Alumni Insights: Mustafa Abdul-Hamid '10

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What led you to become a Communication Studies major?

Growing up I was always fascinated by the writer and the poet. You know, the person who could weave emotions and messages into lines of prose or stanzas with such craft that a reader could pull meaning from the words on multiple levels.  Some allusions are so esoteric that you don’t realize they exist until weeks, months or even years later when your knowledge of history and culture has developed to a point that you can put things in perspective. The written word can carry so much meaning, and so I would get lost in reading. I know that sounds like a plug for the English or Comparative Literature Department…What transformed this literary enthusiast into something that more resembled a communication studies guy was a budding interest in public speaking and oration. 

I went to see Cornel West speak at a local university in St. Louis, home for me. I was in high school. His politics have always been controversial to the mainstream, but to see a Black man so easily employ the rhythms of the Black pulpit--the language and socio-political theories taught at Harvard coupled with the sincerity of someone who had legitimately experienced the struggles of regular folk--who he was calling on to “rise up”--it was incredible. The orator and the spoken word, I realized, were even more powerful [than writing]. The orator is not bound by the limitations of the writing--there are no literacy issues--and thus there can be the potential for countless opinion leaders. 

That was sort of my process of arriving at the point where the notion of studying the basic action of communicating—particularly as it pertained to leaders of opinion—began to seem important to me. So when I entered college, I told myself that when I leave I wanted to have mastered three skills: to read, to write, and to speak. I wanted to be fluent and literate. I believe the lack of those two things to be the source of a great deal of problems on every social level. So although this is much farther than a stone’s throw away from really understanding what communication studies is all about that was the backbone of my reason for applying to the major. 

 

What courses and/or professors influenced you to go into CS?  Which most inspired you---gave you a valuable learning experience?

All of my courses have been valuable, but the two that stand out are the two public speaking classes that I took—CS 1 (Bridgewater) and 139 (Gorin). I think that it takes quite a bit of skill to express complex ideas, emotional and personal stories--to be charismatic and persuasive without losing sincerity and authenticity.  More than that, I think it is the most important skill to learn and maybe one of the most practical skills to learn. Those classes provided a platform that was both safe and challenging. They provided large amounts of peer and instructor feedback both immediately after the speeches and thoughts that were given after deliberation. This past winter, I spoke to a large group of people, a few hundred. I was very confident and comfortable, and authentic.   I didn’t have to try to be anything but myself.  I think those classes helped me make a big step in the direction of becoming a very good speaker and communicator.

I have good relationships with a lot of professors and lecturers in the department. Too many to name without shortchanging some—and it is too difficult to name each and give him or her their due credit in my development as a student, and more importantly as a person. It took me a couple years to realize this, but once I did, it seems like the world opened up---the professor is there to help you. Being more proactive and establishing relationships has taken my learning and my university experience to a much higher and more rewarding level.

 

How do you see Communication Studies as an important area of study in general? How has Communication Studies played a pivotal role in your personal life and career?

There are countless reasons that communication studies is academically significant and socially relevant. Understanding the motives and sociology of our communicative practices; the effects of social, technical and individual factors; etc.—in short the way that messages are produced and received…are all very important.

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 My academic interests and my career interests are in promoting security both locally and globally. Understanding communication in a framework of creating security is what I find most interesting and relevant. When I say security, I mean it not just in the traditional sense of being free from violence or attack, but also in regard to environmental security, economic security, political security and the like. The process of making people, groups and systems more secure is dependent on communication. Dialogue, media framing, public diplomacy, traditional diplomacy between political leadership, public-private partnership—all of these communicative tools are aimed at improving security. At the same time, many of these tools are not producing the results that they should be. Understanding the ways in which they’re failing and determining the reasons for those failures will lead to real solutions and real improvements in security. Communication  studies helps us arrive at these answers—and so it has both theoretical and policy relevant functions. For instance, the Al-Hurra network is supposed to help American foreign policy makers reach the hearts and minds of the Arab world. It’s been tremendously unsuccessful, and tremendously expensive. Why is it not working, should the program be changed or scrapped? How about improving and promoting greentech businesses? All these are a matter of communicating, advertising, image management, sharing best practices, selling policy, pressuring firms, negotiation etc. Finding the solutions falls as much in the communication studies realm as it does in that of economics and management. I hope to be involved in promoting security on a macro level. That is clearly a broad and abstract career goal, but it is still a direction. There are countless ways in which to do that—public service, policy making, foreign service, publicist consulting, work with an NGO or IGO.  But for me the bottom line is that whatever I am pursuing must contribute to the security of people, groups, and systems. 

 

What do you think the role of Communication Studies should be at UCLA?  What in the broader scheme of academia, in the world?

I think it’s an overlooked area of study here despite the strong reputation of the department and the great market for comm studies majors since we live in LA. Communication Studies really needs to be protected at UCLA. As I began to take comm classes, I realized that there were benefits to the major and department that were unique. Communication Studies is practical. It teaches real life skills that are applicable to lots of careers…it really is interdisciplinary in its expanse and reach. It seems to me that comm is sometimes looked at as the first thing to go when cuts have to be made. That attitude needs to be changed. People say that after law school, your perspective on issues and  approach to problems is altered. In that sense communications is like studying the law…comm helps build a new analytical paradigm from which to approach the world. For that reason, it needs to be promoted and protected. 

 

How in particular has Communication Studies empowered you in your personal life?

It has improved my relationships, and the way that I learn and acquire information as cheesy or sappy as that sounds.  My studies translate directly back into life. To me comm gives you a bit of psychology skills—like how to read and analyze people in order to approach them in the most productive way, and how to make in-flight adjustments in regard to altering your communication style to improve stagnant conversations or relationships. It also gives you a bit of sociology and political science. Comm makes you think about the different influences, institutions, power interactions and socialized constructs that are affecting the messages that you receive—and so now I can more easily negotiate personal biases, manipulative messages, etc.

 

How in particular has Communication Studies enabled you in your professional aspirations on and off the basketball court?

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Like I mentioned before, it has improved my ability to acquire information. I read and listen better because I understand not just what is being said and how it is being said, but also the implications of the medium through which the message is being delivered--the messenger, the sociopolitical context, and other such factors that give more information about a particular message. It has helped me penetrate the superficial levels of messages so that I can extract information that is much more potent and interesting.

More than anything though, it has helped me develop skills that have made me a more confident and competent speaker and negotiator. That simple requirement—to read, to write, to speak—has been met, and comm studies has been a major part of making me truly literate. 

Playing basketball for UCLA was difficult. It was pressure filled. Competitive. The temptation for complacency presented by the life and resources and fame that we had access to, was counteracted by the even stronger pull of  potential greatness and success. It me gave access to an incredibly complex network of people. It provided me with my best friends. It was a fraternity. It was tiring, stressful and often disappointing. More than anything it was inspiring and built character. 

Part of being a great basketball player, particularly a point guard, is being a leader. And leadership is expressed through action—true. But communication is equally as important. My teammates are all from different places, backgrounds, and even countries.  This can make communicating on and off the court difficult. The generational difference between coaches and players, the different interests and motivations…also create issues. CS gave me the skills to recognize the differences, accept them, and create ways to bridge, destroy or circumvent those gaps. I became an effective communicator with my teammates and coaches, and became very good at communicating to the media my personal beliefs and those of my team and teammates. 

 

You recently traveled to Morocco.  Could you share some of your impressions? Desert

It has become almost cliché for students to come back from visiting a foreign culture and say, “my travels made me feel frustration and disappointment about the US, our politics and culture, but they also made me appreciate and admire America all the same.” But spending time in Morocco had that same effect on me: it served as a challenge and shock to my biases and assumptions, as well as a reinforcement and reminder of my American identity. This was particularly true, because I was studying representations of geopolitical conflicts in the Western and Arab news media. The effect was a better awareness of myself. Cultural relativism, an elementary principle that I had learned in CS helped me to understand and use that experience to my advantage. 

 CamelIronically, communicating in Morocco was probably one of the more difficult, but intriguing part of my travels. Morocco lies at the geographical and metaphorical intersection of several cultures. All of these different cultures introduce both cultural and linguistic variation into the country. Morocco is a former French colony, and Spain’s footprint is still very clear in the Maghreb. The Amazigh—referred to as the Berbers—and other desert peoples introduce a third culture and language. The Arab and Muslim influence is the strongest influence in Morocco. And lastly the cultures and languages of Africans south of the Sahara have also subtly weaved themselves into the Moroccan identity. Oh, and of course, the worldwide lingua franca is really English…and you could be sure that vendors would not lose money as a result of a having no English proficiency. So when I walked through the catacomb-like alley ways of the Medinas and Soukhs (city market places) in the inland city of Meknés, in my 10-word French vocabulary, budding Arabic skills and English I would try to barter and negotiate for food and goods. And when we reached a dead end… hand gestures solved the problem. I’m sure I got the short end of the stick a few times. But my insistence that my mother and father were Moroccan—in elementary Arabic—was probably the best bartering tool that I had. When we visited the northern cities, my Spanish and English got me by—and of course hand gestures. And in the desert, I let my good friend Moha do all of the talking. 

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We know as students of communication, that every culture has different methods of conveying politeness, respect, humility, strength etc. With so many identities wrapped into to a unique but regionally variable Moroccan identity, it would seem that these communicating certain things would be nearly impossible for a foreigner. But they weren’t. It was simple. My cache of non-verbal communicators was as effective there as it was here. And with limited linguistic complexity, communicating was less prone to deception, sarcasm, etc. Neither of us had the linguistic skills would do tell covert lies or use hidden meanings. I built relationships fulfilling relationships with restaurant owners of places that I became a two-month patron. It was beautifully simple. And wonderfully rewarding.

 Interview with Dee Bridgewater, just prior to graduation.

Bio Sketch:

Originally from St. Louis, MO, Mustafa has made his mark at UCLA as an exempliary student and a member of the UCLA Basketball Team.  He has completed Internships with the LA Board of Supervisors and the LA Mayor’s Office of Housing and Economic Development.  He has served as a volunteer/participant with a plethora of organizations including:  Special Olympics; Mattel Children’s Hospital program; and, OneSole@A Time—an organization he fostered to donate shoes to local girls and boys clubs.  His honors and awards include:  Gold Key, Alpha Lambda Delta Honor Society, Cum Laude Society, and the Dean’s list since Fall of 2006 (okay, he missed Spring, 2007).  On the basketball court, he has logged 2 NCAA Final Four Appearances and 3 NCAA tournament appearances.