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UCLA’s Offensive Lineman Baraka Beckett Talks Football, Relationships, and Campus Life During Covid

Think of someone on a university campus who would have no trouble finding friends. Someone who is loved by everyone because they’re constantly giving 110 percent.

Wearing their Chances sweatshirts!

At UCLA, that guy has got to be Baraka Beckett.

The offensive lineman for the UCLA Bruins is as smart and good-natured off the field as he is aggressive on it.

There is NO WAY he could ever feel lonely, right?

Except we are all living in COVID times, which makes it hard to connect with your friends, let alone meet new people, even if you’re a popular football player. Baraka, like most of us, misses the social life he once had: teachers, classmates, all those aspects that make campus life special.

The truth is, Gen Z was struggling with finding genuine connections even before COVID, but COVID has made it harder. We want to connect on a deeper, more meaningful level so we create relationships that are fulfilling; relationships that last.

That’s why my sister Noelle and I launched the Chances App. We’re committed to filling the human connections gap of social media and dating apps, especially now, when COVID has shown us so clearly what kinds of relationships matter.

We got a chance to have Baraka Beckett as a guest on our podcast, “Taking Chances with Vanessa and Noelle,” and what jumped out at us more than anything is that NONE OF US ARE ALONE in how COVID is impacting us. Yes, everyone is being impacted in different ways, but it’s a struggle for everyone. We’re all IN THIS TOGETHER.

Hear about Baraka’s own experience with relationships, a ghosted campus life, ZOOM classes, and how he makes real connections with people in this era of COVID.

What’s it like being a D1 Student Athlete? Has COVID changed things?

Being a UCLA football player means you’re used to being recognized on campus, playing in big games, and that you have a pretty active social life – how do players deal with the isolation of playing football during these times of COVID?

It’s different now with COVID, because campus is pretty empty, Baraka said. But it’s important to make the best of the situation. He’s all about the campus and the Bruin life, even if it’s changed.

When we asked him about his circle being more limited because of social distancing, he talked about seeing his friends at the athletes’ academic center and how much he misses the easy social experience of having so many friends all in one place or meeting new people in his classes.

“There are a lot of people in my life that I realize I only saw just through, like, randomly seeing them. It wasn’t like I ever initiated seeing somebody. I really think that’s interesting how there are some people in your life who you realize you would never see if it weren’t for your daily lives.”

COVID has made it more obvious that staying connected with people can take work – “You have to put a lot more effort into a lot of your relationships because you’re not going to see each other just in passing anymore. It’s been a huge shift.”

Connecting with others

So how do you stay connected, now during COVID, but even when there’s not a pandemic? What do you do when acorn-kicking together (yeah, you can listen to the podcast for that story) isn’t an option?

“That’s why I think it’s even more important that Chances is being developed,” Baraka said. “Because now more than ever, people are looking to connect. People like me, even. I’m looking to connect with people because it’s just not the same connection like I used to have back beforehand.”

OK, seriously, Baraka Beckett is having trouble connecting, just like the rest of us? Don’t you feel better now?

The UCLA football team (and all athletes) have another connection most of us don’t have: their fans. They have crowds that come and watch them play and engage with the players by cheering, booing refs when they make bad calls, and sharing the excitement of the game. All that noise helps keep the players motivated, so what do you do when it’s gone?

You replace it. Obviously. Seriously, listen to the podcast so you can hear Baraka tell the story. It’s amazing.

It comes down to people and finding new paths

Everything about life, including football, comes down to the people you’re working with and who you are surrounded by. Do relationships off the field affect relationships on the field?

Heck yeah, Baraka said. “I think it was really exemplified this year by our quarterback and one of our tight ends, Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Greg Dulcich … They’re actually roommates with each other. They had a great season together. Greg caught a lot of passes.… I truly believe it came down to that – having that familiarity with each other. I thought that was huge.”

Being in sync like that, it means you have a communication and connection that you don’t even have to question, you just understand each other. And that makes for great football and great friendships.

How do they build that familiarity? Partly it’s from spending a lot of time together. Baraka told us about “Camp,” the infamous pre-season training/boot camp where the players spend every day, from 6 AM to 8 PM FOR A MONTH, working out together, eating together, and training together.

There’s something about seeing people at their most real, right? Tired, probably hungry, probably hurting, maybe not feeling totally confident after getting beat up all day – when you’re all a little vulnerable together, but you still feel safe with each other – that’s when the best relationships are created.

“You just build great brotherhoods, great friendships,” Baraka said. It’s different now, of course. Now they show friendship and team spirit by staying COVID safe to protect themselves, their teammates, and their season.

How do you fit it all in?

Academics, football, social life: how does he find time for everything? (And you can insert your whatever for “football” here, right? We’ve all got something that takes up a big chunk of time.)

He has to make time, Baraka says. Coaches tell him, “You have a pie. And that pie is 50 percent academics, and 50 percent football.” So when it comes to the “other stuff,” well, you do the math. “You have to squeeze everything else in there,” Baraka told us.

But, Baraka said, that other stuff is important too. Spending time with friends, hanging out, doing things besides studying and training, guesting on podcasts (!) – those things are valuable, so he finds time to make them happen. Like hanging out with Chances co-founder Noelle.

How do you give yourself a break?

Every episode, we have a “Chances Challenge” – we challenge our listeners to do something a little different, or be mindful about something that’s so familiar, we don’t even pay attention anymore.

If you want to take on the challenges with us, listen to the "Taking Chances with Vanessa and Noelle" podcast, and then let us know how you’re doing on the Challenge on Instagram.

The Chances Challenge from our last episode was to give yourself a break from the noise and rush of “real” life and do something just for you. How do you take a break?

Noelle goes for a run every day, to spend time with her music and away from the demands of college life. I relax with a good binge on Netflix (The Mentalist, this time – spoiler alert). Baraka had the awesome idea of “grounding” – going outside to put his bare feet on grass or dirt. “It’s just relaxing because you get to just get in tune with the Earth.”

My sister seems to think grass comes in more colors than green and brown, but we’ll talk about that some other time….

Taking Chances

So how do you connect with others when seeing people randomly in your day to day life disappears? Or when you don’t have something like the athletes’ academic center to corral all your friends in one space?

Social media isn’t the answer to that need for connection. Everyone’s too busy trying to impress each other, and it just doesn’t feel real or genuine. If you care mostly about someone’s looks or the number of likes they have, then it’s probably fine. But if you want real connection based on mutual values or goals … not so much.

That’s why we created the Chances App. With the “Intentions” feature, you can be so much more upfront and honest about what you like or don’t, what you’re looking for and open to. When you find someone whose intentions match yours, you can arrange an activity to do together (mask up, yo).

You still get all the fun and excitement of meeting someone new, but you have a head start. We can’t guarantee no more crossed wires or embarrassing misunderstandings, but the better you communicate your intentions, the better your matches will be!

Thanks so much to Baraka for being so open and so much fun to interview! Find Baraka on Chances!

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