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Obama Scholars Speaker Series

Former U.S Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson H’15 P’17, Head of Policy for WhatsApp and Messaging at Meta Jonathan Lee discuss Finding a Career in the Public Interest

On April 12, 2024 former U.S Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson H’15 P’17, Head of Policy for WhatsApp and Messaging at Meta Jonathan Lee discussed Finding a Career in the Public Interest at Union Station in Washington, D.C. A recording will be made available in May 2024. 

Jeh Johnson H’15 P’17
Jeh Johnson is a partner in the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, LLP, who in public life was Secretary of Homeland Security, General Counsel of the Department of Defense, General Counsel of the Department of the Air Force, and an Assistant United States Attorney in the Southern District of New York. In private life, in addition to practicing law, Johnson is on the board of directors of Lockheed Martin, U.S. Steel, MetLife, the Council on Foreign Relations, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City, and is a trustee of Columbia University. Johnson is a graduate of Morehouse College and Columbia Law School and the recipient of 13 honorary degrees, including Occidental College where he is a member of the Barack Obama Scholars Program advisory council.

Jonathan Lee
Jonathan is currently Head of Policy for WhatsApp and Messaging at Meta, where he helps develop and execute policy strategy and engagement across the world for the world’s largest private messaging services. Previously, Jonathan served as a U.S. government national security official at the Department of Homeland Security, National Security Council staff, and Department of Defense, and was a management consultant at McKinsey & Company.


Kristina Kvien '87 P'20 Discusses Modern Diplomacy as Obama Scholars Speaker

On October 21, 2022, Occidental College welcomed 2022 Obama Scholars Program Distinguished Speaker Kristina Kvien '87 P'20. She discussed her accomplished career in public service in a conversation with Larry Caldwell, Louise Gamble Professor in Political Science emeritus, and Igor Logvinenko, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs.

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Kristina Kvien ’87 P’20 joined the Department of State in 1992, rising to the Senior Foreign Service with the rank of Minister Counselor. Ms. Kvien served much of her career as an Economic Officer, focusing on trade, finance, investment, environment, science, technology and health.

Ms. Kvien has been nominated by President Biden to serve as Ambassador to the Republic of Armenia, if confirmed by the U.S. Senate. She served as Chargé d’Affaires, a.i. at U.S. Embassy Kyiv from January, 2020 – June, 2022. She arrived in Kyiv as Deputy Chief of Mission in May, 2019. From 2016 - 2019, Ms. Kvien served as Minister-Counselor for Economic Affairs at U.S. Embassy Paris, and from 2013 - 2016 as Economic Counselor at U.S. Embassy Bangkok. In both Paris and Bangkok, she served over one year as Acting DCM. Ms. Kvien served as Economic Counselor at U.S. Embassy London from 2010 - 2013. From 2008 - 2010, she was detailed to the National Security Council as Director for EU, Ukraine and Belarus affairs.

Ms. Kvien has also served at U.S. Embassy Moscow, the U.S. Mission to the EU in Brussels, and U.S. Embassy Manila. She worked at the State Department on EU and OECD issues in the Office of European and Regional Affairs, and on bilateral relations with Slovenia in the Central Europe Office.

Ms. Kvien holds a BA in political science from Occidental College and an MS in strategic studies from the U.S. Army War College.

Mentorship, Equity and Justice, and the Digital Divide

On October 22, 2021, during Homecoming and Family Weekend, President Elam welcomed Broderick Johnson, chair of the My Brother's Keeper Alliance Advisory Council and current EVP, Public Policy & EVP, Digital Equity for Comcast Corporation. They discussed mentorship, equity and justice, and the digital divide.

The U.S. Education System and the Impact of the Pandemic

On May 4, 2021, Occidental College was honored to be joined by a distinguished panel of education experts as they discussed the challenges facing our education system, the impact of the pandemic and how we move forward. 

It was a timely and robust discussion about the importance of liberal arts colleges like Oxy, the status of K-12 teachers and education, as well as opportunities and challenges upon all types of education due to the pandemic. The group also reflected on U.S. education policy outcomes during the Obama Administration, and with great candor expressed what went well, and what didn’t. You can view the full recording of the event below.

Dr. Lande Ajose '87, Senior Policy Advisor for Higher Education for Governor Gavin Newsom

Lande is responsible for developing and shaping the Governor’s higher education policy agenda, which is focused on protecting college affordability, preserving college access, and increasing system efficiency in order to meet the state’s need for a skilled and educated workforce. Prior to this appointment, she served as executive director of California Competes, a nonpartisan, nonprofit project that develops and advocates on behalf of policies to equitably boost California’s postsecondary degree attainment. Her experience in higher education spans college admissions at Vassar College, education and workforce development funding at the James Irvine Foundation, and research and evaluation at MDRC, where she managed a comprehensive evaluation of the Achieving the Dream Initiative. An ardent advocate for college affordability, in 2014 she was appointed to the California Student Aid Commission (CSAC) by Governor Jerry Brown and served as chair for two years until her resignation in May 2019. She has served on boards of the Institute of College Access and Success (TICAS), the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) and, until her appointment to the Governor’s office, she was a WASC Senior College and University Commissioner. She currently serves on the advisory committee for the Higher Education Policy Center at the Public Policy Institute of California and on the Board of Trustees at Occidental College. A graduate of Occidental, she earned her master’s degree from the School of Public Affairs at UCLA and holds a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was recently awarded an honorary doctorate from her alma mater.

Arne Duncan, Managing Partner, Chicago CRED

Secretary Duncan was U.S. Secretary of Education from January 2009 through December 2015 as part of the Obama Administration. Prior to joining the Obama Administration, Duncan served as chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools. From 2001 to 2008, Duncan won praise for uniting the city’s stakeholders behind an education agenda that included opening 100 new schools; expanding after-school, summer learning, early childhood, and college access programs; dramatically boosting the caliber of teachers; and building public-private partnerships around a variety of education initiatives.He currently leads Chicago CRED, a nonprofit trying to achieve a transformative reduction in gun violence in Chicago. He is also the managing partner at Emerson Collective, an organization dedicated to removing barriers so people can live to their full potential. Secretary Duncan graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1987, majoring in sociology. Duncan serves on the boards of: Ariel Capital Management, Aspen Institute, Communities in Schools, Lucas Museum, My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, National Association of Basketball Coaches, Pluralsight, Revolution Foods, Thrive-Chicago and Catapult Learning, LLC. He also serves as Co-chair of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.

Ted Mitchell, President of the American Council on Education and President Emeritus, Occidental College (1999-2005)

The American Council on Education (ACE) is the coordinating body for higher education institutions in the US. ACE’s work encompasses policy advocacy, program development, and research focusing on equity, access, and student achievement. Mitchell’s leadership of ACE and of the nation’s higher education sector is informed by a lifetime of work in higher education as a professor, dean, college president, trustee, and most recently, as US Under Secretary of Education in the Obama Administration. Mitchell also has deep experience in K-12 education, having served as CEO of the NewSchools Venture fund, a venture philanthropy investing in K-12 innovation to support low income students, schools, and communities and as the President of the California State Board of Education.

Valerie Jarrett

On February 11, 2021 Occidental College President Harry J. Elam, Jr. welcomed Obama Foundation President Valerie Jarrett to discuss her time with the Obama Administration, her own commitment to service, and her advice to students on how to create meaningful change.

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Ms. Jarrett was the Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama from 2009-2017, making her the longest serving senior advisor to a president in history. She oversaw the Offices of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs and Chaired the White House Council on Women and Girls. Ms. Jarrett is also a Senior Distinguished Fellow at The University of Chicago Law School. She is the author of the New York Times bestselling book Finding My Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward, published in April 2019. She serves as Board Chairman of Civic Nation, Co-Chair of The United State of Women and senior advisor to Attn. Jarrett also serves on the boards of Walgreens Boot Alliance, Inc., Lyft, Inc., 2U, Inc., Ariel Investments, Time’sUp, The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, The Innocence Project, Sesame Street Workshop, and the Economic Club of Chicago.

Ms. Jarrett has a background in both the public and private sectors. She served as the Chief Executive Officer of The Habitat Company in Chicago, the Commissioner of Planning and Development for the city of Chicago and Deputy Chief of Staff for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. She also served as the director of numerous corporate and not-for-profit boards including leadership roles as Chairman of the Board of the Chicago Stock Exchange, Chairman of the University of Chicago Medical Center Board of Trustees, Vice Chairman of the University of Chicago Board of Trustees, Director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and Chair of Chicago Transit Board. Ms. Jarrett has also received numerous awards and honorary degrees, including TIME’s “100 Most Influential People” Award.

Jarrett received her B.A. from Stanford University in 1978 and her J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School in 1981.

They were be joined by Obama Scholars Advisory Council Co-chair Sara El-Amine ’07 , a progressive senior strategist who was one of the architects of the Obama grassroots movement. She is currently Head of Community Engagement at Lyft, where she oversees driver, passenger, and local non-profit engagement for the company.

This event was free and open to the Occidental community.


“How Art Inspires Social Change”

Occidental College President and American theater scholar Harry J. Elam, Jr. moderated a panel of distinguished artists and advocates to discuss “How Art Inspires Social Change” on October 24 as part of the Barack Obama Scholars Program Speaker Series.

The webinar, which can be seen here, featured Bob Johnson ‘77, Los Angeles entertainment attorney and producer; actor, director and writer Roger Guenveur Smith ’77; and Meldia Yesayan, director of Oxy Arts, Occidental’s multi-disciplinary arts initiative. 

Elam is one of the foremost scholars of American theater generally and African American theater specifically, and has had an award-winning career as a professional theater director for more than 25 years. A graduate of Harvard, he earned his doctorate in the dramatic arts at UC Berkeley and is the author and co-editor of seven books, including the award-winning The Past as Present in the Drama of August Wilson (University of Michigan Press, 2006). He is a member of the College of Fellows of the American Theatre and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Bob “BJ” Johnson is a Los Angeles-based entertainment attorney and civic activist. A former senior music executive with Atlantic Records, his law practice includes representation of prominent musicians, film and television talent, athletes, and visual artists. In addition to practicing law, he is a Peabody Award-winning film producer with Spike Lee. A political science major at Occidental, he served as student body president and co-editor-in-chief of The Occidental, the student newspaper. Johnson is a graduate of UCLA School of Law and UCLA’s Anderson School of Management.

Award-winning actor, playwright and director Roger Guenveur Smith’s first play was his senior honors project in American Studies at Oxy, titled “An Evening With Frederick Douglass.” His Obie-winning solo show “A Huey P. Newton Story” was turned into a Peabody-winning telefilm by Spike Lee. Smith's recent screen credits have been inspired by such figures as Rosa Parks (Behind the Movement) and Nat Turner (The Birth of a Nation). He and Lee were honored at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival for their eclectic body of work, which includes the classic Do The Right Thing, for which Smith created the stuttering hero "Smiley."

As director of Oxy Arts, Yesayan oversees programming and development, including organizing all exhibitions and programs at the Oxy Arts Center, facilitating visiting artist residencies such as the Wanlass Artist-in-Residence program, initiating cross-departmental and interdisciplinary collaborations, and creating opportunities for student-curated events. She is also responsible for developing meaningful relationships with Los Angeles arts communities, including partnerships with local arts agencies, artists and institutions. She received a JD and BA from UCLA and a certificate in Art Appraisal Studies from NYU.

Joe Solmonese

Joe Solmonese is CEO of the 2020 Democratic National Convention Committee and former president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). HRC played a key role in lobbying for the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ the U.S. military policy that banned openly gay, bisexual and lesbian personnel that was signed into law in 2010 by President Barack Obama '83.

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February 27, 2020, 3:30 p.m.

Prior to his March 2019 appointment as convention CEO, Solmonese served as a partner at the corporate consulting firm of Gavin/Solmonese. He leads the firm's corporate and nonprofit engagement practice located in New York and Washington, D.C. and is a member of the Obama Scholars Advisory Council at Occidental.

Before forming Gavin/Solmonese, he served as president of the HRC and as CEO of EMILY’s List – one of the nation’s largest political action committees. His work at HRC included championing the discriminatory Federal Marriage Amendment defeat in 2006, passage of marriage equality laws in eight states, the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

This event was free and open to the Occidental community, in addition to being livestreamed.

Ben Rhodes

Ben Rhodes is former deputy national security advisor to President Barack Obama '83 and a leading voice on politics and foreign affairs. He is a regular contributor to NBC News and MSNBC.

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April 18, 2019, 4:30 p.m.

Rhodes spoke about his new memoir The World As It Is - a revealing behind-the-scenes account of Obama's presidency—and how idealism can confront harsh reality and still survive. Rhodes served as deputy national security advisor to President Barack Obama for eight years, overseeing the administration’s national security communications, public diplomacy, global engagement programming and speechwriting.

Prior to joining the Obama administration, Rhodes served as a senior speechwriter and foreign policy advisor to the Obama campaign. Before joining then–Senator Obama’s campaign, he worked for former Rep. Lee Hamilton from 2002 to 2007. He was the co-author, with Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, of Without Precedent: The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission. A native New Yorker, Rhodes has a BA from Rice University and an MFA from New York University.

This event was free and open to the Occidental community. It was livestreamed via

David Plouffe

David Plouffe is former campaign manager and White House Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama ’83 and the current policy and advocacy chief for The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. 

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October 19, 2018, 2 p.m.

Plouffe’s talk "High Stakes: Breaking Down the 2018 Midterm Elections" examined the possible outcomes of the first midterm election of the Trump presidency, with control of the House and even the Senate in play. Plouffe leads the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s policy and advocacy team. For more than 25 years, David has developed strategies to bring people together around common causes. He has held senior positions in government and the private sector including his role as manager of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.

David also served as White House Senior Advisor to President Obama and Chief Advisor at Uber Technologies, Inc, where he remains a member of the Board of Directors. He is a veteran of several congressional, gubernatorial and presidential campaigns and served as Executive Director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and senior staff member to Democratic leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives. He holds a BA from the University of Delaware and is the author of of the New York Times bestseller, The Audacity to Win.

This event was free and open to the Occidental community. It was livestreamed via