UCLA Community School, UCLA UniCamp Provide Memorable Summer for Inner City Students

AcademiCamp is the first-ever collaboration between the K-12 pilot school and the UCLA student-run service project.

Since 1934, UCLA UniCamp has been providing an unforgettable summer camp experience for low-income and foster youth in Los Angeles. This year, in a first-time collaboration with UCLA Community School, the program provided a week’s idyll in Big Bear for students at the pilot school in the Koreatown/Pico-Union neighborhood.

The collaboration, which was titled, “AcademiCamp” combined three weeks of literacy intervention as well as the visual and performing arts at the UCLA Community School campus. At the end of their studies, the students spent a week at UniCamp in Big Bear with UCLA student volunteers who run the camping facilities and serve as counselors, as well as with other young campers from throughout L.A. County.

Maria Mancia, UCLA Community School teacher (at left) and Sarah Bang, associate director of bridging and engagement at UCLA Community School, enjoyed camping with students at UCLA’s UniCamp. Courtesy of Sarah Bang

Sarah Bang, associate director of bridging and engagement at UCLA Community School, and the liaison between the school and UCLA, said that the objective of the fourth week is mainly to reward the students for their work preceding it.

“UniCamp has a college-going program [with] goal setting and… time to talk about college and the future,” she said. “But really, they just go and be a kid in the mountains, live in a cabin, swim, fish, do archery, bike-riding, and hiking. There’s a challenge to see who can not take a shower the longest. Basically, they get to just go and have fun.”

Approximately 65 UCLA Community School students participated in AcademiCamp, comprised of both academically challenged and advanced students from the 5th through 8th grades. Kindle digital readers, which were donated by the Los Angeles Times to UniCamp, provided the students with a tool for reading and writing workshops during the first three weeks of instruction. Bang commended UniCamp’s 79-year-old tradition and its adult-to-student ratio as factors for the camp’s success.

UCLA Community School students – as well as students from throughout Los Angeles schools – enjoyed outdoor activities at UniCamp in Big Bear. Photo by Sarah Bang

“[UniCamp is] a really great program – it’s the official charity [by] UCLA students,” she said. “A lot of the counselors are former campers themselves. For every three campers, there is one adult. You would never find that anywhere else. We don’t even have that in schools where we really need it.”

For many of the 65 UCLA Community School students who enjoyed the week in Big Bear, AcademiCamp marked their first real camping experience. Aktor Islam said that she wanted to experience something new and different: spending time with her friends while surrounded by nature.

“Also, it’s not just about camp, it’s also about the academic [subjects] we are doing, so I thought maybe it would also be a good start for eighth grade,” said Islam, who was in the 7th grade last year.

Johny Estrada had more weighty reasons for attending AcademiCamp.

“I wanted to stay out of trouble,” he said. “My family is poor and my mother works a lot. I want to make her proud. Last year, I really messed up a lot and got bad grades. AcademiCamp helped me stay out of trouble, and I’ve been able to improve my reading skills.”

The visual and performing arts component of AcademiCamp was led by undergraduate students in the Visual and Performing Arts Education (VAPAE) program in UCLA’s School of Arts and Architecture. UCLA Community School students did a variety of exercises focused around literacy, including creating books, songs, poems, and personal memoirs, while learning the mechanics and strategies necessary to write and read well. In addition, they created performance art projects and reinforced what they were learning through exercises in movement and performance.

“We didn’t learn just to be a better writer and a better reader, but we also learned how to work together,” said Islam. “We had fun getting to know each other by playing games and also through art.”

Johny Estrada, a student at UCLA Community School, enjoyed art activities at UniCamp along with the great outdoors. Photo by Sarah Bang

“We wrote stories and realistic fiction that related to us,” said Estrada, who entered the 9th grade this fall. “I was able to let people know who I am, where my family is from; why we came here fleeing from civil war [in El Salvador]. My family came here to find a better life for us.”

While AcademiCamp’s program helped UCLA Community School students explore their identities through creation of art and writings, they learned many other intangible skills to be used in and out of the classroom.

“I learned to be a leader and not to follow [bad influences],” said Estrada. “I’m going to…make a name for myself.”

“At home, I’m really busy with studies,” said Islam, who in her infancy was raised by her grandparents in Bangladesh. “And my parents are really busy. So I wanted to take that little break by going outside in nature. I’m not always good at socializing with people that I don’t know, so it was fun [that] I actually made so many friends in AcademiCamp.”


Above: UCLA Community School students Eddy Villegas (at left) and Geovany Rodriguez enjoy swimming at UCLA’s UniCamp in Big Bear. Photo by Sarah Bang