Social ecology major delivers commencement address

Bella Engalla

Bella Engalla embraces school’s mission

Growing up, Bella Engalla admired her aunt, a UC Irvine alumna who was the School of Social Ecology’s commencement speaker in 2004.

Fast forward 20 years and Engalla is following in her aunt’s footsteps as one of the School’s student commencement speakers. She will deliver her address at the 5 p.m. ceremony June 16.

“Funny enough, my aunt, who now works as the environmental, health, and safety director at Netflix, also delivered the commencement speech at her graduation,” says Engalla, who is receiving her B.A. in social ecology.

“To be perfectly honest, I was not entirely sure what social ecology was when I chose it as my major,” she says. “Even after four years of coursework and experience engaging in research at the UCI Blum Center for Poverty Alleviation, I’ve barely scratched the surface of what is such an expansive and imaginative area of study. As someone who has spent her formative years in global metropolises, from Manila to Shanghai, I view Social Ecology as the study of cities and urban environments.”

For her, she says, studying social ecology broadened the contextual framework in which the 21 year old examines, interprets, and analyzes the most pressing challenges of the 21st century — by bridging the gaps between the individual, institutions, community, and society at large. 

“What I love the most about social ecology stems from the commitment of the professors and other scholars I’ve met to thoughtfully and substantively engage with the real world outside of the classroom,” Engalla says. “I also really appreciate the fact that the school encourages independent and flexible thinkers, and the importance of diversity in finding solutions to our nation’s critical issues.”

During her four years at UCI, Engalla deepened her knowledge of social ecology and underwent significant personal growth and fulfillment. 

“One of the greatest aspects of college is that it offers the space to discover passions and explore new avenues, revealing both what you love and what you don’t,” she explains. “One of the most influential experiences shaping my life was participating in the Stella Zhang New Venture Competition. Over seven months, I dedicated all my time and energy to this project, immersing myself in the process of creating a business. From forming an initial idea to delivering a compelling pitch, I learned the intricacies of entrepreneurship. One of the highlights was hosting a fashion show at the UCI Antrepreneur Center, which added an element of creativity and excitement to the experience. Despite the challenges, it was a lot of fun. Through this intense commitment, I learned invaluable lessons about not only pursuing a passion but also protecting my peace, finding time for myself, and ensuring my self worth isn’t tied solely to my work. I am incredibly grateful to have learned these lessons early on before starting my career, as they have significantly improved my mental health and relationship with myself.”

She credits the Stella Zhang New Venture Competition for giving her an opportunity to explore her interests, experience failure, learn from it, and continue with grace and perseverance. The transformative journey was made possible by the support of her mentors, including Marc Fawaz, a lecturer in UCI's Paul Merage School of Business and the staff at the Antrepreneur Center. 

“They guided me throughout the entire process, offering assistance with funding and event spaces whenever needed,” Engalla says. “The supportive environment at UC Irvine has been instrumental in my development, providing me with the resources and encouragement to grow both personally and professionally.”

In addition, Engalla is completing her field study through the university’s UCDC program. As part of the program, she is interning with Voice of America, THINK Global School and the National Whistleblower Center. 

“It's been an incredibly enriching experience to witness Senate hearings and be at the heart of the nation's capital,” she says from Washington D.C. “Recently, I had the opportunity to have a one-on-one meeting with California Senator Laphonza Butler to discuss the most pressing issues impacting California's youth today, which she later posted about on her Instagram page.”



The experience, Engalla says, “has deepened my interest in advocating for public policy, particularly in the areas of healthcare, education, and climate change.”

She honed that interest when she worked with the Blum Center. 

“It's inspiring to know that professors like Richard Matthew are dedicated to driving educational transformation in ways that encourage, rather than stifle, creativity and independent thinking.”

As part of her Blum Center internship, Engalla met filmmakers Petna Ndaliko from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Michael Uwemedimo from Nigeria, who talked about the transformative power of narratives and their potential for healing, revolution and co-creating a culture that reflects people's stories and struggles. 

“As someone from the Philippines, a country with a history of colonial violence and social upheaval, the theme of storytelling as a tool for cultural and societal repair resonated with me deeply,” Engalla recalls. “This meeting has inspired me to think about how I can use art and narrative to contribute to my community's healing and empowerment. The emphasis on storytelling's power to enact change is something that I will carry with me long after I graduate. It has ignited a passion for using storytelling as a means of social transformation.”

She hopes to collaborate with Ndaliko on a project in Kenya over the summer.

As for her other future goals, Engalla says, “I’d love to be either a founder or on the board of a school that pioneers an innovative and truly enriching approach to education. A child’s mind is incredibly expansive, imaginative, and inquisitive; it is critical that we create institutions that cultivate that, instead of stifling it with rigid and rote educational models. By fostering  creativity, critical thinking, and a love for learning, we can help children reach their full potential and become resilient individuals ready to tackle the challenges of the future — especially in a world marked by profound uncertainty and stunning technological advancements.”
Mimi Ko Cruz

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