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An Interview: January 2021 SOAR Experience

February 10, 2021

Tosh Phoenix ’23

  Trigger Warning: The COVID-19 pandemic as well as the January 2021 Capitol riots are referenced, but not discussed in extreme detail.

  This past January, I completed my second of three required  Winter Term projects at Oberlin. I participated in the SOAR program, which, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, was a two-day academic retreat offered to second-year students before their Spring semester. However, the SOAR program was expanded this academic year to support the current second-years – myself and my peers. The expanded version of the program occurred on Zoom throughout the month of January, for roughly 15-20 hours per week. Following the program, students had the opportunity to be matched with a micro-internship sponsor, meaning matched students would be working within a variety of professional fields for about 10-12 hours per week, from February – April. These students, along with students who may have self-secured their internships, would then be eligible to receive a one-time payment of $800. This is the SOAR program in a nutshell.

  Overall, I finished the SOAR program with academic, personal, and professional experiences that I did not have prior to the program. I genuinely tried to soak in as much knowledge as possible. However, Zoom fatigue is real and the pandemic is still a thing. Someone on Twitter - @FirstGentleman, to be exact, recently tweeted: “I was very happy that I have successfully managed to avoid covid for a year, but I am also exhausted from trying to avoid covid for a year.” That tweet hit deep for me, especially for someone who is actively trying to do her part in decreasing the spread of the virus. And to top it all off, the Capitol riots occurred during day two of SOAR.

  I decided to interview two students who participated in the SOAR program to hear more about their experiences. These students are Black women who had both similar and different experiences throughout the program. I will refer to them as E and Kay:

  For context, E will be double majoring in psychology and Africana studies and double minoring in music and theater; Kay will be majoring in biology and double minoring in chemistry and French. She’s also considering a global health concentration.

  For both interviewees, their favorite SOAR sessions were the ones facilitated by Dr. Vershawn Young, or Dr. vay, of the University of Waterloo and Dr. Temptaous McKoy of Bowie State University. Their session focused on the integration of code-meshing, which is the practice of combining standard English, which I have always known to be “talking white”, and other Englishes, like African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). E mentioned that despite the fact that she was not initially interested in the topic, she really enjoyed listening and engaging with their sessions, as their energies were “contagious”.  Additionally, Kay mentioned that the sessions exclusively for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) students, in which Dr. Zuleka Henderson and Dr. Ovita Williams of Columbia University facilitated workshops around centering and uplifting BIPOC voices in professional and academic spaces, particularly at Oberlin, was also her favorite. She said that this session, along with the former session, was “much more lively”.

  There were a few assignments that each SOAR participant had to complete by the end of the program. One of them is participating in one’s respective pitch team and eventually the competition, with the chance of winning a monetary prize! Throughout the SOAR program, students heard from a variety of keynote speakers and panelists about four complex problems: public health, climate change, gentrification, and refugee resettlement. Students then were placed in teams of about 7 to pitch a solution to one of the complex problems.

  E chose to tackle gentrification and had the opportunity to pick her own pitch team. E stated: “Out of all of the complex problems, that was the one that felt most relevant… and accessible”. In terms of working with her pitch team, she expressed how it was nice to work with a group of people that she already knew, but it also made her realize that it may not always be wise to work with friends. As a natural and “instinctive” leader, E was taken aback when one group member sort of claimed that role. “Despite the little hiccups,” E says, “... we worked pretty well with each other.”

  Kay, on the other hand, tackled refugee resettlement. “I, myself, am an immigrant. I could see people coming from my country [and] easily going through this. I could just relate to it more directly,” Kay expressed when asked about her complex problem choice. Further, she really enjoyed working with her group and on the topic. She stated that even if her team did not win, it was nice to get to meet people that she would not have talked to otherwise.

  I then asked both interviewees what balance looked like for them during the month of January, with “everything going on in the world” (I know – that has become such a buzz-phrase at this point.). For Kay, she was thankful that she didn’t have much academic or professional work to complete. Despite her mom wanting her to do stuff (*insert her laughter*), she was able to manage. But the program was still a lot for her at times and definitely found it difficult to focus more than half of the time. For E, however, life looked a bit different. As a Bonner Scholar, she spent her mornings volunteering at a virtual learning center. From there, she would grab lunch, then head straight to Zoom! Overall, E’s work life was going pretty well. However, she expressed the following: “As far as the mental health and everything else that was going on, it definitely was exhausting. I feel like SOAR kind of operated as if it was separate from the world.” Overall, E wishes that more consideration was given to individuals who may have been affected by the events at the Capitol on January 6th, 2021.

  Finally, I asked both interviewees to talk more about the ways in which they would change the SOAR program. E expanded on her previous statement: “There’s that – just doing more of a thorough check-in with students... [seeing] how we feel.” Additionally, she expressed that there were various times in which certain people took up too much space. For E, she felt as if these individuals were not aware of their privilege when making certain statements. If someone was there to interject and say something like, “Let’s think about it from this perspective”, that would have changed the trajectory of the conversation. For Kay, she felt as if a number of the sessions were redundant and/or not beneficial. She expressed that some of the material was targeted at students who did not have an academic plan. So for “someone who has been planning things since high school”, the programming was not always relevant to her. In the end, Kay emphasized that the best things that came out of the SOAR retreat were the BIPOC sessions, the pitch competition, the resume building, and the digital e-portfolio.

  My hope is that prospective students, current-first years, and others have a better understanding of the SOAR program as a whole, as well as the individual experiences of two, current second-years. Stay tuned for another interview later in the spring to hear more about the micro-internship experiences of BIPOC students!

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