The phrase “urban oasis” is often used to characterize Occidental, and in many ways it’s an apt description of the liberal arts college situated on 120 acres in Los Angeles, just eight miles northeast of downtown. Students stroll about in nearly perpetual summertime and do their reading sprawled on the grass by the quad; classes often migrate outdoors. And yet insofar as “oasis” conjures a disconnect from the world beyond, it’s misleading; Oxy students and faculty are deeply involved in wider cultural and civic life.
Oxy graduates are rightfully proud of their intellectually rigorous and broad liberal arts education, and will tell you that the work here is highly demanding. Current students love to gripe—and alumni, to brag—about the comprehensive exams or theses that all twenty-nine majors require prior to graduation. And yet learning at Oxy is far from a harsh and competitive exercise; with a student-to-faculty ratio of ten to one, and a faculty as stirred by teaching as by their own research, it’s impossible not to get to know your professors on an individual level. Professors regularly mentor students who choose to embark on independent patterns of study, sponsor student research and grant applications, and hang out with students at barbecues or even invite them to holiday dinners. It’s learning in the truest sense, the sort that mingles lectures with life, and an education here inspires in students real intellectual curiosity—a majority of students go on to attend grad school, and they are highly competitive for national honors and awards (Occidental is one of the country’s top producers of student Fulbright Award winners).
At Oxy, professors knew me on a first-name basis. I had their home phone numbers and could call in the middle of the night, tell them I’m applying for this or that scholarship, last-minute, that I need a letter of recommendation. I developed this great relationship with the Bio chair; she didn’t say, ‘You’re an English major, you can’t do a research project on biodiversity.’ I went to a sustainability conference in Vietnam. None of my requests to do undergraduate research were ever turned down. —Libby Evans, ’06, English major
Diversity, in all its forms, is a fundamental value at Occidental, and its 1,846 person student body is one of the most racially, geographically, and socioeconomically diverse in the nation. In our increasingly interconnected world, intellectual muscle is most useful when combined with cultural and social literacy, and in this sense Oxy students learn much from each other. Roughly three quarters of students receive financial aid, and elite prep school graduates blend with those from inner-city public high schools. Almost every world religion is represented— more than a dozen Protestant denominations, plus Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs—and all are welcome to worship at the nondenominational Herrick Chapel. First-year students share a residence hall with the people in their core classes, and classroom discussions spill into the dorms. There is a feeling of community and camaraderie among students and a common desire to unite the intellect with the heart, theory with practice, to make a difference in the world.
Some eighty percent of students live on campus, while some upperclassmen choose to find housing nearby. Most venture out regularly into LA, on organized excursions or on their own, partaking in the endless panorama of music, theater, art, dance, food, nightlife, and culture. It’s a quick drive to the coast— to some of the most famous beaches in the world—or to the Angeles National Forest where students often go to hike and perhaps take a dip in the natural pools around Switzer Falls. Campus, all the while, remains as busy as ever: a quarter of students participate in twenty intercollegiate sports and hundreds more compete in intramural and club sports such as rugby, lacrosse, and Ultimate Frisbee. Some one hundred clubs sponsor all manner of events. Theaters on campus hum with student plays, dance productions, and concerts.
First-time visitors to the picturesque Occidental College campus may encounter déjà vu—the place seems perennially familiar. This makes sense given that Oxy has been a popular film and TV location for more than eighty years, beginning with MGM’s Cup of Fury in 1919. Its proximity to Hollywood and its unique and beautiful campus make Oxy a favorite of directors and location scouts. Students often drop by the shoots to watch the process unfold in front of their eyes—before seeing it again on-screen. You might recognize Occidental from such movies as (from old to new): m Horse Feathers (1932) with the Marx Brothers
- She Loves Me Not (1934) with Bing Crosby and Kitty Carlisle
- That Hagen Girl (1947) with Shirley Temple and Ronald Reagan
- Pat and Mike (1952) with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy
- The Tall Story (1960) with Jane Fonda and Anthony Perkins
- Midnight Madness (1980) with Michael J. Fox and Pee Wee Herman
- Real Genius (1985) with Val Kilmer
- For the Boys (1991) with Bette Midler and James Caan
- Clueless (1995) with Alicia Silverstone
- Jurassic Park 3 (2000)
- Orange County (2002) with Colin Hanks and Jack Black
- The Holiday (2006) with Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet, and Jack Black Or from such TV shows as The L Word, Dragnet, The West Wing, Charmed, and Beverly Hills 90210.
Occidental would echo that sentiment. Students at Oxy are encouraged to appreciate the innate value and joy in education, rather than seeing it as merely a precursor to future prestige. High school students might consider embracing a similar mindset. At least, know that if you choose to apply to Occidental, you will be evaluated as a unique participant in a wonderfully complex world. There is no universal yardstick by which to measure us all.
Oxy is a small, diverse, vibrant intellectual community, set in one of the most stimulating and creative cities in the world. The combination of its mission and location produce “an institution with intimate scale and infinite scope,” as former Oxy president Ted Mitchell describes it. Los Angeles serves at once as a playground and a laboratory for students and faculty, while campus remains alive with energy and activity. Students immerse themselves in a chosen discipline— and simultaneously receive wide liberal arts training that puts individual phenomena and ideas into context. They participate in a multitude of sports and clubs, conduct independent research, and study abroad all over the globe. It is a uniformly full and meaningful experience for most students. That said, no single college is right for everyone, and whoever is interested in Oxy is advised to come for a visit, if possible. Arrange with the Admissions Office for an overnight stay in the dorms, if you’d like, or just drop by and have a look around. Knock on doors, chat with students and professors, visit classes, lounge about on a bench with a book, and enjoy the sun.