Occidental was envisioned by its Presbyterian founders as a liberal-arts oasis in the middle of the growing Los Angeles community. After it was founded in 1887, the school tried to put roots down in various neighborhoods across the city before settling down in 1912 to begin permanent construction on a campus in Eagle Rock. The school cut its Presbyterian church-ties in 1910 and almost succeeded in 1912 in cutting ties with female students when new Occidental president John Willis Baer announced his intention to make the school all-male. But students staged a successful protest to keep the ladies, and thus began Occidental’s long history of practically-mandated inclusion and tolerance.
The first three buildings at the Eagle Rock campus were ready to be dedicated in time to celebrate the school’s 25th anniversary in 1914. Not too long after, the student body suffered losses to the front lines of World Wars I and II. Occidental’s liberal character was sparked by national student unrest during the late 1960s—but unlike some schools for whom the Kent State protests were just a phase, Occidental has kept the student-positive, socially liberal spirit alive ever since.
When Occidental moved to Eagle Rock in 1914, its leaders had a vision for the campus that’s still (mostly) seen on campus today. The Quad, where squirrels and students both come to enjoy a shady spot beneath old oak trees, is at the campus’ center, and on its perimeter are some of Oxy’s most central structures, including classrooms Fowler Hall and Johnson Hall, the Herrick Chapel, the Mary Norton Clapp Library, Thorne Hall (where most large school events—including commencement—are held), and the Johnson Student Center. These buildings all retain the original Oxy style, a combination of late 19th-century Beaux-Arts Parisian elegance and a breezier Mediterranean feel, with shaded open walkways and tiled roofs. Myron Hunt, who designed Pasadena’s Rose Bowl Stadium, was responsible for the Oxy architecture in the early 20th century.
Eleven residential colleges and various dorms sit east of the Quad, constructed in the same style as the Quad buildings, as do a number of newer science and lab facilities. A duo of theaters—the smaller, more intimate Keck and the larger, outdoor Remsen Bird Hillside Theater (built in the style of ancient Greek amphitheaters)—are in the far northeastern corner of campus. Some newer administrative and residential buildings, notably the Arthur G. Coons Administration Building, throw the old-Oxy style out the window with a more postmodern look, all boxy glass and sharp steel angles. The far western side of campus houses Oxy’s large athletic centers, including Bell Field, Patterson Field & Bill Henry Track, and Rush Gym.
The Oxy “bubble” is sandwiched between the cities of Los Angeles and Pasadena. The small size of the school makes it less of a dominant force on either town’s landscape compared to larger nearby state schools, but students report enjoying the quiet collegiate atmosphere the campus manages to maintain between these urban centers. For most day-to-day activities, students stick close to their school, but they’re happy to escape on weekends and check out the nightlife in nearby Hollywood. The unique location also gives Oxy students the advantage of LA’s resources—guest speakers, easy access to major city amenities, and a short ride to the beach—without the hassle of living downtown.
Because different is OK at Oxy, students feel comfortable splitting off and observing their own traditions at school. But school spirit is strong, and students also enjoy coming together as a community. Despite its small size and hippie reputation, Oxy has a large number of athletic teams and individual sports enthusiasts, and a majority of students turn out to support their alma mater at football and men’s basketball games. The usual slate of themed and social dances and parties is open to all students and gives them a chance to pull their silly costumes out of storage—including Homecoming festivities, the Toga Party, the Doctors and Nurses Party, Sex on the Beach Dance, Apollo Night, and the Halloween Dance. Students are unusually supportive of each other’s extracurricular performances and fill the seats for dance and performance groups’ productions. And with such a socially engaged student body, the calendar is equally stacked with events to raise awareness and funds for a variety of causes. Students joke that every week comes with a different theme—“Save Darfur Week,” for example, or “Asian-Pacific Islander Week.”
Steve Coll (1980) is a Pulitizer Prize-winning journalist and former managing editor of the Washington Post.
Terry Gilliam (1962) is a comedian and member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus troupe.
Jack Kemp (1957) is a former pro football player, U.S. Congressman, and 1996 Republican vice-presidential candidate.
Carrie Vaughn (1995) is an American science-fiction writer and author of the Kitty Norville series.
Patt Morrison (unknown) is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and NPR contributor.
Barack Obama (presidential candidate) and Luke Wilson (actor) (didn’t graduate) both spent part of their college careers at Occidental before transferring.
Oxy’s Tigers have a large presence on their small campus. 21 varsity teams enlist the skills of 25 percent of the student body. The Tigers were one of five founding schools in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and compete in Division III play. Its basketball, cross country, and football teams have enjoyed divisional success in the recent past, and two new sports for the ladies, lacrosse and golf, were added at the end of the 2008 season.
Men and women’s club rugby teams regularly draw a large crowd for their competitive matches. With its diverse club and intercollegiate offerings, many students sign on with one of the sub-varsity teams. Men and women’s lacrosse, men’s volleyball, scuba, karate, crew, and men and women’s ultimate Frisbee teams participate in a variety of matches, from serious inter-school rivalries to pickup games on campus.
Barack Obama got his college career started at Occidental College before he transferred to Columbia.
The novel Absurdistan takes place at a school uncannily like Occidental—its name is “Accidental College.”
Occidental has a longstanding reputation for producing a large number of dentists.
Its proximity to Hollywood and picturesque campus make Occidental the “college campus” in dozens of movies, including Real Geniuses, Cluelesss, Don’t Be A Menace in South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood, Jurassic Park III, Orange County, The Holiday, and Made of Honor, as well as TV shows like Dragnet, The West Wing, Monk, Criminal Minds, and Beverly Hills 90210.
Freshmen are required to live on campus, but even after that first-year experience, a majority chooses to stay in one of Oxy’s 11 student-run, co-ed dorms for their entire college careers. The halls, though beautiful, are small, each housing no more than 155 students apiece. The halls provide space for Oxy’s numerous themed-living areas as well as place to socialize and organize off-campus trips and activities.
The eleven dorms are: