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Bruins In Love

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By Bekah Wright, Photos by Mitch Tobias

Published Jan 1, 2012 12:00 AM


Maybe it's the beauty of the campus. Maybe it's the passion students bring with them. Maybe it's the sun. For whatever reason, Westwood has been a catalyst for Love since it first opened — a UCLA tradition of the finest kind. As a holiday gift to Bruins everywhere, here's how the campus played matchmaker for a few lucky couples.

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Sparky and Michelle

While working for UCLA 's Relationship Center, Gian Gonzaga '05 and Heather Setrakian '00 taught their associates how to interview couples. Their strategy — playing spouses who'd been married for 10 years. "We kept making up stories and eventually we thought, ‘Hey, this is pretty good; maybe we should try this,'" says Gonzaga. Turns out, it was pretty good. The couple married in 2008.

They have plenty of company. From south campus to north, Sunset Village to the Botanical Garden, at any given moment, someone somewhere is falling in love at UCLA. Often, with the person they will eventually marry. It turns out most campus environments are conducive to l'amour.

"UCLA isn't different from any other college in terms of its effect on people getting married," says UCLA Social Psychology Professor Benjamin R. Karney M.A. '92, Ph.D. '97. "This is a phenomenon of college." Gonzaga, now eHarmony labs senior director of research and development, concurs. "eHarmony did a study last year looking at where couples who got married in the last five years met their spouse," he says. "Research shows that 37.8 percent of people met at work or school."

Universities have all the components needed to kick-start romance, including what Karney refers to as the proximity effect. "College throws a lot of available partners into a compressed space," he says. "This brings with it lots of opportunities to interact in intense ways like class projects, extracurricular activities and social events."

Students at the same university are pretty much a matchmaker's dream. "While in college, people are surrounded by many other people who are likely to be similar to each other — all are high school graduates, all are pretty smart, all see value in education and so on," says UCLA Psychology Professor Thomas Bradbury. "We tend to like people who are similar to us, and the conditions at colleges are right for this."

It's a time, Karney says, for the exploration of intimacy, sex, romance, love and passion. And, of course, universities also have myriad social opportunities that throw students together. "Part of how we judge potential partners is by what we see them doing and what they do with us; college, therefore, presents a lot of tests and challenges for learning about a prospective mate," Bradbury adds. "Relationships require this sort of energy to move forward, and universities provide plenty of that.

"When we are at college, the future might be coming into focus, along with uncertainty and excitement about what the journey will hold in store for us," Bradbury sums up. "Most of us recognize this is not a journey we want to take by ourselves, and so we look around for a companion. If that is not romantic, what is?"

And when it comes to love, Bruin-style, Cupid couldn't find a better place to play than UCLA. There are hundreds of thousands of love stories in the City in the Village. These are just a few of them.

Ninja Loves Photon
Fedolia "Sparky" Harris '92, M.A. '94 | Michelle Kuo Harris '94

Sparky and Michelle first met as volunteer counselors at UCLA UniCamp, then located near Big Bear, which gives inner-city kids a taste of summer camp. Sparky's counselor name was Ninja. Michelle's, Photon. The couple worked together during a pre-camp clean-up and, by this point, Sparky had already caught Michelle's attention.

"I was infatuated with him, but knew he was out of my league," she says. Sparky is quick to correct her: "It had nothing to do with league, I had a girlfriend at the time."

Fate threw the counselors together again in a planning committee for the annual camp banquet. At one particular meeting, Sparky ponied up information about his current dating status — available. His next move was to offer her a ride to her car on his "crotch-rocket, a 600 Ninja." Says Sparky of the vehicle's benefits, "I got a full bear hug for the two blocks to her car."

Shortly thereafter, Michelle returned to her sorority house after a weekend away to find a message: Ninja called. "I started screaming and running through the house yelling, ‘He called me!'" she recalls. "Then I calmly picked up the phone, dialed his number and said, ‘Oh, hi, Ninja, you called?' " He nonchalantly said, "I'm bored and figured I needed someone to bug me, and you're pretty good at bugging me."

This led to a challenge. They'd meet at the arcade in Ackerman to compete at Street Fighter 2. Whoever won would buy the other dinner. "I beat him first because he sucks," Michelle says. Sparky's response, "I threw the game."

"I knew she was something different from day one," says Sparky, now a senior planner for the City of Sacramento. Michelle, a finance manager for Apple Inc., relays how he expressed this over the phone: "Maybe we should lay our cards on the table. I could be interested, if you're interested."

Post-graduation, the couple went to Charley Brown's to celebrate Sparky's birthday. While the waiter was taking a photo of them during dinner, Sparky dropped to one knee and proposed. "It felt like everyone in the restaurant just disappeared," Michelle remembers.

"He said the best birthday gift would be if he never had to spend another birthday without me."

And since their wedding day on May 1996, not a birthday has been missed.

Reel Romance
Jared Drake '04 | Julia Boehringer Drake '04

Jared and Julia first took notice of one another during film school orientation. Sparks flew. Just not the romantic kind. Julia, a self-professed "big-time nerd," confesses to having a prejudice against Bruin athletes.

"They always arrived late to class and everything had to be repeated for them," she explains. "So when I walked into film school orientation, there sits this guy with a gym bag by his side. I thought, ‘How did an athlete get into this incredible program?' " The smile he bestowed did not endear him to her. "He had this nice smile and that really irritated me. So I ignored him."

A member of the track team, Jared had encountered attitude before. Ironically, he remembers, "Everyone got there early and Julia was five minutes late. She's dressed like an exercise buff, sits in the front row and starts drilling questions to our orientation counselor with zero inhibition." His first thought was, "Who is this chick? She's something special," but "I was afraid everyone would see me as a jock who got into film school for some reason other than being smart … I immediately wrote her off."

Nevertheless, Jared made an impression. "He excelled in everything and his movies were always better," Julia says. "Despite my principles, I started liking him more." Fate stepped in during a film school outing to Mammoth. Out of the 30 students on the trip, Jared and Julia were the only two who arrived with ski equipment.

"Everyone else was there to party," says Jared. "I thought, ‘I guess we're kind of stuck together.' " A year later, the couple moved in together.

Flash forward five years to a moment in their kitchen. Though they'd talked about getting married, they'd made no move in that direction. "We both had lofty goals," Jared explains. "That night it hit us like a bolt of lightning — why are we waiting? Our journeys would be much more fun if we went through them together as husband and wife."

Because Jared wanted his proposal to be extraordinary, they set a two-month window for the big question to be popped. For filmmakers, such an event called for, well, a production. Still, when Julia — who now has her own company, Julia Drake PR — received the following text message, its intention didn't hit her right away: There's a bomb in the house. Find it before the clock strikes noon. "Jared was editing his first feature," Julia says. "So I just thought he was bored." As she did at their first meeting, Julia ignored him. Two minutes later, a follow-up text arrived. "I thought he'd lost his mind," she says. "It still didn't cross my mind that ‘This is it.' "

Julia searched the house and found an envelope tied with a red bow under the alarm clock. Instructions told her to pack a bag. A limousine was on its way to retrieve her. It was only once Julia was in the limo that it clicked for her: Jared was proposing. For the fiancé-to-be, the anticipation of Julia's arrival was half the fun. "I knew she was thinking about the proposal to come," he says. "It was the most fun three hours I've ever had."

The driver deposited Julia in Long Beach, where a ticket was waiting for her aboard a Catalina-bound ferry. Upon landing on the island, Julia was picked up by a golf cart and transported to a mountaintop. A new text message directed, "Walk to Jesus." Waiting beneath a cross with a weighty question was Jared. Her resounding "yes" led to a wedding atop another mountain peak, this time in Switzerland, in July 2008.

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Film students Julia and Jared Drake's knack for drama led to a romantic proposal on Catalina Island and a wedding atop a mountain in Switzerland.

La Dolce Vita
Edward Amescua '89 | Laura Macchia Amescua '91

The campus itself brought the Amescuas together. "Our paths wouldn't have crossed any other way," says Laura. "I was from Orange County, Ed was from Los Angeles; and even as students it was unlikely we'd meet, with Ed being in psychology and me in humanities." And if their timing had been off even a smidgen, Laura might have been in another country entirely.

Ironically, the duo met while attending a function about immigrant rights at the Newman Club. A week later, Laura would learn she'd been accepted into UCLA 's Education Abroad Program in Italy, something she'd long been striving toward. There was still time, though, for the two to get to know one another, via get-togethers with groups of mutual friends. In the meantime, Ed was dragging his feet about asking Laura out on a proper date.

"I was hesitating," he admits. "Just recently — 22 years later — I learned she was waiting for me to ask her out. I had no idea." Their first date was to see Les Miserables at the Shubert Theatre. They were constant companions from then on out.

Soon, Laura was to depart for Italy. Undeterred, the couple committed to keeping their relationship intact. Ed visited several times and the twosome traveled throughout Europe together. It was then they started discussing future plans and becoming engaged. Laura eventually did the official asking. "I even picked out the ring."

"We decided that a year after the wedding, we would move to Italy," remembers Ed. "We bought one-way tickets and showed up with $5,000 in our pockets." Their first stop was the University of California Study Abroad office in Padova, Italy, where Laura had spent her year abroad three years earlier.

What had originally been planned as a six-month stint turned into a two-year stay. The newlyweds both got jobs through the UC Study Abroad office, with Laura teaching English privately and working for a biology professor at the University of Padova, and Ed working on a U.S. military base in nearby Vicenza.

Eventually, it was time to return home and the Amescuas headed back to an old friend — UCLA . Today, the campus remains part of the couple's day-to-day life: Ed is an administrative services manager for UCLA 's Office of Instructional Development and Laura is a student affairs officer for Undergraduate Admissions and Relations with Schools.

"Our daughters, Annabella, 12, and Valentina, 6, were born at the UCLA Medical Center and attended UCLA Child Care," says Ed. "A large majority of our free time is spent on campus, too, attending games or bike-riding and skateboarding on the weekends."

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Edward and Laura Amescua almost didn't meet, but once they had an official date, they never looked back. It was Laura who proposed.

Good Chemistry
Barbara Auslender Linden '67, M.A. '72, Ed .D. '85 | Irwin Linden '45

"What a good-looking babe," Irwin Linden says when looking at a photo of his wife, Barbara, in their wedding album. He should know: The chemistry for these lovebirds has been bubbling for 65 years.

The couple met in 1944 "through the back door," says Barbara. That would be her Chemistry 1 laboratory assistant, Seymour Linden, who told the sophomore, "Have I got a little brother for you!" Said little brother was Irwin, a junior at UCLA at the time.

As it turned out, Barbara and Irwin had a lot in common beyond their chemistry majors. "We did everything together," says Irwin. "Deep-sea fishing, bowling, bicycling and tennis."

Where did undergrads go on dates in 1944? Barbara and Irwin frequented Powell Library, Kerckhoff Hall and Janss Steps. Asked about a favorite date venue, the two answer simultaneously, "Tom Crumplar's Malt Shop," a Westwood Village haunt.

As for romantic interludes, stolen moments occurred in a forested area that is now Dickson Plaza. "We'd sneak off under the bridge to hold hands," says Barbara. Irwin is quick to correct her. "It was called necking."

When Irwin first popped the question, graduation was just around the corner and he was heading to medical school at UC San Francisco. "There was nothing else to do but get married," he says of what would have meant a potential geographical separation.

Barbara's response, "We're too young." That didn't deter Irwin from asking several more times. The fifth time, Barbara said yes. Her reasoning behind both the yes and her love for him — "It was all the things he was," an homage to their song, All the Things You Are.

Soon, the newlyweds were off to San Francisco for Irwin's three-year stint in medical school, where he specialized in dermatology. Following this, Irwin served two years in the Navy as a doctor and was stationed at Camp Pendleton. Several years and five children later — Chuck, Ken, Margo, Amy and Greg — Barbara was back at UCLA to finish her undergraduate degree and, later, her master's and Ph.D. degrees in educational psychology. In 1957, the Lindens purchased the Encino home they live in to this day. The couple's free time also involved UCLA : Over the years, they've shared a vacation home in Lake Arrowhead near Bruin Woods with several other alumni.

Barbara took a job at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute for the next 22 years. Irwin continued to spend time on campus as well, making rounds at UCLA Medical Center. In recent years, they've regularly visited campus, where the eldest of their eight grandchildren, Nurit Katz M.P.P. '08, M.B.A. '08, a double alumna, works as UCLA 's first Sustainability Coordinator.

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Since 1944, when his brother — her chemistry lab assistant — introduced them, Barbara and Irwin Linden have been having fun together. Their favorite date venue was a Westwood malt shop.

Soulmates, Shipmates
Mandi Smith Leonard '92 | Scott Leonard '90

It would take eight years, a riot, moves to different countries and a wedding before Cupid's arrow struck the Leonards. But when it did … well, suffice it to say this is a love story where the couple sails off into the sunset.

Thrown together in a mutual group of friends, the two Bruins met when Mandi was a freshman and Scott a junior. It was during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, though, that they really got to know one another. "People would throw overnight curfew parties," Scott recalls. "Mandi and I stayed up late one night talking. It was the first in-depth conversation we'd had. For me, that's when I went beyond seeing her as just a cute, funny girl, to an interesting person."

Shortly thereafter, Mandi moved to Japan for 18 months. Scott worked in L.A. as a financial planner and played water polo for the U.S. National Team. Even though they kept tabs on one another, their paths didn't cross again until the 1994 wedding of Mandi's sorority sister from Tri Delta (Scott is a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon) and one of his buddies from the UCLA water polo team. "There were several events leading up to our friends' wedding," Mandi says. "By the time the big day rolled around, we were each other's dates to the ceremony."

Both were stateside again, but living in different parts of California — Mandi in San Francisco, Scott in Los Angeles — so the couple began dating long distance. When Scott started investigating new career paths, he chose an opportunity in San Jose. Once in close proximity, their dating picked up speed — literally. "Mandi and I took sailing lessons together on San Francisco Bay and got ASA (American Sailing Association) certified," says Scott. It was then that Scott was able to share his childhood dream with her — to sail around the world.

Though they didn't sail there, the twosome headed to Tahiti on a holiday. As they were lounging on the beach at sunset with umbrella-decorated cocktails, another vacationing couple excitedly announced, "We just got engaged!" Scott, who'd just been on the verge of proposing, found himself upstaged. "I was trying for the perfect timing," he says. Mandi fills in the blanks, explaining how he forged ahead, ring in hand. "He said, ‘We've been friends a long time, and our friendship has grown into love. As we've been together, I can't imagine being apart.' "

A wedding date was set for exactly a year later, Sept. 1, 1996. More changes were afoot, though, before the nuptials took place. Mandi was offered a job and given the choice of moving anywhere she desired on the West Coast. "We knew we wanted to be in Los Angeles," says Mandi. "We also knew that at some point, we wanted to spend three years sailing the world."

As the years progressed, so, too, did the Leonards' goals and their family, which now includes three young sons. Avid Bruin fans, the Leonards had season football tickets for each son by the time he reached age 1. Bruin Woods, where stay-at-home mom Mandi once worked as a counselor, was a prime destination for family getaways as well.

Then in 2005, the family purchased a 33-foot catamaran, which they docked in King Harbor Marina in Redondo Beach. In 2009, their dream of hitting the ocean full time had them upgrading to a 50-foot catamaran.

Scott, who'd started his own financial-planning firm by the age of 28, also found time for other professional endeavors, including teaching courses in the financial-planning certificate program at UCLA Extension. His career served him in many ways, mainly in keeping his priorities straight. "I work with a lot of wealthy people," he says. "I never heard anyone say they wished they'd worked harder or made more money. Instead, they said they'd happily give back their wealth to have had more time with their families. That resonated with me."

Which led, inevitably, to the open sea. The Leonards finally sailed off on their journey in July 2011 and they're sharing their adventure at http://themobileceosetssail.com. Their course will take them to destinations such as the Caribbean, Panama Canal, Galapagos Islands and New Zealand. By the conclusion of their voyage in the summer of 2014, they'll also have sailed to Australia, Indonesia and Micronesia. Something they've already learned along the way: Home, sweet home is wherever you find yourself with the ones you love.

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