Amid Successes, SOAR Fails to Deliver on Student Feedback

The Sophomore Opportunities and Academic Resources program was a series of highs and lows throughout January. I enjoyed several activities and sessions, and the team did a great job matching me with a micro-internship at the San Francisco Community Clinic Consortium. I’m passionate about equity and medical racism, and this position allows me to examine both from a more in-depth lens. The public health panel and other informative SOAR panels come to mind as especially helpful for a prospective pre-med student such as myself. I enjoyed the series of presentations on code-meshing from Vershawn Ashanti Young, and I even liked the BIPOC-only sessions led by Zuleka Henderson and Ovita Williams. It was helpful to have a community space where I could vent with those who had similar lived experiences to me. The theme here is that Black people make me happy. 

However, not all of my experiences with SOAR were positive. There were sessions and aspects of the program that my peers and I found troubling, and when I brought these issues up with administrators, they did not seem to hear our concerns.

My story began when I noticed several problems and confusing aspects of the program, starting with the structure of the daily activities. There were small breaks at several points throughout each day, but they did very little to help alleviate the pain of being on Zoom for five hours each day. As a student with family obligations and work aside from SOAR to deal with, it was quite challenging to balance. I can only imagine how hard this balance was for students with a full-time job or a toxic home environment. 

Another concern of mine was that programming was not halted on the day of the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump. I felt this made a massive accessibility barrier for students most affected by Trump’s actions and the trial’s verdict. Some white people in charge of a Zoom session on that day merely alluded to “a lot of tension and concerning events” in the world. Students were then called upon to take a moment to breathe and decompress from all of these “events” they clearly did not want to refer to specifically. I appreciated the sentiment — while also rolling my eyes at their naivety — but I did not join them, and instead continued to track the trial. 

There was a point during a Zoom session where students had to design a “COVID-19 Vacation” in breakout rooms. This activity’s very concept was tone-deaf and confusing, considering how some students have been more deeply impacted by the virus than others. When a student questioned whether this was a vacation during COVID-19 or from COVID-19, a moderator said, “You can decide.” To this day, I don’t know who thought of this activity and how it got through any kind of quality control.

The final straw that prompted me to reach out to the Career Development Center was the gentrification panel. The information given by the panelists was not incorrect or offensive per se — my issue was with the identity of the presenters. I was shocked to see a 5:1 ratio of white to Black people speaking on the topic of gentrification. I shouldn’t have to explain what’s wrong with this, should I? I have no doubt the speakers were technically qualified to speak on this topic, and many spoke about doing work to combat gentrification for years. However, during the panel, many of my fellow students and I could not focus on these factors as the panel’s diversity ratio distracted from them. 

After this panel occurred, I scheduled a meeting with the Career Development Center to address my concerns. I was joined in this meeting by Evyn Lundy and Student Senate’s Race Relations and Equity Liaison Darielle Kennedy. I had also collected feedback from Véronique Harris and Kevin Lopez, who were unable to attend the meeting. 

When all was said and done, the meeting did not meet my expectations. Our conversation ended up being more focused on Oberlin’s previous work: referencing the racially-charged summer, and the College’s efforts to combat racism at that time. The Junior Practicum was cited as one such effort, in addition to the many other diverse panels during SOAR. I understood that the team working on all of this was still learning and their efforts were fresh, but that doesn’t excuse their oversight when it came to SOAR. I ended the meeting by stating that my colleagues and I would reach out later if anything more had to be discussed. 

That the response to my feedback was a list of other work the College was doing regarding equity was disconcerting to me. All told, the meeting’s tone had a very “We’re doing so much for ‘you people,’ what’s the matter?” vibe to it. While I don’t think that was the intention of those involved, it was still disappointing to confront. Soon after, Darielle reached out to me asking if she could help me draft an email outlining everything that went wrong in the meeting. We sent the email a few days later, once I was sure it expressed my concerns accurately. I am still waiting for a response.

After that interaction, I couldn’t help but think back to an article I wrote in the fall, “Being Black in a World of Darkness.” The entire exchange is another example of how members of the administration have often minimized the concerns of me and my colleagues. When the College was not doing enough work to consider student mental health last semester, I felt unheard. Now, instead of having my thoughts wholly considered, I’ve dealt with problematic implications and excuses as I tried to improve the SOAR experience. It is crucial that representatives of the College be more deliberate with their actions and intentional with listening. The pattern only grows more and more tiresome to go through.