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Summer Leadership Program Prepares Students in Pursuit of the Public Good

A group of Obama scholars poses with Maya Soetoro-Ng in front of AGC

Through a series of leadership trainings and social events, a new cohort of Obama Scholars at Occidental develops skills and cohesion that will propel them through the College’s Obama Scholars Program.

As part of their involvement in the Barack Obama Scholars Program (OSP), eight Scholars from the 2023-24 cohort participate in a fully-funded, 10-week enrichment program the summer before their junior or senior year. This program provides leadership training as well as experiential learning in the form of an internship, community service project or independent research. Participants live on campus and attend regular events as a group.

This fall, during the academic year, Scholars enroll in the Obama Scholars Seminar in addition to their regular coursework. Through the seminar, which is more academic in nature, they are mentored by Obama Scholars faculty advisors and members of the Advisory Council. They also take part in networking and leadership development opportunities with partner organizations.

Launched in 2017, the Obama Scholars Program honors the legacy of Occidental’s most famous alumnus, President Barack Obama. Funded through philanthropic support, this scholarship program provides a comprehensive experience for exceptional students of all backgrounds.

The program has allowed me to realize that positive impact can come in many forms of service. This has been grounding me as I begin to think of career paths—understanding that there are multiple ways to work in the public good.”

     —Raja Bella Hicks ’25

Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Candace Mixon is the faculty mentor and programmer for the summer program. Her role, she says, is to help the students build as a cohort, really getting to know and trust each other. To that end, some of the events are social, including attending a Dodgers game on Pride Night and going bowling.

The cohort also meets weekly for leadership programming, which empowers the Scholars in their commitment to the public good. The events offer diversity in perspectives and connect the Scholars with alumni and other individuals in many fields, all pursuing the public good.

“I brought together judges, formerly incarcerated persons, and people working in healthcare, immigration law and environmental justice,” Mixon says. “We want the students to see different kinds of leadership that they might not have even thought about yet.”

Raja Bella Hicks ’25, a diplomacy and world affairs major from Salt Lake City, has spent the summer interning for the British General Consulate in the role of the policy, press and public affairs intern. There she is supporting the consulate’s role to maintain and develop ties between the United Kingdom and the United States.

“The [Obama Scholars summer] program has allowed me to realize that positive impact can come in many forms of service,” Hicks says. “This has been grounding me as I begin to think of career paths—understanding that there are multiple ways to work in the public good.”

Mixon worked to involve the expertise of Occidental young alumni in the summer’s events, and was able to bring in Richard Reyes ’12 of the PLUS ME Project and Krissy Leahy ’11, MPH, who talked about increasing inclusivity in healthcare settings.

“Bringing alumni back is wonderful because students can really get an idea of where they are and what might be possible in 10 years, 15 years or further down the line,” Mixon explains.

Maya Soetoro-Ng gives a lecture at a lectern in Choi Auditorium
Guest speaker Maya Soetoro-Ng from the Obama Foundation talks with Occidental students on July 12 in Choi Auditorium.

OSP brought Maya Soetoro-Ng to campus on July 11 and 12 to meet with the Scholars as a cohort and to give a public lecture titled “Peaceful Resilient Futures.” Soetoro-Ng, Obama's half-sister, talked about the ways that inner peace and mindfulness connect to one’s leadership capabilities, and discussed her work in climate justice.

Other events this summer include a values clarification workshop, a meeting with former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson P'17 and guest lectures on the topics of immigration reform, restorative justice in action and how the liberal arts inform art and social change. There is also a practical workshop with the staff of the Hameetman Career Center, where students dig in to resume writing and crafting personal narratives.

“As Scholars, we have been introduced to a whole new network of folks that can advance our careers in the public sector,” Hicks explains. “I am excited to see us all continue to grow and make connections. I would love to use my opportunity as a Scholar to dive into my passions and help others.”

As the students have grown more comfortable, Mixon says, she’s learned much more about their backgrounds, which is enriching. “I’m truly inspired by them each time they share and whenever we connect with different speakers at our events,” she says.

Hicks adds that as a transfer student, the program has helped her grow in her community at Oxy “I’ve also learned how a good leader sustains themselves and continues to inspire change; the secret is to take time for yourself! I’m excited to grow as a leader and work towards a career in the public good, no matter what that looks like in the future.”

Top image: Clockwise from top left, Matthew Vickers, Melany Bennett, Maya Soetoro-Ng, Jessie Salinas, Raul Cruz Robinson, Joy Mopeli, Yenni Guadalupe Gonzalez Salinas, Candace Mixon, Francesca Romero, and Raja Bella Hicks.