Receiving an email that I would be traveling 2,000 miles away from home to Oxy’s Multicultural Summer Institute (MSI) seemed scary at first: I had to leave my family for a month before even starting my first year of college. When I stepped foot into Wylie Hall, where we would be staying for the month, I didn’t expect that summer to create the foundation of my college experience — but it did. MSI was the perfect way for me to jump into college because it allowed me to experience the college environment before other first years, learn more about the institution I am now attending and build community. It was the building block of my college experience and I would not trade it for anything else.
The MSI is a summer experience hosted by the Intercultural Community Center (ICC) for a small number of first-year students who are interested in social justice issues. It provides students with the opportunity to live on campus, take a 4-unit summer course that counts towards the US Diversity core requirement with a 1-unit course continuation in the fall, go to workshops about different campus resources and most importantly, meet new people.
Our summer course was called “Imagining the Future,” and it was taught by English and Black Studies professor James Ford and English professor Leila Neti. It examined how time provides a crucial framework for how we imagine the future with discussions about Afrofuturism and queer futurity among other topics. It was an intensive, semester-long course condensed into four weeks. I felt overwhelmed at the time because the class was faster than it would have been during the semester, but I thought, “If I can do it now, then I can definitely do it later.” Going into my courses in the fall semester, I felt prepared to take on the challenges of a college workload.
After class, we had official class discussions about lessons with our teaching assistants (TA), which allowed us to reflect on and bring up our own experiences. Something I often talked about was how the course connected to my life as a first-generation, low-income student who also happened to be an immigrant — I moved to the United States with my mami and younger brother when I was in second grade, after being born in the Dominican Republic and living there for six years. All of us in the MSI program engaged in conversations about social justice, which allowed me to reevaluate my expectations of college.
Since I live in a predominantly Hispanic and African American community in New Jersey, I expected college to be similar to the demographics and culture of my community. But Oxy is the first place where I have been surrounded by this many white people. At the time, I didn’t realize that feeling like an “other” at predominantly white institutions (PWI) is something that many students of color experience. I refused to let that happen to me. I wanted to feel a sense of pride in my identity, not alienation.
Through discussions with my peers during the program, I realized that communities of color are the kinds of places where I feel like I am at home. This is why I chose to live in the Multicultural Hall, also known as Pauley Hall. When every other space seems to be white-dominated, I enter Pauley and feel comfort. Pauley has felt more like my community back home than any other place on campus. After a month of hearing my peers’ stories and sharing my own, as well as going on trips that focused on social justice and community building, it was important for me to learn more about how going to a PWI would be a completely different experience for someone who is not a white American.
Our field trips during MSI were a very fun and informative aspect of the summer program. We went to The Getty Villa, Malibu Bluffs, Huntington Gardens, Olvera Street, Grand Central Market and The Last Bookstore. I personally enjoyed Olvera Street, because although it revolved around a different Hispanic culture than mine, it felt nice to hear people speaking Spanish again and learn about their culture. I also liked going to Grand Central Market because it was one of the first off-campus food places I tried in Los Angeles.
Field trips weren’t the only opportunity for us to relieve our stress. The program also focused on mindfulness and prioritizing mental health. As a result, we participated in “Collective Care” workshops which consisted of relaxing with sound baths, dancing and creating art.
My favorite, and what I feel is one of the most important aspects of MSI, was the social experience. Our three resident advisors (RA) during the summer helped the cohort bond by creating workshops that centered around community building. The month consisted of eating pizza, bracelet making, karaoke, ceramic mug painting, movies and games.
Through various activities, I was able to meet and get to know everyone in the program, and now some of them are my best friends in college. Living together for a month was the perfect way to get to know each other. It became an even stronger connection during the semester because most of us live in Pauley Hall, which has allowed us to see each other more often even during the school year. I also continue to engage with the ICC and its staff because of the connection I was able to build with them during the summer. I gained friendships from the program, but I now also have access to a network of other MSI alumni, the ICC staff and our RAs and TAs, among others.
My college experience would have been very different if I didn’t participate in the MSI program. The program provided me with an opportunity to reflect on my own experiences and how that would help me succeed in college. Summer programs are a perfect opportunity for students, especially if they are low income or first generation, to get an idea of how college works and how they can make the best out of their experience.