Oxy Immersive Semesters Offer Breadth, Depth and Sense of Community

Laura Paisley

Created for first-year students in a remote learning environment, the new programs pair in-depth academics with real-world action, exemplifying the potential and vitality of the liberal arts.

Top image: Nurses from the COVID-19 wing at St. Marianna Medical University Hospital in Japan wearing PPE Portraits created for them by first-year student Ally Fukada.

Ally Fukada already knows she wants to attend nursing school after Occidental. So while registering for her first semester of college—remote due to the COVID-19 pandemic—the international student from Tokyo was immediately drawn to the PPE Portrait Project, an intriguing offering from the new Oxy Immersive Semester program. 

Combining interdisciplinary coursework in art and philosophy with a real-world project, the PPE Portrait Project Semester aimed to incorporate empathy into best medical practice for healthcare workers wearing personal protective equipment during the pandemic. Participants would have the opportunity to plan and implement their own PPE Portrait Project locally.

“The timing was perfect: not only were we in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, but I have always been fascinated by patient care centered around empathy, and that is precisely what the PPE Portraits do,” says Fukada, who is planning to major in cognitive science with a minor in public health.

Four Oxy Immersive Semester programs were offered to first-year students in Fall 2020: PPE Portrait Project, Arts in Los Angeles, Computing IRL and California Environment & Conservation Corps. Each team-taught program featured a cluster of academic courses and a community-based project or internship. Small cohorts of students took the same set of classes together and engaged with their topic of study in a focused and multidisciplinary way.

The programs were an innovative introduction to Oxy and the interdisciplinary focus of the liberal arts, encouraging students to synthesize ideas, draw connections across classes and gain a more complex understanding of issues. Having the opportunity to simultaneously apply their learning in a real-world context allowed them to explore new areas, focus their interests, stretch themselves and build confidence. 

Equally important, the intimate cohorts—all 16 or 17 students—led to the kind of close-knit community you might normally find in a first-year residence hall. Despite being remote, students bonded and stayed connected in many ways: small group work in class, linking up on social media, separate Zoom meetings and Slack channels outside of class and group movie nights.

The camaraderie among students led to some fun moments, like when one cohort decided to celebrate their last day of class by wearing the prom finery they weren’t able to wear at their senior dances. Or when students surprised their professors on Zoom one day by all sporting red berets with Parisian backgrounds. Another cohort created a heartfelt video about their experience.

Professors noted that students’ closeness enhanced the quality of their work, as they strove to do well for each other within the tight intellectual community they had created. Many students reported that their program helped them develop a sense of place and belonging at Oxy even though they hadn’t yet lived on campus. In short, it was a meaningful introduction to the college experience under very unusual circumstances.


First-year student Ally Fukada.
Originally conceived by Professor of Art & Art History Mary Beth Heffernan in 2014 during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, the PPE Portrait Project is an interdisciplinary social practice art project that humanizes masked healthcare workers through portraits affixed to the outside of their hazmat suits. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic inspired the Immersive Semester of the same name.

“Because students were deeply invested in the topic and active participants as theory practitioners, they had a real stake in the subject matter,” Heffernan says. “It gave them a real sense of purpose.”

The program’s philosophical component was woven in with a class taught by Associate Professor of Philosophy Clair Morrissey called “Being With People.” 

“We’re focusing on the relationship between healthcare workers and their patients in particular, because that’s the context for the PPE Portrait Project,” Morrissey says. “How do you stand with respect to each other? How do we relate to each other? What do we owe each other?”

For her project, Fukada partnered with St. Marianna Medical University Hospital outside Tokyo. She pitched the project, negotiated the partnership, set up a digital submission form for the healthcare workers to submit their photos, edited the images and then physically produced reusable, laminated portraits for 8 doctors and 47 nurses. Afterward, she assessed the project with a questionnaire.

“This project showed how powerful the small community at Oxy can be,” Fukada says. “I kept telling myself that if I were at a bigger university I would never have had the opportunity to do this and engage in such an impactful project. It made me feel like my work mattered.”

Fukada's PPE Portraits of medical personnel.
Students were grateful to forge a meaningful connection to their community and be a force for good at a time when so much in the world was so difficult. And as the pandemic continues, several students are continuing their projects as independent studies and through Oxy Arts Mellon grants.

To Heffernan, this kind of deeply embodied interdisciplinary experience feels like the best of what the liberal arts can offer. 

“We had a group of students who mainly identified as pre-health science, and they had an incredibly rich experience that will allow them to be critical thinkers as they move into those fields,” she says. “That it happened through philosophy and the arts was really powerful.”


Los Angeles is one of the most vibrant and internationally important artistic communities in the world, and the Arts in L.A. semester was designed to offer first-years an introduction. As they studied the arts through the lenses of history, theory and practice, students also had the option to intern with one of several community arts partners.

“It’s been really exciting to see the way the students—dispersed as they are, from Shanghai to NYC—have engaged with our community partners even in a remote context,” says Professor of Art & Art History Amy Lyford.

The professors worked together to connect themes across all three classes in the cluster, and the program included special collaborations with Oxy Arts programming as well as a robust lineup of guest speakers and artists. 

“Students’ definition of what art could be was blown open after this semester,” Lyford says. “Part of that was seeing all these practitioners and realizing that there are so many facets of art and so many ways to do it.”

Associate Professor of Theater Sarah Kozinn characterizes the Arts in L.A. semester the best of a liberal arts education.

“Through the arts, we see responses to vast questions about the world—issues about social justice, science, politics and injustice,” she says. “We look at visual culture not as an accessory to life, but as integral to how we view, and can change, the world.”

It’s been really exciting to see the way the students—dispersed as they are, from Shanghai to NYC—have engaged with our community partners even in a remote context.”  –Prof. Amy Lyford

The program benefited from two senior mentors, art history major Harrison Kallner of Los Angeles and senior writing fellow Ima Odong, an independent pattern of study major from Glendale. Kallner gave a presentation to the class about their diverse experiences in the arts at Oxy, and Odong led writing workshops and held office hours for students.

First-year Siana Park-Pearson of Silver Spring, MD, took an internship with the Bob Baker Marionette Theater, which needed to ramp up its social media presence as the pandemic forced the organization to transition to a virtual setting. She was able to contribute her video-editing skills to develop engaging new video content for the theater as it reconceived itself.

“I enjoyed figuring out what was most eye-catching, what our community partners wanted, and how to attract both new and old clientele,” she says. “I learned so much this semester that I’m considering having an academic focus in communications in the future.”


As the name suggests, students in the Computing IRL (“In Real Life”) semester delved into computer science coursework designed to show how computing techniques and ideas interact with the real world. In partnership with Oxy’s Center for Community Based Learning, a variety of internships at organizations across L.A. were developed to leverage the liberal arts while using academic inquiry to address needs in the community.

Lai's starling flock simulation.
The program was “a spark of joy” during a really difficult fall semester, says Professor of Computer Science Kathryn Leonard. After an initial period of uncertainty, she says, students started to take the initiative in developing a vision for their project, figuring out an approach and going on to do amazing work. Their projects helped them exert agency and take control over their learning while simultaneously building community with their peers.

“Students definitely connected with each other, from their coursework to their projects,” Leonard says. “They learned how to work in teams and definitely felt like they made positive contributions at their internship sites.”

Sophomore Zerlina Lai from Saratoga interned with The Art Department, a collective of L.A. artists, where she helped analyze the logistics of creating land art depicting a starling flock in the shape of a bird. After researching starling flocks and how they behave in real life, she then altered a pre-existing flock simulator using computer code to suit the project’s needs. 

The internship taught her about the value of good communication and staying flexible, she says.

“It’s important to understand that the project you're working on is evolving, meaning there will be things that don’t work and unexpected obstacles. Your host might also be learning about these challenges at the same time you are, so it’s good to stay flexible and resilient.”


From biological sciences to literature, psychology and cultural studies, students in the California Environment & Conservation Corps Semester took multidisciplinary approaches to the study of nature and the environment. As they honed their analytical and writing skills, the unique ecology and environmental history of Southern California served as inspiration.

The California Environment & Conservation Corps cohort on Zoom.
The internship component was a pilot program called the Occidental Conservation Corps, developed in collaboration with alumna Mika Perron ’17 from the Audubon Center at nearby Debs Park. Perron’s contacts in local conservation research led to 17 students partnering with 13 community organizations, logging more than 450 hours of volunteer service and gaining a new set of hands-on skills. 

First-year Claire Olson of Newton, Mass., interned with the Council for Watershed Health, a nonprofit focused on improving the health of L.A.'s waterways through science-based research and community collaboration. She worked on their fall symposium series as well as data analysis and categorization for a trash monitoring study. She was proud to take part in work that has real-world applications and impact, she says. 

“We do similar writing and data analysis in school all the time, but at the internship, it felt like my work was not only helpful for those around me ... but also had applications in the real world and will be used in projects even after I’m no longer working with them.”

Professor of Biology Beth Braker observed that her students really bonded over the course of the semester. “They were a particularly caring, supportive group for each other,” she says. “Cohesion like this usually only happens in small classes when we travel somewhere together.”

Being able to draw from their real-world experiences definitely enhanced the quality and content of their writing assignments, says Sarah Ostendorf, adjunct assistant professor of writing & rhetoric.

“Because they could think about their internships and who they’re presenting the writing to, it made them more invested in their projects. Not only were the topics interesting, the presentations were really engaging and professional,” she adds. “For first-year students, I’ve never seen presentations of this quality.”