On Thursday, April 26, five members of the graduating Class of 2018 received a Dean's Award at the Student Leadership Awards ceremony.
Each year, Dean of Students Rob Flot recognizes seniors who, through their involvement on- and off-campus, embody Oxy's four pillars of Equity, Excellence, Service and Community. The College recognizes these exceptional undergraduates for their passion, dedication, hard work and commitment to the Oxy community and beyond.
“A Range of Experiences"
Every year on his birthday, Daryl Barker '18 would receive one of his great-grand-uncle's military medals, earned flying planes in North Africa during World War II. Barker's grandfather served in the Army, and his father in the Air Force. You could say the military had always been in Barker's orbit.
After high school, the Santa Monica native joined the Navy, where he served on a ballistic missile submarine as part of a strategic nuclear deterrence force. This experience gave him an unusually nuanced perspective when he eventually enrolled in a U.S. foreign relations class at Oxy and began discussing related subjects in an academic capacity.
“Hearing the way people theorize about [foreign relations] is a very interesting juxtaposition for me," he said. “I was able to, I feel, add a certain level of reality to that conversation."
Coming to Oxy at age 25, Barker's life experiences around the world enhanced many discussions in the classroom and on campus. Eager to explore subjects in their real-world context, the politics major got involved in Oxy's Campaign Semester program in 2016, working for the Patrick Murphy campaign in a Florida Senate race. He loved the ground-level view of the political process and making daily phone calls to voters in Florida. He called the experience transformational.
Barker has been a voice for change at Oxy, serving as an outspoken advocate for military veterans. He has volunteered for three years with LGBTQ youth at the Colors Youth Counseling Center. He interned and ultimately got a job with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, studying such topics as media portrayal of women in STEM. He also worked with Public Counsel, a nonprofit legal defense organization, where he researched education rights.
Somewhat to his own surprise, along with a politics major, Barker also declared an art history minor. It's less surprising if you consider his knack for photography, which he pursued as a hobby in the Navy. Once he got to Oxy, he parlayed his skills into photography work for the Occidental Weekly and later a photojournalism internship with KPCC.
Barker is interested in eventually pursuing a master's degree in public policy, potentially in the area of education policy. He's happy with his choice to attend college after completing his military service rather than move directly into a new career.
“Looking back, what stands out to me is the range of experiences that I was able to have while being at Oxy," he said. “From working at Public Council to doing Campaign Semester to doing internships at other organizations like the Geena Davis Institute and KPCC—if I had gone straight into a career or job after the Navy, I wouldn't have had the ability to get that exposure."
“Forging an Identity"
Although she is the first in her family to pursue a bachelor's degree in post-secondary education, Joscelyn Guzman didn't initially identify as a first-generation college student when she came to Oxy.
“I never self-identified as low income," Guzman said. “I never self-identified as a student of color, or a woman of color. And these are all identities that I now feel a lot more grounded in — and being grounded in your personal identity is so important."
The Modesto native and religious studies major said she's grateful for the ways her identity has blossomed at Oxy. She's also thankful for the strong community that has supported her along the path to graduation. One of the highlights of her experience at Oxy is simply graduating, she said, in part because it was such a communal effort. “It took so many offices on campus and so many people on- and off-campus to help me get here."
Guzman was among 60 juniors chosen nationally to attend a summer program called Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America (LEDA). It is committed to helping low-income, high-achieving students, predominantly students of color, to gain admission to selective colleges and universities. That's where she first learned about Oxy.
“Being first-generation, you don't always have the same support that your peers do. And community for first-generation students is very important for retention … and for feeling like you belong at the school."
Understanding the necessity for resources for students like herself, Guzman has taken the lead this year by working with the Dean of Students Office to try to visualize how more institutionalized support could take shape. While a sophomore, she also had the honor of serving on a national task force on the first-generation student experience, getting to travel to New York City and draft policy recommendations for the Aspen Institute Task Force on College Opportunity for High Achievers.
At Oxy, in addition to participating in Campaign Semester, Guzman has worked with the Center for Community Based Learning, the Admission Office, the Center for Digital Liberal Arts, Delevan Drive, Peer Health Exchange, O-Team, Multi, Latinx Student Union, and Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. She has held leadership roles in Mortar Board, the national honor society, and the First Gen Club. This month, she was also awarded a Student Community Action Award from the Urban and Environmental Policy Department.
Guzman's biggest passion, she said, is education. Specifically, she's passionate about educational equity, which is why she'd like to pursue teaching before getting into education policy work. To start, she's been accepted to a master's program called Urban Teachers at Johns Hopkins School of Education.
“Through my education, I've been able to travel the United States and do work that I never imagined that I would do. I think that that's why I'm so passionate about it, because I see that education has the power to transform people's realities," she said.
Guzman has been thinking a lot about how you don't have to be in a position of power to make change happen, she said.
“I mean, theoretically it'd be cool to be Secretary of Education for the United States," she laughed. “But during my four years at Occidental, being involved with community organizations, I've seen the impact that people can have without a big title. As long as I'm working to better support the communities that I'm in, I'll be doing work that I'm proud of."
“Giving of Herself"
Most college students are incredibly busy during finals week. For Rosa Pleasant, it's no different—except for the fact that along with studying and writing final papers, she's working diligently on an appeal for a high school student who was unlawfully suspended from the Los Angeles Unified School District.
The effort is part of Pleasant's internship with Public Counsel, one of the largest pro bono law firms in the country. She works with their statewide education rights project, and she has spent the spring semester focused on a bill called SB607 that would eliminate suspensions and expulsions for “willful defiance."
“It's a very arbitrary category that is disproportionally assigned to students of color and other marginalized identities," Pleasant said. “So I'm trying to get that removed from the student's record."
When a suspension or expulsion sits on a record, she explained, it can ultimately help track students to what ends up being the school-prison pipeline.
Both on and off campus, Pleasant has been a strong advocate for her peers as well as underrepresented students. She has been an active member in Sigma Lambda Gamma, the Black Student Alliance and the Neighborhood Partnership Program. She also participated in Oxy's four-week Multicultural Summer Institute before entering Oxy as a first-year student from Fresno.
An American studies major with an emphasis in Black studies, Pleasant has undertaken several undergraduate research projects, from an individual study of activist and educator Septima Clark to research with two different professors. One project looked at gender equality in the media, and for the other she studied black women's organizational work at the turn of the 19th century. She even co-presented the latter research at last year's Western Association of Women Historians conference.
Following graduation, Pleasant is moving to Baltimore to take part in Urban Teachers, an alternative four-year teacher training program offered through Johns Hopkins School of Education. She'll complete the program with a master's degree plus her teaching certification.
“I'm really excited about the prospects," she said. “I really wanted to get involved in teaching because I'm very interested in education rights. I'm hoping to teach for several years and then go to law school to do education reform."
In that field, she said, she'll apply her knowledge as a student and a teacher to what is needed to move forward in our education system.
True to form, another passion of Pleasant's is supporting the people in her life that she cares about. While it can at times be draining, she said that Oxy has taught her how to set her boundaries and identify her own needs as well.
“To me, giving people the space to talk about their experiences and needs and wants really matters. It's very core to who I am, giving people that space.
“My room actually has a couch and people call it the therapy couch," she added, smiling.
Tatiana “Tati" Ramos-Gallardo was just 5 when she and her mother moved to Ashland, Ore., from their hometown in León, Guanajuato, Mexico. The little girl didn't speak a word of English.
For the next few years, Ramos-Gallardo was regularly taken out of her public school classroom for ESL tutoring. She disliked being isolated from her peers, disliked feeling “different." Now she wants to help other young learners in this situation through her intended career as a speech pathologist—she will start a master's program at University of Redlands at the end of the year.
“I really want to work with others to help empower them through communication," she explained. “Specifically, I want to focus on children who have communicative disorders. I know what it's like to not be able to communicate your needs, not to be able to say ‘Wait, I'm really hungry' or ‘This makes me uncomfortable.'"
For Ramos-Gallardo, Oxy is the place where she really developed a sense of confidence about her career goals. On the cusp of graduation, she feels more confident in the fact that she has valuable capabilities and can explore what she wants to do.
A group languages major who has taken extensive coursework in diplomacy and world affairs, Ramos-Gallardo has always been passionate about foreign languages and cultures. In addition to studying Spanish and linguistics, she also took courses in French and Arabic as part of her coursework and studied abroad in Paris. To her, language is like a beautiful puzzle.
“I love thinking about how we make sounds in our mouth and how those change from language to language. And I love that you get to learn so much about other people and other regions of the world."
While not pursuing her passion in the classroom, Ramos-Gallardo has devoted herself to service both at Oxy and in the greater community. She is a co-founder of the organization Comparte, a student- and professor-led group that works with local day-laborers to help them learn and improve their English-language skills. The program, now working at three different sites, has also offered English workshops to staff workers at Oxy.
“We are founded on the belief of popular education," she said. “It's kind of not traditional teaching at all, it's more about what the workers want. It's different for each site that we work with, and I think it's really wonderful to be able to communicate with these workers and create these relationships."
On campus, Ramos-Gallardo has participated in the groups Las Hermanx Aliadas, Beauty Beyond Color, La Raza Coalition, O-Team and Delta Omicron Tau sorority. She has worked in an impressive list of campus offices, including Human Resources, Student Life, Admission, Community Engagement, Childhood Development Center, Urban & Environmental Policy Institute, and the Green Bean Coffee Lounge.
She remembers coming to visit Oxy once she'd been accepted and relishing the beautiful campus and warm California sunshine. She loved Los Angeles, feeling like it was a perfect mix of her cultures in Mexico and Oregon.
“I just remember the sun hitting my face and feeling like, ‘Yes. This is right.'"
“Surviving the Storm"
Jarron Williams was living on St. Claude Avenue in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward when Hurricane Katrina hit.
Then 9 years old, he recalls standing on top of his roof with his mother and siblings, watching bodies float past. He remembers feeling scared, helpless, traumatized. “I remember everything about it," he said.
His family was eventually evacuated to a shelter, and following the ordeal they moved to a different part of Louisiana. But the experience has stuck with him, emotionally and otherwise. It even informed the economics and urban and environmental policy double major's senior thesis.
“My thesis was on disaster management plans, and my case study was Hurricane Katrina," he said. Among other subjects, hiis research delved into gender issues, illuminating the fact that 77 percent of women in New Orleans were at-will employees in 2005. This meant that they ran the risk of being fired from their jobs had they evacuated the city before the official state of emergency was declared.
People were afraid to leave, Williams said, knowing that there was a loophole that could get them fired. Of course they couldn't have imagined the extent of what came to pass.
The experience of Hurricane Katrina, along with his senior thesis project, answered many questions for Williams about why he is so committed to his community, and why service has always been his calling. “I saw people in my community not get the help that they needed. For me as a child to see that, I just knew I never wanted to feel that hopeless or for other people to feel the feeling that I had."
Williams appreciates the ways he's grown as a person at Oxy. “I've grown a lot from actually acknowledging issues pertaining to or associated with social justice," he said. “Oxy has changed me as a person, being that I'm now able to have these complex conversations. It's shown me that it's OK to have difficult conversations, it's OK to call myself out or educate others on these matters."
In addition to domestic and international research in Hong Kong for his majors, Williams worked at Oxy as a resident adviser, an Office of Student Life finance assistant and a high school tutor. He's also been heavily involved with student government through ASOC Senate, serving as chief of staff, vice president of academic affairs and vice president of finance.
He's aiming to attend Columbia Law School after taking a gap year to work in L.A. with nonprofit and community organizations. He wants to do more on-the-ground work with people from low-income and homeless communities.
As for Oxy, he said he wouldn't trade his four years here for the world. “If I were to go back and tell the 13-year-old version of myself—and I say 13 because that was sort of a huge moment in my life where there were a lot of personal issues that I had to deal with—the places that I've gone, the things that I've done, the people I've met, that I wrote a 70-page senior thesis … he wouldn't believe it."