Occidental’s 140th-anniversary class is among its most diverse—and they have a lot to say about everything from activism and athletics to culture and chocolates
Each year, Occidental’s enrollment team sets out to fulfill the needs of over 40 academic programs and 20 athletic teams, admitting a diverse and talented set of students who are going to enrich the Oxy community.
For the 2023-24 academic year, “We were tasked with bringing in 565 students—535 first-years and 30 transfers,” says Maricela Martinez, the College’s vice president of enrollment. In the end, Oxy enrolled 573 students—532 first-years and 41 transfers from 37 states, the District of Columbia, and 24 countries. Of that group, 52% are women, 41% are men, and 7% identify as non-binary.
The group is one of the most diverse in recent history, with 48% identifying as students of color. One in seven students (14%) are the first in their family to attend college, and nearly 17% are Pell Grant-eligible.
Californians make up 36% of the class; the rest of the top 10 states are Washington, New York, Massachusetts, Oregon, Colorado, New Mexico, Illinois, Minnesota, and Texas. International students account for 7% of the class.
Psychology topped the list of first-years’ academic interests, followed by economics, biology, media arts and culture, and politics.
As the admission cycle begins anew, Oxy must reckon with the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision banning race-conscious admission practices, as well as the “demographic cliff” facing all of higher education. But prospects are bright for the Class of 2028. This fall, admission officers will visit 27 states and 12 countries—and more than 10,000 visitors are expected to tour the campus in the months ahead. And that’s where the Oxy magic happens. “This isn’t just the job of enrollment,” Martinez says. “This is really a college-wide effort.”
Now let's meet nine members of the Class of 2027:
During high school, Arjun Singh spent a good deal of time as a volunteer at Emanate Health Foothill Presbyterian Hospital in Glendora. “I would go around to patients’ rooms and just make the hospital more hospitable,” he says. “Sometimes I was just being a support system, someone who could really listen.”
Empathy and community are second nature to Arjun, a Southern California native of Indian heritage, who co-founded the Mixed Students Union at Glendora High School. “We celebrated students’ cultures from all across the world,” he says. “Growing up in Glendora, you disconnect with your culture a bit. However, coming to Occidental and being in the multicultural housing with other Indians, I feel like I’ve been able to reconnect in a deeper way with my own culture.”
In high school, Arjun also embraced the international language of music, finding his voice on the alto saxophone. As a fifth-grader, he recalls, “I watched the high school jazz band perform and I just remember everyone looking in awe. I was really inspired by those guys and I just wanted to pursue jazz.”
Influenced by sax greats Dexter Gordon and Stan Getz, Arjun became a standout improviser as a member of the Glendora High jazz ensemble (the school’s 53rd annual Bandorama, featuring his solo of “Living on a Dream,” is on YouTube). “Just playing the notes kind of makes you feel like you’re floating,” he says. “It’s almost magical in a way.”
Growing up with an Oxy mom (Sapna Singh ’00, a diplomacy and world affairs major and now a senior vice president at City National Bank), Arjun says, “Occidental’s values of equality and advocacy for marginalized groups resonated with me—of being a very supportive environment regardless of gender, religion, or sex. It’s just a great fit.”
Midway through her first semester at Oxy, Mia Steadman may still be settling into her studies, but she’s already a star on the soccer field. In only her second game as a Tiger, her bicycle kick—a gravity-defying, Mia Hamm-worthy move—secured a tie with visiting Westcliff University. But let’s hear Mia S. describe the kick: “You turn your body away from the goal and you jump into the air, swing one leg over the other, and use your momentum to hit the ball with your foot while in the air.”
When Mia was 8, her family moved from Corrales, N.M., to Palo Alto. Her father, Will, works in an automotive retail dealer group; her mother, Amy, is chief human resources officer at See’s Candies—a gig with serious benefits. “When Mom first got the job, she was coming home with bulk boxes of incorrectly made candies—which taste the same, anyway,” Mia says. “We would have something like 20 pounds of chocolate in our house at all times.”
Mia comes to Oxy from Henry M. Gunn High School, which has an enrollment of about 1,900 and a reputation for academic rigor. “My teachers pretty much changed my life,” she says. “But at the same time, there was a lot of pressure within the student community. Everyone at Gunn thought that going to an Ivy League school is the only way you could get a decent college education.”
Despite the peer pressure at Gunn to aim for an Ivy, Mia says, “Something kind of switched junior year where I stopped listening to everybody.” That—and the urging of Oxy neighbor Patty Wipfler ’68—is how she ended up playing for a SCIAC crown instead.
“Soccer is the biggest part of my life and always has been,” says Mia, whose older sister, Summer, plays at New York University. “The second we could stand up, our dad [who played soccer at UCLA] just put a ball in front of us and hoped for the best. Obviously, it worked out.”
Growing up on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, just off the Massachusetts coast, Milla Clarke was exposed to sailing at a very early age. “I started when I was 8 and I absolutely hated it,” she says. “I would frequently fake being sick so I wouldn’t have to go.”
By the time she entered ninth grade at the all-girls Lincoln School in Providence, R.I., the lure of the high seas beckoned. “I really enjoyed the team aspect of sailing. And it’s such a confidence boost to be out on the water and feel like you’re in control. I really fell in love with it.”
In June 2022, Milla sailed in the Newport Bermuda Race as part of her school crew, Team Bitter End—the youngest all-female squad ever to take part in the 117-year-old race. “It was really cool to be racing alongside 50- and 60-year-old men who have been sailing their whole lives and are very, very good. And it was even cooler to beat those teams.”
In fact, out of some 200 boats, Milla and her mates came in 27th in the intense competition. “It took us three days and it was 710 miles,” she says. The race is advertised as a 635-nautical-mile journey, but wind conditions increased the distance for her team.
“For about 2½ days, there’s no land in sight. You go through the Gulf Stream, which is this really hot patch of water, and there’s a lot of squalls—the weather is completely unpredictable. So you’re in the middle of the ocean in 15-foot rolling waves with lightning, thunder, and pouring rain—and you can’t stop because you’re still racing.”
While landlocked Oxy doesn’t have a sailing team, the College’s L.A. location offers terra firma charms. “I have friends with cars, too,” says Milla, who hasn’t yet decided on a potential major. “It’s been great to explore such a big city.”
Having regularly watched the local fireworks display from her family’s front yard, her vantage point sometimes included the College’s most famous alumnus. “When Barack Obama would come to visit the Vineyard, he would watch the end-of-summer fireworks show from our neighbor’s house,” Milla says. “That was a cool experience.”
Alex Ryan Nielsen
Sometimes it takes more than good grades to make a college application stand out. “A friend and I were talking about things to put on a resume that are different from anybody else, and my dad said, ‘You should be a beekeeper,’” says Alex Ryan Nielsen of Provo, Utah. But what started out as a joke, he adds, “turned into this thing that was really cool.”
Alex bought all the necessary gear, including 100,000 bees. Things were going well. The bees were buzzing, and harvest time came—and that’s when Alex and his buddy made a rookie mistake.
“Our first idea was, ‘Let’s just take all of the honey,’” he says—which they did. But a couple of weeks later, the bees had all died. “We were scratching our heads, like, ‘What happened?’ But we blanked on the fact that bees survive on their own supply of honey.”
Entrepreneurial dreams notwithstanding, Alex was creating some buzz on the pitcher’s mound at baseball at Spanish Fork High School. He’s a lefty with a wicked changeup, and the summer after his junior year he attended “a bunch of showcase baseball camps,” he recalls. “I met Coach Luke Wetmore from Oxy. He was a really smart baseball guy and I loved his philosophy, the way that he approached the game.
“I visited the campus and I loved it. I loved the architecture, the layout, everything was great. So, when Coach Wetmore called me and said, ‘Hey, we have a spot for you if you apply and get in,’ I said, ‘I’ll take it.’”
Nielsen says he’s looking into a diplomacy and world affairs major. And there’s always beekeeping to fall back on. “I’ve kind of had to put a pause on that just from moving and going to school,” he says. “But it would be cool to start back up again.”
In a world where people update their cellphones with alarming frequency, Elise Coffey uses a device that hasn’t changed since the 14th century. “My mom put me in abacus classes in first grade to help improve my math skills,” she says—and she is passing that knowledge on to a new generation.
“I started abacus lessons in my community because I wanted to share this tool with others,” says Elise, who is on a premed track with a possible minor in Japanese. “I love working with kids, and now I’m hoping to go into pediatrics. I’m excited to hopefully volunteer at all of the hospitals near Oxy.”
Elise was born in San Francisco to a Japanese American mother and a white father. When she was 2, the family moved to Portland, Ore., where her connection with Japanese culture blossomed. “I went to a Japanese immersion program from elementary until I graduated at Ulysses Grant High School,” she says. “It’s a way of learning the language and the culture within a tight-knit community.”
When Coffey began searching for colleges, she connected with Occidental right away. “I’ve always been interested in learning in a smaller environment. When I started in the Japanese immersion, they were smaller classes and I really appreciated just being able to get to know everyone,” she says. “And coming from a predominantly white city,
I was definitely interested in the diversity of Oxy and Los Angeles and just how it celebrates so many different backgrounds. I really appreciate the way that Oxy integrates the city into its curriculum, and all the different resources here.”
Aspen, Colo., is internationally known as a scenic ski resort town in the Rocky Mountains, but Fatima Flores knows another side of it. “There’s not a lot of diversity there,” she says. “It was very frustrating growing up there as a minority, and I consider myself Latina. Both my parents came there from Mexico.”
As a student at Aspen High School, Fatima experienced both unintentional and intentional racism among the overwhelmingly (86 percent) white student body. “For such a long time, I felt embarrassed to be a minority,” she recalls. “I was embarrassed to be Mexican.”
But those difficulties sparked her to take action. Fatima created and conducted a survey of Aspen High students and staff focusing on microaggression and racism and shared her results in a presentation to the entire faculty. That led to a meeting with the Aspen School District superintendent of schools to discuss racial issues. “We talked about how the schools did not prioritize racial problems for the reason that our parents don’t have high-level jobs or as much power and influence. They’re immigrants, they’re minorities.”
Her efforts were lauded not only by the district but by the Pitkin County Commissioners, who recognized Fatima with the Pitkin County Cares “Rising Star” award. “It really inspired me to want to help kids of color,” she says, “especially helping young Latina girls to feel safe and OK with themselves.”
As a high school senior, Fatima started the Latina Girls Group in the middle school for students in sixth to eighth grade. “I’d have lunch with these girls every Friday and they would rant to me about their problems and I would tell them, ‘It’s OK, you can stand up for yourself, you can ask for help.’ Those girls really opened up to me and I loved them so deeply. I feel like they hadn’t been told that they can do great things.”
Fatima discovered Occidental at a college fair. She wanted to go to a liberal arts college in the West, and “I really liked the idea of California and specifically Los Angeles,” she says. “I also saw how high Oxy’s diversity rate was. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s amazing that an institution can actually have this many people of color.’ That was my biggest thing.
“I kept learning about all the amazing opportunities,” Fatima adds. “When I found out that critical theory and social justice is a major and I could potentially minor in comparative literature, Oxy felt like a perfect fit.”
Ryan Hogan was 13 when his parents broke the shocking news that the family would be relocating from his hometown of Los Angeles to New York. “I was freaked out enough that I gave my parents a PowerPoint presentation on why we should stay in L.A.,” he says. “I pictured us living on the 17th floor of some New York City high-rise and I said, ‘I’m gonna get pickpocketed walking to school. There’s gonna be crime everywhere.’ And they told me, ‘No, we’re moving to a lovely neighborhood in Scarsdale.’”
The cross-country move, Ryan says, forced him to become more extroverted and social, and he was “a big sports guy” at Scarsdale High School. But his dreams of playing in the NBA were derailed after he took a freshman elective called Digital Music. “It covered the basics of music production, like how to use software like Logic Pro. That kickstarted my passion for music production, which is what I plan to pursue at Oxy.”
Ryan comes from a family of big Beatles fans: “I’ve grown up around their music all my life.” His favorite current band is Twenty One Pilots, who—fun fact—in 2016 became the first rock act since the Fab Four to chart two singles simultaneously in the top five of the Billboard Hot 100.
“I’m just a big music fan in general,” he adds—other than Mozart and Morgan Wallen. “If you look at my Spotify library, I have a bit of every genre, more or less, other than country and classical.”
Besides writing, producing, and recording his own music, Hogan hosts a podcast, Hero’s Journey, where he interviews artists about their music and the stories behind their songs. “I like to get to know them as a person and talk about how they got to where they are in their career.”
Two of Ryan’s favorite guests were musicians he discovered on the Netflix hip-hop competition series Rhythm + Flow, “which I love,” he says. “I had a couple of contestants from that come on. I just watched these people on Netflix and then a couple weeks later, I’m speaking to them over Zoom—which was awesome to me, and kind of insane.”
There’s an old American idiom that says, “You can’t fight city hall,” but Harper Valentine had no problems making her activism known to the governmental powers in her hometown of Oakland.
“Being a member of the Oakland Youth Advisory Commission was definitely a huge part of my high school experience,” she says of her four-year stint. “Kids from each district came together to talk with the mayor and with the city council about issues involving youth. It was a great way to connect with the city where I was born and raised.”
One of her commission triumphs was creating “a youth-led candidates forum where young people got to talk to all the 2020 school board candidates on a YouTube live platform so that everybody could watch and ask questions. It was a space where young people got to talk to the city officials and people in power as equals.”
Harper’s involvement with the Commission led to her joining the Coalition for Police Accountability in Oakland. “They were looking for somebody to help with their social media and help with their website. I was in my sophomore year when I started working with them. I did a lot of work promoting MACRO [Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland],” Harper says, a community response program for nonviolent 911 calls. “It’s an alternative to policing, like you need somebody to call, you need help, but you don’t wanna call the police. Because it’s no secret, the violent history of policing in Oakland. I really wanted to help get the word out about it.”
Harper became aware of Occidental through family friend and trustee Lande Ajose ’87, managing director and chief of staff of the Waverley Street Foundation. “She really loved it here,” Harper says. “It’s definitely a really diverse school. I’m three-quarters white and one-quarter Japanese. There’s a lot of people here from different cultural backgrounds and places. That’s super cool.”
Destiny Lee grew up in the small community of Sheep Springs, N.M., one of about 300 inhabitants of the tiny outpost deep in the Navajo Nation. It’s a region where local place names tell the descriptive story: Two Grey Hills, Little Water, and Shiprock, her birthplace. “You feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere,” says Destiny, who identifies as Navajo. “Your closest neighbor, if you were lucky, would be a mile or two away.”
But her life wasn’t lonely in aptly named Sheep Springs. Destiny attended Newcomb High School on the reservation, an institution of some 240 students. Returning to in-person learning post-pandemic, Destiny was not only senior class president but she was heavily involved with Nizhoni’s Last Summer, an experimental theater project written by her peers in collaboration with the school’s art and drama teacher, John Templin.
Destiny—a theatrical novice—won the lead role in the play, which confronted relevant contemporary issues chosen by the students, including transgenderism, substance abuse, suicide, and bullying. “We would rehearse and then wait for the teacher to develop more parts and keep creating more scenes, but it all worked out in the end.”
Destiny enrolled at Oxy as a recipient of the Davis New Mexico Scholarship, which supports first-generation college students. Now that she’s in Eagle Rock—another aptly named Western community—she is happy with her experience so far. “I’m interested in studying to become either a filmmaker or an author. I thought Oxy would help expose me to the entertainment culture in Los Angeles.” Destiny even likes the autumn heat: “It kind of feels like New Mexico.” Minus the sheep.
Peter Gilstrap profiled astrobiologist Jason Dworkin ’91 in the Summer 2022 magazine.