In 2017, the UC Berkeley Public Service Center celebrated its 50th anniversary, honoring Berkeley’s legacy of leadership, community engagement, and transformative social change. Today, more than 5,000 students each year contribute more than 140,000 hours of service to projects in the local community and beyond. The Public Service Center also works in collaboration with faculty, graduate students, and community partners to develop engaged scholarship courses.
Sandra Bass is an Assistant Dean of Students and Director of the Public Service Center. She is a UC Berkeley graduate alumna (Ph.D., 1999). Here she discusses unconventional career paths, community-engaged research, and her work at the Center.
On Unconventional Paths
I never felt like I needed to follow a set track; instead, I did what felt right for me at the time. As a young college student, I dropped out of school and worked for a few years in advertising and public relations before going back to finish my BA at San Jose State University. One of my undergraduate professors suggested that I look into graduate programs, and I came to Berkeley to the program in political science.
Here my doctoral research explored police behavior, community organizing, and the dynamics between police and communities of color. After graduate school, I forged career paths in academia and philanthropy before coming back to Berkeley in 2015 to work with the Public Service Center.
If you make unconventional choices, you need to be prepared for what might be an unconventional life. For me, following my own North Star has always been my most important motivator, and I have not regretted that choice.
On Preparing for a Career After Graduate Studies
It’s important for graduate students to think about alternative career options while they are in graduate school because a linear career path is less likely today than in the past. Since my time as a graduate student, I think there’s much greater understanding in academia and among students of how important it is to develop a diverse set of skills and experiences so that you can have flexibility and adaptability once you move into the world of work.
The great thing about academia is that you acquire substantive knowledge and skills such as critical thinking and data analysis. Today what’s equally important is that you also acquire the ability to translate the value of your knowledge and skills to people outside of the academy, particularly if you’re interested in social change, as I have been throughout my career. If you want to create change, you have to be willing to meet people where they are and provide information in a way that sheds light on an issue and moves them towards thinking differently and, ideally, toward action.
On Community-Engaged Research
Community engagement has been central to my work throughout my career. Ethnography and participant-observation were important to my dissertation and research. As a faculty member, I integrated service experiences into the curriculum because I wanted students to learn the importance of bringing the lens of community experience and wisdom to understanding and addressing an issue.
I’m really pleased to see that so many graduate students at Berkeley are interested in exploring the process of knowledge creation differently. Engaged research and learning challenges traditional epistemological frames and creates space for incorporating different perspectives into the disciplines. This work seems especially critical to addressing the challenges we face today.
On the Mission of the Public Service Center
One of the things that became clear to me in my work with nonprofit organizations — and specifically when I had the opportunity to work on girls’ education, women’s leadership, and reproductive health in Sub-Saharan Africa — is that creating meaningful transformative change requires that we explore the connection between the personal, the social, and the political.
We see our work at the Public Service Center as helping students develop their civic values and identity as they simultaneously learn about the historical, cultural, and systemic factors that underlie our social and political challenges, and as they work collaboratively with others to change them. It’s such a privilege to be in a position to engage students at this stage in their lives and to give them experiences, insights, and skills they can build on after they leave Cal.