New Faces of 2021

Ambitious, thoughtful, quirky, worldly—and smarter than most of us were at that age—the third-largest entering class in Oxy history is ready for its closeup

By Peter Gilstrap | Photos by Max S. Gerber

One hundred and twenty nine years ago, 27 men and 13 women ponied up $50 each to become Occidental’s inaugural first-year class.

Tuition has gone up a tad since then, and while the College still prides itself on a small, select student body, the Class of 2021 tallies in at 565, making it the third largest in Oxy’s history.

Culled from 6,775 applicants, the freshmen represent a diverse and disparate group. Roughly 40 percent are homegrown Californians, but the rest have traveled to Eagle Rock from across the country and around the globe.

“One of the wonderful things about Occidental is the richness of the backgrounds and experiences of the ­students who apply and eventually choose Oxy, so that ­always makes it difficult to characterize a class,” says Vince Cuseo, vice president of enrollment and dean of admission.

Yet students are drawn by a few key, unchanging elements. “Certainly there’s academic and intellectual rigor—that’s part of the Occidental experience—but there’s this other piece to it that’s palpable and has something to do with a sense of community,” Cuseo adds. “I think that friendliness is a critical part to how Occidental’s community is defined.”

The latest additions to that welcoming community include a dune buggy designer, a roller derby player, a patent- holder for a solar-powered pool heater, and the honorary Danish Maid of Solvang—no doubt a far cry from the interests of Oxy’s Class of 1892, long before the unthinkable science fiction of things like dune buggies, roller derby, and solar power. Yet the thirst for knowledge spans the generations.

Now, let’s meet nine members of the Class of 2021.

NINA SRDIC HADZI-NESIC

While high school students across America performed The Little Mermaid, Cinderella, Grease, and other popular fare, Nina Srdic Hadzi-Nesic’s formative stage experience in her native Serbia included somewhat different material. “I was in plays that dealt with important social issues—plays on domestic violence and genocide and war crimes,” she says of her time in Belgrade’s renowned youth theater, Dadov. “I always participated in projects that carried a message, and that changed me.”

Nina was attracted to Occidental, she says, as a place “that would make me grow not only as an actress but as a human being.” She’s considering a double major in theater and diplomacy and world affairs: “Besides its rich theater life, Oxy also cares about social justice, and has a great program in international relations.”

She got an early taste of diplomacy as a member of the European Youth Parliament, a forum for debates and conversation on topics such as ­national socialism and the Holocaust. “It made me really interested in international and social issues we’re facing as a society,” she says. “I realized that using diplomacy as a peaceful means of settling a dispute is something

I would like to do—besides acting.” (She lists Tom Hanks, Julianne Moore, and award-winning Serbian actor Nebojša Glogovac as her onscreen faves.)

Nina’s growth includes time spent underwater. With over 60 Mediterranean open-sea dives under her belt in the last five years, she qualifies to guide others. “I love diving, I love the feeling of flying,” she says. “It’s always my pleasure when beginners are paired with me because I love sharing my passion with other people and seeing them grow and learn.”

Nina is in the right place for growing and learning. “I consider myself incredibly lucky to have this opportunity, so I look at it as an adventure,” she says. “I just moved to the other side of the planet where I don’t know anything or anyone and it can be overwhelming, but I already feel that sense of community here at Oxy. I just want to enjoy every bit of it.”

PETER BOYD

Hollywood draws countless young hopefuls shooting for a career directing films and television. Peter Boyd has trained his sights on a shorter form of expression.

“I really want to make commercials,” he says. “I think that’s a weird thing. I don’t think a lot of people want to make commercials, but I really like them. It’s just interesting to see how someone compressed the entity that is their brand into a 30-second visual story.”

A native of Cordova, Tenn., a small town about 20 miles east of Memphis, Peter looks forward to majoring in media arts and culture at Oxy. “Any career that’s more art-based would have a better chance of being successful if you go to school in California,” he says. “And that seemed like it would be a good fit for me.”

“I’ve known all my life I was trans,” says Peter, who came out in his sophomore year of high school. It’s been less of an issue back home than one might expect. “This is one of the liberal corners of Tennessee,” Peter says, “so when I come to Oxy I don’t think suddenly I’ll be like, ‘Look at all these liberal people around me!’ But I think the environment will be incredibly weird to me. Like the cacti there. I’m not used to that.”

Creating art, Peter says, has helped him cope with life in general. “I like stream-of-consciousness writing and videoing things. My own therapy helps my growth as a person. And those could easily branch off into art- and media-related trans activism, and I hope they do.”

AMBER LEE

Amber Lee has a mean right body hook. Not to mention a wicked roundhouse kick. Luckily, her use of those lethal skills is confined to the boxing ring, which she first entered as a high school sophomore in Irvine.

“It’s kind of funny because my personality is usually sort of like happy, outgoing, very nice, very empathetic and sweet,” Amber says. “Two of my biggest hobbies are playing drums and boxing, which are aggressive things that don’t seemingly match my personality.”

Though Lee says the pugilistic arts make her “feel more comfortable in my own skin,” she faced an emotional challenge when her trainer was murdered during a morning gym class in March 2016.

“I was in shock,” she says. The tragedy occurred when she was studying for the SAT, “so I had not been going to the gym, and I just feel really guilty. I really wish that I committed more to the sport that I claimed to be really invested in. Right now I’m waiting to get back into it at Oxy.”

When Amber first visited campus last October, “I was impressed by everything that the tour guide and the interviewer told me,” she recalls. “I chose Occidental because it would allow me to take classes in all sorts of fields instead of having a strict major, and because of the career opportunities they could present me.”

Boxing won’t be her only focus, of course: Amber speaks passionately about social justice and Asian American history. (Born in Korea, she was only 8 months old when her family moved to Southern California.) “It’s a part of history that isn’t told often,” she notes. “I’ve started to get a personal interest in my own heritage. I realized how much I did not know, and how much history can fill in the gaps about the world I live in.”

DIANA FLORES BARNETT

If you know anything about ­zebrafish, you probably own an aquarium. The little striped cuties are a common fishbowl inhabitant, part of the minnow family. And while that might not sound too impressive, Diana Flores Barnett can tell you why the zebrafish is something extra special outside of your pet shop.

“Zebrafish have regenerative abilities in their heart after an ­injury,” says the San Fernando Valley native. “That makes them unique, and they’re used a lot for scientific research.”

Diana learned this as part of the Samuels Family Latino and African American High School Internship Program at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles last summer, which coincided with an unfortunate health scare for her younger sister, Nahomi.

“She had many tumors in her kidneys, but the tumors were larger than the organs themselves, so they were talking about treatments that would disintegrate the tumor,” says Diana. “Working with zebrafish, it gave me hope for my sister that this kind of work is being done for the regeneration of human organs.”

Nahomi is doing much better now, thanks to “a medication sprayed on the tumors through the blood vessels, which shrinks the tumors,” Diana explains.

Zebrafish also had a hand—or a small fin, at least—in landing her at Oxy. “During the internship we visited Occidental, and I was able to go into the labs and talk to the professors. I’d heard so many good things about the science program, and I want be a part of research projects, and hopefully do my own research,” Diana says. “It felt like home, so I decided on Oxy.”

MATHILDE VENET

To say that Mathilde Venet has spent her first 18 years on the move would be an understatement. “I was born in Texas from French parents, but I only lived there for three years,” says Mathilde, whose father works for Air Liquide, a French gas company that keeps him in transit. “Then I moved to France for six or seven years, after that I was in Germany for five years. Then I moved to China where I finished high school, and now I’m at Oxy.”

So answering the age-old first-year question—Where are you from?—presents some problems. “I don’t want to bore people with a long story, so I stick with France,” Mathilde says. “I don’t think I really have a home, which may be a bit sad, but I’m totally cool with it. Moving is part of my life, and I can’t imagine any other life. Living in a different country every few years, you’re kind of forced to embrace new culture. I tried to integrate myself in those cultures as much as possible.”

That attitude and experience were invaluable when she participated in the Model U.N. program during high school in Shanghai. “Students act as delegates in committees that are represented in the United Nations, ­debating current, real world issues,” says Mathilde, who found herself representing Cuba. “You might not agree with the views of the country you’re assigned, but you have to put yourself in the shoes of that country, and it helps to understand why countries do what they do. I’m really hoping I can do something similar at Oxy.”

As with all of her moves, there’s going to be an adjustment period as she’s exposed to the nuances of American culture. “There are some things that are a little bit shocking to me,” Mathilde admits. “Like the portion sizes are unreal. I ask for a small and I get a massive bucket. That’s something I have to get used to.”

Mathilde’s desire to study international relations first led her to investigating colleges on the East Coast, she says, “but when I compared Oxy to universities in Virginia and Pennsylvania, the program here was a lot fuller and more interesting and complete. Also, I feel like Los Angeles is an amazing place, and kind of a bonus because I came here for the academics. It all just clicked; it was a match immediately.”

BRYCE COYNE

“My first time hearing about Occidental was watching ‘SportsCenter,’” recalls Bryce Coyne. The Tigers made headlines back in February 2011 in notorious fashion—on the losing end of a 46-45 basketball game that ended a 26-year, 310-game conference losing streak by the Caltech Beavers. The ESPN story “mentioned how prestigious the school was, and that President Obama had gone there.”

Baseball—not basketball—is the sport of choice for the 6'3" right-hander from Woodinville, Wash., who first stepped onto the diamond at age 6. To be sure, playing ball in a town that averages about 45 inches of rain per year can make for some soggy innings.

“We have a turf field, so we’re able to play through the rain,” says Bryce (who roots for the Cleveland Indians over the long-beleaguered Mariners). “We get lucky most of the time, but this year we weren’t as lucky, our practices were pretty miserable. I don’t throw as well in the rain, which is one reason I’m excited to come down and play baseball in California.”

Recruited by Oxy associate head coach Jesse Rodgers, Bryce brings his formidable 12-6 curveball, as well as an attraction to the school’s 3-2 engineering program, which allows qualified students to obtain dual degrees from Oxy and either Caltech or Columbia.

When he visited campus last October, it was a home run. “The whole atmosphere is something I really enjoyed, like the intangible, Southern California feel to the school, the personality it had,” Bryce says. “When you move out of your house and into the unknown it’s a scary time, but I think Occidental’s this really cool place where I might struggle, but I’ll have a support system. If I want to be successful, I can and will be at Oxy.”

SAIRA YUSUF

Though Saira Yusuf hails from Palo Alto, her interest in helping others—and passion for soccer—has taken her some 10,000 miles away to the horrendous Mathare slums in Nairobi, Kenya.

After visiting Kenya and Tanzania on a volunteer mission with her family at age 10, she started GOAL! (Go Out and Lead) in January 2015. The program helps young women navigate the issues attendant with their impoverished environments.

“I’ve been on a soccer team since I was 3 years old, so that was a starting-off point for the project,” says Saira, who was inspired by the community-driven Mathare Youth Sports Association. “And then we decided to focus on health. We do physical and sexual education, and courses on gender-based violence and sexual violence at home.”

At more than 2,000 members and still growing, GOAL! has “gotten a little bit big for me to manage on my own, but I definitely hope to still be involved in all of it at Oxy,” says Saira. She has been aided by her parents, who also do nonprofit work, and “a lot of great adult mentors around me who helped me through the process.”

Saira’s other passion is politics—she’s considering a major in politics geared toward international relations—and the intersection with her Muslim heritage and the 45th president. “In terms of Trump, I think it was his harmful rhetoric giving way to a lot of very polarizing opinions that made me feel like I had to ­either identify as a devout Muslim or sort of disown my Muslim identity, neither of which I wanted to do,” says Saira, who did not grow up in a religious family. “I think there’s been such a big shift in our political climate, so it’s been interesting to find how my identity fits into all of that as an individual.”

Saira has no qualms about fitting into Occidental. “It was one of the first schools recommended to me by my counselors and friends,” she says. “I love the small environment. I’m really excited to be in Los Angeles. It’s close to home, but far away enough that it doesn’t feel like home.”

TOBIAS & NICHOLAS LARKIN

Let’s get a few key Larkin facts out of the way. Tobias and Nicholas are identical twins. They do not finish each other’s sentences. They do not stand in for one another in social or academic situations. But yes, they’re going to the same college, which happens to be Oxy.

“I think it was more important to our parents,” says Tobias with the keen, worldly insight one might expect from the eight-minute head start he has on his brother. “But for us, we were fine if we did and fine if we didn’t.”

“Our interests are really similar,” offers Nicholas. “I guess it’s not surprising that we both liked most of the schools that we applied to and we both liked Occidental.”

The brothers were raised in Dover, N.H. Their mother, Evelyn, is Chinese American; their father, Benjamin, is Caucasian. “I would say coming from a diverse background was pretty unique—to be a child who’s interracial, especially in New England, which is not the most diverse place,” says Nicholas.

The brothers share an interest in Mandarin Chinese, which they hope to pursue at Oxy. “Some of my relatives on my mom’s side, they speak Chinese. That helped prompt me to learn Chinese in school,” says Nicholas, who—along with Tobias—attended Berwick Academy in Maine. “I found it really fascinating and a way to connect to my culture.”

Though the brothers have a common love of music and play jazz piano duets together, they did diverge on high school projects. As a member of the Berwick Conservation Club, Tobias created a hibernaculum for his furry woodland neighbors. “You dig a hole in the ground and put a lot of brush in,” he explains, “then in the winter animals can go into it, and it helps trap the warmth so they don’t die when it’s freezing.”

Nicholas followed a more indoor path, authoring Atrulia, a 300-plus-page YA fantasy novel influenced by authors George R.R. Martin and J.R.R. Tolkien. “I started writing it when I was a sophomore,” he says of the book he hopes to get published. “I really liked writing and reading, and it occurred to me that I should start writing. And I should do it earlier rather than later.”

Obviously, the Larkins agree on Occidental. “We really liked the atmosphere of the school,” offers Tobias. “It’s also something very different from New Hampshire, and I wanted something different and diverse.”

“I thought it was really welcoming and inspirational and everyone there seems to want everyone else to succeed,” says Nicholas. “Everyone cares about each other, and it’s a great feeling to be part of a community that’s really dedicated to making you achieve your goal and making others around you do the same thing.” 

Peter Gilstrap lives in Los Angeles. He wrote "Mr. Rohde's Wild Ride" in the Summer issue.