In a Nov. 13 campus-wide email, Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Rob Flot announced that the Office of Student Life (OSL) and Office of Community Engagement (OCE) will be combined into a single office in the coming months. Ella Turenne, who is currently the assistant dean for community engagement, will lead the new joint department, according to Flot’s email.
“After careful review and consideration, keeping in mind how we can best serve our students, we have decided to begin the process of merging OSL and OCE into a single organization,” Flot said via email. “I strongly believe that as a combined group, current programs will be enhanced, new programs will emerge, and the scope of services will be more inclusive of the current needs of our students.”
According to Turenne, she first introduced the idea for the restructuring following the announcement that Tamara Himmelstein, the former assistant dean of students and director of student life, was leaving the OSL for an assistant director role in Occidental’s Office of Institutional Advancement. Turenne said she met with Erica O’Neal Howard, senior associate dean of students, following Himmelstein’s departure to discuss possibly taking on some of OSL’s responsibilities in addition to her work in the OCE. During that conversation, Turenne said she brought up the idea of merging the two offices and later gathered feedback on the possible merger from students who work closely with both the OSL and OCE.
“The merger of OSL and OCE made a lot of sense. We had some staff accepting new positions elsewhere and decided that two offices which offer so many opportunities for students to connect with the Oxy community and beyond while also developing leadership skills could partner beautifully,” O’Neal Howard said via email.
Turenne assumed leadership of both offices the week of Nov. 11–18, according to Flot’s email. However, Flot’s email said the rest of the merger will occur in the coming months and he expects the new department to be finalized by the end of the spring semester.
The transition process will be gradual, according to Turenne. She said that no radical changes are expected since both offices are already both located in the Johnson Student Center (JSC).
Turenne said she wants to focus on three main goals with the new office: supporting student leadership, fostering social justice initiatives and skills, and creating a sense of belonging for the student body.
“We thought this was an opportunity to expand that and create an environment where students feel like Occidental belongs to them and is a space that supports them,” Turenne said. “These two offices have so many touch points with students, from the OCE helping students connect with community partners to the OSL being one of the very first offices students encounter besides the office of admissions.”
Christina Morton (sophomore) and Will Canavan (sophomore), who are both programming assistants in the OSL, said they, the other programming assistants and two professional staff in the OSL have recently discussed its mission and think that the merger presents an opportunity to refine it. When the programming assistants found out about the merger in an email from Turenne, Morton said some people weren’t familiar with Turenne and her role in the OCE. However, the programming assistants later met with Turenne in person to introduce themselves and discuss the merger, according to Morton.
“We knew this was going to be a transition semester almost, so there wasn’t a lot of pressure on the professional staff or us [the programming assistants], but I think the OCE merger made the most sense,” Morton said. “I think, this semester, we were trying to figure out what we wanted to do or be as an office, and the OCE, I feel like, was a good way to give us some direction again.”
Canavan said the recent departure of three of the five professional OSL staff — Himmelstein, Diego Silva, former assistant director for student life, student activities and Greek life and Amy Hill, former assistant director of student life — made the chain of command confusing throughout this semester. Canavan said he’s excited for the potential collaboration presented by the merger and hopes that OSL will be able to engage the Eagle Rock community with some of their events.
“I think it’ll be refreshing to have new leadership and it’ll be a really interesting time to see, to kind of redefine the missions of both offices and see how they can work more in conjunction. Previously, that’s something we’ve tried to do but it just hasn’t come together as well,” Canavan said. “I’m also excited because OCE does a lot more volunteer work and getting out into LA, and I think getting students involved in LA beyond just sightseeing and getting driven to the beach could be really positive.”
Both Canavan and Morton said the OSL has thought extensively about creating a stronger sense of belonging within the Occidental community, and are excited that Turenne’s goals include this aspect. Canavan said that he has observed some students who feel very connected to their peers, but not as much with the institution.
“The sense of belonging is definitely something we’ve wanted to work on and that I hope we’ll continue to work on. The divide between loving the institution and loving the people who go here is definitely real, because as a student and someone who works in the OSL I see the differences,” Canavan said.
Turenne said she wants to continue getting student input moving forward and plans to meet with student groups, such as the Diversity & Equity Board and Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC) Senate, both of whom she has already met with. ASOC President Jacques Lesure — who has already met with Turenne — said he was excited about the potential provided by the merger.
“I believe that the OSL and OCE merger has immense potential for the College to support students in ways that it has not shown a commitment to previously,” Lesure said via email. “When introduced to the idea, I immediately became excited about the opportunity to reimagine our campus both structurally and spatially, with the end goal of supporting and nurturing all students.”
Turenne said any students who have thoughts on the new joint office should feel welcome to talk with her.