Speaking of Oxy

An oral history project spanning seven decades of alumni reveals the timeless ties that bind the Occidental community

By Tricia Long | Photo by Marc Campos

What if yearbooks could speak? Four student researchers set out to answer that question over the last year by reconstructing the long arc of Occidental's history through the words of seven decades of Oxy alumni.

The initiative, dubbed OxyCorps, was designed to capture a wide range of individual perspectives using oral history methodologies to build a narrative that broadens the history of Occidental as part of the College's 125th-anniversary observances.

"I think of it as history from above and history from below," says student researcher Taylor Rowland '13, an art history and the visual arts major from Encinitas who conducted the interviews alongside fellow interns Sara Mooney '13, Isabel Osgood-Roach '13, and Ryan Rambach '14. "We hear what the College wants to show us, but it's different to hear it from the perspective of the students who were here at the time."

The project was modeled after StoryCorps, the national storytelling project that has gathered more than 40,000 interviews since its inception in 2003 (excerpts of which are broadcast weekly on NPR's "Morning Edition"). Under the guidance of Dale Stieber, special collections librarian and ­College archivist, the team conducted and videotaped interviews with 58 alumni. "The best people who can recount our history are the students themselves," says Stieber, who has a background in oral history.

After participants were identified, they were provided with a list of pre-interview questions to help jog memories of their Oxy years. The students learned filming and interviewing techniques and organized the logistics of interviewing so many people in such a short time. Most of the interviews took place over Alumni Weekend last June. Then the students began transcribing, analyzing, and categorizing all 58 interviews—approximately 44 hours of oral history.

While much has changed on campus over the years, the interviews also revealed themes common to each generation: the rigor of academia, Los Angeles' influence on campus, the fear of leaving home for the first time, even the foibles of undergraduate dating. Student life became one such unifying theme. To that end, the team created an interactive online database, Alumni Stories of Student Life, which features video clips from 16 interviews that demonstrate the breadth of the undergraduate experience at Oxy.

The oral histories benefit from years of reflection since the participants graduated. Psychology major Billy Vela '95, who grew up in Highland Park as the son of immigrant parents, recounted how the administration, faculty, and students responded to the L.A. riots, which occurred his freshman year.

"Oxy taught us to embrace challenges and to not shy away from that discomfort in your stomach," says Vela, who works in student affairs as director of El Centro Chicano at USC. "Although there were many times I was not embracing this feeling and experience, in retrospect, it reaffirmed how much more I grew personally and professionally."

Mooney, an American studies major from Waltham, Mass., was drawn to Vela's interview as well as to interviews with other alumni of color. Intrigued by how students dealt with issues of equality and racism, she built upon the research she collected through OxyCorps for her senior comprehensive.

"Students of color resisted racist forces on campus in a variety of ways," she says. "I want to take their narratives of resistance and frame them within the College's policies. What promoted a safe space on campus for people of color? How did the College react to demands for more support? Those are the kinds of questions that I'm hoping to answer."

The students all say that the experience gave them skill sets that can contribute to their future research. In November, they presented their work at the Southern California Conference for Undergraduate Research. And Rowland is in the process of applying for a Fulbright Scholarship that would enable her to conduct oral histories abroad.

College librarian Bob Kieft would like to see OxyCorps expand to include interviews with faculty, staff, and administrators. "The process can't stop at conducting and collecting interviews," he adds. "There is great potential in sharing the collection in whole or part online. Oxy's history isn't supposed to be locked up in a vault—it has a place in our academic endeavor." Or, as William Faulkner famously wrote, "The past is never dead. It isn't even the past."