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Grad Slam


By Alice Short '77

Published Oct 1, 2017 9:00 AM

Leslie Rith-Najarian’s anti-stress project is a home run in many ways.

Photo by Anastasia Sapon.

Imagine that you’ve devised an online program to help students cope with stress, change their behavior and set positive goals.

Now imagine making a presentation about this program after years of thought, experiment and research. In three minutes. As part of a competition among some of the best and the brightest university students in California.

Last spring, Leslie Rith-Najarian, a UCLA graduate student in psychology, walked into the San Francisco headquarters of LinkedIn to compete in the UC-wide Grad Slam Championship. The competition is designed to help grad students bolster their communication skills by pitching their research in 180 seconds or less.

Rith-Najarian walked out a winner, with a “Slammy” trophy and $6,000 in prize money.

“It was liberating to just boil it down,” she says of her three-minute pitch. “It reminded me of what mattered in the first place.”

Rith-Najarian says her online program at, though not currently accepting new participants, centers on rewarding students for behaviors that can help ease — or alleviate — anxiety and depression.

Students will be able to sign up for an eight-week plan via either the “Happiness Challenge” or “ReBoot Camp,” a nearly identical program with a different marketing slant. Each week, she says, focuses on a specific skill set, and students will receive emailed instructions, advice and reminders.

“They would log on to read about the skill,” she says. “The rest of the week they practice it. At week’s end, they can indicate what worked and didn’t. Anyone who submits an end-of-the-week check-in is eligible for a weekly prize drawing.”

The Happiness Challenge evolved from Rith-Najarian’s work as a psychology undergraduate at Harvard University. “I came up with this idea of doing a semester of happiness, or a de-stress challenge, based on other things I observed on campus.” She scripted materials for weekly emails and advertised her challenge, “and a few hundred people signed up.”

At UCLA, Rith-Najarian continued to study anti-stress and anxiety programs, and she compiled a “list of what skills are most commonly taught.” She applied for grants, built a platform and tested it, looking for feedback. She is now in the final phase of research and tinkering.

UCLA and Yale students can sign up for the Happiness Challenge or ReBoot Camp later this year. Other universities and some high schools have indicated interest as well.

“At the end of the day,” she says, “my goal is to get more people to have better mental health."