By Audrey Fong

From hosting a virtual workshop on resilience to discussing bullying prevention with Miss Asian Global 2020 on Instagram Live, alumna Andi Long (B.A. global cultures ’12) spent her quarantine working to make adolescents feel safe and empowered. She runs the Irvine-based nonprofit Bloom Foundation, a social-emotional learning program that encourages middle and high school girls to grow beyond the bullying they’ve experienced. In the three years the organization has been active, it has already impacted over 2,000 girls across Southern California, with over 100 sessions completed during after-school programs.

The mission is deeply personal for Long. Starting in the sixth grade and lasting until she left for college, Long’s classmates would call her names and mock her appearance on the internet. Unfortunately, her experiences reflect a broader issue. Today, an estimated 95% of teens are online and 37% of them have experienced cyberbullying.

“On a website called School Scandals, an online forum for school-related gossip, my classmates made fun of my clothes and called me a loser,” Long recalls. “It was difficult to navigate because cyberbullying was so new, so it really hurt my self-esteem and my sense of self-worth.”

After reading the mean comments her classmates wrote, Long went into a period of isolation. At the time, she found plenty of bullying prevention initiatives, but the tip sheets and suicide hotlines didn’t feel like enough.

“What I really needed and wanted was someone to share their story, tell me that I'll be okay and show me some tools for how to navigate and cope,” Long explains.

During Long’s search for coping techniques, she stumbled upon an old proverb: “They tried to bury us, but they didn’t know we were seeds.” She credits these words with inspiring her to rise above the trauma that tried to “bury her.” Years after her initial experience with bullying, she learned that it was a common social problem that was increasing rapidly. Knowing that victims of bullying often experience anxiety, depression, increased feelings of sadness and loneliness, and loss of appetite among other symptoms, she knew she had to do something to help.

Drawing from lessons she learned firsthand, Long worked alongside multiple psychologists and therapists to develop the Bloom Curriculum, an eight-week-long program that “empowers students to take the painful experiences of bullying and choose growth.” What differentiates Bloom from other anti-bullying initiatives is that it addresses the victim. While many programs focus on stopping the would-be perpetrator, Bloom aims to help middle and high school girls who have been bullied to cope and grow in a safe, positive, and healthy way.

“I have been able to learn so much about myself on our Bloom journey, and how I can grow as a person,” echoes Mariana Riccio, a Bloom Teen Ambassador, in an Instagram video for Bloom. “Bloom is an amazing program that teaches us self-love and how to cope with life situations. The most important part is that they teach us that we are worthy, and we are enough.”

Last March, when the pandemic shifted many businesses to remote operation, the Bloom Foundation and its curriculum moved online. Long doesn’t see this as a setback, however. She has seized the opportunity to reach even more girls, including those who live outside of Southern California. Because most teenagers are active on the internet, Bloom reaches them by hosting empowerment workshops through Zoom, offering educational Instagram Live sessions with guest speakers, holding social media challenges and sharing self-care calendars.

Long credits her UCI education with teaching her the lessons that informed the foundation’s curriculum. “It was so helpful to learn about different cultures and how they can play a role in bullying,” Long explains. “My favorite class taught me about human behavior over time. This sparked an interest to learn more about compassion and self-compassion, and how victims could learn self-compassion to combat their self-critical inner voice after being bullied.”

In addition to running the Bloom Foundation, Long is active in the UCI alumni community as a board member of both the Young Alumni Council and Anteaters in Philanthropy. The groups strengthened her resolve to start the foundation and offered various forms of practical support.

As more girls go through the program, Long looks forward to seeing them spread Bloom’s lessons. She hopes that, together, these girls can create a kinder world.

“When I hear from girls who have participated in the program that they still use what they’ve learned and really loved the experience, it helps to affirm in my head that this is meaningful and needed, especially today,” Long says.

Learn more about the Bloom Foundation. Follow them on Instagram.

With editing by Lilibeth García

Image illustration by 789, Inc. Source photography by Karissa Maeda