Viewpoint: How UCLA Graduate Students Shaped My Education

UCLA undergraduate student Jennifer Brice considers her place in regards to graduate school, students and how they impact the overall UCLA student body.

Viewpoint by UCLA undergraduate student Jennifer Brice

In less than three months, I’ll be graduating from college. When I was graduating from high school, the inevitable question was, “Where are you going?” Now, as a graduating college senior I get asked, “What are you going to do?”

To me, that is the interminable question we all must answer. Though I have not come up with a definite answer, I have gotten better at how to approach this question. Some soon-to-be graduates will enter the workforce, while some will start graduate school. As for me, I hope to do both.

Before attending UCLA, I did not know too much about graduate school. It wasn’t until I started college and had graduate students explain the landscape of academia, their research, and their role as teaching assistants during discussion sections, that I understood how graduate school works. From them, I have learned that it is not where you are going next that matters, but what you are doing with your education that counts.

This is the message I shared with legislators when I traveled to Sacramento on UC Graduate Research Day to advocate for investment in graduate student enrollment. During these meetings, graduate students from each UC campus shared how their research impacts the community, California, and the world. I discussed how graduate students have shaped my undergraduate experience.

For the past four years, graduate students have served as my teachers and mentors. In fact, I would not have been sitting there in Sacramento if it were not for the help of a graduate student.

Two years ago, I turned to my teaching assistant, Billy, for advice on how to pursue my interests in politics and education. During my visits, he patiently listened to my academic and career interests and helped me navigate how to best pursue my passions. He offered concrete advice from his lived experiences and answered all of my questions about graduate school.

It was during one of my visits that I told him I was planning on applying to the UC Sacramento Program. He offered his full support and took the time to share his experience working in Sacramento. With his endorsement, I was able to participate in the program and become involved in higher education advocacy, which brought me to that day’s meeting.

Graduate students demonstrate a willingness to both help and learn from students. They are oftentimes the ones who have not forgotten what it is like to learn something for the first time. By actively participating in classes and building inclusive environments, graduate students are able to dismantle the hierarchy that often exists among students, teaching assistants, and professors. Graduate students are the ones responding to frantic emails from students, reviewing work, writing letters of recommendation, and advising undergraduates on how to pursue opportunities that relate to their interests. As teachers, they bring diverse groups of students together to gather knowledge, solve problems, and present solutions.

UCLA’s delegation of four graduate students shared with legislators how their research solves critical problems. Chelsea Shover discussed how her research is improving HIV protection by studying access to PrEP, a pill that can be taken daily to prevent HIV infection. Leslie Rith-Najarian shared how her online program to reduce anxiety and depression has helped 5,000 UCLA students engage with their mental health. David Gonzalez explained how his research on the health effects of wildfire smoke is increasingly important, as fire seasons have become year-round. Inspired by her own experience as a mother of an autistic son, Stephanie Keeney-Parks’ research aims to end health care disparities facing African-American children with autism.

As legislators talked to the graduate students, the conversations evolved from discussing the students’ specific research to the importance of state investment in higher education. Deans assured legislators that investing in graduate students promotes undergraduate student success as well. While meeting with Rith-Najarian and Keeney-Parks, it was heartening to see Assemblymember Richard Bloom agree, acknowledging the dual role graduate students play in enriching the undergraduate experience and conducting critical research.

Jennifer Brice (far left) was part of a UCLA coalition that talked graduate school research and funding with various state legislators, including Sen. Ben Allen, shown here.

Insufficient state support jeopardizes California’s leadership in higher education and innovation. Today, the University of California has over 1.8 million living alumni. Breakthrough research and bold ideas rely on the minds of many. Up and down the state, UC graduate students design the future of the world, recognizing that tomorrow’s minds will build on today’s discoveries. Investing in graduate students is crucial in order for California to remain at the forefront of innovation. Ensuring access to higher education will expand the potential for students from all backgrounds to succeed.

“As a first generation college student, I am a beneficiary of degrees from UC Berkeley and UCLA, and I would not have the privilege of being able to serve in the California State Legislature but for the great education I got from the University of California,” Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi told the UCLA delegation.

And as we walked to our last meeting, UCLA graduate student Stephanie Keeney-Parks began to ask me more about my graduate school and career ambitions. She looked at me and smiled, “The world is yours.” My UCLA education has challenged me to think critically and question endlessly. There is comfort in the idea that asking many questions will eventually lead to the right answers.

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