Science and social justice: Oakes College facilitates empowerment, encouragement, advancement, and equity

A deep commitment to social issues, support for underrepresented students in the sciences, and a commitment to exploring sensitive topics make Oakes College a “second home’’

Sofia and Louis
Sofia Johnston (Oakes ‘17, sociology and Louis Odiase (Oakes ‘19, business and economics) are part of the thriving student community at Oakes College. Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta
Oakes students outside
Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta

Harvey Milk was the first openly gay politician to hold office in California. Dolores Huerta is a Chicana activist within the California farmworker’s movement.

Stephen Biko died in the fight against apartheid in South Africa. The fiery speeches of Malcolm X ignited the civil rights movement.

It’s no coincidence that Oakes students named their residential houses after these and other leaders, who struggled for justice.

After all, Oakes is more than an academic college. It is a home away from home for those passionate about social justice issues. If you’re looking for proof, ask UC Santa Cruz alumna Carmen Perez, a longtime community organizer, activist, and a national co-chair of the Women’s March on Washington, who calls Oakes a formative influence.

“I did my growing up at UC Santa Cruz, and though I belonged to (Rachel Carson College), I was always chilling at Oakes!” she told the audience during her keynote remarks at Alumni Weekend in 2017. “Are there any Oakes folks in the crowd tonight?” The Oakes contingent let out a rousing response to the call.

Off the beaten path

Oakes has its own unique identity, which might have something to do with its physical location. Tucked away in the lower southwest corner of campus, Oakes College may be the most remote residential college on the heavily wooded, 2,000-acre campus. If you don’t have a specific reason to visit, you are unlikely to wind up there.

But it’s worth the walk. Once you get there, you’ll see distinctive architecture—flat-roofed structures covered in untreated, fireproof wooden shingles, wedged between gnarled oak trees. Planters full of succulents line the buildings. On sunny days, you will see students on the lower lawn, taking in stunning views of the Monterey Bay. The college is now home to 1,700 students.

This enclave, formerly known as College Seven, dates back to 1968, when a group of students from the Santa Cruz Black Liberation Front demanded the university administration dedicate the college to ethnic studies, with services for African American and other underrepresented students.

In 1972, the college was rededicated in honor of Roscoe and Margaret Oakes, who made a fortune from oil profits in Oklahoma. Having no children or other family, they left their entire estate to the San Francisco Community Foundation, an organization that pools funding to support philanthropic causes. The community foundation trustees gave a naming gift of $1.2 million to the college—the largest-ever contribution to UC Santa Cruz at that time.

College Seven’s provost, Dr. J. Herman Blake, impressed the foundation, and inspired generations of students, with his academic research and his vision for the college. Blake, a professor of sociology, devoted his career to advancing students from underrepresented background in higher education.

Blake’s views shaped Oakes College into a community dedicated to social justice and science studies. The emphasis on social justice would help create a cohort of active students. Oakes’s strong emphasis on science is part of that mission; the college promotes access among students underrepresented in the sciences and encourages them to pursue careers in the fields of engineering and technology.

Working for educational equity

Oakes Provost Regina Langhout continues to honor Blake’s legacy, overseeing programs that support Oakes students, especially those who are traditionally underrepresented at four-year universities. “My role as a provost is to do everything I can to work toward educational equity,” Langhout explains.

Langhout has launched programs to welcome newly admitted students as they acclimate to college life. Oakes has an ambassador program that connects Oakes alumni with incoming Oakes freshmen who grew up in the same hometowns. New students join a network of students from their region who can help with practical issues like traveling to campus, preparing for college, and adjusting to a new city.

Oakes also has a scientist in residence program, in keeping with the college’s commitment to access in STEM. Every year, a Ph.D. student in a STEM field lives in the Biko residential house and designs science-themed activities for students, including open labs, mentoring programs, and faculty and student dinners at the Oakes provost house, creating an environment in which undergraduates can be exposed to the many different science opportunities UC Santa Cruz has to offer.

Not every student event is quite so serious. This spring, for example, the college hosted the Oakes Drag Ball, a dance that brings queer, trans, and cisgender people together to celebrate fashion and music. The college also has a light-hearted and easy-to-remember call and response: “Oooooakes!”

Decoding the world

Like all colleges at UC Santa Cruz, Oakes has a core course that reflects its unique focus and identity. The reading list has a strong emphasis on diversity and social justice.

Students read authors including James Baldwin, Octavia Butler, Paolo Freire, and texts like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. The course takes a critical look at common narratives of identity, which affect how people view themselves. In the Oakes core course students learn about other narratives that are more accurate, or based in lived experiences. By comparing dominant views of identity to the alternative views, students practice examining the world around them and their place within it. The goal is to encourages students to critically engage with their surroundings.

“Literacy is more than being able to read,” Langhout said. “Literacy is being able to decode and deconstruct our world in order to improve it.”

Aside from engaging with literature to reconsider their places in the world, students learn how to achieve real change.

Oakes College provides a crash course in activism for students such as Sofia Johnston (Oakes ‘17, sociology), planning committee co-leader of this year’s Practical Activism conference. “It’s about creating dialogue and from there making change,” said Johnston.

The current political climate has added urgency to Oakes’s mission. After the 2016 presidential election, currents of uncertainty and fear ran throughout campus. In response, Oakes leadership and staff took a strong and unequivocal stance, pledging to do everything in their power to protect students and their right to education, Johnston said. The college also hosted open mic nights, called “solidarity tongues,” where members of Oakes would unite, speak, and support their peers.

Oakes makes a lasting impression on students. Johnston has decided to attend graduate school for counseling in order to become a student advisor at a university.

Aside from creating opportunities for student activists and leaders, and encouraging a sense of belonging, Oakes invites students to explore topics of race, class, and gender in an academic setting. This is an eye-opening and refreshing for students who did not have a chance to study these subjects in high school, said Louis Odiase (Oakes ‘19, business and economics).

By delving into these areas in a rigorous and respectful way, students develop close bonds with one another.

“I feel in place here,” Odiase said. “It’s like a second home.”