In Obama’s Footsteps

By Peter Gilstrap

As Occidental welcomes its first Obama Scholars to campus, program administrators and three seasoned seniors forge a sense of community built upon the ideals of the initiative’s namesake

It’s been nearly 40 years since a laid-back 18-year-old from Honolulu named Barry Obama ’83 first stepped onto the Occidental campus. He was a fan of Jimi Hendrix, hung out in the Cooler, and did a mean Mick Jagger impression (according to former Haines Hall dormmates). In other words, he was just another student moving toward an unknown future, armed only with a strong will to succeed and a budding passion for activism.

A hallmark of the 44th president’s subsequent career—working for the public good—is the cornerstone of the recently launched Barack Obama Scholars Program at Occidental. The merit-based program offers a full scholarship with a focus on first-generation students, veterans, and community college transfers—young people dedicated to carrying the torch of the program’s namesake.

“My years at Occidental College sparked my interest in social and political causes, and filled me with the idea that my voice could make a difference,” Obama observed in 2017, when the program was announced. The College “started giving me a sense of what a purposeful life might look like.” Oxy also played an inspirational part in his career choice—Obama has said that his general interest in politics was sparked in Professor Roger Boesche’s political theory courses.

Now, with the support of alumni and friends of the College, the program has moved from high concept to living, breathing reality as two inaugural Obama Scholars and three senior-class Obama Fellows begin to reap the benefits of the signature initiative that has the endorsement of the president himself.

“He definitely represents a lot for me,” says Obama Scholar Noa Richard ’22 of Miami—who, like Obama, comes from a mixed-race family. “I respect him for who he is and who he continues to try to be, his values and his work outside of the presidency especially—what interested him in college and the kind of character he possesses.”

During her time in high school, Richard co-founded Women in Need (WIN), an initiative that joined forces with a local shelter to aid homeless women. With an interest in filmmaking and “a humanities fellowship from my high school that was going to support any work in film that would tell some sort of human story,” Richard went on to make The Syrian Refugees of Miami, “a documentary interviewing refugee families who had sought asylum in the United States and were now placed in my community,” she says. “I feel like that’s what stood out strongly on my resume for the program, and I was able to learn a lot from these families and be humbled by them.”

As a high school student, Obama Scholar Sherin Aboobucker ’22 was already doing research in conjunction with Arizona State University on gender quotas and women’s representation in politics. “To see a president of color was very inspirational,” says the Peoria, Ariz., resident, who wrote her application essay about “how I was very upset about the immigration process and I ended up writing an email to the White House. A couple of weeks later, I got a response from President Obama explaining his policies. I’m not sure if it was literally him, but it came from the White House!”

Though any Occidental applicant is eligible for the scholarship, Richard’s and Aboobucker’s accomplishments made them ideal candidates. “We were looking for students who had demonstrated their commitment to serving the public good, to making their community a better place or improving people’s lives,” says Ryan Preston-Roedder, associate professor of philosophy and faculty mentor to the program. Out of the 7,281 applicants to the Class of 2022, 40 semifinalists were reviewed by a committee that included President Jonathan Veitch and a host of College administrators and faculty.

“We were also looking for students who had demonstrated leadership ability and academic promise,” says Preston-Roedder, who guides the program with administrator Jennifer Locke. “Finally, we were looking for students who could help create a community in which Obama Scholars and Fellows would share ideas and learn from one another.”

Only a few months into the school year, the two Scholars are already happily steeped in what Occidental offers. “I’ve definitely had a great experience so far,” Richard says. “I get this feeling that this is where I’m supposed to be—each time I meet someone, or something changes the way I think. That wouldn’t have happened unless I was here.”

“The academic environment has been challenging and I enjoy that aspect of it, as well as the close relationships that I’ve been able to foster with my professors,” says Aboobucker. “Being in a tight-knit environment is something that’s really been rewarding in my first semester here.”

A central part of the curriculum is the Obama Scholars Program Seminar, a regular meeting of Scholars and Fellows led by Preston-Roedder composed of reading, discussion, and guest speakers. Those guests have included Oxy faculty members such as Peter Dreier, the Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics and co-director of Campaign Semester, and Courtney R. Baker, associate professor of American studies and chair of the College’s new Black studies program.

Inaugural Obama Scholars Speaker David Plouffe, the president’s former campaign manager and White House senior adviser, and feminist activist Margo Okazawa-Rey, who spoke at Oxy in October as part of this year’s Cultural Studies Program, have also addressed the group.

“Occidental is a really important moment in the Obama journey,” says Plouffe, who is currently policy and advocacy chief for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Meeting the Obama Scholars and Fellows “gave me great optimism as they talked about their desires and hopes. I think this program is just tremendous. Thinking about what these folks are going to do out in their communities around in the world to bring about change could not be more exciting.

“It is so core to Barack Obama’s philosophy about change is not going to come from folks at the top,” Plouffe adds. “It’s going to come particularly from young people making their mark. And if we can make sure that a few folks who might not have the opportunity to do so can go out there and organize for change and build great businesses and get involved in government and public service, it’s great.”

Though the Obama Scholars Program was developed with the input of many minds, Preston-Roedder and Locke have been tasked with bringing it to life. “A big focus for me this year is creating a sense of community,” Preston-Roedder says. “We’ve been bringing the Scholars and Fellows together for the seminar, which focused on issues of racial justice during the fall semester. It’s intellectually very rich, and it’s been a pleasure getting to know them and think through important ideas and topics with them.”

“The seminar is a lot of big-picture thinking: What actually is the public good and what is good leadership?” Locke says. “At the same time, how do we make sure that these students are making the most of these very local campus experiences to not just get a great education but also get hands-on experience with leadership? How can we encourage that as early as possible and really develop those skills that will be great for that kind of career?”

“The seminar has given me an opportunity to listen to other opinions and other views on issues and see things in a different perspective,” Aboobucker adds. “As a premed, a lot of my classes right now are very science-based, and it gives me the chance to look beyond the science and see the broader picture, and how I can use what I’m learning now toward real-life goals.”

Outside of the classroom, Locke provides students with all manner of practical support. “I’m the person who’s making sure that the Scholars are taking advantage of all the campus resources,” she says. “I’m also helping them think through next steps. For the Scholars right now, I’m helping them plan their summers to be developing skills related to their goals and working for the public good. And for the Fellows I’m helping them think through their postgraduate plans.”

“Jennifer pointed me in the direction of a really incredible scholarship for film in a university in the U.K. this summer,” says Richard. “She has so many tools in her pocket. I don’t know what I would have done without her.”

The Obama Scholars Program is designed with the idea that three years into their college journey, Obama Scholars will transition into Obama Fellows. Following the lead of Oxy’s first Fellow—Cameron Peters ’18 of Temecula, an Army veteran and community college transfer who majored in urban and environmental policy—three seniors were chosen in their junior year to fill that role.

“The Fellows serve as peer mentors to the Scholars, serving as a source of formal advice and support but also informally suggesting fun things to do on the weekend,” Preston-Roedder explains. “These are seniors who have taken advantage of what Occidental has to offer and who, in various ways, embody the kinds of characteristics that we want fostered and cultivated in the program. We felt really strongly that each of the three Fellows brought something particularly helpful to the group.”

As it happens, all three Obama Fellows hail from California, so they know the lay of the land well. That’s especially true of Carlos Gonzalez ’19, a Spanish studies major who grew up in neighboring Highland Park in a single-parent household with his mother, an immigrant from Guatemala.

Gonzalez was selected for the STEM Magnet Program at Benjamin Franklin High School and had his first brush with Oxy through magnet coordinator Estela Donlucas ’94 M’95. “She served like a mentor, and still does, when I was a student. She always went the extra mile to support me.”

As a sophomore at Bowdoin College in Maine, Gonzalez withdrew from school in February 2016 to return home and help his mother, who had lost her job. He had no intention of returning to higher education until he ran into Donlucas, who helped him develop a plan to transfer to a local college nearby. “This is when Oxy came back on the radar,” Gonzalez says. “I immediately began my application and ultimately got in.”

That second chance included his selection as an Obama Fellow. “It’s exciting to be part of the inauguration of the first Obama Scholars,” Gonzalez says. “I know that our input as Fellows is very important, so I was very conscious of that. What I really like about the program is that it considers your background. I don’t consider myself a traditional student, and I really appreciate that. The Obama Scholars Program puts Oxy on a bigger stage, which I think it really deserves.”

For Cléo Charpantier ’19, a philosophy major from San Francisco, being an Obama Fellow has allowed her to be of service, an important aspect for her. “It means just being there for Obama Scholars themselves, as a mentor and someone they can turn to,” she says. “So I’ve had lunches and coffees with both Sherin and Noa just to talk through how their semester’s going, and engaging in some deeper conversations about what it means to be good and do good in the world.”

Rounding out the Fellow triumvirate is Alison Salazar ’19, an urban and environmental policy major from the Boyle Heights community of Los Angeles, and the daughter of parents who emigrated from Mexico.

“Growing up, I knew that my family was underprivileged and wouldn’t be able to afford college,” Salazar says. “My mom always reminded my sister and I that we had work twice as hard because that’s how we would get scholarships to go to college.”

That work paid off—she was awarded a full-ride Centennial Scholarship. “I’ve grown and learned so much at Oxy, and I don’t think I would’ve had the same experience at any other school,” Salazar says. “I was intrigued by the commitment to prepare students to give back and create change in the social justice framework because I’ve always wanted to give back to my community.”

Salazar’s one regret about the Scholars program is that it didn’t come sooner. “I would have loved to been a Scholar as a freshman, because I needed a similar support network, but I still have gained a lot from the experience as a senior. I’ve been able to meet students and professors that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise, discuss racial justice in a small seminar, and have gained a network of people—students, professors, and advisory council—that all care about the public good.”The validation from all of those involved in the Obama Scholars Program is undeniable, and it’s only the beginning of an imprint that will be a defining part of the Oxy experience. As Obama himself observed in 2014: “America is the student who defies the odds to become the first in a family to go to college, the citizen who defies the cynics and goes out there and votes, the young person who comes out of the shadows to demand the right to dream. That’s what America is about.”

Photo by Marc Campos