June 6, 2022 | Lesly Ayala and Citlalli Chávez-Nava
Since 2015, labor studies at UCLA has offered a highly popular course titled Spirituality, Mindfulness, Self-Compassion and Social Justice Activism, that invites students to participate in mindful breathing meditations, breakthrough conversations and meditative walks while learning about spiritual activist leaders such as Mohandas Gandhi, Thich Nhat Hanh, Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chávez.
As the class approaches its seven-year mark and with the added stressors facing students amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a new report released by the UCLA Labor Center with grant support from the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute found that the class helped students deal with stress, anxiety and the demands of college life and in turn helps improve their academic performance, daily relationships and work-life balance.
The study, Kindness Lessons: How Mindfulness and Spirituality Improve College Life, Student Activism and the Academic Experience, was conducted by longtime immigrant rights activist and labor studies faculty member Victor Narro, who teaches the course. The report contributes to a growing body of research that finds that interventions of this type provide beneficial coping strategies for college students, improve academic performance and also prepare students for life beyond graduation.
“Academic life and the academic process in higher education is more than just academic performance and preparing yourself for the job market,” said Narro.
“I think academic life should also include the development of students in the areas of wellness, self growth, self development and tapping into our inner wisdom. I feel like sometimes we focus on the brain and less on the body, less on the inner self, self development, self growth and that’s just as important.”
Narro noticed that his students appreciated dedicated class time to explore mindfulness and wellness instead of thinking about these topics as something separate from their studies.
“My class offers the classroom space to come together. Students create their own community space, they learn from each other and they learn from the course syllabus. They come out with a sense of unity and community which many of them continue. A few of my classes have created Facebook groups, and they were still active long after the class had ended.”
Based on a review of class curricula, student evaluations and a survey of 61 past and present UCLA students, and 20 in-depth interviews with a majority of first-generation students of color, the report found that almost 69% of the activist-minded students did not have a unique balance between self-care and service as a student and/or activist prior to taking this course.
Estefany Garcia ‘16, a first-generation college student, community organizer with InnerCity Struggle and masters candidate in UCLA Luskin’s Urban and Regional Planning program, took the inaugural class in 2015 and continues to apply class lessons in her daily life.
“When I came into the class I’d always thought of organizing as something that is very urgent and we have to address things in the moment because there’s a high need. I had never really been able to pause and reflect on how I’m doing as an organizer and what I need to do to take care of myself. Even after taking the course, I continue to explore therapy and seek other resources. I really appreciated the material [and] we would learn, reflect and then practice,” she said.
In their evaluations, many students reported self-care was an integral part of academic success and also highlighted that such classes could improve retention rates at UCLA. Many students also noted that they considered enrollment in the class a privilege and that UCLA should mandate the course for all students.
“This course is universally needed for UCLA students,” said a student quoted in the report.
Students felt they had a better grasp on their academic goals and left with a greater understanding of purpose, spirituality and self-care.
“The class is very useful in framing in that you can’t take care of other things if you are not in a place where you will be effective at it because you are neglecting your mental health and well-being,” said another student quoted in the report.
Garcia has been able to apply lessons from the class in many different areas of her life.
“The biggest takeaway was practical skills that I was able to apply in my career as a community organizer. Before the course I’ve never learned about restorative justice. I never learned about circle keeping, these tools were really important as an organizer where I’ve had to essentially hold space for folks. I was asked to share restorative justice practices with high school youth, and I would bring in the resources that I learned from Victor,” she said.
Based on the analysis, the report outlined two key recommendations for UCLA administrators:
- UCLA should consider offering courses and workshops for faculty, staff and students to introduce them to mental and emotional well-being as well as mindfulness practices and meditation.
- Professors, adjunct faculty and lecturers should set aside time for UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research (MARC), Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), and other UCLA-based programs to do a presentation or session with students in their classes.
More broadly, report authors hope these findings can promote dialogue among students, faculty and administrators nationwide to rethink approaches to wellness services on campus.
“I think it’s important to assess the delivery of services regularly to see if they have been effective, if they are helping students and then the other is to work with different departments,” said Narro. “These topics don’t have to be limited to psychology and neuroscience departments. We could integrate these practices into different classes, and where it makes sense or create a dedicated class that goes deeper.”
To get the process started, Narro envisions including spirituality, kindness and mindfulness workshops as part of new student or transfer student orientations or welcome events and he hopes the findings of this study will move campuses in this direction.
The full study which includes the course curriculum can be downloaded here. The study was conducted with grant support from the UCLA Bedari Institute in collaboration with the UCLA Labor Center, UCLA Labor Studies and the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment.