Resilient and Empathetic Leaders at UCLA
UCLA is home to an enormous number of students, staff, and faculty. Passionate, accomplished, and revered individuals can be found in every corner of campus, from those that are developing drugs to cure forms of cancer to others who are collegiate-level athletes and winning NCAA championship titles. In this fast-paced environment, it is easy to get caught up in what everybody else is doing and feel as though you cannot compare. While some people may appear to be superhuman in their positions of power, with long lists of accolades, countless friends, and the ability to take on whatever is thrown at them without much hesitation, that is simply not the truth. Everybody has experienced adversity in some way. It is how we overcome that adversity that defines our path in the future. It is important to see these leaders as approachable, empathetic, and relatable figures.
I decided to talk to these accomplished leaders to understand how they came to be who they are today. Learning about the bumps they encountered on their paths and how they overcame them has shown me that resilience may be the ultimate “superhuman” ability, and the empathy they can show for those who look up to them.
A Spotlight on Wendy Slusser: Taking Action to Overcome Social Isolation
Dr. Wendy Slusser is a pediatrician, nutritionist, and the Associate Vice Provost of the Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Center. She is a key leader in creating a culture of health and well-being on campus, using strategies such as making “the healthy choice the easiest choice” and “infusing health into the everyday operations at UCLA.”. Through her leadership of Semel HCI, Dr. Slusser has helped change the health landscape at UCLA by backing the creation of B-plate, helping to incorporate healthy options into vending machines, driving the formation of the Food Studies Minor and Graduate Certificate, and supporting efforts to create UCLA’s Bike Share program. Dr. Slusser is also a Clinical Professor of Pediatrics in the Schools of Medicine and Public Health at UCLA, and Co-Founder and Medical Director of the UCLA Fit for Healthy Weight program. I sat down with Dr. Slusser and asked her about her struggles with social isolation and how she infuses social well-being into her day-by-day life.
Q: When was your greatest moment of social isolation and how did you overcome it?
A: I grew up in a family of five children so I never was alone for a long time. Up until I was 14, I shared a bedroom with my three sisters, so even when I was asleep, I was never alone. It was when I first went to college that I first felt the sense of being alone because I was away from the nuclear family that always gave me a home.
The time I felt the loneliest was when I had a two-year-old. I was living in San Diego, working at a great job, and living two houses in from this beautiful beach. I remember standing on the beach. looking out at the ocean, telling myself, “This is so beautiful and I’m so grateful and I have a child and a wonderful husband, but I’d rather live in the slums of New York and be near my family and friends then be here.” It struck me that when you have a young child, are working full-time, have a husband who is not working at home, and no family nearby, you feel very alone.
That moment I realized I needed to change the location of where I worked. I resigned from a job I really liked and moved up to LA with no job just so I could be closer to my husband, who was spending more time working there, and my friends who lived there. It transformed my life.
Q: What would you recommend to students who currently feel socially isolated?
A: Joining a club or having a common interest with people is definitely a way to link and create a foundation for friendship because you can then share that with them. It’s more than just a socializing event; it’s sharing something that you enjoy together.
I have regular hiking partners and that’s how I see my friends and have conversations with them. We have bonded over the common interest of hiking. Hikes can be three or four hours up in the Santa Monica Mountains. They have been nourishing.
Q: What is something you do to enhance your social well-being?
A: The act of giving enhances my social well-being. The times I have felt particularly lonely or sad, I always felt better if I reached out to people for help. Working in patient care, there is a huge component of that, of helping and being useful and making a difference. Those are things that are important to me.
Q: How has interacting with others enhanced your social well-being?
A: I was alone a lot with my young kids and my partner was gone a lot. Not having much family around here, I had old friends that would reach out to me, and say “You are going to take a personal day Wendy. You are going to bike on the beach with me.” They made an effort to make sure that I was okay, and that’s what friends are for. Just even that one moment in a six-week period, going out with a friend was powerful. Friends who give you quality time can get you through those lonely moments.
Q: How do you think social well-being has changed from your time in college to nowadays?
In my time, a lot of friends and my friends at colleges and I wrote letters to each other in order to catch up. Nowadays, there’s such instant communication between your friends and spaces that you can often just not engage with friends on your own campus because you are in constant communication with friends from other places. It’s important to have people physically there with you.
Q: What does social well-being mean to you?
A: Close meaningful relationships and love in your life. Love in your life could be through your dog or your sister. It doesn’t have to be through a partner. Being loved and loving enhances your social well-being.
If you want to gain more insight into Dr. Slusser’s mentality about living a healthy life, I encourage you to check out the TEDxUCLA talk that she gave in 2017 called “The Unapologetic Beauty of Focusing on your Strengths.”
Dr. Slusser’s story about social isolation is a reminder of how important it is to value our social well-being and practice self-care.
The transition to college, graduate school, or any new environment, can often be challenging. It can be scary to take the first step to reach out to others. If you feel isolated right now, I encourage you to look into student groups on campus that you share common interests with and attend a meeting or broaden your horizons and look into a new hobby or event. If you happen to know friends and family members who are struggling with social isolation, give them a call, set up a dinner and encourage them to take a “personal day.” There exists a lot of power in dedicating quality time to hanging out with the people we love and reminding them that they are not alone.
As Dr. Slusser so poignantly said, “Being loved and loving enhances your social well-being.”