Dear Occidental College Community,
Thursday, Nov. 2, the Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC) Diversity and Equity Board (DEB) Senate Joint Committee of Academic Affairs will hold a town hall to address concerns surrounding the 2017 Multicultural Summer Institute (MSI) session. This joint committee will also release a report including qualitative data deriving from 30 interviews with MSI-affiliated professors, administrators, staff members, educational researchers and students in the following week. Several issues were made apparent as a result of our inquiry: poor hiring practices, lack of mental health resources, a disparate relationship between the curricular and co-curricular components and the lack of critical intergroup dialogue. The findings indicate that a reevaluation of the MSI program is necessary.
Founded in 1986, MSI is a four-week academic program serving approximately 50 incoming first-year students from a variety of ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds. MSI consists of an academic component and a co-curricular component, which together facilitate the acclimation of students of color into a predominately white institution (PWI). Professor Mary Christianakis states that “MSI used to be a deeply focused, accelerated program building on the many strengths of diverse students.” Professor Regina Freer adds that its mission “is to create a supportive cohort of students and get them acclimated to a diverse community. This cohort then is equipped to take on leadership and further the mission of the college around diversity and equity.” Christianakis notes that, “as it was described to the parents this summer, [MSI] was made to be a bridge or a remedial program which is wrong and creates a stereotype threat for students to imagine they are at MSI because they need a bridge from high school to college.” This conceptual framing of the program constructs a “deficit perspective” of the students enrolled in MSI, and contributes to its functional issues.
All students interviewed from the MSI summer session of 2017 expressed that the program did not provide appropriate programs or resources needed to address mental health. Alma Olavarria Gallegos (junior), who conducted research on Occidental programs for the Undergraduate Research Center, said in an interview, “It seems ridiculously simple that students of color will inevitably need to talk about mental health at a predominately white institution, particularly while they’re learning about the intense, heavy subjects we talk about in academia.” Co-curricular activities such as scavenger hunts, dodgeball, and field trips were implemented to the program while requests by the student staff for mental health programming were met with resistance from the professional staff. Many student staff suggested that the administrators believed student staff were asking for “group therapy.”
Several MSI students detailed their experiences and those of their peers which warrant deep concern, and further investigation into the lack of “counter-spaces” and mental health programming. An MSI Teaching Assistant said that students dealt with serious mental health issues due to the high workload, but the Co-Curricular Director of MSI responded to student staff concerns by saying “students are fine,” and that “they are just stressed because they are transitioning.” Despite the available research on the mental health of students of color in higher education, the program’s administration neither anticipated nor addressed mental health as a concern.
MSI currently suffers from a miscommunication between its academic and co-curricular divisions. This is evidenced by the absence of the program’s Engaging Reflections on Social Justice (ERSJ) component, which provided a “counter-space” for critical discussions surrounding systems of oppression and an opportunity to foster community amongst students. Several faculty members expressed concerns that the students chosen to lead these discussions were not provided with adequate training, which led to interpersonal conflicts. Faculty also mentioned that students would understandably invest more time in co-curricular components, affecting their academic performance. We are disappointed that the program’s leadership failed to either provide adequate training for students or hire qualified facilitators in order to improve ERSJs in MSI. It is necessary for students of color to be exposed to the critical language which will help them thrive, and it is the job of those running the program to preserve its social justice components without sacrificing academic rigor.
We recommend that the program undergoes a complete reevaluation by students, faculty and administration. Any attempt to reconstruct the program must include students, alumni and reciprocal dialogue — otherwise, it will be a failed attempt.
In closing, we would like to note that this Committee was designed to investigate and report for the sake of improving and continuing Occidental’s most highly regarded program, the Multicultural Summer Institute. This committee was not convened on behalf of individuals, nor designed to investigate specific individuals. Any concerns raised by this committee are reflective of qualitative analysis and data, not subjective stances. We write to honor the intentions and to preserve the integrity of a program proven to correlate with high retention and graduation rates at Occidental for students of color. We invite the entire Occidental Community to engage in critical discussion and attend our town hall on Thursday, Nov. 2, at 7:30 p.m. in the Johnson Global Forum.
Marcus Forbes, Diversity and Equity Board
Belen Moreno, ASOC Senate
Jagmit Dhami, Diversity and Equity Board
Ricardo Parada, ASOC Senate
Rachel Hayes, ASOC Senate
Jessica Rodriguez, Community Member