First Impressions

By Andy Faught | Photos by Max S. Gerber

Seven members of the Class of 2026—and a 23-year-old sophomore transfer—open up about their aspirations for their Oxy experience

Hannah Tawadrous

A week into the fall semester, Hannah Tawadrous eagerly checked out Occidental’s Involvement Fair, signing up for a number of groups that sparked her interest. A Coptic Egyptian—the largest Christian group in the predominantly Muslim country—Hannah says being part of Oxy’s Middle Eastern Club is vital to her college experience. 

“I was talking to the girl at the booth in the Quad, and I realized that we were both Coptic Egyptians,” says Hannah, who led a Middle East/North African affinity group at the Urban School of San Francisco, sharing her family’s tabbouleh recipe with students, faculty, and staff at a party last spring. “What are the chances? So, I already feel connected to people, which has been super great.”

Community is embedded in Hannah’s DNA. In 2016, she and a group of friends started the Noe Valley Girls Film Festival to give young female filmmakers a venue to screen their own shorts. (Her film, Pinky Spinky Perfume, was a finalist in the grades 6-8 division.) The festival attracted the notice of the San Francisco Chronicle and continues to this day. 

Hannah was drawn to Occidental for its diversity—both ethnically and for the range of experiences she hopes to have: “I’m very excited to hopefully get good at ultimate Frisbee. I’ve never played before.”

She’s also wide-eyed about getting a job at the Tiger Cooler. “I’ll be the friendly person behind the counter making people drinks,” she says with a laugh. “I like the idea of being in a communal place where everybody is.”

For now, Hannah is going to drink up her college experience. “I’m undeclared, and I actually have no idea what I want to do. But that makes it kind of fun.”

Raymond Arias

Midway during Raymond Arias’ freshman year of high school in Tualatin, Ore., his dad—who lived in California—was deported to Mexico because he was undocumented. It was only after the pandemic began that Raymond fully processed his emotions. “Both my mom and stepdad were having to work a lot more to keep us afloat,” he explains. “I was acting as a caretaker for my younger brother and my cousin, and the rigor of this responsibility showed me what it means to care for someone beyond yourself. It made me more empathetic and taught me a lot of resilience.”

Following high school, Raymond took a gap year, during which time he had an internship with the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators in developing legislative measures that sought to improve Oregon’s public schools. The experience sparked his interest in policymaking, says Raymond, who previously served as president of the Oregon Association of Student Councils, which represents more than 120 schools statewide. It also gave him the chance to cultivate interpersonal and leadership skills. 

Raymond enrolled at Oxy because it’s the “perfect place for me to grow academically and personally.” He’s planning to major in economics, with hopes of pursuing a legal career in the area of civil rights, corporate law, or intellectual property. 

“I want to go into law to use the privileges and opportunities that I have received in life, those that were not afforded to my parents,” Raymond says, noting that it also plays to his cerebral side: The digital age has forced legal debates in new directions. “Law is an arena of debate and inquisition. It remains largely untested in the age of technology. My hope is to be an actor in this space and in delivering just results for clients.”  

Oliver Holoubek-Sebek

Watching America’s much-debated military withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, Oliver Holoubek-Sebek decided he wanted to do better by his country. Government and social studies teachers at his high school in Westport, Conn., had already fired his passion for international relations. The next step was finding a college that would put him on a path to working for a consulate or a non-governmental organization. 

Occidental’s diplomacy and world affairs major—coupled with the chance to take part in the highly regarded Kahane United Nations program—cinched Oliver’s decision to come to Eagle Rock. “We’re in a pretty defining period in the world right now, with some important burgeoning powers,” he says, pointing to China. “The entire international landscape is going to change very soon, and it’s important to study world affairs to predict how it will all unfold, and decide the best course of action.”

In terms of extracurriculars, Oliver was a member of Junior Olympic Archery Development—he first picked up the bow at age 11—and also was active in chorus, orchestra, and theater (he portrayed King Beast in a high school production of Descendants, based on the Disney Channel musical).

As international relations continue to heat up, Oliver’s early impressions of Oxy were similarly toasty: He arrived on campus in the midst of a historic heat wave. “It’s a lot hotter than I was expecting it to be, so it was a rough first week,” he says. “But my classes are engaging and my professors are fantastic and accessible. It’s really been a dream of a few weeks thus far. Hitting the books is my main priority.”

Paloma Benach

Paloma Benach was raised a Yankees fan, and her parents enrolled her in a baseball camp at 4. “I fell in love with it and I never stopped playing,” she says. 

Paloma was the lone woman on her high school baseball team in Washington, D.C., and she’s trying out for Oxy’s historically all-male squad this fall. The left-handed pitcher relies on breaking balls over speed to keep batters off balance. 

“One of the ways I’ve been able to play with the guys is mental domination and mental toughness,” says Paloma, who is considering a psychology major, with a minor in neuroscience, en route to a career in sports psychology. “You should train your brain as hard as you train the rest of your body when you play a sport.”

Her father, who transitioned to female when Paloma was 11 and has coached her daughter since 2014, has played an important role as Paloma considers the world ahead. “I hope to feel as comfortable and as brave as she did with her decision,” Paloma says. 

Socially and academically, Occidental definitely walks the talk, she adds. “It’s a kind and supportive place, and I have a new interaction with a person every day. I feel very cared for and supported here.” 

Alex Romanov

Alex Romanov, 23, isn’t your typical college sophomore. He comes to Oxy having served four years in the Marine Corps, followed by a year at Santa Monica City College. 

The Victorville resident transferred to Oxy on the advice of his wife’s friend, who attended Occidental and praised its close-knit community. He always intended to make a lifelong career in the military, but Alex says a budding love of writing drove him to pursue a degree in English. 

A month into the semester, he calls Oxy and its professors “extraordinary.” “I’m excited to be able to grow in this environment,” Alex says. He’s already secured a writing job at the Occidental student newspaper. 

Alex “despised” writing in high school but gained a passion for the written word as a Marine, where in his downtime he read a lot, with an emphasis on genre fiction. A particular favorite is Chuck Palahniuk, whose Fight Club is considered a classic exploration of the male psyche. 

Alex hopes to one day author his own novels, or pursue an editing career. His game plan for Eagle Rock? “I absolutely want to learn from and capitalize on the people around me, from all these smart kids around me.”

But he also hopes to impart life experiences to his younger peers. “I bring life experience, which goes a long way,” says Alex, who lives with his wife of nearly two years, Alisha, off campus. “More traditional students are coming in from high school, and they’re still trying to figure everything out.”

MJ Jones

A shy kid growing up in Washington, D.C., Mickayla “MJ” Jones found her voice in the theater—acting in productions that included Clue, Dracula, and The Curious Savage. “My mom will talk about how my sister used to speak for me when I was younger,” MJ says. “Somehow, being on the stage dissolved all of that—the shyness and wanting to stay back.” 

With a passion for the arts and for quantum physics, MJ found inspiration in Merritt Moore, a quantum physicist who has danced professionally with the Zurich and Boston ballets. MJ is setting her sights high: She ultimately wants to get a doctorate in physics and become a college professor. 

At Oxy, MJ plans to seek out role models to help guide her path. “Being Black and female, and being part of the LGBTQ community, it’s hard to find another person in science, let alone physics, who also meets those other categories,” she says. “But I can always find people who fit into one of those categories, and I can get support there.”

Coming from a stressful boarding school, MJ says she enrolled at Oxy for its challenging academics but also because of the laid-back Southern California ethos. She has enjoyed the friendly atmosphere, despite some early jitters. “It was weird when I got on the plane and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m not gonna come home for a bit,’” MJ says. “But what’s weird now is I don’t feel like my family is so far away. I can always call them, and it’s OK.”

Ethan Smith

Coming to Occidental from his hometown of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, Ethan Smith has found undeniable perks to his decision to study in Los Angeles: “There’s really good food here.”

Gustatory delights aside, Ethan is thinking about the world around him above all else. “I’m really interested in politics and social justice,” says Ethan, who’s considering a major in diplomacy and world affairs or economics. In either case, his intentions are clear. “There’s a lot of stuff going on in our government right now, and I just want to be part of the solution,” he says.  

To temper the day’s stresses, Ethan turns to meditating (an interest he developed in response to the “bombardment” of information from school, social media, and digital entertainment), and he plans to swim for the Tigers this fall. He set high school swim records in Maine in the butterfly and was one of 56 swimmers nationwide selected to attend a leadership training camp to advance diversity in the sport (he identifies as Latino/white). In spite of being recruited to swim by Division I schools, Smith says, “It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for in a school. It was a little too much.”

In a less political role, Ethan has worked in recent years as a line cook and server at his uncle’s lobster restaurant.

Food, it turns out, provides its own education. “The main thing that working at the restaurant taught me was to be able to hold down work responsibilities while having a good time,” Ethan says. “I learned that if you screw something up, just own it and learn from it.” 

Vivian Ko

Growing up in Alhambra, Vivian Ko mostly applied to colleges in the East, pining like many young adults for a comfortable distance from family. But in exploring her options—she was accepted to seven schools—the first-generation Chinese American found little across the map that could replicate the mélange of human experience at Oxy and in Los Angeles. 

In the end, “I realized that I can still be independent in L.A., even though I’m so close to family,” says Vivian, the middle of three children. “I just really like the diversity in California. So many of my friends here are people of color, and I can relate to their experiences and struggles.”

Vivian is tackling her first year of college with a self-imposed mandate: She’s taking classes she wouldn’t ordinarily consider. The experience is designed to challenge her assumptions of the world, and engage her intellectual curiosity in unexpected ways. “I’m not usually a science person, but I’m taking a zoology class,” she says. “It’s really hard, but it’s really interesting.”

Just weeks into the semester, she joined the staff of the Occidental, where her first assignment was a profile of a pair of Oxy student-athletes. Vivian, herself a competitive figure skater through high school, is considering majoring in critical theory and social justice, and might venture into journalism or education. 

The College, she says, is an important partner in her journey of self-discovery. “I really like how Oxy encourages interdisciplinary learning,” Vivian says. “Especially in the first two years, because it allows me to take classes that just sound interesting. Maybe they will be something I would like to pursue as a major or minor one day.” 

Andy Faught wrote “A Healthy Migration” in the Spring magazine.