The Collective Effort for Individual Well-being

Published: The California Aggie. December 9, 2016. Viewable here.


Chemistry professor Andreas Toupadakis makes sure to ask the 400 plus students in his lectures questions which allow him to learn more about them. His questions range from whether they would prefer that he upload homework assignments online to whether they know about the Reflection Room in the Student Community Center.

With a passion for helping others, Toupadakis’ name has become associated with his genuine care for the well-being of his students. Although he loves teaching chemistry courses, Toupadakis said teaching first-year seminars about student success and wellness is what keeps him at UC Davis.

“I had a driving force inside me to really see people happy,” Toupadakis said. “For years I [have been] teaching two seminars [that] are very, very successful; the comments are extremely positive. I’m acting like a catalyst to bring [students] together, [to] talk to each other [and] help them navigate through the things that they’re going through. I’m very thankful for these programs.”

Toupadakis teaches two first-year seminars: From Self Awareness to Inner Growth for True Success in and After College as well as World Music as a Means to Embrace Diversity and Reach Self-Discovery. In addition to the resources offered through the university, such as the Student Health and Wellness Center (SHWC), faculty members and students alike are pioneering new efforts to promote student well-being.

Sylvia Sensiper, the director of The Guardian Professions Program, which helps former foster youth throughout California go to graduate school, also teaches two first-year seminars.

“The Science of Well-being [seminar] looks at meditation [and] gratitude, and we also do a physical practice — sometimes it’s tai-chi sometimes it’s yoga — to look at how that keeps people centered in their mind [and] body in a holistic way,” Sensiper said. “[The seminar on] Contemporary American Buddhism is more like a cultural, historical look at different traditions, and we [engage in] different meditative practices.”

Sensiper said that maintaining stability is essential to achieving personal stability.

“Well-being is the ability to remain stable and flexible in the face of endless change, because there are very many things that are not in your control,” Sensiper said. “We’re all in the midst of a flux of change, and just knowing the resources on campus, knowing when you need to ask for help, knowing when you can just settle down and sit with something and let it go — that’s well-being.”

This personal and external awareness is relevant in the videos Sarv (aka Sodid) Mithaqiyan, a fourth-year philosophy major, creates for his YouTube channel Elevated & Meaningful. Mithaqiyan asks random passerbys meaningful questions, such as “What is Human Nature?” to build awareness about the community, society and ourselves.

“I try to raise the kind of questions that [explore] the kind of knowledge about who we are as human beings,” Mithaqiyan said. “There [needs to be a] catalyst to start the process of talking about things that matter, things that do contribute to well-being — either spiritual or mental or physical. I’m trying to show that people are capable of doing more than they can imagine. We can do more [and] we can construct a more meaningful life if we have higher goals.”

Mithaqiyan has joined a group of students on campus who attempt to engage classmates by offering a constructive, open dialogue. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) club at UC Davis focuses mainly on eliminating the stigmas surrounding mental illness and aims to providing a safe space for students to talk freely. Kim Shuster, a fourth-year psychology major who serves as the speaker coordinator for NAMI, said mental health is at the heart of well-being.

“When I first started my psychology major, I thought that mental health [was] more important than physical health,” Schuster said. “But the longer I’ve been here, I’ve started to realize there’s a lot of intersections. It’s hard to be mentally well if you’re not physically well. [It’s] so important to have a holistic [health].”

The promotion of holistic health is at the crux of the efforts of the Naturopathic Medicine Club (NMC), a student club started this quarter. Naturopathic medicine is a branch of medicine which stresses alternative forms of treatment and emphasizes patients’ individual needs to find the most effective solutions for them.

“Instead of [just] prescribing someone medicine, [naturopathy tries] to focus more on [the patient] as a whole,” said Talha Kilic, a second-year neurobiology, physiology and behavior major and public relations official for NMC. “Whether it’s mental health […] meditation [or] acupuncture, [the focus is on] soothing you as a whole. As a holistic health [club], we’re able to touch on a lot of different areas.”

Kilic said that the NMC is planning to bring in different professionals from the naturopathic medical field as well as from alternative treatment processes, such as Chinese acupuncturists.

Similarly, both Toupadakis and Sensiper utilize meditation in their seminars to lower stress levels, as it is a practice that is becoming more popular and more secular. Toupadakis said he hires a professional to come to both of his first-year seminars every quarter to lead yoga meditation for two hours. Sensiper requires her students to observe the effects of meditation and other soothing activities, such as writing in a gratitude journal, on students.

“My goals are for them to discover on their own what they can [learn] about these practices, [as] meditation is [an] internal [reflection]” Sensiper said. “Anything I teach externally is not really going to be helpful to anybody until they internalize it and find some benefit for themselves.”

Mithaqiyan, who said he wants to promote reflection as well as introspection through his videos, believes that asking questions and starting conversations has the power to create a large ripple effect that could potentially change current cultural climates.

“The kinds of interactions I try to encourage are ones […] that are directed towards bringing peace, bringing unity and even analyzing what […] that means,” Mithaqiyan said. “More and more individuals [could be] working together and […] coming up with, hopefully, the kind of actions we need to come up with that will stop violence, stop arrogance, stop disunity and hatred and racism.”

Toupadakis also focuses on opening up the dialogue on mental health as well as decreasing stress and anxiety amongst students. Toupadakis said that faculty have a responsibility to reach out to their students. He was recently given the UC Promoting Student Mental Health Guide meant for all faculty and staff and said he finds it incredibly useful.

“I wish I was given this guide years ago,” Toupadakis said. “I truly believe every subject teacher should be equally [if not] more devoted to the well-being of the students [and] this is the guide that could do it. The final solution [is to] cultivate compassion.”

Furthermore, both Sensiper and Toupadakis feel that requiring each first-year student to take a course that deals with topics such as well-being would have a huge impact.

“When [students] come in, there should be required classes about well-being of students,” Toupadakis said. “Your peace and health is more important than anything else.”



Hart Hall: A Hearty History

Published: The California Aggie. November 27, 2016. Viewable here.


Newspaper clippings displaying images of advocates including Malcolm X and Angela Davis and articles documenting UC Davis protests adorn the walls of George H. Hart Hall. The hall is included in the National Register of Historic Places and is one of the earliest-constructed buildings on UC Davis’ campus.

“If someone just walks through, I don’t know if they pick up on [a] vibe, but it’s here for sure,” said Veronica Passalacqua, the curator for the C.N. Gorman Museum currently housed in Hart Hall. “People in this building are extremely passionate about their ideals.”

Hart Hall was originally known as the Animal Science building since it housed the Animal Science Department — the only department of its kind in the UC system. The building was renamed in 1983 to its present title in dedication to George H. Hart, a former chair of the Department of Animal Science who helped bring it to international fame.

Hart Hall is currently home to the ethnic studies as well as other departments and programs including American studies, the Division of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies, Gender, Sexuality and Women’s (GSW) studies and Human and Community Development.

Asian American Studies professor Sunaina Maira credits student activist movements to the creation of ethnic studies programs at UC Davis. Both Maira and Chicana/o studies professor Natalia Deeb-Sossa led the creation of the UC Davis Race Projectwhich hangs in the hallways of Hart Hall. Showcasing a culmination of images and copies of Third World Forum newsletters, the project displays a history of social struggles and is a prominent feature of the building.

“The Race Project document[s] the history of the [UC Davis] student movements,” Maira said. “We wanted to […] create an archive and also a public exhibit that would try to educate the campus community about the long history of activism [at UC Davis, which] is not very well-known. Davis was actually […] a really important [place] for […] social struggles and student movements from the 1960s and ’70s on, and those movements led to the creation of ethnic studies programs that are housed in Hart Hall today.”

Additionally, Nicki King, chair of the Department of African and African American Studies housed in Hart Hall, said that a similar exhibit will be opening during Winter Quarter.

“The [African and African American Studies] Department, along with the other ethnic and cultural studies programs in Hart Hall, will be sponsoring an upgraded Third World Forum exhibit,” King said. “The concepts of equity, social justice and empowerment are important for the advancement and recognition of all underrepresented groups, and we want our students to understand that there is a strong historical precedent for their involvement in these causes.”

After an $8.9 million renovation in 1992, departments such as Native American Studies (NAS) moved into Hart Hall as well. The NAS Department is one of only two departments of its kind in the country that offer graduate programs.

“We’re the only [department] anywhere that offers a hemispheric perspective to the study of indigenous peoples,” said Inés Hernández-Ávila, NAS professor. “[This] approach to the study of indigenous peoples was central to our program from the beginning. It was the vision of one of our founders, Jack Forbes; he truly believed in this perspective — it is his legacy to us.”

Hart Hall is also home to research studies programs including the Self-Esteem Across the LiFespan Lab (SELF Lab), which researches the influences and factors related to self-esteem.

At the head of the SELF Lab is Kali Trzesniewski. Trzesniewski is an associate cooperative extension specialist in the Department of Human Ecology, who works with both undergraduate and graduate students, including Michelle Harris, a sixth-year graduate student of self-esteem and personality development in the Human Development Ph.D. program. Harris said she enjoys working in Hart Hall because it has a sense of home and community. She helps to conduct research, design surveys and publish data.

“Our most recent paper […]  is validating a new survey that we created that can measure global self-esteem,” Harris said. “This new survey […simplifies] existing surveys so kids can understand them a little better, and we found that their responses are reliable and valid. [The] survey works and it can be administered across the lifespan.”

Another noteworthy feature of Hart Hall is the C.N. Gorman Museum, founded in 1973. The museum, which displays contemporary Native American and Indigenous artwork, has been housed in Hart Hall since 1992 and has displayed over 200 exhibits. It is named after Navajo artist Carl Nelson Gorman.

“[C.N. Gorman] was really inspired by the students [who] were here,” Passalacqua said. “He soon amassed quite a big collection very quickly, [and] because he had this collection […] the university officially dedicated it as a museum in his name. We’re a university museum and we’re dedicated to teaching and research, but […] there’s no other venue like ours until you get to Arizona and New Mexico.”

The C.N. Gorman Museum’s next exhibit in January is entitled ‘Protest and Prayer’ and will display photographs of protests including Standing Rock and the Idle No More Movement. The exhibit fits into the air of social justice and advocacy evident in Hart Hall. Hernández-Ávila, who also worked as co-director of the UCD Social Justice Initiative, said she hopes people associate Hart Hall with social advocacy.

“I teach what matters to me,” Hernández-Ávila said. “I hope that the way that I teach [and] the way that I carry myself shows all students that  […] I want to contribute to awareness, consciousness, social consciousness [and] an understanding of social justice in a way that is inclusive of everyone. I think most of my colleagues in this building do the same thing.”

King, who has worked in Hart Hall for a number of years, said that the building’s location signifies what it represents.

“I have always felt that its location, right on the Quad and in the physical ‘heart’ of the campus spoke volumes about our commitment to be a vital part of the life of the university,” King said. “I can look out of my office window and see every demonstration on the quad, so it puts us right in the middle of what the students are thinking and feeling, especially about issues related to social justice.”

Although the departments in Hart Hall function separately from one another, Hernández-Avila said that faculty members from the ethnic studies departments, as well as the American studies and GSW studies departments, try to stand with and support one another.

“Historically, we’ve always worked in solidarity with each other,” Hernández-Avila said. “If one of the programs needs support from the other, we usually come forward and support them. I like the idea that the name of the building is Hart, because I think of it as the other, h-e-a-r-t.”

The Perks of Having Professors as Pals

Published: The California Aggie. November 20, 2016. Viewable here.


In effort to get to know her upper division French students, professor Claire Goldstein  invited her class for lemonade and a game of boules, a French game similar to bocce. As the students engaged in cultural activities, Goldstein got the opportunity to interact with them outside of the classroom, and she thoroughly enjoyed their conversations.

“I like to know what [students are] doing, […] what they’re interested in and their experiences,” Goldstein said. “I get some of my best ideas about teaching from really hearing what students are [saying and] their perspectives.”

From organizing committees, to having meals, to casually chatting, many UC Davis faculty members are making the effort to connect with their students.

One program on campus that tries to foster such connections is the Entrée to Education (E2E) program, planned by Student Housing, which invites a faculty member to eat a free meal with up to 10 students in the dining hall of their choice. Brandon Petitt, the director of the Office of Student Development, worked in a committee alongside students to create the program.

“[We were] looking at ways to engage students to ensure their success [by specifically engaging] students with faculty on campus,” Petitt said. “One key idea was [for students and faculty to] have a meal together. Where we finally landed was on the Entrée to Education program.”

For the last two years, the E2E program has been providing students with dining hall access the opportunity to dine with faculty. Carolyn Thomas, professor of American Studies and Vice Provost and Dean for Undergraduate Education, recently participated in the program and said that, although mostly just resident advisors (RAs) joined her, it was a worthwhile experience.

“It went well,” Thomas said. “There were mostly RAs who were there when I went [and] we talked about housing, […] what the experience is for students who are RAs and how much they enjoy working with first year students. We also talked about their classes [and] concerns that they had.”

Thomas said she was so impressed with the RAs who showed up to eat with her that she invited them to join her advisory board— one RA took her up on the offer which, she said, “was a really nice outcome.” Thomas’ advisory board is a diverse group of about 10 students which meet with her once a quarter to talk about concerns or ideas about undergraduate education. Goldstein explained exactly what a faculty member can get out of prioritizing active outreach.

“[I get to learn about] what [students] want to know, what they want to understand [and] what they think they understand about what’s happening,” Goldstein said. “It’s good for [students] to have the opportunity to meet faculty in [informal] situations.”

After Jasneek Attwal,  a fourth-year neurobiology, physiology and behavior major, invited her chemistry professor to attend the annual Prytanean Women’s Honor Society’s Dinner for Ten event — in which students of the society bring one faculty member of their choosing to a large dinner — she said she was both excited and nervous.

“He said yes and [the dinner] was wonderful,” Attwal said. “They sat us with people from different departments, even Prytanean alumnae, and we had one of the coolest conversations ever. It expanded from bees, to biochemistry, to mosquitoes, to politics, to different types of law — it was really fun. And I definitely had a [closer] relationship with my professor after.”

Both Attwal, who serves as the treasurer for the Prytanean Women’s Honor Society, and Sheila Kulkarni, a third-year chemistry major who serves as the historian, will help organize the Dinner for Ten this year. Both Attwal and Kulkarni said they feel fostering student and faculty relationships outside the classroom is important for both parties.

“[Building connections] really enriches the educational experience for both students and teachers,” Kulkarni said. “It’s difficult for teachers to understand how students absorb knowledge, so getting to know your students as people, getting to understand how they learn, who they are as students and as people is very important in helping [faculty] teach and interact with their students on a very human level.”

Some faculty members are even willing to live in close proximity with students. Petitt acknowledged landscape architecture professor David de la Peña who, alongside his family, lives in Primero Grove. De la Peña explains that meeting with his neighbors in an informal setting is what helps him get to know them the best.

“I am there to help students connect with faculty in a comfortable setting,” de la Peña said in an e-mail interview. “Last week, we served churros and Mexican hot chocolate and chatted with a dozen or so students about moving to Davis about good places to hike and about study abroad. It can be hard for students sometimes to connect with all of the things happening on campus, so it’s fun to see them get engaged and contribute their energy.”

Student-faculty interactions can be mutually beneficial for both parties involved. Thomas said she encourages students to involve themselves in events which connect them to faculty because it helps to make students “more active in class” as well as more confident to approach professors about their work outside of the classroom. Additionally, she encourages faculty to do the same.

“Coming into Segundo [Dining Commons] and sitting down over a meal […] is very different [than the classroom],” Thomas said. “It makes us better teachers when we really take time to get to know our students as people.”

When students and faculty take the time to get to know each other, the results can be emboldening to everyone involved.

“Teaching […] is a collaborative experience that is born out of a relationship that involves trust and a mutual interest,” Goldstein said. “I really love getting to talk to UC Davis students in a non-classroom setting. I love hearing [about] all the rich things they’re up to, and thinking about and involved in. It’s really inspiring for me, and I’m happy to teach here.”

The Benefits of Going Abroad

Published: The California Aggie. November 13, 2016. Viewable here. Co-written with Allyson Tsuji


When Alissa Alson returned to UC Davis after a year spent on an independent study trip in Ireland, she knew she did not want to continue pursuing her major in biological systems engineering.

“I took about two quarters [for that major] and realized that wasn’t really what I wanted to do,” said Alson, a fourth-year student who now works as an administrative assistant at the Study Abroad Center. “I already knew I was studying abroad […] so I went and I figured ‘I’m going to take whatever classes sound fun.’”

While abroad, Alson took classes on Celtic civilization and Irish folklore. By embracing the opportunities she was presented with abroad, Alson discovered that she “really liked delving into other cultures” and decided to instead pursue a major in international relations.

“[Study Abroad tries] to focus on the life experience,” said Pablo Ortiz, professor in the UC Davis Music Department and Study Abroad instructor. “Being able to experience things face-to-face, without the mediation of a camera or social media or anything like that […] is completely different. It’s […] great to be able to experience things in a more direct way.”

UC Davis has over 300 study abroad programs to choose from, making the boundaries limitless both academically and geographically. In addition to approximately 50 UC Davis faculty-led programs, the systemwide UC Education Abroad Program (UCEAP) offers around 350 different plans of study at host universities around the world.

Regardless of the program, studying abroad offers experiences that many students do not get to experience at home. Ortiz, who has taught a variety of music classes abroad, takes his students to opera festivals and street art tours.

“I take students to places that are the opposite of Davis –– places where there are […] experiences you would never have in the context of a small town in California,” Ortiz said. “I believe that that makes people acquire a repertoire of behaviors [and] resources. [These experiences] confront [students] with realities that they’re not confronted with here.”

Along with experiencing the world outside of Davis, students who study outside of the country can also add to their “repertoire” by making new connections.

Paula Levitt, a programs manager at the Study Abroad Center who has, according to her online biography, “visited, worked or studied in 45 countries and six continents,” has remained in contact with the friends she met from her time studying abroad through a UCEAP program over a decade ago. In addition to forming  new friendships, Levitt also emphasized the benefits of studying abroad with UC Davis faculty members and how they can provide letters of recommendation or research opportunities in the future.

“That’s what I like about traveling –– those person to person experiences [can help you] learn more about [yourself] and also other people and cultures,” Levitt said. “Staying in hostels and meeting people from all over the world […] who have similar passions, [allows you] to learn about your field from a different perspective. The reason that I’m so flexible and adaptable […] is really due to my travel experiences […] and my ability to get along with all sorts of people from different walks of life.”

Like most great accomplishments, studying abroad is often accompanied by challenges of all sorts, from homesickness to culture-shock. These difficulties test a student’s limits and push them to accomplish even more than they thought they would able to do.

“When you go abroad, what happens [there] is not in any way similar to what happens [at Davis],” Ortiz said. “Your food may not be what you’re expecting, or the train may not leave at the time it’s supposed to leave. You have to adapt to the circumstances and make the best of something that initially may look like it’s bad, [until] it turns out to be one of the greatest things that may have happened to you.”

Levitt also said that she encourages students to start thinking about studying abroad as early as possible, since the “experience is so impactful that they find a way to make it happen again.” Though advising sessions beforehand help students plan for their trips abroad by discussing how to pack and what to bring, nothing can prepare students for the impact the trip will have on their lives.

“I think everybody should go abroad,” Ortiz said. “Most of the [students] I’ve had […] always refer to their study abroad as a before-and-after, completely life-changing experience.”

Megan Perry, a third-year history major, was recently accepted to the Spring 2017 London quarter abroad program during which she will have an internship and be taking two UK-themed courses. Perry applied in early October and said the reality of the trip is “surreal.”

“I grew up in Sacramento so I didn’t go to college very far away from home,” Perry said. “Getting out of that comfort zone and finding out who [I am] as a person and having these new experiences […] can really help [me] grow. It’s kind of nice that I’ll have that experience of being away. I think it will help in the long-term in [terms of adjusting to] new circumstances.”

Alson, after her experiences in Ireland, is now considering about a professional career overseeing study abroad programs. She strongly encourages students to step out of their comfort zone through the opportunities available outside of the country.

“Studying abroad is a great way to figure out, ‘What do I really like? What don’t I like?” Alson said. “Davis is great […], but maybe you’ll find some place that speaks to you even more. Maybe there’s something out there that’s going to speak to you, [and] you haven’t found it yet.”