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Eight Students Selected for 2023-24 Barack Obama Scholars Program

The 2023-24 cohort of Obama Scholars posing on the steps of AGC

Occidental College has announced its 2023-24 cohort of Barack Obama Scholars, the prestigious leadership training program that seeks to empower exceptional students committed to the public good.

Obama Scholars, who can pursue any field of study Occidental offers, are selected on the basis of a strong record of academic achievement and a demonstrated commitment to the public good, with an emphasis on first-generation students, veterans, and community college transfers.

The eight 2023-24 Obama Scholars are sophomores and juniors who come from across the country and around the world, half of whom are first-generation students. They represent a wide range of academic majors, from history and geology to diplomacy and world affairs and psychology.

During the academic year, participants are enrolled in the Obama Scholars Seminar in addition to their regular class schedule. All are mentored by Obama Scholars faculty advisors and members of the Advisory Council, and participate in networking and leadership development opportunities with partner organizations.

All Scholars will participate in a fully-funded 10-week summer program of experiential learning and leadership training. Scholars who enter as sophomores will also receive a second summer of funding for an independent internship, research project, or community service opportunity. All Scholars will receive up to $10,000 in postgraduate funding to launch their career in support of the public good.

The 2023-24 Barack Obama Scholars are: 

Melany Bennett '24 , a diplomacy and world affairs major from Los Angeles and a non-traditional transfer student from Los Angeles City College awarded a Jack Kent Cooke transfer scholarship in 2022. Raised in Tampico, Mexico, Melany is the founder of the nonprofit Tampico Project to help create pathways for students in her hometown to access educational opportunities and cultural enrichment programs in the liberal arts. At Occidental, she serves as the student representative of the Board of Trustees' Institutional Advancement and Communications Committee and has joined the Young Initiative on the Global Political Economy team. After graduation, she plans to get a master's degree and pursue a career in the U.S. State Department in public diplomacy, specializing in Latin America.  

Raul Cruz Robinson '25, a psychology and Spanish double major from Brooklyn, N.Y., who is committed to empowering younger generations to fight gentrification in metropolitan cities and improve the quality of life in underserved neighborhoods and areas. Through his work with NYCFC, the professional soccer team, Raul contributed to several community initiatives, including writing monthly newsletters to spread awareness about political issues and serving as a soccer coach who combined the sport with education about the importance of voting. Raul hopes to be a mentor and role model for those that have aspirations of creating meaningful social change. After graduation, he plans to continue assisting and advocating for underserved communities in Los Angeles as well as in Brooklyn.

Yenni Guadalupe Gonzalez Salinas '25, a first-generation college student from Nashville, Tenn., majoring in history with a minor in Latino/a and Latin American studies. As a daughter of immigrants, Yenni is committed to dismantling the systems that perpetuate worker exploitation. As an intern in the Nashville District Attorney’s Office, Yenni empowered Spanish-speaking victims and witnesses through the criminal court system and connected them to victim compensation and mental health resources. On campus, Yenni is a Comparte coordinator who assists Occidental’s cleaning staff with improving their English speaking and writing skills through weekly classes and serves as an equity ambassador at the Intercultural Community Center (ICC). After graduation, Yenni plans to attend law school.

Raja Bella Hicks '25, a diplomacy and world affairs major from Salt Lake City. Coming from a multicultural background, she is deeply interested in creating more equitable communities–specifically for immigrants and refugees. In her hometown, Raja served as the diversity, equity, and inclusion intern at Zions Bancorp and as her high school’s Rotary International Service director. On campus, she teaches community art classes at OxyArts and is an Upward Bound mentor. Off campus, she has volunteered on Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass’ campaign to elect the first female mayor of Los Angeles. After Oxy, Raja plans to attend law school or earn a master's degree in international affairs. 

Joy Mopeli '25 , a diplomacy and world affairs major with a double minor in urban and environmental policy and public health from Lesotho. Joy is committed to advancing anti-poverty efforts in Africa and the African diaspora by working in international development and promoting intercultural knowledge exchanges. Joy has worked on diverse community development initiatives, including researching indigenous African agricultural practices, campaigning for climate protection policy, tutoring at the Baylor Clinic in Eswatini, and interning for Sentebale, which provides medical and social welfare support for young people living with HIV/AIDS in southern Africa. At Oxy, Joy currently holds leadership positions in the Black Students Alliance and is serving as a resident advisor, an ICC equity ambassador, and a program assistant with the Young Initiative. She hopes to pursue a career in global health.

Francesca Romero '25 , a first-generation diplomacy and world affairs major with minors in politics and Latino/a & Latin American studies from Walnut Creek. She is committed to making the legal system more equitable for underrepresented and low-income communities. Francesca is a LEDA Career Fellow, Jose F. Silva ‘84 Memorial Scholarship recipient, and a mentor in Oxy’s Upward Bound program. She has served as a housing intern for the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, is currently secretary of Oxy’s National Society of Leadership and Success, and is a member of the Latinx Student Union and Oxy Law Society. After graduation, she plans to attend law school and work with community-based organizations.

Jessie Salinas '25 , a first-generation geology major from Phoenix. He is passionate about improving the representation of the Hispanic community in policy decisions as well as conserving the natural environment for future generations. An Eagle Scout, he has held leadership positions in various student organizations on campus, including YorkConnection, Oxy Club Soccer, COSMOS Scholars, and Oxy Fishing Club. Jessie plans on interning for the Urban and Environmental Policy program on campus this upcoming summer. He hopes to pursue a master's degree in geology after graduation and aspires to be an archaeologist and activist.

Matthew Vickers ‘25 , is a diplomacy and world affairs major and English minor from Kōloa, Hawai’i, who is committed to improving housing access and equity. As a student researcher, Matthew studied the works of Trinidadian thinker C.L.R. James and his influence on 20th-century Marxist movements, the historiography of the Haitian Revolution, and Caribbean politics. He is chair of Oxy’s Young Democratic Socialists of America and has volunteered for various organizations and campaigns. He writes for the student newspaper The Occidental and is a student-athlete on Oxy's cross country and track and field teams. After graduation, Matthew plans to pursue a Ph.D. in political science.