New Student Engagement Assistants help bring community to first years

Noel Lee/The Occidental

Occidental introduced a new opportunity for student employment this spring, hiring 32 students into Student Engagement Assistant (SEA) positions, according to Director of Disability Services and Student Support Luci Masredjian. Masredjian said Occidental created the position to help first-year students meet more upperclassmen and form interpersonal connections. According to Masredjian, students embraced the project with enthusiasm and approximately 60 applications were submitted. Masredjian said each SEA is assigned to an individual Cultural Studies Program (CSP) class and works with the students to build community, social connections and college activity outside of academics.

According to Masredjian, the SEA position was created following the success of CORE 95, “Building your Academic Skills: Strategies for Academic Success and Finding Home at Oxy,” which was introduced following a survey conducted during the Fall 2020 semester to gauge students’ experiences and concerns during distanced learning. Masredjian said the first-year class reported the highest level of concern about lacking a sense of community on the fall survey, so the college created the CORE 95 course to help increase the sense of belonging among first-year students.

The CORE 95 course received positive feedback from students and the new SEA position — adapted to provide peer and social support — is the continuation of the effort to increase the sense of belonging first years have at Occidental, according to Masredjian.

“We thought, ‘Okay, if faculty and staff can create this opportunity for students, imagine how much more we could do if it was a peer who was in that role to build community,’” Masredjian said.

Daviona Moore (senior), a SEA for CSP 72, “From Black Panthers to Black Lives Matter: Black Women in Social Movements,” said she was one of the students who inspired the new position after she helped with some of CORE 95’s programming and offered subsequent support to faculty.

Moore said students hired into SEA positions have been enthusiastic about their new role. According to Moore, SEAs have been given flexibility to allow them to shape their role to fit the needs of the students in their CSPs. Masredjian said students and faculty are still gauging the success of the new position at this early stage and so far the position is receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback.

Maddie Solomon (junior),* a SEA for CSP 73, “My Self(ie): Reflections on Life in the Digital Age,” said she’s had success in one-on-one interactions which help students get comfortable with each other. According to Solomon, a barrier to student engagement is simply getting them excited about virtual social events.

“Moving forward, we’re just going to have to work to find ways to engage students when people are really Zoom fatigued,” Solomon said.

Moore said her new position has given her the opportunity to utilize community-building skills she had previously used as a resident advisor (RA) and she was really enjoying engaging with first-year students again. Moore said she saw her role as being a facilitator for the first-year students and she wanted to empower them to have a hand in shaping the role.

“I hope that this role continues next semester, whether it is remote or if it’s in person,” Moore said. “I feel in person, this type of role is still helpful, it still holds value.”

Moore also said she recommends other students apply for the position if the opportunity remains in the future, especially for students who are interested in leadership, organizing and mentoring.

Anita Zachary, professor of “From Black Panthers to Black Lives Matter: Black Women in Social Movements,” said having peer support to introduce first-year students to the community is important.

“Hopefully [the SEA program] will give [first years] an opportunity to experience college life outside of academia,” Zachary said. “I think that’s a really vital and important component of the college experience too.”

Zachary said she is largely taking a backseat, wanting Moore to exercise agency over how she approached the position and was focusing on keeping it somewhat removed from the academic experience. She said it is more difficult to gauge how students are doing off-campus, and the SEA position is another step toward adjusting to remote learning.

Zachary said the potential future of the program would depend on the housing situation, and she would consider if the position would remain necessary when RAs are able to fill their traditional roles in campus life again.

If there is positive feedback from students at the end of the semester, there will likely be support to continue the position into future semesters, Masredjian said.

“We’ll do some assessment at the end of the semester, and I do think that there’s nothing more important than students feeling a sense of belonging at Oxy,” Masredjian said.

*Maddie Solomon is a former staff writer for The Occidental