Everything's Clicking

By Peter Gilstrap

No global pandemic can keep the Class of 2024 from chasing their academic dreams—only a bad Wi-Fi connection

Leslie Garcia
Eagle Rock High School, Los Angeles

Leslie Garcia is one first-year student who already knows her way around the Oxy campus. “I grew up on the border of Eagle Rock and Highland Park,” she says. “My neighbor would take me on hikes around the campus, then we would sit down on the grass and have lunch. Oxy has always been part of my life.”

As her graduation from Eagle Rock High School neared, Leslie hadn’t seriously considered Oxy as her top choice: “I wanted to get as far away from home as I could,” she admits. “But in light of the pandemic, going out of state would be very difficult for my family. And my connection with Oxy was so deeply rooted, it felt kind of destined to be.”

Leslie hopes to major in psychology and go on to medical school, but music is her first love. She began playing saxophone in eighth grade in her school’s Latin jazz combo. By high school, she was a fan of hard bop sax legend Cannonball Adderley. She became adept on soprano and alto horns, which led her to become co-president of the school’s music program. “Having the opportunity to play music here was one of the reasons I chose Oxy. I’m currently taking the jazz course that’s offered in place of the band, and the professor is always talking about past performances. It really makes me look forward to when we actually get to play with one another.”

Despite everything that’s on hold due to COVID-19, Leslie has found a couple of silver linings. One thing is being able to help K-12 students whose education was impacted by the pandemic. She and fellow ERHS student Nicholas Padilla created NELA Impact, a free virtual tutoring program that matched tutors with more than three dozen students in Northeast Los Angeles. “Just being able to provide that sort of small-scale help in my community has been very positive for me.”

When it comes to making virtual connections at Occidental, Leslie has found communing with fellow first-years to be surprisingly easy. “Everybody’s as enthusiastic as you are to make friends. I’ve had classmates reach out to me to form study groups and to create Zoom sessions where we can get to know each other and make friendships that can continue when we’re on campus.”

Christopher Haliburton
The Webb Schools, Claremont

“I can’t wait to set foot on campus,” says Christopher Haliburton, who is staying in his hometown of Fontana with his family during the pandemic. “I can’t wait to move into my dorm. I can’t wait to meet people.”

He echoes the feelings of the Class of ’24, but the physical separation hasn’t stopped him from bonding with his classmates. He took two summer courses online, Thinking Through COVID-19 and Race and Community Exposures, and joined the Oxy group chat on GroupMe, a popular messaging app. “It’s harder to get a feel of how people are, harder to make those trusting connections virtually, but through group chat, it’s a lot easier.”

Of his many activities at the Webb Schools in nearby Claremont, his time as honor committee co-chair sparked an interest in law. “If the student makes a mistake that breaks one of the school rules, they would meet in front of the honor committee,” he explains. “They’d tell us what they did, why they did it, and how they would want to improve. And then we would give the administration a recommendation. Let’s say a student cheated on a test. They’ll probably do a work crew, like helping out the kitchen staff or raking leaves. No one ever got paddled or was cleaning toilets,” he notes with a laugh.

As a high school senior, Christopher co-founded an initiative for students of color, advocating for change. “We faced a lot of microaggressions,” he says. “We took a lot of our concerns to the administration so they could put in new guidelines for protection.”

The group’s initiative influenced the curriculum as well. “We wanted it to stop being so heavy on the postcolonial history of people of color, so we’re not just learning about slavery, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement,” he says. “Instead we’re learning about things that helped empower these people.”

Oxy’s cultural mix was a major draw for Christopher. “That’s what I’m looking forward to the most, being with people and opening up my mind to different views and beliefs and just educating myself.”

Coby Constantino
Los Angeles City College

Though Barack Obama ’83 looms large in Occidental lore, few students have had the chance to meet the 44th president, let alone provide him with direct support for diplomatic airlift missions. Sophomore transfer student Coby Constantino is the exception. As an operations intelligence analyst in the Air Force, the L.A. native served for four years with a top-secret clearance designation.

Working at Andrews Air Force Base, Coby’s job was to support Air Force One and Air Force Two missions—the aircraft carrying the president and vice president, respectively. Among his tasks was collecting information from the CIA and other intelligence agencies on security threats and sharing those with the pilots and administration members. “I was lucky to serve the Obama administration during the final year, and then transitioned to the Trump administration,” says Coby, who left the service in June 2019.

Coby lives with his family in neighboring Silver Lake and is transferring to Oxy from Los Angeles City College, which he attended for three semesters: “It prepped me for a four-year institution.” He intends to major in sociology in preparation for master’s studies in occupational therapy.

The pandemic hasn’t been too bad on a personal level, Coby says, “because my family’s and my health have not been affected. Compared to other people around the world who are dealing with way more hardships—not just the pandemic—I feel pretty blessed. Other people have definitely had it worse.”

Coby’s connections to Occidental included an unlikely trifecta culminating with Obama. “I told some of the pilots that I was getting out of the military and a cabinet member who was present was talking about how Obama attended Oxy,” he recalls. “My Boy Scout leader, James McGlynn ’83, lived across from Obama in his dorm, and my high school AP teacher, Reiner Kolodinski ’81 M’01, was there at the same time. So these are three individuals whom I’ve connected with, which is pretty cool.”

Catrina Wolfe
Home Schooled, Thousand Oaks

Your average 15-year-old with a budding interest in politics is likely running for a position on high school student council. Catrina Wolfe was not your average 15-year-old. As a sophomore, she began working as a full-time staffer on the campaign for a progressive candidate in her California congressional district. “I learned so much more than I ever would have imagined,” says Catrina, who hails from Thousand Oaks.

Her duties went far beyond fetching lattes. “In 2018, I was a field organizer, so one of my main jobs was to kick off all of our canvasses,” Catrina explains. “If we had celebrities or politicians there, I would introduce them. And then I would train volunteers—sometimes it was 30 people, sometimes it was 400. I would have to get up on a stage and walk all of these people through how to convey our message to voters at the doors.”

Catrina, who was home schooled, discovered Occidental from an alumnus who taught ethics at a local learning center. “He always had really awesome things to say about Oxy,” says Catrina, who is considering a biology or psychology major with a neuroscience minor. “I didn’t want to just be a number. I wanted to have small, discussion-based classes. I think a liberal arts education creates a really well-rounded person.”

As well as things are going online, Catrina is eager for the boots-on-the-ground Oxy experience. “Living away from home for the first time and being able to actually meet all of the people that I’m meeting online will be awesome,” she says. “I definitely want to get involved in research and get into a lab on campus. It’s hard when everything’s remote.”

But the stay-at-home result of the pandemic has allowed Catrina to spend quality time with her animal tribe: five dogs, two cats, and two horses. “I grew up showing Arabian horses, so getting to just be with them, that’s really nice. I’ve always been very close with my parents,” she adds, “but I feel like we got even closer during this quarantine. I wanted to stay a little bit closer to my family and friends, and Oxy seemed like the perfect fit.”

Ally Fukada
Singapore American School, Japan

We don’t have the testing to prove it, but Ally Fukada’s blood definitely runs Oxy orange. Dad Allen Fukada ’86 (pictured, left, with Ally) is an alumnus, and older sister Aime is a senior sociology major. “They both absolutely love Occidental and have had great experiences there—that was definitely a selling point for me,” says the Singapore native, who is planning to major in cognitive science. “Also, there was so much diversity it was easy to picture myself there.”

Ally is riding out the COVID storm in Tokyo, her adopted hometown. “I was born in Singapore and I spent 16 years living there,” she explains. “My mom is Japanese-Greek and my dad is Japanese-American. Home has been so many different places when you’re a third culture kid.”

While Ally’s last semester at Singapore American School was online, that experience didn’t prepare her for the shock of the alarm clock. “It’s kind of difficult,” she admits. “My classes are really early in the morning for me.” She’s not kidding: Given the time difference, a 10 a.m. class in L.A. begins at 2 a.m. Tokyo time.

Once she shakes off the jet lag, Ally has a to-do list ready for her arrival on campus: working on her art, taking exercise classes at the gym, and grazing her way through Eagle Rock’s many dining options. “I don’t think I’m going to be deprived of good, fun food,” she says.

Academically speaking, she hopes to continue her studies beyond Oxy at UCLA or USC to study nursing—a path that the pandemic has brought into focus. “Everyone keeps asking me if COVID has scared me into changing my occupation,” Ally says. “This just affirms to me the need to go out there and put myself in a situation where I can help others get better. That’s been a great plus from this experience.”

Maria Paula Munoz
Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey

When people anguish over a commute in Los Angeles, they’re generally referring to the tedious horrors of east-west freeway jams. For Maria Paula Munoz, her commute has been international.

“I was born in El Paso, but I was raised in Ciudad Juarez,” Maria explains, calling from the border city. “They’re right next to each other. From first to sixth grade, I commuted to El Paso, crossing the border every day.”

After elementary school, Maria came back to Mexico for her studies, even though the prospect of leaving her friends in El Paso made her “nervous and scared.” But after the first week of classes, “I was thanking my parents,” she says. “The school environment in Mexico was very different. I felt liberated. I became this whole new person—someone who was more certain of herself, who wasn’t afraid to use her voice and creativity.”

After finishing high school, that newly liberated person decided to take a gap year and travel to France—seeing the country and learning the language. To raise funds for the trip, Munoz worked as a waitress in El Paso, with a morning shift that started at 6 a.m. Despite the stress of her morning commute—the express lane at the border opened at 6, so she would be 10 or 15 minutes late to her job each day—the tips got her across a new border. She went to France in February; then in March, COVID hit.

“After three weeks in quarantine, I was in a little university town,” Maria recalls. “I was all alone, living with this elderly lady who had diabetes. She cooked these amazing meals, but I couldn’t go out, even for a walk. She stopped speaking English to me, and I knew barely any French. I sounded like a little caveman: ‘Oh, no, me like this,’ ‘Me don't like that,’ ” she adds with a laugh.

But while she was in France, a bright note from the States arrived—an acceptance letter from Occidental. “I really wanted to be in L.A.,” says Maria, who wants a broad education with a focus on English literature. “Oxy was my dream come true—amazing scholarship, amazing school. I’m really grateful.”

As one of about 15 first-years in Oxy’s immersive arts semester, Maria has found it “very easy to get to know my classmates and make friends with them. It’s something different, it’s a change,” she says. “There’s always something new to learn with something that is unknown to you.”

Zander Patent
Mercersburg Academy, Mercersburg, Pa.

Chances are Zander Patent knows some words that you don’t know—such as humuhumunukunukuapua’a, the name of a Hawaiian triggerfish. “There’s certain words that the judges like to give you, so you try and figure out what words are likely to come up each year,” says the Chicago native, who competed alongside 280 of his peers in the 86th Scripps National Spelling Bee in May 2013. “It was at least two to three hours of just studying spelling every night on top of homework and sports and stuff.”

“And stuff” encompasses an impressive portfolio of activities. While attending Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania, Patent started his own “modern urban apparel” company, Solo Fashion Co. “I was interning for a T-shirt printing company that did designs for fraternities and sororities,” says Zander. “I got interested in that and took a class on Photoshop and design. I didn’t really care whether or not it was successful, I just felt the need to start a fashion company.”

Zander’s online company is still going strong, offering T-shirts as well as hoodies. Solo’s “Rainbow Bomb” design, for example, reimagines a photo of an atomic explosion going off in the desert in colorful hues.

Not all of Zander’s adolescent activities—such as designing and baking cakes “out of boredom”—were so harmless. “I had a little bit of my own problem with vaping,” he admits. “Luckily, I quit, but realizing how hard that was for me made me more aware of mental health and substance abuse.” In the hopes of helping others, Zander got a licensed counselor to come and talk to students every week at his school. “We were quite successful in talking to some kids, and a lot of them have quit vaping or other substances.”

Zander, who is considering a major in media arts and culture, moved to Koreatown this summer, where he’s currently living with two first-year classmates, and is working on his newest quarantine-fueled hobby: “trying to play the guitar. That’s developed a greater interest in music for me. So now I’m learning how to make songs on my own.”

Kel Kline
William Penn Charter School, Philadelphia

If Kel Kline has one regret about Occidental, it’s that the College lacks an ax-throwing club. He just likes throwing axes at targets—an unlikely passion that began when he saw actor Jason Momoa doing the same on an episode of Ellen (the Aquaman star was throwing them for charity). “That seemed kind of weird,” Kel recalls. Then a friend invited him to visit the Poconos. “It was winter and I didn’t ski or snowboard, so I thought, ‘What the hell am I going to do?’” So he bought some axes off of Amazon, went in the woods, and threw axes.

After that, Kel and his dad turned ax time into bonding time, joining a league together (“There’s all different kinds of people—they’re all cool”). Beyond the sheer pleasure of simply hurling an ax, what does he get out of it? “It’s like a Zen thing,” Kel says. “It provides the same feeling as when I’m playing music. I’m not really thinking about anything else in the moment.”

The Philadelphia native comes to Oxy from the 331-year-old William Penn Charter School, where he made an impression playing music and basketball—even on the same night, when a basketball game and talent showcase had the misfortune to overlap. Undaunted, he played the first half of the basketball game, ran off the court, and emerged minutes later, wearing his school clothes, to pound away at the piano.

Kel, who is considering a cognitive science major, took a look at Oxy at a teacher’s suggestion, and he instantly sparked to its liberal arts curriculum. “There’s a lot of opportunities in L.A.,” he adds, “and one thing that really appealed to me is that Oxy offers a lot of internships. Being able to make those kinds of connections—and with students and professors as well—can set me up for success later in life. It’s like a dream come true.”

Until the pandemic is under control, Kline tries to set a plan for each day and stay positive. “I just try to take life one day at a time,” he says—and when the going gets tough, the tough get throwing.

Gilstrap profiled the Class of 2023 for the Fall 2019 issue. Photos by Marc Campos.