Author: Margaret Su
Occidental’s Multicultural Summer Institute (MSI) — a program to inform incoming first years on issues of social justice while easing their transition to college — will have new leadership this year. Kerry Thompson, interim dean of the college and biology professor, will serve as the new academic co-director alongside Jonathan Grady, assistant dean of students for Intercultural Affairs, who will reprise his co-director role overseeing co-curricular aspects of the program. Since MSI’s establishment in 1987, the academic co-director position has been held by English Professor Eric Newhall.
MSI is a four-week program in July in which approximately 10 percent of the incoming first-year class participates for four units of academic credit. The ideal candidates for the program are students interested in social justice and advocacy; many are underrepresented or first-generation college students, according to Grady.
Thompson said MSI’s overarching focus on social justice will not change, and the program will continue to feature the same two classes as previous years — one in quantitative reasoning and the other addressing the lives of children in relation to inequities: their identity construction, institutional experiences and representation in media.
Thompson values MSI for its ability to improve student retention rates. He is personally invested in programs such as MSI because, during his own time as an undergraduate, he often felt isolated and unprepared. MSI not only gives students an idea of the academic rigor they should expect, but also familiarizes them with the mission of the college as it pertains to social justice, according to Thompson. Additionally, students are able to meet and form relationships with classmates prior to orientation.
As a graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles, Thompson was the director of an outreach program that worked with elementary schools to pique students’ interest in science. He continues similar work today, collaborating with Los Angeles Unified School District schools to encourage students through exposure to science to think about college. Thompson said that, combined with his 11 years of teaching at Occidental, his work experiences in education have prepared him well to structure MSI’s curriculum in a manner that best serves the needs of students.
One aspect of the program that Thompson and Grady plan to improve, based on this feedback, is students’ schedules during the program. In the past, co-curricular aspects of the program, such as discussions for which two hours were allotted, often ran for four or five hours, according to Thompson. This detracted from the time students had to study or write papers for the academic component of the program.
Thompson and Grady are also addressing students’ requests for additional training in college-level writing by implementing a course specifically for this purpose, independent of the two primary academic courses.
Grady emphasized that students are not the only source of valuable feedback for the program: Staff, too, have important comments to make. One that he received was that student staff — resident advisers and teaching assistants (TAs) — reported being underpaid relative to comparable residential positions on campus, such as those working for Upward Bound. To rectify this disparity, Grady — who considers it important for staff members to be adequately compensated — has adjusted the budget to increase student workers’ income.
While the staff and faculty involved in MSI change from year to year, Grady said there is one crucial characteristic that all share: a commitment to helping students explore ideas of social justice.
“We want to ensure that our students are very prepared for what’s to come once they officially start,” Grady said.
According to Grady, Thompson is well-suited to facilitate such student preparation. Grady said he is not only open to new ideas, but is also committed to both students and social justice.
“We had hundreds and hundreds of comments, and [Thompson] literally read through every single comment,” Grady said.
Jacky Rodriguez (junior), who worked as a TA for MSI last year, considers incorporation of student feedback vital. According to Rodriguez, MSI is crucial to the retention and survival of students of color on Occidental’s campus. At a March 18 garden party hosted by the Coalition at Oxy for Diversity and Equity, Rodriguez shared concerns of the possibility of moving the focus of MSI from social justice issues to leadership or STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Rodriguez also expressed a concern that Thompson, as both interim dean and MSI co-director, will be overworked. Her own experience working in the program gave her insight into the demanding nature of his position.
“Being MSI coordinator is an extremely exhausting job because it is their job to ensure a safe and successful experience while exploring topics that may be triggering,” Rodriguez said via email.
Rodriguez said that the rushed planning of MSI this year, with Thompson appointed less than a month ago, indicates that the administration is not adequately prioritizing the program and fears that this may detract from its success. MSI’s directors do not share Rodriguez’s concerns. According to Grady — who has been preparing for the program since the fall — he and Thompson are on track in their planning and are following their set timeline.
Thompson and Grady will be hosting a town hall April 19 to educate the community on MSI and address any questions that people may have — an opportunity for students to become more informed about the program.
“This [will] be an opportunity for the students to share what they need from MSI co-directors based on previous years and enable Thompson to prepare for such a tough task,” Rodriguez said via email.
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