A new interdisciplinary program introduces students to the problem-solving power of the humanities

A $1.5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation will fund a three-year teaching and community-engaged initiative that will introduce incoming and first-year students to the problem-solving power of the humanities to advance health equity, migrant justice, and freedom struggles.

Beginning this fall, the interdisciplinary Humanities for Just Communities (HJC) program “will expose first-years to a wide array of conceptual, methodological, epistemological, and ethical tools from the humanities applicable to each year’s social justice theme and activated in their community-engaged project,” says Kristi Upson-Saia, left, David B. and Mary H. Gamble Professor of Religious Studies and co-principal investigator.

“Ultimately, the program aims to produce social justice leaders who understand the value and power of leveraging humanistic approaches, setting students on a path to take more humanities courses,” says Alexandra Puerto, right, associate professor of history and co-principal investigator. “It’s a natural fit for Oxy and its mission.”

“I wholeheartedly believe that the HJC program will have a transformational impact on Oxy students’ interest in the humanities,” says President Harry J. Elam, Jr.

Occidental is one of 12 liberal arts colleges nationwide to receive grants totaling more than $16.1 million as part of the Mellon Foundation’s new Humanities for All Times initiative. Mellon’s initiative seeks to address the decline in undergraduate humanities degree recipients and the rising undergraduate interest in social justice issues.

“The Humanities for All Times initiative underscores that it’s not only critical to show students that the humanities improve the quality of their everyday lives, but also that they are a crucial tool in efforts to bring about meaningful progressive change in the world,” says Phillip Brian Harper, Mellon Foundation higher learning program director.

At Occidental, interest in the humanities has been mixed, with some programs experiencing a marginal drop in majors and enrollments and others seeing significant increases. The HJC curriculum “aims to attract students into humanities courses early, at a time when they are becoming aware of their curricular options,” Upson-Saia says. “As we increase the number of students in the humanities, we also intend to increase the diversity of those students,” Puerto adds.

Each year’s program will be built around a specific social justice theme. This fall the theme will be “Health, Illness, and Dignity,” followed by “Migration, Displacement, and Cultural Resistance” in 2023 and “Protest, Abolition, and Freedom” in 2024. Faculty in Oxy’s English, history, media arts and culture, music, philosophy, religious studies, and theater departments will contribute courses built around the health theme this fall.

Each year’s HJC program will culminate with a paid 10-week, full-time residential research experience for approximately 15 rising sophomores. Students underrepresented in the humanities will be strongly encouraged to apply. The research fellows will present results of their research at an annual Summer Humanities Conference.

Over three years, it is expected that the HJC curriculum will enroll more than 500 students, involve at least two-thirds of Oxy’s humanities faculty, and engage hundreds more students and community members.