'Our Place of Becoming'

Capping a celebration of women in leadership at Commencement, Sara El-Amine ’07 gets to the heart, hands, and brains of the Oxy experience

In a celebration of women in leadership, pioneering tech executive Cathie Young Selleck ’55, international education advocate Ann Zwicker Kerr-Adams ’56, conflict resolution educator Maya Soetoro-Ng, and political consultant Sara El-Amine ’07 addressed the Class of 2018 at Occidental’s 136th Commencement ceremony May 20.

Their experiences may have been singular, but all four women “clearly possess passion, are selfless, take risks, and have incredible courage,” Board of Trustees chair Susan Howell Mallory ’76 M’78 noted at the start of the two-hour ceremony.

In a stirring call to action to the 509 graduates from 37 states and 16 countries, El-Amine—a field organizer in Barack Obama ’83’s first presidential campaign who later served as executive director of Organizing for America—recalled sitting “in uncomfortable shoes in this very amphitheater a little over 10 years ago, proud, a little hungover, and deeply hopeful about my future and the future of humanity. … I built the same protest signs as many of you built and I cried the same hot, angry tears that many of you cried when the outside world punctured our idyllic campus through unnecessary school shootings, refugee crises, and heartbreaking elections, or when our campus showed that it was actually no more idyllic than the outside world, perpetuating injustices inside our very halls.” 

At Oxy, “I met a scrappy bunch of unlikely best friends who had their own hurts and dreams and political realities and limitations that were deeply different from my own,” El-Amine said. “I met professors who were smart and challenging and supportive all at the same time, mentors who helped me see my best self, even when I couldn’t. In my time of greatest disenchantment, my friends and the faculty here showed me that cynicism was the refuge of cowards, and that optimism was the path of the brave.”

“We had the foresight to choose Oxy as our place of becoming, because even at the tender age of 17, each of us understood, at some level, that the world is remaking itself and breaking itself anew every day, and that we were personally meant to play powerful roles within those thrashes,” she continued. “We stayed the course here because we wanted to strip away the grime and the hurt and the anger and fear and get to the heart of the problem, and then the hands of the solution, not just the brain of it.”

She added: “Each of us came to be at Oxy through a unique combination of pain and privilege, in different measure. That tension inside of us, and our self awareness of it, is what makes us powerful forces on campus and in the world.” 

In closing, El-Amine told the class, “This country and this world won’t right itself without you—whether you stand for that bold making and remaking from inside a boardroom or a hospital room or a classroom or a church or a science lab. We’re passing you the power. Make it bend.”