A program that provides career mentorship to college students and recent graduates on the autism spectrum and those with developmental disabilities. Another that ensures children in the Mojave Desert will continue to learn about healthy eating and sustainability from their elementary school garden. These difference-making initiatives are the beneficiaries of help from two UCLA students who each won one of this year’s Donald A. Strauss Foundation scholarships for community service.

Ada Chung, a junior majoring in political science and minoring in disability studies, and Jiseon Kim, a senior majoring in history and public affairs, are two of 14 California college students this year who each won $7,000 for their educational costs and $8,000 to fund their community service projects from the Strauss foundation.

This is the fourth consecutive year that at least one UCLA student has won a Strauss scholarship. Previous winning projects by UCLA students have included a mobile community health clinic, a program to prepare community college students for graduate school, and a foundation to provide speech therapy to kids who stutter.

Chung’s project is a career mentoring service called NeuroConnect. She is creating a website for adults on the autism spectrum and those with developmental disabilities that will offer tutorials about the basics of applying for jobs, interviewing skills, employment policies and protections, and how to navigate social situations in the workplace. The site will also connect students with neurodivergent professionals who can act as mentors, and Chung will organize networking events.

From a young age, Chung saw firsthand how people with disabilities struggle with employment. Her uncle was diagnosed with schizophrenia and never pursued college, so his challenges getting jobs were always a topic of conversation at home.

“That’s kind of what inspired me to explore some ways that we can work on getting jobs for individuals with disabilities,” Chung said. “Just to see a few people who are able to see a change in their career, it would be so exciting for me.”

At UCLA, Chung got involved with UCLA All Brains, a student-led program that arranges social events, peer mentoring and other resources for and in collaboration with neurodivergent students on campus. As a peer mentor, Chung was often asked for career advice and realized there was a need for a service dedicated to helping neurodivergent students navigate their post-graduation employment.

High unemployment rates among neurodivergent people and people with disabilities can be partly attributed to the lack of support services and guidance available to adults once they reach college and beyond, Chung said. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2020 13.4% of people with a disability ages 16-64 were unemployed, compared to 7.9% of people in the same age group with no disability. NeuroConnect will educate job seekers on their rights as employees, such as whether they are required to disclose their disability in an application, in addition to tips on opening a savings account, crafting a resume and preparing for an interview. The opportunity to connect with a mentor will also offer a huge source of inspiration and guidance.

“Being able to see other neurodivergent adults who already have a job can be really helpful in helping them guide their own pathway and career aspirations,” she said.

Preserving a garden in the desert

Kim is working with fellow Strauss winner Enrique Loaiza Arcilla, from UC San Diego, on the Brentwood Learning Garden Project. Kim and Loaiza Arcilla have partnered with the Brentwood School of Environmental Studies (a kindergarten through sixth grade public school) in Victorville, California, to develop long-term plans to keep their learning garden running and create lesson plans and educational materials for teachers to use with their students in the garden. The garden was founded by Brentwood teachers three years ago but risked falling into disrepair and disuse after its founders retired this year. Kim and Loaiza Arcilla will use their Strauss grant money to help maintain the garden, including adding features like signs, a mural, rainwater harvesting and composting to ensure the garden’s sustainability for years to come.

Kim grew up in Victorville and attended Brentwood so she’s had a front row seat to the challenges the community has faced since the economic recession in 2008. Unemployment in the area reached 16.3% in 2009, home prices plummeted 65% and recovery has been slow. Supporting the Brentwood learning garden would help the community’s youngest residents.

“In Victorville it’s not a food desert but there aren’t many healthy food options,” Kim said. “We knew that food habits start at a young age. A garden is also a way to make learning more enjoyable and address achievement gaps that start at a young age.”

Kim and Loaiza Arcilla are working closely with community leaders, the school district and Brentwood staff and students to ensure their plans are aligned with the community’s needs. For Kim, it’s an opportunity to give back to her hometown — and it was all inspired by her return home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Coming back home during college, where I’m still learning about myself and where I’m coming from, gave me an opportunity to reflect and act in service to where I came from,” Kim said. “It’s really important to me that people know that this is where I’m from and that people don’t just leave their hometowns and never come back. There are students like me and Enrique and many others who come back and help the community.”

Both Chung and Kim credit UCLA’s Scholarship Resource Center for helping them navigate the application process and giving them the confidence to go for it. Kim even saved a screen shot of an email from the center’s assistant director, Rebecca Blustein, encouraging her to apply for the scholarship with a positive attitude.

Blustein wrote: “craft your application strategy with the idea that you intend to put forward the strongest possible application so you can try to win (not with the idea that you can reapply as a backup in case it doesn’t work).”

“That really helped me a lot because it’s just shifted my mindset in terms of applying to the Strauss and many other positions, grants and scholarships,” Kim said. “It’s pretty much changed how I think about everything I apply to.”

Blustein said Chung and Kim’s projects are timely and important, and it’s exciting to see what they will develop. Any students who are interested in the Strauss scholarship are invited to contact her at the scholarship resource center to learn more about the scholarship.

“We have a lot of students at UCLA who are serving their communities in really meaningful ways, and the Strauss recognizes that service and helps students launch new initiatives,” she said. “Each year, I’m inspired by our candidates’ commitment and ingenuity.”