The UCLA Piano Project

Have you ever felt overwhelmed as you are walking to your third class, or even a three-hour long lab, during the day? As a 2019 mark on campus, the UCLA Piano Project was launched as an effort to foster a sense of relaxation and tranquility. In the midst of midterm season, playing the pianos located around campus pauses the chaos of running to class and cements a sense of peace with the beat of music.

The project was founded by UCLA alumnus Jeremy Barrett in January 2019 as an effort to bridge a connection between the student community and music. The project began with three pianos in the fall, and was made possible through funding from the Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Center and the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music as well as support from Chancellor Gene Block.

The pianos are located in four places around campus: Bruin Plate, Covel Commons, the Luskin Conference Hall, and Bruin Walk — all scattered in locations convenient for students’ pleasure. The music played on the piano is meant to transform a stress reliever into a harmonious sound for all.

Description of pianos across campus

According to a recent interview with Jeremy Barrett, the UCLA Piano Project was just an idea a few months back — an idea driven by the fact that most students are passionate about music and need a form of musical expression. His collaboration with staff and faculty helped solidify the plan and install accessible pianos around campus to unify the student community. Barrett explains that the Schoenberg Music Building donated four pianos after he was able to find a location for the pianos.

In fact, Barrett explains that Peter Angelis of UCLA Housing & Hospitality Services said, “Since they’ve been installed, impromptu performances have been non-stop and watching the social interactions of passersby with the pianists has been heartwarming. The pianos have brought a higher level of community and wellness to the Hill, and one that makes me wonder how we could have gone so long without the beautiful instruments.”

The student feedback on the piano project has been positive, as individuals believe the piano is a spontaneous outlet to channel their creativity on campus. There are opportunities in which individuals can play the piano in order to create a form of expression. UCLA students Jamie Adachi and Reshmi Vadapalli suggest that the pianos around campus create a nice distraction for them. Their evening walks on campus are enlightened by the fact that they can hear the piano play — a tranquil sound as they walk around campus and add peace to their walk.

“When we take an evening class on campus, we hear people play the piano on Bruinwalk and it is very calming,” Jamie Adachi mentions, “I appreciate hearing people play when I am walking to class.”

Jeremy Barrett emphasizes that the UCLA Piano Project was also constructed as an instrument of peace — one that could be heard in Los Angeles, California, America, and worldwide. The music could be heard in the steps of Bruin Plate, Sunset Village, and Luskin Conference Center. This served as a primary motivation for him to create the project.

In extension to this student experience, students living in the dorms mentioned that you can play the piano located in Covel Commons. Students who walk by the sound of the piano comment on the fact that it is a passive form of stress relief. These small acts of stress relief emphasize that students appreciate the university’s efforts to create a safe space among all. Their #homeawayfromhome, if you will.

The future plans of the Piano Project include incorporating different art forms and incorporating the concept of “Building Community Through Art” and organizing a “Paint the Piano” contest.

Ultimately, the UCLA Piano Project has sparked a conversation of stress relief and positivity among the student community. Jeremy Barrett’s work has changed the student community into a more musically-aware campus. The UCLA Piano Project has united students and the passion for music in a livid way — check it out!


Jessica Nunez is a third-year undergraduate student studying Cognitive Science and Spanish, Community and Culture. In addition to blogging for the EngageWell Pod, she interns for the Transplant Research and Education Center (TREC) where she communicates with Spanish-speaking kidney patients about their various treatment options. She is strongly passionate about working towards healthcare equity and fostering social change.

Accessibility 2

Making UCLA Accessibility Conscious

Every time I go on my Facebook, I see new events being held for movie screenings, networking events, and panels, all of which I am eager to participate in and learn more about. At these events, I  interact and meet others with similar interests, providing the basis of many friendships and connections. I see them as opportunities to enhance my social well-being.  

Unfortunately, for many students with disabilities, these events and activities are difficult to participate in: the tables at an event may be too high for a student in a wheelchair to reach, an interpreter may not be present so that hard of hearing and Deaf students with listening impairments are unable to understand what is going on, or pathways obstructions may impede a person who is blind’s ability to travel. Since students with disabilities compile only a small percentage of the UCLA body, planners often forget or simply don’t know how to incorporate disability-friendly measures into their events.

Carolanne “Goob” Link, a former undergraduate student at UCLA who was born with cerebral palsy, navigated campus as a student with mobile disabilities. The  extra hurdles she experienced in order to attend events and activities at UCLA inspired the creation of the Campus Accessibility Toolkit.  


The Campus Accessibility Toolkit arms and educates event planners with the vital information, through research and anecdotal evidence to create resource guides and lists,  to make their events accessible to students with physical disabilities.

The Drive for the Creation of the Accessibility Toolkit 

Goob’s two distinct experiences, as an ambulatory mobility impaired studentand as a student in a wheelchair, sparked Goob’s interest  in disability culture. Although she recognized an abundance of resources on campus, like the Center for Accessible Education (CAE), the ADA/504 Compliance Office, and the Disabilities and Computing program to help disabled students succeed academically, Goob explained that the services those resources provide “doesn’t necessarily mean you feel comfortable with experiences outside of the classroom. UCLA could be doing more to help include disabled person in extracurricular activities.” 

If social events do not take in account accessibility concerns, discomfort ensues, burdening both the student with disabilities and the event planners. Whenever she attended an event, her first thought was always “Is there going to be a problem?,” often correctly anticipating that appropriate accessibility concerns had not be made. While she felt ostracized for not being able to experience the event the way it was supposed to be experienced, she also acknowledged the guilt and regret event planners felt when they realized that their events were not universally attendable. Goob hopes that the contents of the Campus Accessibility Toolkit will “help students with disabilities feel more included and not have a fear of going to an extracurricular activity and for planners to not feel anxiety about planning for someone with a different set of needs.” 

A big obstacle in making social events accessible stems from a lack of communication between event planners and students with disabilities. When Goob attended a panel for disability studies, questions like “How do you ask about the disability?” and “How do you offer help without being pushy?” astonished her.   People could not plan to make their events and spaces more accessible because they did not want to risk the possibility of offending the disabled community. They gravitated to the panel because they believed it to be the only space where their questions would be welcomed and answered. Goob hopes that the Campus Accessibility Toolkit will “bridge this gap by putting knowledge out there without any awkwardness, without any confrontation or possibility of offense.”  

The Future Evolution of the Toolkit

Goob has been working on the Campus Accessibility Toolkit for six months, but she has been actively involved in improving accessibility for well over a couple of years. She communicated with a diverse group of sources: students, faculty members, and organizations in order to write the toolkit. Although the Campus Accessibility Toolkit is is currently in beta mode and being edited and modified, a number of offices at UCLA, like the CAE, the EDI, and the ADA504 agreed to feature the toolkit as a resource once it comes out. 

Goob has ambitious goals for the Campus Accessibility Toolkit. She is currently in the process of designing an Accessibility Conscious Seal, an emblem event planners can use in their publicity documents to inform the public they have taken measures to make their events as accessible to everyone as possible.  The Seal will allow students with disabilities to “know that the planners have already thought about the bigger picture of inclusion.” 

Although Goob authored most of the documents available in the Campus Accessibility Toolkit, she emphasized that it is a “living project” and that “my voice is that of a specific person and is the glorified compiler of her and other disabled students’ experiences. This is not some end-all, be-all. I hope that the future generation will become contributors and are always updating the toolkit as the technology changes.” As such, she encourages people to read and continuously add information to the toolkit, envisioning the development of a hub of information, connecting past difficulties to future solutions. People like event planners, architects and policy makers will be able to read about how to make specific venues on campus accessibility friendly.

After reading the Campus Accessibility Toolkit, I realized just how little I knew about a certain subset of people of UCLA. It never occured to me how unfair it was that the events that I attend on a weekly basis could not be enjoyed by everyone. 

Be sure to check it out below:


Jessica Yang is a second year student majoring in Environmental Science with a concentration in Environmental Health. On top of blogging for Semel HCI, she is part of club swimming and hopes to pursue a career in healthcare in the future. 



Resilient and Empathetic Leaders at UCLA

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.”

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.”



liking gap 1

A New Perspective on Social Relations – The Liking Gap

With new classes, meetings, and events, the start of a new quarter opens the door for us to meet different people and form new relationships. Here is something that may change the way you think about meeting others!

Whether it be contacting potential new roommates, reaching out to professors, talking to strangers, or chatting with friends, establishing connections can often be daunting and create thoughts of doubt, fear, anxiety, and nervousness.

Why is it that something so fundamental is the root of so much worry and uncertainty?

Psychologists and researchers from Cornell, Harvard, University of Essex, and Yale University attempted to find out and documented their results in the article, “The Liking Gap in Conversations: Do People like Us More Than We Think.”

What is the Liking Gap?  

The Liking Gap is the difference between how much people think others like them versus how much others actually like them. The article found that after people had conversations, people consistently underestimated how much their conversation partners liked them.

Why does it Exist?

The Liking Gap is attributed to multiple factors, including: (1) People do not fully express themselves and hide behind a guise of politeness. (2) People inhibit their true emotions in conversations for fear of being socially rejected (3) People are too consumed in their own thoughts of self-criticism that they fail to notice signals of their conversation partners liking them.

Five Experiments

Five experiments were conducted in order to study the Liking Gap. Each of the five studies reveals unique nuances to the Liking Gap phenomena.

Study 1a: People like others more than they perceive others like them.

Study 1a was conducted on people of all ages from a community near Yale University. In the study, two participants were paired up and instructed to have a conversation for around five minutes. After the conversations, the participants were separated and asked questions about how much they liked their conversations partners and how much they perceived their conversation partners liked them. The results showed that, on average, participants liked their conversation partners more than they perceived their conversation partners like them. The Liking Gap is confirmed in this interaction.

Study 1b: People fail to pick up on signals showing others found them likable.

Now that the Liking Gap had been addressed, researchers wanted to figure out whether or not the Liking Gap was justified. One hypothesis attributed the Liking Gap to a neglected-signal account, where people did outwardly show signals of interests in their conversation partners, but their conversation partners were unable to identify the signals. In Study 1b, two trained research assistants observed the conversations recorded in study 1a. The researchers estimated how much the subjects liked each other, based solely on the videos of the conversations. The results revealed that the researchers’ observations aligned with how much participants reported actually liking each other. Their observations, however, did not align with how much participants perceived others liking them. Study 1b supported the neglected-signal hypothesis of the Liking Gap. Even though physical signals indicating likability were shown , people were unable to pick up on the signals.

liking gap 2

Results of Studies 1a and 2: mean ratings of actual and perceived liking of conversation partners. From Boothby et. al. 2018.

Study 2: People are too busy forming negative thoughts about themselves to notice how much others like them.

Study 2 tried to uncover why people were missing signals from others showing interest towards them. The researchers hypothesized that participants were too consumed in their own thoughts that the participants were unable to pick up on signals from others. In the study, participants recruited from Yale University were instructed to converse for approximately 5 minutes. Other than assessing how much they enjoyed conversations with direct questions, participants were also asked to form their most salient thoughts about how their conversation partners viewed them and their most salient thoughts that they formed about their conversation partners. The results indicated that people’s most salient thoughts about how others viewed them were generally more negative than their most salient thoughts about how they viewed others. Participants salient thoughts were also affected by the Liking Gap, supporting the idea that people were too busy forming negative thoughts about themselves to notice signals of likability coming from others.  

Study 3: Even with longer conversations, people still underestimate how much others like them.

Study 3 was conducted in order to find out if the Liking Gap was dependent on the duration of conversations. Participants recruited from the Harvard Decisions Science Laboratory were instructed to have conversations for however long they wanted to and were then  asked to report on how much they liked others and how much they perceived others liking them. Generally, observations showed that no matter how long the conversation, people continuously underestimated how much their conversations partners liked them and enjoyed the conversations. The study also discovered that even participants who had longer conversations reported a Liking Gap. This study proved that even in longer conversations, where people would theoretically be given more time to open up to each other, people still underestimated how much others liked them.

Study 4: The Liking Gap exists outside the lab.

Since studies 1-3 were conducted in laboratories, the authors decided to conduct Study 4 at a public event to see whether or not the Liking Gap could be observed in natural settings. For the experiment, the investigators observed strangers who attended “How to Talk to Strangers” workshops. People were instructed to find a conversation partner and spend five minutes introducing themselves to others. Both pre-conversation and post-conversation questionnaires were given. The study revealed that pre-conversation, participants predicted that they would find their conversation partners to be more interesting than them and post-conversation, participants confirmed their initial thoughts and reported that their conversations partners were more interesting than them. The study highlighted how the Liking Gap persisted in natural settings.

Study 5: In college freshmen, the Liking Gap persisted until around May, when roommates move out or continue living together.

The last study was conducted on incoming first years to college, who were instructed to take five surveys over the length of the academic year. Through similar techniques and analysis, the researchers were able to find that the Liking Gap persisted between roommates in the first four surveys, from initial meeting in September to around February. In the last survey, however, which was taken in May, the Liking Gap ceased to exist and there was no underestimation in how much participants believed their roommates liked them. Researchers attributed the absence of the Liking Gap in the fifth study to the fact that roommates would be forced to have conversations about potentially rooming with one another for next academic year and uncertainties about whether or not people actually liked each other would be brought up to the surface.

liking gap 3

Results of Study 3: mean ratings of actual and perceived liking (left) and actual and perceived conversation enjoyment (right), separately for participants who engaged in short, medium, and long conversations. From Boothby et. al 2018.

Why is this important?

When people cannot comfortably express themselves, they leave conversations uncertain whether their conversation partners truly enjoyed their presence. This insecurity decreases their likelihood of connecting with that person again. The Liking Gap creates a barrier to forming new connections with others and reinforces overly self critical tendencies.

Acknowledging the Liking Gap can help us resist its impact on forming meaningful social connections. Think of all the relationships that could have been created had it not been for the Liking Gap. Our mistaken beliefs about people we have conversations with should not deter us from meeting people who have the potential to be great friends and mentors.

Because of the Liking Gap, we are often too caught up in our own thoughts of “oh, do they like me?” and are not present enough in the conversation. We are unable to provide our conversation partners with our attention and express ourselves fully. The Liking Gap shows us how pervasive negative thoughts can be and how they may affect our conversations and relationships.

Most importantly, understanding the Liking Gap can help us change the way we interact with others. The Liking Gap does not have to exist. We have the ability to recognize this pattern and recognize when we are limiting ourselves from more meaningful connections with others.

What should we do now?

As part of EngageWell, our mission is to promote social connection and foster greater social well-being in students staff and faculty. We encourage you to think about ways the Liking Gap may have kept you from creating meaningful relationships. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  1. Start a conversation around the Liking Gap. I shared some of the findings in this post with my friends and many were extremely interested in the topic could relate to the experience.
  2. Reach out to someone you don’t know – professors, peers, TAs, faculty. You’ll be surprised at how differently you approach conversations without reservations of uncertainty
  3. Find someone that you initially had reservations in approaching and strike up a conversation. Do not let your fear of not being liked stop you from approaching potential friends!

The full article if you are interested:




Jessica Yang is a second year student majoring in Environmental Science with a concentration in Environmental Health. On top of blogging for Semel HCI, she is part of club swimming and hopes to pursue a career in healthcare in the future. 


Teaching Kitchen Connections: Social well-being through Food

On October 16th, I had the pleasure of attending a Teaching Kitchen class at Sur La Table in Westwood.

The Teaching Kitchen Collaborative is a national initiative created in 2016 dedicated to “enhancing personal and public health across medical, corporate school, and community settings.” UCLA’s own chapter of Teaching Kitchen was started by Janet Leader, MPH, RD, Associate Director of Field Studies in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the Fielding School of Public Health, and Kaitlin Reid, MPH, RDN of UCLA Student Health Education and Promotion with support from the UCLA Healthy Campus Initiative. The Teaching Kitchen Collaborative at UCLA has been offering classes since Spring 2017 to the health professional students including medical, dental, nursing, and public health. More recently, the TKC began to offer classes for UCLA undergraduates.

Through teaching kitchen classes, students are taught how to cook nutritious and affordable meals. All the while, students are given tips about integrating a healthier diet into their lives. The program also serves as a training ground for future dietitians. Stephanie Prideaux, a dietetic intern at the VA Greater Los Angeles and MPH student in the Fielding School of Public health showed students how to construct a nourishing meal using the MyPlate model and introduced students to resources on campus like the FITTED program where students can be offered free consultation with dietitians.

As Kaitlin Reid, one of the leading dietitians of UCLA’s Teaching Kitchen states, “In these classes, students are given the opportunity to strengthen skills and knowledge that serve their personal well-being now and in the future. They learn a holistic approach to feeding themselves which includes maximizing ingredients, connecting to the experience (and the people), and minimizing common misbeliefs about food and nutrition.”


Collaborative Cooking

Teaching Kitchen goes far beyond its perceived appearance of educating students about eating healthier. It is also a catalyst in helping students foster social connections.

As I walked into the room at Sur La Table, students were in the middle of preparing the Tex-Mex pasta salad chef Claire from Sur La Table had briefed them on. Everything, from the process of cutting the vegetables to cooking the pasta to sampling the food required collaboration. One student cut the avocado while another student seasoned the salad and another student mixed the ingredients together. And as food was being prepared, students were in constant communication, ensuring all members of the group participated. Perhaps the salad was not salty enough or needed more vegetables. Other group members would collectively acknowledge the comment and more of an ingredient would be added. Making great food demanded inclusion, collaboration, and unity.

While vegetables were being chopped, I heard one student ask another, “Can I share the cutting board with you?” and the other happily obliged. After the food was prepared, students took sampling spoons and reached into the large bowl to sample their creation. The collective “yum hmm…” as everybody enjoyed the food was hard to miss.

Students prepared fresh veggies, tuna salad, chicken salad, and tomato soup in addition to the pasta salad. Once the food was done cooking, it was time to eat. As students scooped food into their bowls, conversation flourished. Students began to chat about their majors and why they signed up for the teaching kitchen class. They joked around and discussed their personal lives. Janet, Stephanie, Claire, and Kaitlin also asked questions and engaged in conversation with students. If nothing else, students were able to talk about how the food tasted. (The food tasted phenomenal, by the way. I had the chance to sample the food and needless to say, I will never question the utility of a can of tomatoes, which can be used as pasta sauce, soup, and a dip). The Teaching Kitchen cultivated an atmosphere of warmth and social stimulation. New acquaintances and friendships emerged through food.


Connecting with Common Goals

Students came to the Teaching Kitchen with a common goal of learning how to cook healthy and nutritious meals. This common goal created a connection – a similar mindset for health and wellness. In the end, they were rewarded with potential new friends who they could call upon to cook future meals, walk to the farmers market, or hang out. The two-hour Teaching Kitchen was a great forum that fostered new connections and inclusivity and was an incredible experience to be a part of.

Upon leaving the Teaching Kitchen, students took a survey providing feedback about the event. These responses are a testament to the success of the Teaching Kitchen:

“Fun class which can let you make new friends by collaboration”

“This event was really awesome and was a great stress reliever and fun event to go to during the school week”

“The wealth of information it gave me regarding UCLA resources, and programs as well as good basic cooking knowledge with local store info to get them”


Food and Connection Throughout the Ages

The correlation between food and connection is not a new idea.

Food has brought people together for many centuries. The National Geographic writes in a feature on the Joy of Food “To break bread together […] captures the power of a meal to forge relationships, bury anger, provoke laughter.” When people sit down together to prepare and enjoy a meal, they are able to share aspects of their life with other people. In the case of the Teaching Kitchen, students who may not have otherwise met each other collaborated and bonded over food, bringing about a sense of belonging.

Food is an essential part of everyday life. People need to eat food to sustain themselves, and as a result, food is often used as a vehicle for social connection. Personally, I use food as an excuse to see my friends more often in the midst of everybody’s busy schedules. Food is necessary and everybody has to eat, so it’s very easy to say “Hey, I need dinner and you need dinner. Let’s grab dinner together!”

If students want to get involved in the Teaching Kitchen, whether to learn more about food or to engage with other students, they should definitely sign up for a Teaching Kitchen class. Classes are currently dependent on funding available but its organizers are actively exploring ways to expand the program to serve more students. In fact, there are plans in the works to build a teaching kitchen on campus in the LA Tennis Center, which should be ready for classes by the summer of 2019.

I challenge all students to be creative in transforming the every day and necessary parts of life into outlets for greater connection, engagement, and nourishment.




Here’s an article linking food and social relationships you should read if you have the time:



Jessica Yang is a second year student majoring in Environmental Science with a concentration in Environmental Health. On top of blogging for Semel HCI, she is part of club swimming and hopes to pursue a career in healthcare in the future. 



How to stay grateful after Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving has come and gone; taking with it the feeling of fall coziness and the smell of pumpkin pie, and leaving behind the lure of winter break and an extended vacation. While some families celebrate in the traditional Thanksgiving style, with a roast turkey and everyone listing what they’re thankful for before dinner, others denounce the holiday as a glorification of the abuse of Native Americans. Still others don’t celebrate at all, as Thanksgiving is an American holiday not often observed by UCLA’s international students. Regardless of your opinion on Thanksgiving, it’s worth considering adopting its central theme, thankfulness, as acknowledging your gratitude can be an extremely effective and efficient way to improve your quality of life.

In fact, research shows that reminding yourself of what it is you are grateful for about a loved one has a “uniquely predictive power in relationship promotion, perhaps acting as a booster shot for the relationship.” But gratitude won’t just improve your relationships. It’s also been proven that “the more a person is inclined to gratitude, the less likely he or she is to be depressed, anxious, lonely, envious, or neurotic.”

Here are three ways you can incorporate practicing gratitude into your daily life.

  1. Start the day by writing down one thing you’re grateful for.

Keeping a small notebook filled with lists of good things in your life is not just a cute idea you can find all over Pinterest. It’s a great way to set a focus for your day in addition to practicing gratitude. When you write down the best things going on in your life, you’re forcing yourself to acknowledge what does and does not matter, thereby better defining your own values while practicing gratitude – it’s the perfect two birds with one stone!

  1. Say thank you once a day.

Muttering “thanks” as you rush forward to catch a door held open for you doesn’t count. Make it a goal to thank someone for something that required time and effort once a day. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something they did for you; you could thank them for an inspiring post they made on social media or for a positive quality they possess that you’ve always admired, but never felt able to mention. Using your gratitude practice as an excuse, you can tell the people you love that you’ve always thought the way they handle themselves under pressure is amazing, that you really appreciate how they’re always suggesting fun things for you to do together, or any other compliment that has been on the tip of your tongue.

  1. Think about what your life would be like without the good things that have happened to you.

Perhaps rather counterintuitively, research on gratitude also shows that sometimes all it takes to feel incredibly lucky is to imagine your life without the people and events that make it special. Spend time thinking about what it would be like if you hadn’t met your best friend, or if you had never gotten that acceptance letter or taken that amazing class. Everyone has the occasional fantasy about redesigning their life, but if you think about the good things you do have, it’s scientifically proven to have a positive effect on your outlook.

Practicing gratitude can be hard. More often than not, we’re hardwired to focus more on the negative, and with the stress of finals coming up, it’s hard to find the time to count yourself as lucky. But gratitude is all about recognizing that each annoyance and stressor in your life is just one part of a much larger whole, and when you’re able to realize that, not only do you have an increased ability to turn those negatives into positives, you also have the motivation you’ll need to do it.

If you want to learn more, check out one of our older posts about a series of short films on what gratitude is, why it’s important, and tools to foster more of it in your daily life.  

Maya McNealis is a second year neuroscience student. In addition to writing for the UCLA Healthy Campus Initiative, she is a news reporter for the Daily Bruin.


How to Conquer Loneliness in College

“College is going to be the best four years of your life.” Everyone has heard the cliché, perhaps from parents loading up the van for move-in, or from a jealous younger sibling eagerly awaiting their turn to experience the blissful freedom of living alone.

The problem with the expression, however, is that it sets students up for disappointment: if you’re told that the next part of your life will be the best, then every challenge faced is a reminder that it’s only going to get worse after this. In reality, many people count other parts of their life, such as parenthood, or when they achieve career success, as their happiest moments. Regardless of whether college is destined to be a fantastic experience or not, adjusting to it often provides a challenge uniquely specific to this phase of life: the feeling of being lonely in a place where no one ever seems to be alone.

The prophecy of the “true college experience” foretells of endless adventure and friendship, and often the first few weeks of school do feel like this. But as finals season rolls around, and friends of convenience start to become less convenient, it is common to grow disappointed with the comparison of the depth and quality of your college friendships with the connections you have back home.

Here are three tips to help prevent loneliness.

  1. Don’t compare friendships

Though you might have heard it a million times before, comparison is never helpful when it comes to measuring your self-worth. But comparing the quality of your friendships in college with your relationships with your best friends back home makes even less sense. Asking your college friends to immediately fill a void that can only be filled with inside jokes and funny stories accumulated over many years of your life is unrealistic. But the good news is that due to all the shared experiences that happen when you live together, college friendships develop fast, and before you know it, you’ll have a whole new set of inside jokes.

  1. Don’t hide in your room

This September, the New York Times published a piece on loneliness in college touching on the ways mental health experts advise universities on reducing social isolation. Methods include placing laundry rooms and areas with great wireless connection in the center of dorm buildings, in the hope that this will prevent students from spending all their free time in their rooms. While hanging out with the washers and dryers might become weird after a little while, study lounges are definitely a great tool for combating loneliness, as you can adjust how much you talk and how much you study to whatever ratio suits you.

  1. Don’t try to do it all

While it is important to get out of your room if you’re attempting to make new friends, it is also important to ensure that the time you spend socializing is of high quality. Rather than attempting to be the person who attends every club and dorm activity, take some time to think about what sort of people you connect with. Develop a goal, such as having one five-minute, personal conversation each day. By creating this structure for yourself, you can ensure that the friendships you build are founded on more than just the fact that you and your friend have the same discussion section.

Tips aside, sometimes the only thing you need to help combat loneliness is a healthy dose of perspective. Just because you feel lonely right now, doesn’t mean college can’t still be some of the best years of your life. Given enough time, finals will be over, and your loneliness will go away. In the meantime, don’t stress. Many studies link success with spending time alone. Adolescents, in particular, can benefit from a little bit of solitude now and then. In fact, with the seemingly constant company of roommates, club obligations and a hefty load of homework, you’ll realize soon enough that sometimes a little bit of alone time is exactly what you need.

Maya McNealis is a second year neuroscience student. In addition to writing for the UCLA Healthy Campus Initiative, she is a news reporter for the Daily Bruin.


Five Reasons Why Green Spaces are Awesome

Recently at our annual Celebration, the Healthy Campus Initiative officially launched the Jane B. Semel Community Garden and Living Amphitheater located at Sunset Recreation Center, adding a new green space to UCLA’s campus. Opening the living amphitheater was a dream come true for the Healthy Campus Initiative, but it is also a valuable addition to UCLA’s campus that holds amazing potential. Read on to find out 5 reasons why green spaces like the Living Amphitheater are awesome for our well-being.

1. Green Space Boosts Attention

In this study, college students were assigned to three different conditions: nature walk, urban walk, or relaxing with a magazine in a comfortable room with light music. Afterwards, students were tested on their capacity for direct attention. The study found that those who went on a nature walk performed significantly better on the attention tests than those who went on an urban walk or relaxed indoors.

2. Green Space Encourages Physical Activity

Whether it is something as casual as taking a walk or something more intense like hiking, green spaces provide an environment that is conducive for physical exercise. As obvious as it may sound, having easier access to green space has a positive association with an individual’s level of physical activity. For instance, this study found that people who live closer to parks are “more likely to achieve physical activity recommendation and less likely to be overweight or obese.”

3. Green Space Improves Mental Health

One of my favorite things to do on campus is smelling different trees and flowers. The fresh smell of newly cut grass and sweet fragrance emitted by different flowers make me smile as I walk to my classes.

Research also demonstrates that green space provides benefits to mental health. This study found that among monozygotic or identical twins, those who had greater access to green space had fewer depressive symptoms than their twin counterpart with less access to green space. This is significant because by studying identical twins, the researchers were able to control for genetic and childhood environment factors. The reasons for why green space may benefit mental health are not yet clear, but it is promising that exposure to green space has a positive influence on our mental health.

4. Green Space Cleans the Air

This may not be surprising that trees can improve the air quality. Here are the details:

According to the report from the Forest Service Division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in areas with complete tree cover, trees can remove as much of air pollutants as 15% of the ozone, 14% of the sulfur dioxide (SO2), 8% of the nitrous dioxide (NO2), and 0.05% of the carbon monoxide (CO) from the air. This is because vegetation, especially trees, can act as natural filters for the air pollutants. Thus, increasing green space will help us breathe well.

5. Green Space Helps Us Eat Well

Green space, especially community gardening has shown to improve food security. According to this study, people were 3.5 times more likely to consume at least five servings of fruit or vegetable on a daily basis if they or their family members were involved in a community garden in the last 12 months. Another study also suggested that gardening increases the likelihood of people meeting the national recommendation for fruit and vegetable consumption. More specifically, 56% of those who participate in a community garden met the recommendation, compared to 37% of those who have a home garden and 25% of those who have no gardening involvement.

There are numerous places on campus where we can reap these benefits of green spaces. There is, of course, the newly opened Living Amphitheater Garden at Sunset Rec. But if you are on campus and just want a quick stroll to enjoy the nature, consider visiting Botanical Gardens in South campus or the Sunken Gardens and Sculpture Garden in North campus. If you have any other suggestions for green space on and around campus, please share it with us by commenting below!

Miso Kwak is an undergraduate student at UCLA majoring in Psychology with a double minor in Disability Studies and Education Studies. In addition to blogging for the UCLA Healthy Campus Initiative, she plays the flute with the UCLA Woodwind Chamber Ensemble. Outside of school, she works as a mentor for high school students through Accessible Science, a nonprofit organization that facilitates science camp for blind youth.


Get Involved: Out of the Darkness Campus Walk

It’s the beginning of Spring quarter — with only eight weeks until we reach the much-awaited summer — so what can we do to make this last quarter a memorable one? Get involved with a meaningful cause! A great chance to get involved is at the upcoming Out of the Darkness Campus Walk at UCLA’s Drake stadium on Sunday, April 23rd from 1pm-3pm. The walk is an event hosted by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), and promotes suicide prevention and awareness, as well as the importance of mental health in general. Sounds like a noteworthy cause already, doesn’t it? But how much do you know about the statistics of suicide in the world today?

Before we get down to the numbers, let’s learn a little bit about the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) and why it hosts the Out of the Darkness walks. The AFS provides opportunities for survivors of suicide loss to be active in educational, outreach, awareness, advocacy, and fundraising programs. All of this has been done to create a culture that’s smart about mental health, in order to save lives and bring hope to those affected by suicide. They are the largest private funder of suicide prevention research, and even started out as a small research organization until public donations transformed it into what it is today.

Some of their research thus far has been on the relationship between decision-making in a negative environment and the effects of teens who text a crisis line when seeking help. Their research has greatly contributed to what the world understands about suicide today, and more of their findings can be found here. You can also sign up to become an AFSP field advocate, along with thousands of other volunteers, and receive the latest policy news and events surrounding mental health, as well as learn how to take action against policy issues you care about. AFSP has chapters and events occurring in all fifty states, so check out their website for more information. On top of all of the above, they offer educational programs for schools, communities, and workplaces, such as More Than Sad and Signs Matter. It’s clear to see all of the effort that AFSP puts into the cause of suicide prevention and awareness, and it hosts the Out of the Darkness walks to fundraise for these efforts, as well as spread hope and awareness throughout the communities in which they are held. Now that we know what the cause is about, let’s return to the statistics which created it all.

The Facts

In the US alone:

  • There is one death by suicide in the US every 13.3 minutes
  • About 39,500 Americans lose their lives to suicide every year

In the world as a whole:

  • There is one death by suicide in the world every 40 seconds
  • Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide

In terms of gender:

  • Suicide among males is 4X’s higher than among females
  • 79% of all US suicides are attributed to male deaths
  • Females attempt suicide 3X’s as often as males
  • Females experience Depression at about 2X’s the rate of men

In terms of age:

  • Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for people the ages of 15-24
  • The prevalence of suicidal thoughts, planning, and attempts are highest among adults age 18-29

In terms of gender identity and sexual orientation:

  • LGBTQ+ youth who come from families that reject or do not accept them are 8X’s more likely to attempt suicide than those from families who accept them
  • LGBTQ+ youth are 3X’s more likely than straight youth to attempt suicide in their lifetime
  • Each time a LGBTQ youth is a victim of verbal of physical harassment/abuse they are 2.5X’s more likely to hurt themselves

Pretty startling, isn’t it? Suicide is a prominent concern in our society, affecting all ages, genders, and sexual orientations. Even if you haven’t been directly affected by suicide, the chances are that you have a family member, friend, or coworker who has been. We walk for them, and for all those who have been affected, in hopes of reducing the rate of suicide 20% by 2025.

If you feel drawn to the cause, you can donate to the foundation and the walk event by clicking here. If you would like to donate your time at the event, register to be a walker/start your own team here, or volunteer to help at the event if that appeals more to your interests. Those are three ways that you can get involved with the walk to show your support for suicide prevention awareness — which one will you try? If you do decide to walk, come and find me with the Resilience Peer Network (RPN) walking team, or visit the table hosted by UCLA’s Depression Grand Challenge. We may not all have a mental illness, but we all have mental health, and it’s imperative that its importance be brought to the forefront of everyone’s attention. Lace up your shoes, and get ready to make this Spring quarter one in which you show your support for a great cause.

Aubrey Freitas is an undergraduate student at UCLA double majoring in English Literature and Psychology with a minor in Italian. She is a blogger for the UCLA Healthy Campus Initiative in the Mind Well section, which focuses on the importance of mindfulness and mental health. Aubrey is the founder of the organization Warm Hearts to Warm Hands, which teaches the skill of knitting to people of the community in return for their donation of an article of clothing they create with the skill, to be given to local homeless shelters.

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Creativity & the Arts in Healing

10-year-old Kara makes a collage featuring a large bird standing on a branch of a barren tree with an arrow pointing its beak towards a strawberry, while a smaller bird stands on an opposite branch looking up towards a raspberry.

Using a structured fill-in-the-blank bio poem, she writes from the voice of the bird:  

I am a little birdie.

I wonder if my mom’s going to survive, because she has a cut wing.

I hear my mom crying.

I see my dinner.

I want my mom to be healed.

I am a little birdie.

Creative expression reveals what is inside us.  It invites reflection that can lead to self-discovery, connection, and empowerment.  The universality and non-verbal essence of the arts transcends traditional barriers of culture and ability.  Moreover, shared creative experiences provide an organic opportunity for self-revelation, meaningful dialogue, and the development of empathy.

An elementary school counselor shared her insights in working with a group of 5th graders, after receiving a UCLArts & Healing training in Beat the Odds, which integrates activities from group drumming and group counseling to build social-emotional skills:

 “I used the one drum that I had to talk about problems and had kids give information verbally and with rhythm on the drum.  The kids loved it.  I noticed improvements in behavior with a greater sense of cooperation between them.  Those who were shy or acting out would bring out each other’s qualities . . . to level each other out.  Some of these children, if put together previously, would have been fighting.  Then they became a group, and you don’t beat up a member of your group.”

What tools can address emotional turmoil and social divisions as efficiently, cost effectively, and sustainably as the arts? 

Traumatic stress responses inhibit speech center activity in the brain, which interferes with our ability to articulate what we are thinking and feeling.1 They also inhibit rational brain functions of sequential thinking, decision–making, and social behavior.  On the other hand, when under stress, we are evolutionarily wired for activity in visual, movement, and sound centers of the brain for self-protection.  Therefore, non-verbal pathways for self-expression and engagement can be useful in addressing trauma.  

Unlike other healing modalities, the arts are also uniquely capable of enhancing positive emotions, particularly when the focus is on process over product.2  Furthermore, active participation in the arts engages large areas of the brain, which quite literally crowds out stress, grief, and pain.3

How can you bring these practices to your community, school, workplace, or home?

At UCLArts and Healing, we maximize the innate benefits of the arts by integrating them with mental health practices, such as nonjudgmental language that invites dialogue.  For sustainability, we offer professional development with scripted materials that anyone can use with a variety of populations, in a variety of settings.  We also teach others how to develop their own supportive curricula through our Certificate Program in Social Emotional Arts.  Our vision is to offer effective programs across the lifespan that can be implemented in school, health care, and recreational settings, where nearly everyone visits.

We invite everyone to attend our inaugural, experiential conference on Creativity & the Arts in Healing from Thursday, March 30th through Sunday, April 2nd, 2017 at the Hilton Los Angeles Airport.  Learn arts-based tools for facilitating communication, building connection, promoting positive emotions, fostering engagement, reducing stress, and managing the impact of trauma.  Choose from 125+ workshops delivered by leading national experts in art, dance, drama, drumming, music, and writing integrated with mental health practices.  Select any one or combination of days.  Over 30 continuing education credits are available.  Sponsored in partnership with the Expressive Therapies Summit. To register: expressivetherapiessummit.la

Written by Ping Ho, MA, MPH, Founder and Director, UCLArts & Healing


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1 van der Kolk BA.  The Body Keeps the Score. New York: Penguin Books; 2014.  

2  Frederickson B.  How positive emotions heal. Keynote lecture presented at: International Research Congress on Integrative Medicine and Health; May 16, 2012; Portland, OR. http://webcast.ircimh.org/m/2012?link=nav&linkc=date. Accessed March 16, 2017.

3 Tramo MJ.  Biology and music: music of the hemispheres. Science. 2001;291(5501); 54-56.