focuses on the practical skills of working a full-time job, but it also nurtures the next generation of labor and community leaders.”

Leon summed up what she learned from her internship. “It makes you realize that at the core of so many workers’ stories is that they just want respect,” she said. Many of the grocery workers she spoke with are seeking basic improvements in their lives such as a pay raise, paid sick leave and the freedom to voice their opinions.

The daughter of immigrants who didn’t speak English and had little or no knowledge about their rights as workers, Leon, like many of her fellow interns at the Student Leadership Academy, comes from backgrounds similar to those of the workers they met.

Nikki Narvasa’s father moved to Los Angeles from the Philippines in 2003. Before his visa expired, he found a job that would sponsor him, but the working conditions were sub-standard. “He was paid as a part-time employee even though he worked full-time, took overtime and worked on the weekends,” recalled Narvasa, who graduated from UCLA in June.  

These experiences drove her to apply for the Student Leadership Academy. “I wanted to raise awareness in the immigrant community about what they can do to prevent this situation,” she said. “Everyone should know how to assess if they are being mistreated, and how they can prevent it.”

After three days of intensive training at the Downtown Labor Center, Leon, Narvasa and the rest of the interns began working at their sites.

Narvasa was assigned to work at the United Nurses Association of California/United Health Care Professionals, which has a large Filipino membership. Part of her work included learning the ins and outs of collective-bargaining contracts. “I had the opportunity to work on eight different contracts from different hospitals,” she said. “I have learned so much.”

With her internship at an end, Leon is studying for the LSAT and is determined to obtain a law degree and become a public servant.

“As a Latina, I want to help out and give back to my community,” she said. “I have learned that if I want to help pass effective policies, firsthand knowledge about the problem comes from the workers themselves.”