Alumni Insights: Joan Harp '11

How has Communication Studies impacted/empowered you in your personal life?


I didn’t realize how much I’d learn about cognition and just how much I would become fascinated by it. Last year, my mom was diagnosed with brain cancer. I brought her over from Chicago to get treatment at UCLA’s Medical Center. Her treatment was intense. She had brain swelling, she couldn’t walk, and generally experienced all kinds of terrible side effects. Watching her sit in the hospital bed, wrapped in a sling, physically incapacitated yet perfectly lucid, moved me to action. She was so bored, and I felt like I had to do something.

Because of budget cuts, my mom had access to a speech therapist only 3 days a week. I worked on software that has cognition exercises to show to patients after brain injury. They are often unable to communicate vocally or even by pointing. These DVDs will include images of things with which the patient is familiar and loves, such as his or her children, flowers, and anything family members suggest. The patient exercises by saying the words the images represent. The DVDs also have an added benefit of reducing anxiety. These could be presented using the televisions in each hospital room. With this, you can have cognition exercises that are customized to a specific patient, and it’s like having a speech therapist there all day without having to incur the associated costs.

My mom made a full recovery and is back in Chicago now. I plan to give this research proposal to the surgeon who operated on her. Professor Steve Peterson’s Research Methods class (CS150) helped me through this: he teaches as if you’re really a researcher. Professor Tim Groeling’s Evolution of Communication Technology course (CS 158) also helped me frame the DVD project. I can’t afford to become a PhD, but that will not stop me from passing my ideas along to people who are qualified and can make things happen. Because of the education I have received from the Communication Studies Department, I can produce a professional research design proposal that is of industry quality.

I really think that UCLA is one of the very few schools in the country where I could have an experience like this. This whole process has allowed me to see first-hand how cutting-edge our school is. I’m so inspired by the ability to use all of these resources at UCLA, everything is here for you. You just have to apply yourself.

 Grammy award winning drummer

Which professors and classes have inspired you the most at UCLA?

Professor Bryant’s Language and Music class (CS 118) really inspired me. I was a musician for a number of years, which is what initially drew me to the class. I was interested in exploring how music and communication are similar, and how music can affect your emotions. Professor Bryant gave us a lot of latitude on what we could write about for our paper. I had recently taken in a severely abused dog, Petey. His previous owners had starved him and used him for fighting. I did a paper on classical music and its effect on captive animals. Did you know that every species in the world understands the eight-tone scale? My dog was very aggressive as a result of his abuse. I started playing classical music to him all day, and it made a huge difference in terms of his behavior. I’ve also read about people playing classical music for Michael Vick’s dogs and that having therapeutic effects.  By the way, I’d like to mention that Petey will be featured as part of a new Animal Planet series on post-adoption animals.

Professor Peterson is also fabulous. I took his Multicultural Television class (CS 132). We talked about why and how kids learn what they do, and how we’re promoting social values through television. This class was particularly relevant to me because of my background in filmmaking. I also had him for CS 150. Professor Peterson inspires me to be the very best student I can be. His classes challenge me intellectually, and he as a professor challenges me to be good person, to be an ethical person. Professor Peterson makes me work hard, but I definitely gain tremendously from it. In fact, I’ve often quoted things he’s said in class at my work at the Mayor’s Office.


Has Communication Studies played an important role in your career development and professional aspirations?

Jonesy and Friend

Absolutely. One of Jane Bitar’s emails publicizing an internship at the Mayor’s Office caught my eye right away. I followed up on that and have been volunteering there ever since. Right now I am a Community Volunteer, working with the new social media division in the Press Office there.

In this capacity, I am working on a project for Summer Night Life in Los Angeles. I am overseeing the creation of tennis courts in 32 parks this summer. In my neighborhood, the parks close at around four in the afternoon. We need something there so that kids do not join gangs. I’m also working on getting tennis balls and rackets available for check-out so that the courts can be a resource for everyone. I took up playing tennis in my 30s and have seen the physical benefits it bestows. I like to think that tennis is like chess with sweat. You have to use critical thinking to create a strategy and you must control your temper. You also have to shake hands when the match is over – so it teaches teamwork skills. Kids can use these good life skills.

I am working very hard to raise over $115,000 in six months to turn this idea into a functioning program. The hard part is that I am just a volunteer and concerned citizen. I have no real clout. That said, I am working closely with the US Tennis Association (USTA) to raise the money.

This endeavor has led to a paid assignment with the Los Angeles Unified School District, in which I will be running a “Beyond the Bell” pilot program for tennis. The idea is very similar to the Summer Night Life project in Los Angeles. We will build tennis courts and provide tennis equipment in five Los Angeles schools with the goal of expanding it throughout the district.

 Exhibit at the Museum

Could you talk about the documentary project that you’re working on right now? What was the inspiration for it?

My husband and I bought a house in South Central Los Angeles in April 2010 with the help of the first-time homebuyers’ federal stimulus money. We received $8,000, and we’re committed to completing 800 community service hours in return. We are creating a three-year documentary project on real life in post-racial America based on our experiences in this at-risk neighborhood. We want to see what happens with government help. Can you change your community, or does your community change you? The working title of it is “What would Ralph Do? Chasing the American Dream.” This project is our way of saying “thank you”—we could not afford to buy a house were it not for the extra help.

One of my first classes at UCLA was a course called Ralph Bunche, Crisis Diplomacy, and International Peacekeeping. We are in year two of this adventure, and I’ve been inspired by my new knowledge of Ralph Bunche.


What do you think the role of Communication Studies should be at UCLA? How do you see Communication Studies as an important area of study?

Since communications involves every aspect of the human condition, I think that this is one of the most important majors at UCLA. I think that more communications courses, both interpersonal and mass, should be available to students in all majors. It would be nice if there were more emphasis in the fields of public affairs and social welfare, so that students get a chance to look at more varied careers in communications. UCLA has the distinct advantage of having a plethora of jobs ready for graduates who are interested in the entertainment industry.   However, I think that it’s time to think about integrating entertainment concepts into everyday meaningful social interactions, rather than passively absorbing them through carefully controlled media conglomerates. Where the Internet used to be an open and wide medium, now it’s more like a personal data collection vehicle. One has to decide what is the value of that whopper you just got for free if it means you have to “de-friend” ten people from Facebook to earn it. The new privacy intrusions we accept or decline as content viewers and users will change how we communicate—most likely in a less open and free way. Certainly, these new problems need further study. 

How has all your community service experience influenced your worldview?

It’s only when we all work together to make sure everybody gets the same opportunities and chances will we thrive as a nation and society. Until the playing field is more even, you have to demand that the situation be changed right now. In this spirit, I challenge my fellow students and Alumni to make a difference today. Pick up one piece of litter, slow down and let somebody cut you off without reacting, be kind and gentle to a total stranger. Put your hand out and reach to help a fellow Bruin who may be stumbling academically, and put your hand up and ask for help when you need it. Stop being a person who says no to everythingand instead join in on pursuing maybe and yes we can.  It’s not a political affiliation. Instead, I believe that we have to work on our affiliations with values and integrity.


What is it like being an older student at UCLA?

Sometimes I get the feeling that people wish older people wouldn’t get involved. I walk down Bruin Walk and no one hands me flyers. While this may sound like good fortune to all the students who get mobbed daily, I think it’s unfortunate. My social network is different from a twenty-year-old’s, of course, but that’s the beauty of it. Our collaborations could be fruitful. UCLA provides the incubator if you will for great things to happen. But people need to talk to each other first. 

 Playing on Michigan Ave.

What do you think is the biggest challenge for UCLA students these days?

It is definitely the financial aspect of going to UCLA. It’s been a horrible hardship for me personally. Thankfully, I received an Alumni Scholarship upon coming to UCLA. I also received a Wasserman Award. I would not have been able to afford UCLA without the money from those awards. It’s hard to pay for books and other school expenses. With all the budget cuts the school is facing, I really worry about UCLA’s ability to provide a public education for the students of California. I think attending UCLA truly is a gift. We simply can’t count on that school across town to hand out full scholarships to its students – kids here need to have a good opportunity that is financially within reach.     


Biographical sketch

Joan Marie Harp was born in Chicago, Illinois. Her grandfather was a Nabisco cookie salesman in Chicago in the 1920s. Her aunt’s house burned down during riots in the 1960s. Joan grew up in a farm in southern Illinois. She was active in the local 4-H club where she raised funds to build a recreation center in her county park. This sparked a deep interest in service that has not faded since.

Shortly after her teenage years, she traveled around the world playing the bass and singing blues and soul music with accomplished musicians for twenty-five years. Joan got married and left the Windy City of Chicago for the beautiful—and more importantly, warm and sunny—Los Angeles about five years ago. After surviving a near-death experience, she returned to school with a new interest in filmmaking and editing and devoted herself to improving her community. She transferred to UCLA from Santa Monica College last year.

Joan is currently writing a most brilliant speech to help her get chosen as class speaker at graduation in June and is always on the lookout for ways to give back. Ultimately, she hopes to work for the U.S. State Department and retire in Tahiti.