Q&A with Charles Underwood

As founding director of UC Links, you surely know lots of the history of the program. Tell us about your path to UC Links.

I’ve always been really interested in the way people think about their world and their lives and how they learn about their world and their lives. As an anthropologist, my first fieldwork was with Scottish, small scale fishermen, and then later, I worked with fishermen on the Southeast coast of India also on small craft -- rafts, really. And one of the things that really interested me about both of those situations was how changing technology affected people, the way they work together, the way they thought about their work and the way it impacted their everyday lives and relationships.

And then later, I worked at the UC President's office doing background research for the Task Force on Black Student Eligibility, a group of African-American scholars and administrators from across the UC system who focused on really difficult issues about what has persistently kept African-American students at relatively low rates of eligibility for UC. Later, I worked with the Latino Student Eligibility Task Force as they looked at some of the same issues.

Working with those scholars immersed me in questions of ongoing educational and social inequity. I saw then that it’s an urgent question -- a matter of life and death, as recents events have shown us -- shocking us yet again with the hard fact that racism and racist brutality are ever-present in our country. We simply can’t distance ourselves from this viral force all around us.

Learning from the collective knowledge and experience of these Task Forces, I came to see this fact viscerally as an everyday horror for African American and Chicanx/Latinx young people and their families, and it led me to focus on learning in and out of school as a way to transform the brutal social system in which these young people continue to find themselves.

I was then asked to work with the sociologist, Hardy Frye, in a new UCOP program called the Urban Community School Collaborative, charged with building collaborations between UC campus and local community-based organizations and schools in communities near the campus. It was then that a couple of faculty from UC San Diego, Michael Cole and Olga Vásquez, approached us about an idea that would help to increase the number of underrepresented students be prepared and eligible for UC.

Dr. Frye asked me to go along with Professors Cole and Vásquez to all the UC campuses to see if anybody was interested, and we found strong interest at seven out of the then nine UC campuses. We proposed to UC President Richard C. Atkinson a statewide effort that supported both faculty and community engagement around after school learning for underserved kids.

President Atkinson gave us funding to do this collaborative work for two years. He didn’t like the name “UC Links” but we told him we could change that later.

The idea was to extend the University’s work with K-12 into the early elementary school grades, using a mixture of formal and informal learning strategies. Then as the Internet came fully on the scene, we began to use various kinds of web-based informal activities that engage kids with their communities, with their world, but also provide opportunities for them to explore and write about things that they found fun, things they themselves were already interested in.

We did this as a way of engaging students who had become disengaged from school. That was the point of working after school – you could do innovative things that teachers were not able to do because of all of the curricular guidelines telling them what they had to do, on what day, in what way.

So we had a lot more play or leeway in framing different kinds of learning activities that engage them, especially in building multiple literacies.

After our first two years, we were reviewed by President Atkinson and his staff, and he liked what he saw, so he made UC Links a part of UC’s permanent budget.


Charles is the founding director of UC Links. He earned his PhD in anthropology and worked as a researcher and analyst for the University of California, Office of the President before being asked to serve as Executive Director for UC Links in 1996.

A Vietnam-era veteran, Charles served as a U.S. Navy paramedic from 1971 to1976, an experience that prompted him to pursue a career in medicine. After active duty, he pursued pre-med studies at Virginia Commonwealth University but an anthropology class taught by Colin Turnbull proved so fascinating that he changed his major.

Charles has since conducted research in a variety of occupation, legal and educational contexts. He has worked closely with small-scale fishing communities in Scotland and India, with indigenous communities across the United States, and with programs that serve children living and working on the streets of Sao Paulo, Brazil. From 2005-2008, working with colleagues from Louisiana State University, Southern University, and local communities, he helped organize and implement collaborative programs at evacuee camps in Louisiana providing educational and social services for children and families displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

In 2019, the UC Office of the President named Charles a recipient of the Dr. Winston C. Doby Impact Award. Both an anthropologist and a classical scholar, Charles is the author of Mythos and Voice: Displacement, Learning and Agency in Odysseus' World (Lexington Books, 2018), as well as a number of articles on contemporary issues of displacement, learning and agency among children in Brazil and the United States.

In his retirement, Charles is looking forward to finishing a book about UC Links and plans to return to his lifelong interest in sculpture, while continuing to work and write with UC Links colleagues across the globe.