President Elam reflects on returning to campus and the benefits of an in-person education
A resurgent Delta variant could not diminish the sheer excitement of Move-In Day for the Class of 2025 on August 23. At each of Oxy’s five first-year residence halls—the air electric with anticipation—cars filled with eager families and anxious new students pulled up to front entrances, unloading boxes, bundles, and bags. Three days later, the scene wonderfully repeated as equally anxious sophomores, whom the pandemic had kept from campus last year, moved into their halls for the first time in their college careers.
For the first time in my tenure as president, I was able to participate in the move-in festivities. It was with such delight and joy that I welcomed families as they moved their students into their new homes, heard the exuberant O-team members cheer the new students’ arrival, and observed how the faces of parents and students, though necessarily masked, nonetheless still expressed the full gamut of emotions—nervousness, exhilaration, pride—on this long-awaited day: Finally, the beginning of the school year safely in person. Given all that everyone has endured over the last 18 months of the pandemic, this annual Oxy ritual was especially poignant this year, as it marked a return to the residential living and learning experience that we all have been craving.
To be sure, with first-years and sophomores having never lived on the campus and juniors having been here for only one full semester, the start of the school year has not been without challenges. This period of transition has been demanding for everyone and, anticipating this, we held two distinct orientations, one for first-years and another for sophomores, which we dubbed the “Sophomore Experience.” After months of studying remotely, our students have entered the year seeking not just to do well in classes but to develop a revived sense of community.
The students I have talked with informally on the Quad, in the Marketplace, and at sporting events are so grateful simply to be on campus. It is such a joy, they tell me, finally to be able to talk to other students in person. The long months they spent away have made them all the more conscious of what is at stake and why being at Oxy is now all the more significant. In a recent conversation, the editors of The Occidental shared with me that students have moved with a particular and novel urgency to establish friendships and find their people.
Because we are invested in the students’ whole person, their complete selves, an Oxy liberal arts education foregrounds the value of experience. We recognize that so much of learning occurs outside of the classroom: Having spontaneous late-night conversations in residence halls, finding camaraderie on the playing fields, exploring a L.A. neighborhood during a city internship, collaborations in our music studios, or sometimes just soaking in the sun on the Quad with a book or sitting by the fountain relishing the College’s extraordinary natural beauty. The residential life here makes Occidental special not because it is an oasis from life but because it opens outward into living.
Because we are invested in that “opening outward,” we understand that an Oxy education is not just a matter of what we teach but how we teach, how we integrate attention to student well-being and academic excellence from the very outset of their time here. That is why, in the ebb of this pandemic, Occidental is renewing our purposeful immersion of students in collaborative learning, to encourage them to become agents of learning rather than a mere recipient of knowledge and understanding.
To be sure, even as we have returned to an in-person Oxy education, the presence of the Delta variant has required our continuing vigilance. By Move-In Day, we had already achieved a 98 percent vaccination rate among students, faculty, and staff. We have followed that up with an aggressive testing program; by mid-October, after administering more than 6,500 tests, we have detected only nine positive cases among the entire Oxy community. In addition, our strict masking rule and increased use of outdoor spaces for academic and dining purposes have all helped to prevent transmission of virus. I see students every day masked and embracing these smaller sacrifices of comfort to protect themselves and others.
The return to in-person instruction this fall, made possible in part by vaccines and the maintenance of testing and safety procedures, has spurred a new round of predictions about the lasting impacts of the pandemic and the future of higher education. Despite some observers claiming virtual education is inevitable, we certainly have learned some important lessons at Oxy this fall. Our students have made it resoundingly clear: There is no substitute for the rich, fulfilling, challenging, engaging, residential, in-person Oxy educational experience.