MVP on a quest to improve diversity and inclusion

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The Johnson Student Center bell tower recommences ringing at Occidental College in Los Angeles, on Friday, Oct. 20, 2017. Jesse Leclere/Occidental College
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Conversations about classroom sizes and questions of campus culture filled the Academic Quad April 7, as hundreds of admitted students met and mingled for Admitted Student’s Day. Of them, 32 were hosted by current students for the Multicultural Visit Program (MVP), an Office of Admissions diversity initiative that invites students from marginalized groups to stay on campus for the weekend and immerse themselves in campus life. MVP students visit the campus for free; the college pays for their airplane tickets and travel expenses.

Last weekend was the first of two spring sessions of the MVP program. According to Bria Blassingame (sophomore), Admissions Office diversity initiative intern, around the same number of students will attend the second session which takes place April 12–14.

Another MVP session occurs in the fall semester, just before the early decision deadline Nov. 15. According to Desi Rosas (first year), who participated in the Fall 2016 program, MVP allowed her to have a more extensive view of the college before deciding to commit.

Vince Cuseo, vice president of enrollment and dean of admission, described the itinerary of the MVP visit.

“The students arrive on Thursday and then spend much of Friday participating in our grand-scale admitted student reception day so they take advantage of both special, collective events as MVPers but also participate in the class visits, information sessions, along with other admitted students,” Cuseo said. “They spend two overnights and return home on Saturday morning.”

Cuseo said that MVP is one of the Admissions Office’s main efforts to contribute to Occidental’s commitment to diversity.

“The program is directly in line with Oxy’s equity efforts and is firmly rooted in our mission statement,” Cuseo said. “MVP in its multiple iterations over the years has helped transform the student body and is a critical component of our overall enrollment effort.”

OVER 20 YEARS OF VISITING STUDENTS

Cuseo said that although he is not sure exactly when MVP began, he knows the program has existed for at least 20 years.

“I can say for certain the MVP program existed in my first year working [at] Occidental in the spring of 2000, and I know it existed for some time before then,” Cuseo said.

Many colleges have adopted fly-in programs to increase representation and diversity. A comprehensive list made by College Green Light features more than 90 different schools that pay for minority students to come visit their campuses.

“I can’t say Oxy was the first college to initiate a fly-in program for underrepresented students, but it certainly was among the initial set of colleges to make such a commitment,” Cuseo said.

According to Cuseo, MVP started out as only one yearly session in April.

“We expanded it to two consecutive weekends to serve admitted students whose schedules might have precluded them from making the dates of the lone program,” Cuseo said.

The fall program was later added so that MVP could be used to encourage more students to apply, Cuseo said.

Cuseo provided statistics that show the spring program has a high rate of success in convincing students to commit. According to Cuseo, over the past four years, 314 prospective students have attended the spring MVP sessions.

“Of those 314 students, 113 committed to Oxy,” Cuseo said. “This is a 35 percent conversion rate, which is on average 15 percent higher than our regular conversion rate for admitted students.”

PLANNING AND PREPPING FOR THE PROSPECTIVES

Blassingame and Pablo Saleta (junior) are the two diversity initiative interns in the Admissions Office. One of their roles for the internship is to help the office plan and successfully execute MVP. Blassingame said that she applied for the job because she attended the MVP program as a prospective student.

“I was a member of MVP when I came to Oxy,” Blassingame said. “And then when I was looking for an academic job I wanted something that would help bring more marginalized students to campus and it seemed like a really good fit.”

Blassingame said that she was surprised by how much responsibility the admissions office gives to interns in the planning process.

“We do a lot of the work. I think more than I ever thought I would as a student,” Blassingame said. “Not in a bad way, just how typically those type of programs you’re like ‘Oh okay, let’s staple some papers,’ but we really are involved in coordinating.”

According to Blassingame, the hardest part of organizing MVP is finding students who are willing to host the MVP participants. She said that she and Saleta use many methods to find hosts, including asking their friends, communicating with cultural club leaders and student government organizations as well as sending campus-wide emails.

“Every semester, it’s really difficult to find people who are not only representative of the diversity of the community, but who are also interested in hosting, who are available for the times that we need them,” Blassingame said. “It’s a really intense job, and I think if there was more visibility for the program and an understanding of how important it is, that would maybe change.”

Blassingame and Saleta said that first years who attended MVP make up the majority of the hosts, as the experience is still fresh in their minds.

“First years are actually a huge portion of the people who end up hosting,” Blassingame said.” We love them. God bless the first years.”

After finding host students, Blassingame and Saleta match them with prospective students based on their similarities.

“What’s really important is geographic location, academic interests, extracurricular interests, ethnicity and race,” Saleta said. “If there’s any particular need for housing — so like queer students get queer housing — they can request it.”

Blassingame and Saleta also organize activities for the MVP students during their stay. According to Saleta, they find current students to participate in two panel-style presentations for the MVP attendees. The panels focus on specific academic aspects such as senior comprehensive projects and more generally, student life on campus.

According to Saleta, the interns also organize and accompany the students on a trip to The Broad Museum and Clifton’s Cafeteria, a historic restaurant that was featured in the Green Book, a guidebook published during the time of the Jim Crow laws that informed African-American travelers of safe places to eat and stay. Blassingame said that this is one of many times that she and Saleta are with the MVP participants during their visit.

“We spend a lot of time interacting with them and making sure that they have a good experience,” Blassingame said. “We’re almost always there, even if someone else is in charge.”

According to Blassingame, aside from the trip into Los Angeles, the MVP participants are not allowed to leave campus. The interns organize a board game night for the visitors and compile a list of events happening at nighttime on campus. This year, the list included an Office of Student Life-sponsored screening of the acclaimed animated movie “Coco,” an exhibition by student dance team Hyper Xpressions and an electronic music workshop for women and non-binary people held by Oxy Arts.

According to Cuseo, Maricela Martinez, senior associate dean and director of transfer admission and inclusion, is the primary administrative organizer of MVP.

“She works closely with other staff — Everett Nelor, admission counselor, Michelle Naito-Lo, assistant dean of admission, and Cris Cambiancia, admission counselor — as well as our diversity initiatives student interns,” Cuseo said. “Many hands are ultimately involved in the process, from arranging flights to picking up the prospective students at airports.”

THE MVP EXPERIENCE: PAST AND PRESENT

Gabriela Gonzalez (first year) said that it was a big deal for her to consider a school so far away from her home in New York City, so she appreciated that MVP made it possible for her to visit and make sure it was a good fit.

“I think one of the most obvious things it does is give prospective students the opportunity to visit campus, because I was flown out here and it was completely paid for, and that’s not something I could have done without MVP,” Gonzalez said.

Once she was on campus, Gonzalez said the program gave her confidence that Occidental offered an environment where people of color (POC) could thrive.

“High school was challenging in terms of my identity and it was important to me that Oxy wouldn’t repeat that experience,” Gonzalez said. “MVP kind of confirmed that this was a place where I did have resources and where I could be a student and go about my life and not necessarily be so overwhelmed.”

Isaiah Zarco (first year) participated in MVP last year and hosted an MVP prospective student last weekend.

“I really liked it,” Zarco said. “What I liked about it was I came to Oxy and I was able to see a bunch of POC, considering I’m POC, and it was really welcoming and really nice.”

Zarco said that when he came to campus on August 2017 to start his first semester, he was surprised at how much less diverse the college was compared to how it had appeared during MVP. He said that he recognized that Occidental is more diverse than many comparable small, liberal arts colleges, but still found it hard to transition from his majority Latinx high school in Chicago to a campus where over half the student body is white.

“The thing that MVP does very well at is showing you the diverse side of Oxy, but I feel like what it really sucks at is it doesn’t really show you the rest of the campus and how white it also is,” Zarco said.

According to Zarco, MVP could be improved if it better prepared its participants for Occidental’s lack of diversity by having more prospective students stay in dorms other than Pauley Hall, the multicultural dorm on campus.

Rosas, who hosted a student in the fall and last weekend, says the program has both pros and cons.

“After I got to Oxy, and did the program, I definitely saw the difference between how many people of color and how much of a multicultural influence on campus I thought there was versus the actuality of it,” Rosas said. “But at the same time, now, compared to when I first got here, I have found a good sense of community between the people of color on campus. I think I needed time when I first got here to find those spheres of community.”

Rosas said that the MVP program emphasizes the diversity at Occidental, which she noted is more diverse than many other colleges. In a College Access Index published by the New York Times, Occidental ranks 20 in the most economically diverse top colleges.

“I think MVP just highlights [diversity] a lot more than when you first get here as one of several hundred first years,” Rosas said. “At that point, it’s up to you to figure out where these communities are and put yourselves in that sphere.”

Blassingame said that MVP contributes to Occidental’s principle of diversity.

“I think MVP is a really important part of Oxy’s overall mission of bringing diversity to campus,” Blassingame said. “I think that it’s really a matter of putting their money where their mouth is — literally they spend hundreds of dollars on these flights and on bringing these kids into L.A. and into Oxy, because they really believe that they want these kids to feel represented at the school and understand that they are priority.”