Common Book Program would benefit from student involvement in selection process

A photo of this year’s Common Book, “The Line Becomes a River.”
(Emily Ng/Daily Bruin)

The first time I heard about the Common Book, I was two midterms into week six and finishing an eight-page essay.

Suffice it to say, I wanted nothing to do with a novel.

Unfortunately, many students will be introduced to the Common Book this way – a process which often involves promptly forgetting about the book’s existence.

The Common Book Program began in 2008 as an effort to foster community between new students. Each year, a book is selected by a committee comprising mainly UCLA Residential Life and First Year Experience staff and provided to the freshman class to incite discussion and present a common theme for the academic year.

The program chooses narratives likely to spark conversation – books such as “Bad Feminist” and “Between the World and Me” have been selections in previous years – as part of a larger attempt to heighten social awareness and foster discussion that might not occur naturally.

In the past, UCLA gave the Common Book to incoming first-year students the summer before they began classes. Now students can get the book if they opt into the program. Katherine Alvarado, a UCLA spokesperson, said the book is also an optional educational program that faculty and staff can incorporate into curricula.

But between ridiculously low engagement rates, lack of discussion attendance and little to no purposeful consultation with students and faculty, the program’s goals are cut short before it can even begin to reach its full potential.

The Common Book would benefit from more student and faculty involvement in the decision-making process. This book sends a message about which voices the university chooses to elevate and making the selection process more inclusive has the potential not only to engage more students, but also to encourage often difficult conversations about topics such as gender or discrimination that can create an increasingly aware and empathetic student body.

This year, the book selected was “The Line Becomes a River” by Francisco Cantú, which details Cantú’s experiences as a U.S. Border Patrol agent. This choice sparked controversy, as many felt the first Common Book about the Latinx experience should not be the story of someone complicit in U.S. border policies such as deportation or family separation.

A group of faculty members wrote an open letter in response to the choice, arguing Cantú was profiting from his involvement at the border with his speaker fees. Ultimately, he donated his speaker fees to the UCLA Undocumented Students Program, as well as to an undocumented man and his family who are mentioned in the book.

Charlene Villaseñor Black, a professor of art history and Chicana and Chicano studies who was involved in writing the open letter, said she thinks this year’s Common Book selection reflects a lack of input from people familiar with its themes.

“This process would have benefited from there being more Latinx people on the selection committee because they would have pointed out the problems with this,” Villaseñor Black said. “There was not enough representation on the committee, and they also didn’t consult with faculty experts on migration.”

This year’s selection made clear how the Common Book Program neglects its responsibility to uplift narratives that represent the university community in an inclusive and accurate manner.

Sean Metzger, a professor of theater and performance studies who also helped author the open letter, said privileging this year’s selection over other narratives about immigration was a significant choice.

“That’s a big thing for me – what’s the style, what kinds of things are being excluded, what kinds of voices are being validated or not,” Metzger said.

With poorly selected narratives come low engagement rates, so it should come as no surprise that the program consistently falls short in promoting discussion, despite its 10-year matriculation.

Yet the controversy of this year’s book speaks to the potential of the program in guiding campus discussion. Although this year’s Common Book was in poor taste, the ensuing conversation was significant given the current political climate. If the program can harness this potential in a more inclusive and representative manner, it could facilitate the kind of meaningful and diverse discussion incoming Bruins deserve.

Michelle Carter, a second-year geology and biology student and one of two students on the 2018-19 Common Book committee, said student participation in the selection process would improve the selection of and discussions surrounding the book.

Moreover, the Common Book should not stay within the confines of the Hill. Incorporating it into curriculum, consulting with faculty and increasing the selection process’ inclusivity is the only way to meaningfully integrate the program into a larger campus dialogue.

Certainly, the Common Book Program faces a difficult task in picking a single story for a student body with 45,000 narratives. And no matter how exceptional the selection, one book can’t change the course of campus culture. But consulting those who will be represented is a good place to start choosing what story to tell each year. No amount of outreach can ensure everyone reads the text, but heightened involvement in the process is likely conducive to increased interest in the book itself.

UCLA might just be surprised by the results if it opens the doors to the program.

After all, you can’t judge a Common Book by its cover.

UCLA's EDI office needs to cement long-term goals, publicize its progress

A photo of a student holding a paper with a red question mark in front of an administrative building.
(Axel Lopez/Assistant Photo editor)

Equity, diversity and inclusion at UCLA: Endgame is nowhere in sight.

UCLA’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion was founded in 2015 to uphold its values of diversity. The office was created after the Moreno Report, a detailed document published by Carlos Moreno, a former California Supreme Court justice, that highlighted discrimination in the hiring and makeup of the faculty at UCLA.

The EDI office has since worked to make faculty hiring more equitable and the faculty makeup more diverse. But despite the changes it has implemented, UCLA continues to fall short in three ways: equity, diversity and inclusion.

The office’s efforts are largely focused on the faculty. It has overhauled the faculty search committees to account for implicit biases against specific groups. Administrators have also instituted training for those serving on faculty selection committees, and made sure that biases are accounted for as well as they can be.

But the EDI office seems to have no endgame – when will it transition from focusing on faculty to addressing student concerns? This disconnect is magnified by the EDI office’s unclear goals from a student standpoint, hindering its ability to promote equity, diversity and inclusion to the heart of UCLA: its students.

Administrators seem to miss this.

“(The EDI office) makes sure that there is fair and inclusive hiring,” said Jerry Kang, UCLA’s vice chancellor of equity, diversity and inclusion. “(Faculty hiring) is arguably the most human element that is the most long-lasting.”

The faculty body might be the longest lasting part of UCLA, but students are its most human element. Students dictate the campus’ culture and atmosphere, and they’re the lifeblood of the university. Changing faculty doesn’t directly influence the student body’s diversity, which should be the priority of the EDI office. Additionally, changing faculty hiring practices isn’t something students can readily see the results of during their years on campus, making it understandable that the office’s messaging can go unnoticed.

Itzeel Padilla, a second-year ecology, behavior and evolution student, said awareness is the biggest reason students can’t always understand the EDI office’s motives.

“Nobody really talks about why diversity is actually important,” Padilla said. “We’re just told that it is.”

But UCLA’s student body has serious diversity problems. For one, black students make up only 3% of the undergraduate population, but more than half of UCLA’s male, black students are athletes – meaning the university largely seeks out members of the black community for their athletic ability, not their academic strengths.

The university shouldn’t be satisfied with the state of its student body, said Markie Vialpando, a first-year neuroscience student.

“The diversity with students on campus still has a ways to go,” Vialpando said.

Yet it’s unclear what the EDI office is doing about this: Issues of campus diversity don’t seem to be subject to action of the EDI office, even though they would appear to be – rather, they’re reserved for the admissions office and not spoken about much. This makes it easy for students to lose faith, since it’s hazy how the EDI office, well, promotes student diversity.

David Wang, a third-year bioengineering student, said the EDI office doesn’t inform students of its goals or actions, leading to doubt.

“I think that, yeah, we should be more diverse, but it’s hard to say what that would look like in terms of actual public policy,” Wang said. “How do we know anything’s getting done?”

A way to address this is to effectively communicate what exactly the office does, what its long term goals are and what makes its values of diversity and inclusion important at UCLA. For instance, events on the Hill would go a long way in ameliorating the disconnect students have with the office.

“It’s important to communicate these things to the student body, so that people know that they’re there,” said Jonathan Tai, a third-year engineering student.

There’s also the issue of implementing policies that won’t be seen or heard by students. In this case, invisible policies are problematic because they can breed skepticism about what they actually change, and whether they’re actually helpful to the university.

Of course, UCLA does hold events about diversity and inclusion that try to explain the rationale behind its actions. The problem is that events specifically addressing diversity on campus are too few and far between. That, coupled with the fact that they’re poorly promoted, limits student attendance.

Ultimately, the EDI office has a large task ahead of it: promoting equity, diversity and inclusion on a campus with hundreds of thousands of stakeholders. And it’s difficult to address both the faculty and the student body issues at once. However, it’s been more than three years since the Moreno Report was published. Multiple policies have been implemented to improve the faculty body’s diversity. Students want an office that promotes diversity and inclusion and educates them in these matters, and this university clearly needs one.

Granted, the EDI office isn’t the Avengers. But it doesn’t take a superhero to be clear about your long-term purpose and be transparent about what you do.

Without effective outreach, diversity deficit will continue to plague student body

A photo of an empty playground.
(Amy Dixon/Photo editor)

Los Angeles is the picture of diversity.

UCLA, however, is not.

The University of California is prohibited from using race as a factor in the admissions process due to California Proposition 209, which was passed in 1996. The University has consequently implemented a class-based admissions approach, which doesn’t take race into consideration.

UCLA’s recent methods of getting a more diverse student body include high school visits and partnering with faith-based organizations. The UC system also implemented the Early Academic Outreach Program in 1976 to help students prepare for college by providing them with academic advising and information about the application process.

Needless to say, these mechanisms have been wildly unsuccessful in fostering campus diversity.

Gary Clark, UCLA’s director of undergraduate admissions, said the university currently does outreach in local high schools around Los Angeles to encourage minority, first-generation and other underrepresented students to apply.

“Recruitment isn’t about driving up the volume,” Clark said. “It’s about attracting high-quality students who will be competitive in the process who can engage with students like them and have a diverse undergrad experience.”

However, the impact of these programs has been on the number of applications, not on the number of enrolled underrepresented students. Just about 11% and 9% of black and Latino applicants, respectively, were admitted to UCLA in 2018. These low admit numbers contribute to the 3% African American and 22% Hispanic population on campus.

Enrollment should be the focus instead of admissions. Black and Latino students have lower retention and graduation rates than white students. So even if there is a more diverse pool of applicants, the university can’t call that a victory and forget about those students. Moreover, the recent college admissions scandal only serves to prove that those who are rich and white have a leg up in university admissions.

Because UCLA cannot use race as a factor in admissions, it must increase outreach to underrepresented communities and establish roots within these communities on an admissions level. The university must make it a priority to reach out to communities year-round and support student organizations that foster diversity, through partnerships and funding. Just visiting schools to drive up the volume of applications isn’t enough to increase diversity on campus.

UCLA has yet to recover from the effects of Prop 209. In 1995, 7.1% of the university’s undergraduate student body was African American. In 2005, that number plummeted to 2.8%. Similarly, Latino students represented 21.6% of UCLA students in 1995 before the number dropped to 14.5% in 2005. Though both black and Latino enrollment have increased since, members of those communities are still sorely underadmitted at the university.

In addition, UCLA isn’t focusing on programs that make the campus seem welcoming to students of color. Rather than providing institutional support, the university has relied on student groups to make its campus appear supportive of people of color.

The Afrikan Student Union, for example, puts on events such as Admit Weekend. The event brings admitted students to UCLA, houses them and gives them food, so they can experience the black community on campus.

Isaiah Njoku, chair of the ASU, said a lack of support from the administration puts too much pressure on the organization to recruit and console the entire black community.

“With the amount of work we have to take up as the ASU – and not getting paid for the support for the diversity that UCLA wants so heavily – it needs to change,” Njoku said. “It’s not our job. We should not have to be retaining ourselves. UCLA should be taking care of us.”

If students of color don’t see themselves represented on campus, it’s hard for them to see themselves going to UCLA. The burden of retention and graduation of minority students shouldn’t fall on the minority students, but on the university.

“Consistently over the years, UCLA has not supported the minorities and underrepresented communities,” Njoku said. “For (the recent admissions scandal) to arise shows UCLA is not continually trying to counteract the inequality for students of lower socioeconomic backgrounds. This perpetuates segregation of the communities.”

If the university wants to improve its students of color population, it needs to take a hard look at how it recruits and whether it is putting enough funding and time into cultivating this community on campus. UCLA should work on increasing funding for student organizations and work alongside them to revise and improve its community outreach while also maintaining close bonds with high schools.

Some may argue UCLA already has programs to engage with students across Los Angeles. The Early Academic Outreach Program, Project Welcome, and the Strategic Partnerships and Community Engagement office all work to increase the diversity at UCLA. However, there’s significant room for improvement. There is still rampant underrepresentation in the undergraduate student body that pamphlets and words alone won’t mitigate.

UCLA has a lot of work ahead of it. Someday, though, it might actually look like the city it calls home.

Admissions essays should ask for applicants' values, not their sob stories

A photo showing a student holding a sign reading “application.”
(Axel Lopez/Assistant Photo editor)

Milking one’s trauma isn’t the only road to university admission.

And yet, it’s exactly what college applications look for.

The University of California’s admission process, like that of other universities, aims to be holistic by requesting a history of applicants’ classes as well as their talents and achievements. The University’s undergraduate personal statements ask applicants to describe how their experiences have shaped their interests in their potential fields of study, asking them to draw heavily on personal experiences and relationships.

These statements are substandard for a variety for reasons. For starters, they encourage applicants to curate sob stories to tug at admission officers’ hearts. More troublingly, though, is that they do little to ensure applicants are truly cognizant of the importance of diversity and inclusion.

Fortunately, there’s an alternative: diversity statements.

Graduate applicants and faculty candidates nationwide are often asked to submit diversity statements, which require them to describe their past and possible future contributions to an environment of equity, diversity and inclusion. These statements allow applicants to showcase their commitment to contribute to the intended institutions and highlight what they could bring during their time there.

Diversity statements, while also rooted in applicants’ experiences, ask what their values are, ultimately seeking to understand how they came to be. That kind of questioning at the outset can compel future Bruins to walk on campus ready to think about issues like diversity and socioeconomic disparity. That kind of mindset can predispose students to bridge campus divides through discussion about these difficult topics.

Like graduate school applications, the UC’s undergraduate applications should include diversity statements to encourage potential students to think critically about core values of diversity. Personal statements have the potential of exploring applicants’ pasts, but don’t touch on anything substantial. They don’t ask about applicants’ potential contributions to UCLA or what their presence will bring to the table. They also don’t give students space to critically consider their role within the university.

Additionally, working on a personal statement can be mentally exhausting, which can be limiting for some.

Mia Glionna, a second-year American literature and culture and African American studies student, remembers being stressed out about her personal statement, despite having gone through a college prep program.

“I felt like I had to write a sob story to get in,” Glionna said. “(A diversity statement) doesn’t rely on the assumption of your family or like your personal life. I feel that takes off a lot of pressure to write about your personal traumas.”

Diversity statements don’t rely on personal traumas or hardships, and they can explore applicants’ experiences more deeply – and equitably – than personal statements.

“A lot of admissions processes can be excluding and marginalizing even if they’re not intending to be,” said Andrea Gambino, a graduate student in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.

Gambino, who was a high school teacher for four years, said diversity statements are more personal than personal statements.

“How do you deconstruct diversity and inclusion and who you are from your personal statement? That is who you are,” she said.

A diversity statement has the opportunity to truly review an applicant holistically because students aren’t simply retelling their past narratives – they’re critically analyzing their own values and how they came to be.

Getting students to start thinking about diversity before even being admitted can help them know their identities matter and that they’re playing a role in fostering diversity on campus.

On top of that, the UC would be better able to ensure applicants follow through on what they’ve written if it uses diversity statements, said Elizabeth Fasthorse, a GSEIS student.

“You follow up with (those) questions,” Fasthorse said. “A lot of the schools here have additional (communication): They’ll have a question or you have interviews and telephone calls where you can ask the individual where you can check up.”

Diversity statements are also less invasive, as well as a lot more accurate. Students can write about what they hope to contribute without having to paint out their entire lives on a piece of paper.

Selena Cartznes, a GSEIS student, said diversity statements are easier to write in high school because they don’t hone in on past experiences.

“You’re really just talking about yourself. That’s the cool thing about it,” Cartznes said. “Yes, you talk about your life, but you don’t talk about what happened to you. You’re focusing on what happened and how are you going to move forward.”

And while diversity statements deconstruct applicants’ core values, using them wouldn’t necessarily be ideological filtering. The prompt would still require applicants to draw from their personal experiences, but in addition would ask them how they hope to contribute to the UC environment. That kind of introspection would only help students start to think about UCLA’s – and the University’s – core commitments and help make the campus more inclusive.

University admissions have a long way to go before they can truly claim equity, diversity and inclusion. A big piece of that puzzle: making sure admissions essays are more than just trauma porn on paper.

Cultivating geographic diversity would help UCLA to expand students' perspectives

A graphic comparing the number of students UCLA admitted from each state, compared to the partisan leaning of each state’s legislative body.
(Qirui Wu/Daily Bruin)

To Californians, UCLA is a reputed public university with a lot of school spirit. Ask someone in the Midwest, though, and they might just think it’s a stronghold of abortion rights-, gun control-advocating college liberals.

You wonder why UCLA has no enrolled students from Wyoming.

UCLA talks a lot about diversity among its student body. But lost in this conversation is the glaring lack of geographic diversity among Bruins.

UCLA is a public California university, and understandably prioritizes the enrollment of in-state students. University of California policy caps out-of-state enrollment at 18% of the entire student body. But who makes up this 18% is massively skewed.

According to UCLA Institutional Research, 24,150 Californian undergraduates are currently enrolled at UCLA. From the roughly 7,000 remaining students, there are large parts of the country that have little representation at all.

UCLA has 10 or fewer students from many states in the Deep South, including Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi. The Midwest is similarly underrepresented. Less than 10 students come from each Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota, and 12 come from Idaho. No Bruins call the Equality State their home.

But cultivating geographic diversity at UCLA is crucial to strengthening diversity of thought. Having students from different backgrounds increases diversity, as students are more likely to encounter a viewpoint or experience different than their own. Such diversity of thought is important as it prevents echo chambers, where students only hear perspectives that strengthen their existing views and miss out on opportunities to learn from their peers’ ideologies.

UCLA should increase admissions outreach efforts in underrepresented regions of the country, such as the Midwest and South. Doing so would strengthen diversity of thought at UCLA and offer students a more intellectually stimulating environment – something vital to any university.

UCLA clearly does well in its outreach toward underrepresented communities in California. The Los Angeles Times reported in 2016 that UCLA had expanded intensive recruiting to reach marginalized students. UCLA admissions recruiters show up at community events and college fairs in these communities to scout promising students.

But the university doesn’t do this for out-of-state students, despite its lack of geographic diversity.

“UCLA does outreach only in California, and our recruitment efforts are mostly focused on in-state students,” said UCLA spokesperson Ricardo Vazquez.

A lack of regional diversity hurts ideological diversity, as students are less likely to meet those outside their own background and circumstances. Such shrinking of perspectives contributes to the primarily left-leaning bastion that is UCLA, which doesn’t challenge students to question their viewpoints.

Gary Orfield, a professor of education, law, political science and urban planning, said universities that value leadership and ideological diversity among their students help themselves by expanding geographic diversity.

“If UCLA has the aspiration to train more national leaders, then geographic diversity is very important,” Orfield said. “African Americans from the South have different experiences from those who grew up in Oakland, as Latinos from the East Coast have different experiences from those growing up in Southern California.”

Orfield is right. Such diversity better prepares students for the real world where they won’t always be in proximity to those with similar backgrounds.

These ideas about intellectual diversity are supported by UCLA’s own statement on diversity, which emphasizes the importance of working to increase the “spectrum of perspectives available on campus.”

Brayden Sutton, a first-year biochemistry student from North Carolina, said he thinks it’s important that UCLA emphasize diversity of background. He said he’s from a rural, conservative community with strong views on issues such as gun control.

The California bubble at UCLA, however, limits the contribution of people with these perspectives, impeding the inclusivity the campus administration likes to tout.

Catherine LaRue, a third-year economics student from Topeka, Kansas, said she was surprised by her peers’ lack of knowledge about areas outside California.

“People assume I live on a farm,” LaRue said. “A big part of college is seeing what’s outside of what you’re used to and people from other backgrounds can contribute there.”

Similarly, Mariah McCashland, a third-year neuroscience student from Nebraska, said that her community in Lincoln is relatively conservative on issues such as gun laws and feminism.

“There’s a huge difference of background that you get at UCLA compared to Lincoln,” she said. “Certain things (are) more popular to take a side on here – it’s definitely more popular to be a social liberal.”

Many communities in other states rarely see any signs of UCLA activity, and sending recruiters to those regions would raise the school’s profile among students who might otherwise not know to apply.

It’s true UCLA has a priority to serve Californians first, and not all out-of-state students are interested in applying to the university. But this shouldn’t mean kicking geographic diversity to the curb and foregoing the chance to raise UCLA’s profile among underrepresented regions.

The university is a better institution when its out-of-state enrollment reflects the unique and disparate regions that make up America. After all, the real world is full of both churchgoing, gun-loving Midwesterners and hip, abortion-rights Angelenos who drink Yerba Mate.