2023-24 Obama Scholars focus on community

Obama Scholars
Joy Mopeli (sophomore) photographed near Weingart Center at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Feb., 19, 2023. Alexia Lara/ The Occidental

Established in 2017, The Barack Obama Scholars Program provides mentorship for Occidental students to foster public service and leadership. Occidental’s 2023-24 cohort of Barack Obama Scholars is composed of Raul Cruz Robinson* (sophomore), Yenni Guadalupe Gonzalez Salinas (sophomore), Raja Bella Hicks (sophomore), Joy Mopeli (sophomore), Francesca Romero (sophomore), Jessie Salinas (sophomore), Matthew Vickers (sophomore) and Melany Bennett (junior), a transfer student.

Obama Scholars
Courtesy of Melany Bennett

Jennifer Locke, Occidental’s director of national and international fellowships and the Obama Scholars Program’s administrator, said that the program was re-envisioned in 2021 to support more students per year. She said that the program is two years long, and includes four semesters of the Obama Scholars seminar and two funded summers of experiential learning and leadership training.

According to the program’s website, scholars also have access to the Obama Scholars Advisory Counsel and receive up to $10,000 upon graduation to fund an additional research project, graduate school or to subsidize living expenses as they launch their careers.

Matthew Vickers photographed near Swan Hall at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Feb., 18, 2023. Alexia Lara/The Occidental

“We emphasize community building and skill sharing among the Scholars while also providing funding and mentorship for each individual’s unique path,” Locke said via email. “We encourage students from all majors and backgrounds to apply.”

Mopeli said the community focus sets the scholarship apart from other grant and fellowship opportunities on campus.

“There’s a lot of grants on campus that you can apply for to support project ideas,” Mopeli said. “I do like the Obama Scholars [Program] because you’re doing it amongst a cohort of peers so it feels like you have really good support in that way and so many people to learn from, but you also get that professional mentorship.”

Mopeli is a Diplomacy & World Affairs major and a double minor in Urban & Environmental Policy and public health. Drawing from her experiences working at the LA Black Worker CenterReady to Work and New Moon Jobs, a startup supporting long-term stability for refugees working in corporate America, Mopeli said she is interested in advocacy for racial equity, union protections, community development and interculturalism in her home country of Lesotho and in Southern Africa as a whole.

“I want to look at Southern Africa, and Lesotho specifically, foreign corporations’ impact on domestic labor rights and especially women’s [rights],” Mopeli said. “There’s a factory that’s quite close by to my house, and we don’t get environmental policy checkers.”

Mopeli said she is passionate about using technology for public good. She said she is particularly interested in how phone apps can share problem-solving techniques between grassroots organizations.

“I think solutions to our community programs are everywhere,” said Mopeli. “Someone surely around the world has faced that problem so surely there’s an answer elsewhere. I really believe in creating the mechanisms for that communication and for us to share those skills.”

Gonzalez Salinas said the community among scholars is a major benefit.

“You’re learning not only from the professors and the people who run the program… you also get the opportunity to learn and connect with your peers who you didn’t know might be interested in the same things,” Gonzales Salinas said. “That’s something really powerful that I think a lot of people overlook.”

Obama Scholars
Yenni Gonzalez (sophomore) photographed at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Feb., 19, 2023. Alexia Lara/ The Occidental

Gonzalez Salinas is a history and Spanish double major with a minor in Latino/a & Latin American Studies. A first generation college student originally from Nashville, Tennessee, she said she is a Comparte coordinator and an Equity Ambassador at the Intercultural Community Center. Gonzalez Salinas is also working to re-start the Student Labor Alliance, an organization advocating for college staff that was not restarted after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“One of the things that I really want to focus on throughout the Obama Scholars Program is figuring out how we can end worker exploitation, creating more resources for [our workers] for them to be treated better,” Gonzalez Salinas said. “I also want to empower our workers to believe they have strong voices that can advocate for themselves.”

Gonzalez Salinas plans to work for a union after graduation before attending law school, with the aim of becoming an assistant district attorney. According to Salinas, she worked in the Nashville District Attorney’s office last summer. She said the $10,000 post-graduation grant will make law school more feasible.

Cruz Robinson is a Spanish and Psychology double major. Originally from New York City, Cruz Robinson said he is a tour guide and member of the Black Student Alliance at Occidental.

“When I was in high school, I did a lot of community and volunteer work in New York City where being community is a very big part of the city’s culture. And that was something that I tapped into from a very young age,” Cruz Robinson said. “Reading about what they were looking for in applicants for the program seemed to coincide really well with what I do.”

Cruz Robinson said it was only as the deadline drew closer that he started feeling connected to the program, switched to the tab he kept open on his computer and finished the application.

“I see this scholarship mostly as a learning opportunity,” Cruz Robinson said. “I’m feeling blessed.”

Cruz Robinson said that seeing 2022-23 Obama Scholar Deandre Ortiz, who is also half Puerto Rican and half Black, inspired him to apply.

“Seeing him in the program made me realize that [being an Obama Scholar] is definitely achievable,” Cruz Robinson said. “It was nice to have someone who I could relate to on a deeper level to see in that position.”

The 2023-24 cohort of Obama Scholars bring a commitment to the public good and leadership.

“The program is a privilege to be a part of,” Gonzalez Salinas said. “It’s everything that one could ask for.”

Contact James Miller at jmiller4@oxy.edu

*Cruz Robinson is a translator for The Occidental.

This article was updated March 2 to include more information about Cruz Robinson.


  1. Such amazing students! Of these, I’ve only had the pleasure of meeting one: Yenni. But if they are anything like Yenni, wow! Yenni is smart, passionate, a force of nature, stubborn (in a good way), a true leader y tiene corazon (how do you say that in english?). I have never seen a student do so much for her community. I’m so proud of her and I have no doubt that she will continue to achieve great things.


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