Playing music with a green sensibility makes sense for Audras. He double-majored in viola at the USC Thornton School of Music and environmental studies at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. But there was a time when his passions for music and sustainability remained distinct, unrelated pursuits.
His view shifted when he learned about Climarte, an alliance of Australian organizations that seek art-based solutions to climate change. “It blew my mind,” he says. “I learned how art makes us feel impact more than data sets from scientists. Nature and art are not separate. They’re one and the same.”
Inspired, Audras launched a performance art series that draws on his artistic and scientific sides to engage others in the climate crisis. And he’s not the only Trojan who believes in the role of art in climate change awareness. Across the university, USC students are using self-expression and art to draw attention to the environment. They’re collaborating across disciplines and innovating their way to a better world, one community at a time.
Dance for the Planet
Audras returned to the U.S. from a study-abroad trip in Australia with a newfound appreciation for how art can share a powerful message. Then he heard about the USC Arts and Climate Collective. This new program offers USC students up to $1,000 to support arts and media projects that encourage a more sustainable future.
Boosted by funding, Audras joined up with student cellist and composer Quenton Blache, violinist and dance minor Elise Haukenes, and spoken word artist and communication major Charli Morachnick ’20 to launch The Resilience Project.
Imagine a blend of dance, music, poetry and climate action: They all meld together in nine performance pieces that address a different aspect of the climate crisis. The first piece, about electricity, features Morachnick’s spoken word poetry accompanied by original music and choreography. “Aside from the performance aspect, we will have an activist perspective, too,” says Audras, who plans an action campaign for people to post climate commitments, pledges and resources. The group also hopes to roll out eight more pieces in the coming months.
As an environmental studies student, Audras knows that systemic change must accompany individual change. But he believes in the power of community and connection to amplify The Resilience Project’s message. “All it takes is one person to be impacted. You don’t know what can grow from that,” he says. Watch the students’ first performance piece on Instagram here.
An Ocean in Danger
Gwenan Walker loves the ocean. The biology major also fears for its future. In the coming decades, she knows its levels will rise and underwater denizens will have to adapt to warmer, more acidic seas — or face extinction. To raise awareness about these changes, she’s using her skills and knowledge outside biology. A visual artist, Walker is making an animated film about the oceans with support from the Arts and Climate Collective.
Walker’s film, The Voyager, takes place 100 years in the future and explores the troubling effects of climate change on marine ecosystems. When it’s done, she plans to address melting glaciers, rising sea levels, ocean acidification and shifting flood zones. “I feel like when you’re talking about issues like climate change, art is so important because it makes it accessible,” says the junior, who is completing a minor in animation.
For neighborhoods like Boyle Heights in Los Angeles, local histories are global histories. That’s why Arabella Delgado and Cassandra Flores-Montaño, doctoral candidates in USC Dornsife’s Department of American Studies and Ethnicity, decided to focus on the largely immigrant neighborhood to explore the impact of climate change. With a deep history of grassroots environmental activism, Boyle Heights can illuminate a global crisis.
Delgado and Flores-Montaño were inspired by Mothers of East Los Angeles/Madres del Este de Los Ángeles, a women’s organization dedicated to protecting their community from environmental danger. With funding from the Arts and Climate Collective, they launched Environmental (In)Justice and Climate Crisis in Boyle Heights, a research project to blend archival and current perspectives on activism. It will feature work from a local youth photographer capturing environmental change in her neighborhood. The creative vision of a young photographer will enrich community history and stories, placing historical and contemporary voices in conversation with one another, Delgado and Flores-Montaño say.
The project will be shown at Casa 0101 Theater in Boyle Heights and as an online exhibition through the Boyle Heights Museum in fall 2022.
The group supports all manner of initiatives that improve life on campus and off, but its members also benefit, often establishing lifelong friendships that continue long after they have graduated.
AS STORIED HISTORIES go, USC’s Helenes have a 100-year legacy of Trojan pride to draw on. The group was formed by Arabella De Oliviera Conger with her classmates, and they started as the Amazons. Inspired by Helen of Troy, they switched to their current name in 1969 and remain one of the oldest service organizations on campus.
As the official hostesses of the university, Helenes honor USC’s traditions through three pillars: service to the community, school spirit and sisterhood. To celebrate the group’s century of service, former members share how the Helenes changed their student life—and beyond.
When Kathryn Dullerud arrived at USC as a freshman from Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, she found college life in a big city a bit overwhelming. Remembering her service-oriented high school years, Dullerud’s sister, a fellow Trojan, thought joining the Helenes might help her find her footing. Soon, Dullerud was waking at sunrise to volunteer with the Helenes at the Los Angeles Food Bank.
Now a senior, Dullerud served a term as president and continues to dive into the organization’s volunteer activities at Community Services Unlimited/Expo Urban Mini Farm, 32nd Street School and Downtown Women’s Center.
“Not only do I have a deep love for USC, I wanted to continue the tradition of service I’d established in my youth.”
It was the Helenes’ volunteering opportunities like these that spoke to Alyson Kil ’10, MD ’14 too. “Not only do I have a deep love for USC, I wanted to continue the tradition of service I’d established in my youth,” Kil says. “Learning that the Helenes represent USC in greater Los Angeles and throughout the state was huge for me.”
L’Cena Brunskill Rice ’53, MA ’59 still has fond memories of the group’s service projects including organizing orientation programs. “To welcome international female students to the university, we’d take them to iconic Los Angeles sites—Griffith Park, the Natural History Museum and dinner at El Cholo, Los Angeles’ first Mexican restaurant.”
For Stephanie Paggi ’74, MS ’77, EdD ’90, joining the Helenes was a way of saying thank you to the university. “I was fortunate to have full tuition with an academic merit scholarship to USC,” she says. “Becoming involved in Helenes and participating in the volunteerism was my way of giving back.”
Before they were the Helenes, they were the Amazons. But no matter the year or the era, they are united by their pride in USC and the bonds they form. (Photo Courtesy of USC University Archives)
Attend a Trojan athletics event and cheers from the Helenes ring through the crowd. A huge sports fan, Kil signed up for every Gate Call, a lottery system for front row tickets. “My name was chosen for the Washington State game,” she remembers. “Not only did I have the privilege of sitting on the sidelines, but the Helenes helped the Trojan Knights guard the Victory Bell.” A bonus: “We crushed Washington State.”
One of Rice’s favorite activities was joining the Trojan Knights at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. “We’d arrive before the gates opened to set up card stunts at the 50-yard-line,” she remembers. “We didn’t win often during my first three years, so it was important to root the team on. It all paid off—we beat Wisconsin at the 1953 Rose Bowl.”
Since 2017, the Helenes have instituted a new tradition for UCLA football games: Hecuba Watch. “While the Trojan Knights are guarding the Tommy Trojan statue during Rivalry Week, we camp out in front of the Hecuba statue at USC Village and protect her 24/7 leading up to game day,” Dullerud says.
While attending a women’s awards program at school, Rice heard her name called. She’d been chosen to join the Amazons. “Someone nominated me,” she says of the surprise. Little did she know that she’d meet some of her lifelong friends through the group. Sixty-nine years after her introduction to the Helenes, Rice says, “There are at least 10 of us who continue to volunteer together at USC.” She counts this as one of the reasons she recommends joining the organization: “You’ll have friends for life.”
“I knew being a Helene would be life-changing. As a sisterhood with a strong pride for USC and an interest in service and leadership, the Helenes embodied my core values.”
Kil remembers facing stiff competition to become a Helene: Only one out of every four applicants is accepted. Passing a test about USC traditions and history with at least a 90% score is required. So is an interview with the executive board. It wasn’t until she walked into her dorm room and was greeted by a welcome poster that she learned she’d made the cut. “I knew being a Helene would be life-changing,” Kil says. “As a sisterhood with a strong pride for USC and an interest in service and leadership, the Helenes embodied my core values.”
Paggi’s fondest memory isn’t of a specific event, it’s about people. “The Helenes became my Trojan family,” she says. She connected with even more Trojans during alumni events where members helped host campus guests. “Being a Helene gives you unique and beneficial opportunities that form you as a person as you go forth into the future.”
Dullerud couldn’t agree more. “I found my USC family through the Helenes,” she says. “It’s a wonderful feeling to give back to an organization that has shaped and given so much to me. Especially in this year, our 100th, which is so important in the Helenes’ history.”
When then-USC senior Natalie Fung went on a trip with her friends to Las Vegas in Fall of 2013 to commemorate their last year of college, she had the next few months of her life all planned out. Slated to graduate early with a public relations degree, she had lined up a paid PR internship at Nickelodeon.
A car accident involving a drunk driver in Las Vegas changed not only her immediate plans, but the shape of the rest of her life. The crash left the Pasadena native a C5 quadriplegic: She was capable of some arm movement but was mostly paralyzed from the neck down.
“After my injury, I was kind of thrown backwards,” Fung said. “I had to move back home with my family, leave school, leave my job. There was a lot of learning how to take a step back and realize that even though everyone else might seem to be on this path, it’s okay I’m not on the same one.”
The next steps of her journey began immediately after the accident with months of intense physical therapy — and time coming to terms with her new way of living. Fung returned to USC Annenberg the following Spring, attending classes remotely with the help of Skype. She took one or two courses per semester over the next year and a half to complete her degree.
After officially graduating in Spring 2015, Fung knew that she wanted to eventually get her master’s degree. But first, she had to confront her own misconceptions about people with disabilities.
“When I was first injured, I really struggled with identifying as someone with a disability,” Fung said. “But then I started joining support groups and attended events for people in wheelchairs. I met a lot of amazing people who really helped me through learning this new life. I learned about the importance of having to advocate for yourself.”
In the world of public relations, Fung initially planned to focus on corporate social responsibility, but while working in PR for a spinal cord injury nonprofit following graduation, she knew she wanted to do more. She was hired part-time as a marketing contractor at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and joined the Rollettes, a wheelchair dance team based in Los Angeles. It was here that she reimagined her plans. Six years after earning her bachelor’s degree, Fung wanted to truly advocate for, and give back to, the disabled community.
With her background in PR, she decided to look for a secondary degree that was more technical. After learning about the master’s degree in communication data science, a joint program through USC Annenberg and USC Viterbi, she enrolled and started in Fall 2021. She found its interdisciplinary approach to be a perfect continuation of her education.
“There’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in most places now, but there’s still so many people with disabilities that are only included on the surface level,” she said. “So many companies say, ‘We want to invest in disability, but there’s no data.’ There’s that large disconnect, so hopefully I can help bridge that gap.”
Fung said that the program has not only shown her how great that disconnect is, but also how vital her focus of work will be.
Although she used to feel uncomfortable sharing her personal experiences with her own disabilities, Fung said she recognizes that her unique perspective can prompt important conversations, humanizing the statistics in an increasingly data-driven world.
“When there’s outliers in data, we’re taught to remove those or write something off as an anomaly,” Fung said. “But in reality, that just might be a single person doing things differently. People with disabilities — we don’t do things the same as the rest of the population, and it’s really important for companies to realize that the disabled population can’t be forgotten.”
A child star in the 1980s, he hit a dry patch and turned to stunt work in the 2000s. Now he has returned to acting in a part that blends his action and drama chops.
In the mid-1980s, Ke Huy Quan was in two of the decade’s biggest movies, playing Harrison Ford’s orphaned sidekick, Short Round, in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” and Data, a tech-obsessed inventor of various bully-beating devices, in the comedy “The Goonies.”
In March, Quan, now 51, returned to the big screen in “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” by the directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, a.k.a. Daniels. In “Everything,” Quan plays Waymond Wang, the mild-mannered husband of an embattled laundromat owner, played by Michelle Yeoh. But this is a multiverse picture, so Quan also plays two vastly different Waymonds: one, a martial arts master and universe-hopping warrior, the other, a lovelorn romantic lead who, in another time and place, let Yeoh’s character get away.
In many ways, Quan’s journey from “Indiana Jones” to “Everything” is nearly as unlikely and fantastical as Waymond Wang’s jumps through parallel worlds. At Quan’s home in the Woodland Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, over rib-eyes he cooked himself, he hit some of the high points of his career (including pool time with Ford), fanny pack wushu and lousy gigs that thankfully got away. These are edited excerpts from our conversation.
You were born in Saigon and entered a Hong Kong refugee camp when you were 7. How did you go from there to “Indiana Jones”?
We came to Los Angeles in 1979, and as fate would have it, in 1983, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were looking for a Chinese kid to star in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” They went to Hong Kong, Singapore, London, San Francisco, New York, and were about to give up when the casting director said they should give Chinatown a try.
So Spielberg and Lucas held an open casting call at our elementary school. My brother’s teacher thought he should audition, so I kind of tagged along, and as he was auditioning, I was coaching him about what to say and do. The casting director saw me and said, “Do you want to give it a try?” I thought I did horribly.
Did you even know who Harrison Ford was?
No. I didn’t see “Star Wars” or “Raiders of the Lost Ark” until after we finished the movie. But he was an amazing guy. So down-to-earth, so humble, and really generous as an actor. And he taught me how to swim. We were just hanging out at the swimming pool in Sri Lanka in our hotel, and he says, “Ke, do you know how to swim?” I didn’t, so he says, “Come on, I’ll teach you.”
A year later you’re in “The Goonies,” which was another big hit.
Yeah, that was another amazing adventure. But I didn’t grow up wanting to be an actor. As I got older, though, when I realized I wanted to do this, there were just not a lot of offers. When there was one, the role was very stereotypical, and you had every Asian in Hollywood fighting for it.
By the time I was in my early 20s, the phone had stopped ringing. And then my agent calls me: There’s this role. It was three lines, it was like a Viet Cong role. And I didn’t even get that.
Looking back at some of those roles, do you ever go, “Wow, I’m glad I dodged that bullet”?
Now, looking back, yes. But at that time, as an actor, all you want to do is work. Would I have done those roles that I auditioned for, if they were given to me? Who knows? But I decided to step away from acting. I didn’t want to give up this business, though, so I applied to U.S.C. film school, and luckily I got in.
You told them you were in “The Goonies,” right?
I certainly put it in my application.
What did you do after graduation?
I graduated in 1999, and I got a call from [the revered Hong Kong action director and choreographer] Corey Yuen, who invited me to Toronto to work [on the stunt choreography team] on a movie with him. I walk on set, and it was “X-Men.”
How does Corey Yuen get your number?
It’s a funny story. Many years before, he wanted me to do a movie for him in Hong Kong, as an actor. But at that time, I was contractually locked in to do a television show, so I turned him down. But we kept in touch over the years.
How did “Everything” come about?
I was working behind the camera in 2018, and this little movie called “Crazy Rich Asians” came out. I was so inspired by that movie, and the idea of me returning to my roots started percolating in my head.
So I call up an agent friend and said, “I’m thinking about getting back into acting, would you like to represent me?” And literally two weeks later, he calls and says, “There’s this movie written and directed by Daniels, and starring Michelle Yeoh. And there’s this role you may be right for, where you play her husband.” And I go, Oh, my gosh.
I auditioned the next day, and I thought I did a really good job. But I didn’t hear from them for two months. Just as I lost all hope, I got a call again, and they said, “We want to see you again.” And I thought I did really well on that second audition, but as I walked out, I saw another Asian actor waiting to read for the same role. He was taller, better looking, he looked like he just walked out of GQ magazine. I drove home, called my agent, and said, “Listen, man, I tried so hard, but I don’t think I’m going to get that role.”
Was he a famous actor? Anyone I would know?
I don’t remember. He was so good looking. So I didn’t think I was going to get it. But when my agent told me I got the role, I jumped so high. I was so happy.
It’s a nice comeback role for you.
Thank you. I loved every single minute of it. I remember the very first day of shooting: Jamie Lee Curtis is sitting in front of me, Michelle Yeoh is behind me, James Hong is to my left. For a brief moment, I had a panic attack. I go, These are all legends, what the hell am I doing here?
You have a pretty epic fight scene with a fanny pack.
The style of the fanny pack fight sequence is called wushu rope dart. I’ve done a lot of martial arts, but mostly, you know, with punches and kicks. But I trained really hard for that. I brought the fanny pack home with me, and I was constantly swinging it around in the house, breaking stuff. My wife was like, “Honey, can you practice outside?”
Michelle Yeoh has done a few martial arts films herself. Any pressure?
Michelle Yeoh is the frickin’ queen of martial arts movies. So I put a lot of pressure on myself. I didn’t want to disappoint her. And she was constantly helping me out, you know, making me feel at ease, because we were in a lot of the scenes together.
James Hong, who plays your father-in-law, has been in Hollywood forever. Did he treat you like a kid?
He’s 91, and he would walk on the set like a 20-something guy. His voice is so deep and loud and strong, and he loves to work. He has over 600 credits. On the last day of filming, he brought a bunch of photos of him from different movies and he was like, “Who wants an autographed picture?” Everybody raised their hand.
This seems like a pretty great role or three. Is there still a dream role for you out there?
I want to play many, many different roles that I didn’t get an opportunity to when I was younger. So I’m open to anything. When I first started out, I was often the only Asian face on the set. So now, to be able to walk on a set and see a lot of Asian faces, it’s really inspiring. It gives me a lot of hope.
Trojans secure justice for a civil rights advocate who was unable to practice law because of his race
Sei Fujii, who spent decades advocating for the civil rights of Asian immigrant, earned a law degree from USC in 1911. Yet the émigré was legally excluded from practicing law in the United States based on his race and place of birth in Japan.
On May 24, the California Supreme Court righted that wrong, unanimously granting Fujii his law license — 63 years after his death — citing Fujii’s “work in the face of prejudice and oppression” to “make our society more just.”
The court’s rare decision came courtesy of efforts by Sidney Kanazawa ’78 and a team of Trojans: Carole Fujita ’65, founding member of the Little Tokyo Historical Society and producer of the 2012 Sej Fujii film Lil Tokyo Reporter; the film’s director Jeffrey Gee Chin MFA ’16; and Japanese Bar Association President Mark Furuya ’05, along with lawyer Kimberly Nakamuru, a colleague of Kanazawa.
Kanazawa, a partner with McGuireWoods LLP in Los Angeles, and his team wrote the petition and filed the motion for the court to admit Fujii to the bar at the request of two of his firm’s clients, the Little Tokyo Historical Society and the Japanese American Bar Association.
Kanazawa and McGuireWoods agreed to take the pro bono case in 2014 because they saw parallels between developments in Fujii’s time and the political polarizations and divisive attitudes that have defined the country in recent years.
“What was done in [Fujii’s] time period is vital to what is happening today,” Kanazawa said.
Kanazawa and his team spent months conducting legal research and writing the motion, motivated not only by the courage of Fujii, but also by the strength of his longtime colleague J. Marion Wright, a 1913 USC graduate who worked with Fujii for decades.
A good partnership
To defend Japanese-Americans in court matters ranging from accidents to contracts, Fujii teamed up with Wright, who was a licensed attorney and a trusted advocate in Los Angeles’ Japanese community. Fujii was prohibited to practice law because, as an alien Asian (Fujii was born in Japan in 1882), he was ineligible for citizenship under federal law. Only “free white persons” and “persons of African descent” could be naturalized.
A landmark case that the two men took to the U.S. Supreme Court ended with the construction of a hospital serving the Japanese community in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of L.A. (Jordan v. Tashiro, 1928).
Following that victory, Fujii continued to work throughout the 1930s and ’40s on many fronts to assert the rights of immigrants in L.A. and to heal the divides between the cultures. He ran a radio program and published a bilingual newspaper, the California Japanese Daily News. Both outlets promoted the accomplishments of young Japanese-American citizens and warned the Japanese population of the gambling clubs in Little Tokyo and the gangsters that ran them.
After World War II when he was held in an internment camp in Santa Fe, N.M., Fujii set out to challenge the Alien Land Law of 1913, which prohibited aliens ineligible for citizenship from owning land in California. He bought a small piece of land, and when the state tried to confiscate the property, he fought the case to the California Supreme Court. In 1952, the court ruled the law unconstitutional (Fujii v. State of California). It ruled that the law’s real purpose had been to eliminate Japanese farming competition in the state and that the law violated the 14th Amendment.
Fujii became a U.S. citizen in 1954 at age 72. He died of a heart attack less than two months later.
A fundamental question
Six decades on, Kanazawa sees Fujii’s lifelong efforts to bring people together as exemplary for the law profession and as instructive for answering a fundamental question: What does it mean to be a lawyer?
“As lawyers in a free society we have a duty to remind people about our shared values,” he said. “Shaping how we get along and work together — that’s our job.”
Kanazawa, who is Japanese-American and comes from Honolulu, remembers finding that worldview in the people he met as a student at the USC Gould School of Law: former deans Dorothy Nelson ’56 and Scott Bice ’68, as well as Gordon Wright ’48, who mentored Kanazawa at Lillick McHose in L.A.
“What they taught was we can have differences, but if we respect each other, we can figure it out,” Kanazawa said.
Learning from the past
Meanwhile, the impact of Fujii’s posthumous bar admission is felt among the current crop of Japanese-American graduates at USC’s law school.
For Mike Mikawa ’17, who was briefly involved at the beginning of the effort to honor Fujii, it was a moment to celebrate. Mikawa’s maternal and paternal grandparents were among the 120,000 Japanese-Americans incarcerated during World War II. Learning their stories and visiting the internment camps were key to Mikawa’s decision to pursue a career in law.
“As a country, we should strive to continue learning from the injustices of our past so that we do not repeat them,” he said.
In August, at a celebration of Fujii’s admission to the bar, Kanazawa told the audience: “For me, the central message is not in how much courage it took for Fujii to stand up, but in how much courage it took for his friend and colleague J. Marion Wright to also stand up, when the entire nation wanted to lock us up because we looked like the enemy. It took courage for Wright to stand up for love in a sea of hate. I hope this honor reaffirms our commitment to love rather than hate.”
Doris Sung shares how she designs energy-saving windows
In the United States, buildings account for about 40 percent of all energy use, and heating and air conditioning makes up a 12 percent slice of that. If we could minimize how much sunlight heats up buildings through windows—and therefore lower air conditioning usage—it would be better for the planet. Unfortunately, current solutions, like Low-E glass, act like giant sunglasses and can disrupt sleep cycles and productivity, Doris Sung, an architect at the University of Southern California and co-founder of TBM Designs, says. In response to this problem, Sung, a Cooper Hewitt 2021 National Design Award winner, designed the InVert™ Self-Shading Window, which is composed of strands of fluttery pieces of a bendable metal.
“When the sun is directly hitting the pieces inside the window, they flip to block the sun from heating the interior. This effect shades the building from the sun, prevents solar heat gain and reduces the need for air conditioning,” she says.
The windows reduce air-conditioning usage by 25 percent and don’t require any energy or any controls to operate—just the sun’s rays. “For every 12-story building that uses InVert™, greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by approximately 360 metric tons of CO2,” Sung says.
In February, an exhibit featuring InVert™ technology—called sm[ART]box—will open on California State University, Long Beach’s campus; and another installation for a housing project in southern Los Angeles will open later in the year, too. Over the next couple of years, InVert™ technology will make its way across the nation—to a skylight for the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, a terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport and a luxury store.
The Asian Pacific Islander Faculty and Staff Association, or APIFSA, offers a space where USC faculty and staff can come together to address common concerns.
To Grace Ryu, the pain was like “suffering in a silo.”
That’s how the associate director of the East Asian Studies Center at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences describes the days following a mass shooting in Atlanta in March that targeted Asian women. The attack came a year into a pandemic that has been used to fuel anti-Asian hate.
Ryu wanted to do something, anything, about the shooting. She wanted a community where she could process anxiety, fight hatred and give others a safe place to find solace together.
She knew that dozens — if not hundreds — of Asian and Asian American faculty and staff work at USC, and many might want support. But they had no formal way of coming together.
Thanks to the commitment of staff organizers, though, that has changed. USC employees and educators now can come together through the new Asian Pacific Islander Faculty and Staff Association, or APIFSA.
APIFSA traces its origins to Ryu and Linda Truong, managing director of USC Libraries’ information technology group. Truong had heard from a former colleague that staff and faculty at UCLA had recently formed a group for Asian and Asian American employees. That gave her the idea to do the same at USC.
“Why can’t we give ourselves a collective voice and try to create change and awareness about our own community and the issues we struggle with?” Truong wondered.
She texted Ryu, and the two began to organize. Together, they reached out to as many people as they could and scheduled an initial Zoom meeting.
“I think a lot of people were surprised,” Ryu said.
Seeing a screen full of faculty and staff from multiple USC schools and offices confirmed the need for this type of organization, she added. Nearly 90 people attended its first meeting — and since then, the group has grown to 190 members.
USC’s new group for Asian faculty and staff creates ties across the university
The group has organized into six committees that tackle APIFSA’s mission. For example, the curriculum committee provides resources for faculty and administrators looking to diversify curricula. Another committee focuses on mentorship and professional development. And another seeks to build solidarity with other groups like the USC Black Staff & Faculty Caucus and the USC Latino Forum.
In August, the events committee set up a workshop with the Office of Threat Assessment and Management to discuss hate crimes targeting Asian and Asian Americans. Months after the Atlanta shooting, the event helped members feel more supported and empowered.
“To find out this office exists on campus and they were willing to schedule two workshops with APISFA, that is exactly what we want from the university,” Truong said.
Regardless of their committee, Osaki said, the members all work toward the same goal: to create a safe space where members can connect with like-minded people and have a voice to advocate on their behalf.
“It makes the university richer overall when diverse voices can be heard and can feel a sense of community,” he added. “APIFSA is an employee group that strives to meet our basic need for purpose and belonging.”
Truong and Ryu said USC’s focus on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives makes this an ideal time to start APIFSA. This group can help lead those efforts and ensure Asian and Asian American communities have a voice in the process.
“We need to have a venue or forum to discuss those interests that our individual departments aren’t talking about,” Truong said. Members can then raise issues to schools with a powerful, collective voice.
Computer science major, Youngju Shin, a member of the executive board for SC Esports, believes video games can bring people together.
Youngju Shin is passionate about esports, organized competitions where individual players or teams of players compete against one another in video games ranging from multiplayer battle arena games to reconstructions of physical sports.
“I love how inclusive the gaming community is. It’s a space where everyone is welcome and where there are so many ways to get involved,” said Shin, who’s a senior at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering majoring in computer science. “You can play casually with friends, you can watch gamer streams and competitions, or you can strive to compete at a really high level in esports tournaments.”
Shin serves as treasurer on the executive board of SC Esports, a recreational gaming organization on campus where both casual and competitive gamers can connect, socialize, and compete.
“I joined SC Esports my sophomore year, and I instantly loved it,” Shin said. “When you are new to campus, gaming and meeting people who game is a great way to find community and feel included.”
SC Esports was founded in 2009, and the club currently has around 35 members. For the casual gamer, SC Esports hosts weekly events where members can socialize and play their favorite multiplayer video games together. Students who want to compete more seriously can join one of the various esports teams within the club, which allow members to practice together and compete against other collegiate teams in video games like “League of Legends,” “Hearthstone,” and “Rocket League.”
As treasurer of SC Esports, Shin manages the club’s income and expenses, coordinates the collection of event payments and reimbursements, contributes to creating funding applications, and maintains communications with USC Viterbi.
On the executive board, she’s focused on coordinating weekly events and social mixers to help students get through online school and Zoom fatigue.
“Youngju’s welcoming aura and kind personality have made her an amazing fit for SC Esports,” said SC Esports president Ashley Kim. “Community is our organization’s most important key value, and she demonstrates this weekly within our events and on our Discord by socializing with members, new and old.” Discord is a group-chatting platform that allows the entire SC Esports community to connect.
Shin was introduced to video games by her two older brothers, Brian and Andrew, whom she admired throughout her childhood. Growing up in Georgia, Shin and her twin sister, Youngeun, loved to watch their brothers play games like “World of Warcraft” and “League of Legends.” Gaming quickly became a mutual interest that gave the siblings a way to relate, despite their significant age gap — Brian is 31 and Andrew 28, while Youngju and her sister are 21.
“Gaming has always been something that’s brought my siblings and me closer together. I was always pretty reserved and shy growing up, but gaming gave me an outlet where I could express myself, have fun, and meet new friends,” Shin said.
More than a decade later, gaming continues to a be passion for Shin. She’s never competed in any esports tournaments herself, but she loves to game more casually with friends. She especially enjoys “League of Legends,” a multiplayer online battle arena game played on a computer. In the game, two teams of five players each face off and engage in combat in an attempt to destroy the opposing team’s base while defending their own. Shin plays as the character Morgana, a powerful enchantress with glowing eyes and dark angel wings. Clad in deep purple, Morgana is a master of the dark arts, with the ability to cast cursed shadows and chains of dark, celestial fire upon her enemies, draining their health.
“I enjoy playing as Morgana because she aligns well with my playing style,” Shin said. “I like to play more aggressively, and I like how Morgana lets me poke down the health of enemy champions using her abilities. Predicting the other team’s moves is important as a Morgana player since she has the ability to shield and protect her teammates, which is another aspect of her character that I enjoy.”
Shin’s technological competence goes beyond just gaming. She’s currently working on building her own PC and mechanical keyboard from scratch. Shin also enjoys creating and experimenting with different programming projects in her free time. As a freshman, she competed in a 24-hour hackathon called Trojan Hacks, and her team received the award for “Best Freshman Hack.”
In the future, Shin says she’d love to work in software development for a gaming company, which she hopes could give her the chance to help others find comfort, fun, and community in the world of gaming, just as she has.
Creative writing PhD candidate Jean Chen Ho talks to Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen about her acclaimed first book, “Fiona and Jane,” and how her research into a violent event in Los Angeles history illuminates today’s spike in anti-Asian racism.
Jean Chen Ho, a student in the PhD in Creative Writing and Literature program at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, published her first novel, Fiona and Jane (Viking) in January to widespread critical acclaim.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: A lot of the hype we see is either about very famous older authors or soon-to-be famous younger authors, and you fall in between. Why did it take you so long?
Jean Chen Ho: I think it took me so long to actually start writing fiction because, honestly, I didn’t have very much to say. When I was in my 20s, I was too busy living my life. I didn’t have the wherewithal or the discipline at that point in my life to write a novel. I started my MFA in creative writing in my 30s. I wanted a way to continue my scholarly research, so I entered the PhD program in creative writing at USC Dornsife at age 35. The last six years have been a wonderful education and a really wonderful way to support my writing. I couldn’t have done it without USC Dornsife.
VTN: There are literally hundreds of master’s of fine arts in creative writing programs throughout the country, where you spend one to three years writing a creative thesis. But at USC Dornsife, we have a PhD program. Part of what’s unique about it is that you have to write a creative thesis and a critical thesis. The creative thesis is this book that’s just come out, Fiona and Jane.
JCH: This collection of 10 linked stories is about a span of 20 years in the friendship of two Taiwanese American women growing up in Southern California, how they grew apart and then, how in their 30s, come back together and have to figure out how to be friends again. Through this long friendship, the book explores identity, heartbreak, romance and sexuality.
VTN: The book is set in Southern California, so if you’ve lived or grown up here, you’ll recognize a lot of the landmarks.
JCH: I love L.A. I grew up in the suburbs of L.A. and I wanted to write about some of those places that I’ve seen and that I feel perhaps haven’t been represented in literary fiction.
VTN: You were one of the cool kids in high school, am I guessing right?
JCH: I went to an academically rigorous high school, touted as one of the top five public schools in California, and to be considered cool in that context was to be a very good student. I just wanted to hang out with my friends, that was what was cool to me. But I also took books very seriously from a young age. So, in some ways, I was also a big nerd.
VTN: There’s a wonderful way in which the stories you’ve woven out of your imagination are both very specific to a place and a people, but also resonate greatly beyond that. Here at USC Dornsife’s creative writing PhD program, you also have to write a critical thesis.
JCH: I have this wonderful opportunity here to do archival research in and around L.A. because the next book that I want to write is going to take place in the 19th century and is about the first Asian American pioneers to settle in Southern California. I’m writing about the formation of L.A.’s [original] Chinatown, where Union Station is today. Part of what I’m interested in is where history meets fiction and memoir — how what’s written by somebody of that time trickles down into what we take as historical record.
In October 1871, during a shootout between two Chinatown gangs over a woman, an errant bullet struck a white rancher. Because of fomenting anti-Asian sentiment, news spread that a Chinese gunslinger had shot a white rancher. An angry mob formed and 20 Chinese men and boys were lynched that night and dragged through the streets. There were convictions, but because of a clerical error, the men were released.
I’m researching how that story came to be told and asking questions about what can we take as truth. And what can we take as perhaps more of a poetic kind of truth when it comes to stories like these.
VTN: What we’re dealing with today is nothing like what they were dealing with in 1871. Look at L.A — L.A. would be gutted without its Asian American population. So, things have changed for the better, at least from an Asian American perspective. Yet we still see a persistence of anti-Asian violence throughout this country. What do you make of that?
JCH: We’ve been living through this pandemic era for the last two years. I think in moments of crisis like this, it’s easy to find a scapegoat. It’s disheartening. But I think that if we can look at it in the long-term historical context, it’s not new. This is part of the narrative of this country that needs a villain. Who that villain is often shifts at different times. Perhaps this is very optimistic or even naïve, but I think writing fiction about ordinary Asian American people and presenting them as fully human can perhaps shift some of that. By Susan Bell
The University of Southern California (USC) has named leading racial equity expert Dr. Shaun Harper university professor. Since 2017, Harper has been the provost professor in the USC Marshall School of Business and the USC Rossier School of Education.
“I am genuinely grateful that our president and provost chose to honor me in such an extraordinary way,” said Harper. “I am honestly amazed by the numerous ways that USC leaders and other members of the Trojan Family have appreciated my work and me over these past five years. I love this University, and am genuinely grateful for all the ways it loves me back.”
Harper, who teaches in the management and organization department at USC Marshall, is one of only three USC faculty members to be both a university professor and provost professor. He is also the Clifford and Betty Allen Chair in Urban Leadership and founder as well as executive director of the USC Race and Equity Center.
His research focuses on race, gender, and other dimensions of equity in organizational settings, including K-12 schools, colleges and universities, and corporations. In 2021, Harper was inducted into the National Academy of Education. He is also the immediate past president of the American Educational Research Association.
Sydney Kamlager ’14 wants to improve the lives of Black Californians by tackling inequality, especially in the criminal justice and housing fields.
When Sydney Kamlager discusses her family, the women take center stage.
Her grandmother was a political organizer for Harold Washington, the first Black mayor of Chicago; her mother was active in her actors’ union; and her great-great grandmother — “Gram,” to Kamlager — was born enslaved but later freed by President Abraham Lincoln.
“Gram was with us up until my third birthday. She had amazing stories of resilience, and she was someone who really demanded excellence. So, she instilled an incredibly strong work ethic in my mother, and she in turn shared that with me,” says Kamlager, who, after taking a break from her studies to pursue a career in public service, graduated from the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in political science.
Now representing California’s 30th District in the State Senate, Kamlager points out that her great-great grandmother’s legacy is not purely a personal one, nor is it one that has sunk back into the mists of time. She points to a bill she has introduced: ACA-3 would amend the state Constitution to prohibit all forms of slavery and involuntary servitude. Currently, the Constitution allows an exception when punishing a crime, meaning prisoners are not free to refuse to work while incarcerated. The bill serves as a reminder that enslavement and its effects did not end in the 19th, or even the 20th, century.
“I have a personal connection to slaves and to people who are former slaves, and I wanted to be able to talk about Gram’s life and elevate that in this discussion because I think folks say, ‘Oh, that happened 400 years ago.’ And I can say, ‘Maybe it did, but some of us can still remember family members who were not born free,’” says Kamlager.
A sense of justice
Kamlager grew up in Chicago and New York City, but she credits her Jesuit high school in Chicago with instilling a sense of service early on.
“I spent one particular summer in West Virginia in the Appalachian Mountains, working with families who were poor, and you get a very real and clear sense of the haves and the have-nots, a real sense of poverty and basic human rights,” she says.
She decided to attend USC so she could spend more time with her father, who moved to L.A. after her parents divorced. At the university, she studied with Michael Preston, then a faculty member in the Department of Political Science, whom she describes as having an “oversized reach and impact” on L.A. politics. The experience was instrumental in introducing her to the local political scene and the issues central to it.
Kamlager took a break from her undergraduate studies to start on her career, holding positions at several nonprofits before shifting to politics. In 2018, she was elected to the California Assembly, and in 2021 she won her current seat in the state Senate.
Housing and criminal justice
Recently, Kamlager has focused on several issues related to homelessness and criminal justice system reform. One piece of legislation, which she hopes to reintroduce next year, would create an L.A. County housing authority trust fund that would develop affordable living spaces for people in the area. Another, developed in conjunction with the Keck School of Medicine at USC but recently vetoed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, would have expanded funding for street medicine teams — medical workers who provide care to the homeless.
“USC has a phenomenal street medicine team, and it was really using that team as a model for the kinds of street medicine teams that are out there or might develop because of this,” she says.
Regarding the criminal justice system, Kamlager says it currently exemplifies a number of social problems rooted in inequality. She notes that more than 90% of people in the state’s gang database are Black or brown, and Black individuals are five times more likely to be on probation for a longer period.
“These are examples of the vestiges of slavery and Jim Crow, where we see certain people differently, we treat them differently, we punish them differently, we grant them limited access to things,” she says. “We also see that in the environmental space, in things like a lack of clean water and green canopies for communities of color and poor communities — the inequality.”
Kamlager also says the justice system has a high degree of sexual inequality.
“Women are now the fastest-growing population in prison, and we’ve learned that sexual abuse, human trafficking and sexual assault tend to be a part of the equation for how they ended up in prison,” she says. “I sponsored a bill that would allow a judge to take into consideration circumstances like sexual assault and human trafficking that may have contributed to the crime.”
Kamlager is excited about her upcoming senate session and her role as vice chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus, which she says will allow her to “elevate the lives of Black Californians.” It’s her way of adding to the legacy of her foremothers.
Madina Zermeño draws from her experiences growing up in San Diego as a Muslim child and later volunteering abroad as she aims for a career improving life in underrepresented communities.
rowing up as a Muslim, Latina, Filipina woman of color, Madina Zermeño draws on her multifaceted identity to promote societal change.
Zermeño, a senior majoring in political science at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, grew up in San Diego, a diverse city bordering Tijuana, Mexico.
“There are so many minority intersectionalities that make up my identity, which has sparked my interest in social justice. Growing up in such a multicultural city, I was encouraged to advocate for the communities I come from,” she said.
Zermeño is passionate about carceral justice, including mass incarceration and juvenile justice. Several members of her family have been incarcerated, which has given her insight into similarities among minority neighborhoods and communities that struggle with poverty, gang violence and incarceration.
This personal experience sparked her interest in protecting communities from the pattern of repeated incarceration from one generation to the next that her family has struggled with — a personal battle Zermeño has channeled into a passion for societal change.
Zermeño has also focused on education, equity and access. Both of her parents work in education, so she has been able to identify ways American youth can use education as a tool to break societal patterns that have affected minority groups.
“It made me value education and want to advocate for quality education and access for the most deserving, underserved, and underrepresented youth,” she explained.
She finds herself tying together the issues of carceral justice and education, equity and access, with the issue of wealth inequality.
“I never grew up with a ton of money,” she said. “This taught me the importance of education because, without it, people can get stuck in the cycle of violence, drug abuse, and incarceration, which is all rooted in poverty. I’m passionate about ending this cycle by advocating for generational wealth in minority groups.”
Empowering her peers and gaining broad experience
Zermeño started a youth empowerment club at her high school during her sophomore year. Founded and run by her and her fellow students, “Ignite” (short for “Individual Goal-setters Nourishing Inspiration Through Empowerment”) was designed to empower high school students to become future leaders.
“Especially for people of color, our mission was to empower ourselves to be the leaders we want to see,” explained Zermeño. “Our motto was ‘I Give Up Nothing, I Transform Everything.’” Ignite opened up several opportunities for Zermeño, including creating an undergraduate course based on Ignite at the University of San Diego called the Social Fabric Initiative.
Zermeño has also volunteered abroad. Her sophomore year, during the 2019–20 winter break, she participated in a program in Rajasthan, India, where she tutored children in the Dalit community. She says her experience revealed many similarities between the historical factors preventing the Dalit community from emerging from poverty and the systems and institutions keeping underrepresented communities in the United State from climbing the social ladder.
Three days after completing her work in India, Zermeño traveled to Morocco, where she spent January to April 2020 interning for the nonprofit Jossour Forum des Femmes Marocaines, a female-founded and led organization impacting women and youth across the Middle East Northern Africa region.
“Being fully immersed in another culture was so life-changing and unforgettable,” she said. “I’m so grateful to have been given the opportunity by USC and that I took the leap of faith to volunteer in both countries.”
Internships with high-profile political figures
In the summer of 2020, Zermeño took on three different internships, including one for the Borgen Project that focused on wealth equity and global poverty. Here, she was able to learn the roles and power of U.S. government officials and understand better the different ways that the government works.
This past summer, she was able to take this knowledge and apply it to her internship position with San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria’s office. “The whole office is representative of San Diego’s diverse communities, so it was nice to see that our mayor values that,” Zermeño said.
Zermeño also undertook a second internship, this one with U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar in Washington. She met and networked with a wide variety of young congresswomen of color, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Cori Bush and Ayanna Pressley.
Last semester, she interned for the L.A. County Public Defender’s Office, and this semester, she is interning for The Refugee Legal and Advocacy Centre based in Cape Town, South Africa, through the U.S. Department of State’s International Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship.
Zermeño hopes to one day attend law school and later become either a civil rights attorney or a criminal defense lawyer.
“It comes from a love and a passion for societal change,” she explains, “and if not us, if not me or others from the communities I come from, then who? It’s not that I love politics. These are things that directly impact me and my family, so I have to advocate for them.
“Just coming into the room with confidence and letting people know that, while people may underestimate me because I’m a woman, a person of color, or someone from a different religion than they are, I am just as knowledgeable, just as skilled, and I deserve a seat at the table.”
Karpman also became the first American woman composer inducted by the music branch of the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences.
Composer Laura Karpman is on board to compose the music for Marvel Studios’ “The Marvels,” the sequel to 2019’s “Captain Marvel.”
Due to be released on Feb. 18, 2023, Karpman will work alongside director Nia DaCosta. Brie Larson returns as Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel, while Teyonah Parris stars as Monica Rambeau, reprising the role she originated in “WandaVision.”
“I am thrilled to be going on this wild adventure with Nia DaCosta and Carol Danvers and am really looking forward to the collaboration,” Karpman said in a statement.
Karpman will be the second female composer ever to score a Marvel movie. Pinar Toprak, who scored “Captain Marvel,” was the first.
“WandaVision” writer Megan McDonnell has penned the screenplay. Details about the plot are being kept under lock and key, but “Ms. Marvel” star Iman Vellani will co-headline the project as Kamala Kahn, who idolizes Captain Marvel.
Speaking on Variety’sAwards Circuit Podcast last year, Parris kept details about the film to a minimum. But she did talk about working with DaCosta. She said, “I’m just such a fan of her as a human. Then you have her visual, very artistic eye on how a film feels with her. With Monica, we have an opportunity to further understand who this woman is. Having a woman of color at the helm of furthering this story of one of the few super-powered females, African American beings, I think it’s really special.”
Karpman is a five-time Emmy winner who has scored the music for HBO’s “Lovecraft Country.” She is no stranger to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, having scored the music to the Disney Plus series, “What If…?”
Aside from running an all-female studio, Karpman is a passionate voice for inclusion in Hollywood and founded the Alliance of Women Film Composers.
Karpman became the first American woman composer inducted by the music branch of the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences. She was subsequently elected to be the first female governor of the music branch. During her short time as governor, Karpman made indelible strides towards diversity, advocating for Academy membership for dozens of underrepresented composers and songwriters, as well as spearheading the Academy Women’s Initiative.
She is also an advisor for the Sundance Film Institute and on the faculty of the USC Film Scoring Program and the San Francisco Conservatory.
From gymnastics to the U.S. Air Force ROTC, USC Viterbi senior Natalie Smith built her life on asking ‘Why not?’
Of the likely careers Natalie Smith considered, pilot was not one of them. Perhaps a spy for the CIA or a broadcast journalist, she thought, growing up in a small suburb in Colorado. But then again, Smith, a senior in the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, has never been able to predict her next move, other than that she wants it to be a challenge.
As a child, she immersed herself in competitive sports like gymnastics and track. She was skilled at math and science, sure, but when she applied to USC Viterbi, it was almost a dare to herself. Freshman year proved humbling, and she toyed with switching majors until she homed in on airplanes.
“The rigor and challenge brought me in, and my fascination with airplanes and rockets kept me going,” she said.
Smith, who is an aerospace engineering major, has defined her life by chasing experiences she wasn’t sure she could tackle, with the mantra of ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’ and the steadfast belief she had a good shot at success.
Smith said a turning point for her was when she received an Air Force-sponsored scholarship to start flying lessons her freshman year summer. “I got to solo—fly by myself—in a Cessna 172 with the stunning backdrop of the Rocky Mountains.” The Cessna 172 Skyhawk is a popular single-engine, high-wing aircraft used widely in training student pilots. From that thrill, Smith found a new dedication to her coursework. “Going back to school, I had so much more motivation for what I was doing in the classroom. It was such an inspiring moment,” she said.
One course that particularly proved pivotal was AME 261: Basic Flight Mechanics, taught by Associate Professor Charles Radovich, where she was able to design an airplane from scratch with a team of peers. “I had so much more intuition about how to approach that after my flying experience,” she said. “And from that I thought ‘I can do this; this is actually kind of interesting and fun,’ and it kept me on the path that I am on now.”
The longer Smith spent in the classroom, the more she discovered how the lessons she learned from her professors could translate practically to the broader world she inhabited. Her senior project (for AME 441) is an example of such a practical application.
“It’s based in renewable energy and basically harnesses the vibrational power from a street pole. As the wind makes it shake, we hope to capture that energy and use it to power everyday electric appliances,” Smith said.
While it’s not a new idea, Smith said she and her peers want to see if they can demonstrate, on a smaller, cheaper scale, how such energy can be used long-term to add a little extra charge to a phone or flicker of voltage to a porch light. “It may not replace turbines,” she said, “But it could still help out. Aerospace, specifically, is a huge polluter. But there are ways to mitigate that.”
Beyond her love of design, Smith said that the project has also helped her better understand the role of wind in flight. “Any pilot can benefit from understanding fluid dynamics and how air flows over a surface,” she said. “It can bolster your intuition for when you’re in a cockpit.”
Piloting the Next Chapter
A love of flying and of aerodynamics not only kept Smith from switching majors, but it also introduced her to the U.S. Air Force ROTC, which she joined freshman year on a 4 year scholarship—another ‘why not?’. In keeping with a childlike fascination with flying—humans cannot fly, but we’ve built objects that can!—Smith decided that if she was going to try out the Air Force, she’d go big for the role of pilot.
“I thought it would be a good challenge,” she said. “This is not something I grew up thinking I was going to be doing, and now four years later, I almost have my private pilot’s license, I’m the Cadet Wing Commander, and I’m in the running for a slot to USAF Undergraduate Pilot Training.”
All of Smith’s experiences wouldn’t be complete in Los Angeles without a Hollywood moment. In early 2020, she answered a student film casting call for someone who looked similar to the main actress, Lily Oliver. Smith’s piloting experience helped land her the role, which she filmed in two locations. The film, Hurricane, is now doing the festival rounds, hoping to pick up some buzz along the way.
Of course, Smith is not ready to stop there. In her last few months at USC, she’s taken on a new challenge: gymnastics. A fan of the floor exercise, she’s decided to rekindle her love for the sport and joined the USC club team recently, with which she will be competing in the spring. “It’s my last year at USC,” she said. “I want to see what else I can do.” What she can do, apparently, is anything she sets her mind to and as a result, Smith continues to diversify her friendships and perspectives. She acknowledges her various interests have allowed her to meet people outside of just engineering or just military experiences, a part of attending USC she treasures.
Long term, Smith wants to be a test pilot for Boeing—where she will be working upon graduation, after which she plans to attend an Air Force pilot training program. She sees such a position as a great combination of potential previous military flying experience with her engineering background.
“I have a dream of flying a plane in 15 years and being like, ‘wow, I had a part in designing this,’” she said.
But she also sees it from a female perspective. “As a female engineer who has no family background in this, I want to be a part of building an airplane from the design stage, and maybe help form all these systems better for female pilots down the line,” she said. “That, frankly, will improve aviation safety, so creating a more inclusive design is incredibly important.”
Smith said after all this, she’d love to someday go back to Highlands Ranch, where she grew up, and visit her old high school. “I’d love to share my story—not to recruit anyone, but to show them there is a path they didn’t initially see for themselves. My school didn’t have junior ROTC or STEM programs, but I think it’s important to show what options are out there even if you don’t know what you want to do yet as a 17-year-old!”
Smith said: “You can be an outstanding engineer, even if you’re a struggling first year engineering student. It takes time, especially when it’s all new. I want to share that you can learn anything if you have the drive or support to pursue these things. I encourage people to try new things that will expose them to opportunities they never knew existed.”
She added: “And if whatever you choose doesn’t work out, try something else. The possibilities are endless.”
Burnham beat out thousands of applicants for the opportunity to train for space missions.
Navy Lt. Deniz Burnham, who earned her master’s degree in mechanical engineering at USC Viterbi School of Engineering in 2017, is one of ten people selected in NASA’s latest class of astronaut candidates. While studying at USC, Burnham completed an internship with the NASA Ames Research Center as part of the Deployable Autonomy Technologies group.
In an interview for the Launch Pad, Burnham said that she was emotional when she found out that she had been selected. She dreamed of being an astronaut since she was a child and was inspired by her family.
“My grandfather loves telescopes and just astronomy in general. He’s kind of self-taught and getting to see Mars and the rings of Saturn, the size of your pinky nail, in the backyard telescope really touched my heart differently,” Burnham said.
According to NASA, Burnham started her career as a field engineer on oil rigs in Alaska, and has since spent more than a decade in the energy industry where she managed drilling optimization projects and emission reduction strategies for drilling rigs. She believes that her past experiences will help her be a better astronaut.
“Working in the oil industry, I actually spent a year in Canada working on [oil] rigs. I was a company man, so I got to run the operations that in and of itself was very challenging,” Burnham said in the interview at The Launch Pad, “but getting to take the experiences and lessons learned from that fast-paced operational environments really set me up for success to be a value-adding team member at NASA.”
When asked about which training activities she is most excited about, Burnham said “I am super excited about the T-38s, I think that’ll be a lot of fun and good team building opportunity as well,” and she added “I hear the neutral buoyancy lab can be pretty challenging so getting to learn the space walking- I’m very excited about that.”
When asked on The Launch Pad podcast what message she would give to the next generation of potential astronauts, Burnham replied, “dream big, it’s okay to set yourself some goals, pursue what you’re interested in and you’ll excel at it,” and added that the younger generation could draw inspiration from the latest astronaut class, “you can see what different paths we took to get here [and] it’s so important that you seek out your passions, whether or not it’s to become an astronaut…everyone has a place in space.”
The new astronaut candidates will report for duty in January 2022 to complete two years of initial NASA astronaut training, according to NASA. Upon completion of her training, Burnham could be assigned to missions such as research aboard the space station, launching from American soil on spacecraft built by commercial companies, or deep space missions to destinations including the Moon.
When DeMar DeRozan, one day down the line, decides to retire, his most lasting impact on basketball may very well be what he did off the court instead of on it.
Back in 2018, DeRozan tweeted “This depression get the best of me,” an open acknowledgement of his personal struggles that sparked a broader conversation around the NBA — and all of sports — about mental health. Other athletes, such as Kevin Love — whose 2018 Players Tribune article titled “Everybody is going through something” detailed episodes of anxiety he experienced during the season — have since credited DeRozan as being one of the reasons they felt they could come forward and tell their stories.
Two years later, the effects of DeRozan’s openness and subsequent mental-health advocacy continue to reverberate around the NBA.
“He changed a billion dollar business,” Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said Saturday. “He changed it pretty much single-handedly [by] speaking out. And then obviously a lot of guys felt more comfortable, and that’s what it’s about. So for him to do that was huge and we won’t know the impact, we’ll never know the impact, but we just know that it’s a great impact that he had on the league and on guys, on players, coaching staff, whoever — that this is DeMar DeRozan and he goes through [expletive] like everybody else.
“I think that was big for him. It took a lot of guts and a lot of heart to do that, and it’s something that helped me in my personal life — feeling comfortable about some of those things — and it opened my eyes to things I was ignorant about. And I think it was special for him to do that.”
Normalizing the discussion of mental health and removing the stigma that often is still associated with it, essential in normal times, has become all the more paramount during the COVID-19 pandemic.
For what is creeping up on a year now, an incomprehensible number of lives have been lost, families have been forced to be apart, jobs have been ended with the shuttering of businesses.
“I think it’s even more important now during the pandemic,” VanVleet said. “I think people’s mental health has kinda been pushed to the side a little bit, so I think it’s something we should all focus on a little bit more and keep at the forefront of all of our discussions.
“Obviously we’ve gotta worry about our physical health with this virus and all the other things going on, but our mental health has really been affected over these last 12 months and it’s something that we should all pay attention to and focus on individually and collectively.”
Olympic medalist Allyson Felix is advocating for Black moms everywhere.
Every 12 hours someone dies from pregnancy-related causes, and 60 percent of these deaths are preventable.
People of color are also up to 50 percent more likely to give birth prematurely, and their children can face a 130 percent higher infant death rate.
Motherhood brought sprinter and nine-time Olympic medalist Allyson Felix all the good feelings: love, joy, awe, and pride. It also inspired her to advocate for moms and babies across the country.
After preeclampsia threatened the lives of her and her baby at 32 weeks pregnant, Felix had an emergency cesarean delivery on Nov. 28, 2018.
Because her daughter, Camryn Grace, was born prematurely, she started life in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
“I’m so grateful and fortunate that she got out of the NICU a strong baby and that things went well for her, but it also just opened my eyes to a whole new world — the risk associated with pregnancy, the limited access that some women have to maternal care, especially from the complications and facing death for Black women… and I felt compelled to do work around that,” Felix told Healthline.
She teamed up with Better Starts for All, a partnership with March of Dimes and RB’s Enfa portfolio of brands, which offers on-the-ground and virtual interventions to bring support, education, and clinical care to communities in need.
“Currently more than 2.2 million women of childbearing age live in maternity care deserts (rural and urban) that have no hospital offering obstetric care, no birth center and no obstetric provider. Approximately, 150,000 infants are born in these maternity care deserts each year,” Dr. Rahul Gupta, chief medical and health officer, senior vice president, and interim chief scientific officer at March of Dimes, told Healthline.
In 3 years, Better Starts for All aims to improve the lives of more than 7,000 pregnant people in pilot markets in Southeast Ohio and Washington, D.C., by providing the following:
a mobile health vehicle that brings prenatal care and related maternal health services
a group prenatal care model that provides clinical care, education, and support in a group setting
online prenatal education for moderated groups and telemedicine to provide OB care
community providers to develop and implement strategies to increase access to care in maternity care deserts
“The health of mothers and children is widely viewed as an important indicator of the health and well-being of a nation. Yet, the U.S. remains among the most dangerous developed nations in the world for childbirth,” Gupta said.
March of Dimes reports that every 12 hours someone dies from pregnancy-related causes, and 60 percent of these deaths are preventable.
“It is even more dangerous for moms and babies of color as Black women are over three times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related complications,” Gupta said.
“Women of color are also up to 50 percent more likely to give birth prematurely, and their children can face a 130 percent higher infant death rate,” he said.
Why maternal care disparities exist
While the reasons for disparities in maternal care for Black people are complex, racism is at the root, said Dr. Leslie Farrington, a retired obstetrician and co-founder of the Black Coalition for Safe Motherhood.
She points out that racism affects the body and uterus, and can result in preterm delivery.
“There are many ways in which racism shows up biologically. The stress on Black women from dealing with the overall overarching effects of being devalued in society, being punished more, not being supported as much when children or encouraged as much in schools,” Farrington told Healthline.
She added that this stress increases the risk of preterm birth.
“When I was in the middle of my career, they were saying preterm birth is related to inflammation, but they did not see a correlation to infection, so they kept trying to say that Black women had more infections,” Farrington said.
“But that’s not the case. They just had more inflammation, and this inflammation — the medical term being higher levels of leukotrienes — results in preterm birth,” she said.
Moreover, more stress means more inflammation.
“It’s been shown discrimination increases all of these factors,” Farrington added.
Lack of insurance coverage is another reason for maternal health disparities.
Since the Affordable Care Act (ACA) core coverage provision came into effect in 2014, Gupta said uninsured rates fell across all racial and ethnic groups, with the biggest gains among Black and Hispanic people.
“Still, 30 million people remain uninsured. About half of those 30 million are people of color. Fourteen states have refused to expand Medicaid under the ACA, which is one of the reasons why people of color are disproportionately likely to be uninsured today. This includes some of the states with the largest populations of Black Americans,” he said.
Social determinants of health, such as access to care and poverty, environmental conditions, housing, transportation, and social economic status, also contribute to the disparities.
“I see ‘social determinants of health’ as a euphemism for environmental racism: redlining, gerrymandering, controlling the budget of predominantly Black-serving hospitals,” Farrington said.
Breaking the disparities
As a Black mother, Felix said her role feels heavier in recent times.
“It’s a really sobering responsibility, and I think a lot about my daughter and how I’ll have to give her the tools to navigate through this world, but it’s also this beautiful privilege that I get to do that and teach her,” Felix said.
“So, a lot of these issues that I want to champion are motivated by her,” she said, “and I don’t want her generation to grow up and for these statistics to still be the same.”
Felix is hopeful that more conversations about maternal care disparities are occurring in mainstream media, and that more research is dedicated to the subject.
“[We] are moving in the right direction, but I’d love to see policies change and more support to be provided. But we are seeing programs like Better Starts for All where we are trying to address issues in a very real way, and so I’m excited that we are helping women in these communities with access to care,” Felix said.
Policy actions and solutions can create positive change, noted Gupta.
“We are demanding policymakers to take action to better serve the women and children in our country. While no single solution exists to address limited access to care and improve health equity, there are key policy actions that can create positive change,” he said.
Those policies involve:
improving access to quality and affordable preconception, prenatal, and postpartum care (e.g., expand Medicaid, provide coverage to telehealth services, expand access to midwifery care, support care quality improvement efforts)
focusing on prevention and treatment (e.g., create paid family leave systems and address social determinants of health)
expanding research and collection of surveillance data on maternal death and disease
“Our hope is that by addressing the issue and creating solutions, other local community leaders and policymakers will follow suit so we can all address this national issue together,” Gupta said.
How Black people can find the best care
In 2020, March of Dimes launched implicit bias training for healthcare professionals to uncover institutionalized racism in the healthcare system and to not perpetuate the cycles of discrimination.
But bias among physicians exists. Farrington recommends that Black people seek out treatment from trusted Black obstetricians, midwives, or doulas.
In addition to word of mouth, she suggests using apps like IRTH or Health In Her HUE to find reviews of Black healthcare professionals in your area.
Additionally, Farrington said you need to advocate for yourself.
“Our ACTT acronym is a reminder to moms and their supporters of what they can do in the medical setting to get the care they need,” she said.
ACTT stands for:
Ask questions until you understand the answers.
Claim your physical and mental space.
Trust your body.
Tell your story.
Felix shared a similar sentiment: She promotes building a relationship with your doctor.
“It is so important, and you can’t be intimidated to ask the questions, whether you think it’s something minor or something huge or something silly,” she said.
Felix also recommends having a support system and someone else to advocate for you, as she did with her husband, Kenneth Ferguson.
“I know in my situation, things went south very quickly, and I had to have a partner who was able to make some decisions and speak on my behalf and advocate for me… Really think about that beforehand, and put those things in place,” she said.
And once a mom, give yourself some grace, added Felix.
“There is so much — especially now with the pandemic going on, it’s just another layer of unpredictability and stress added to it — but really be kind to yourself, and know that it’s OK for everything not to be in control,” she said.
The one thing that is in your control, though, is keeping a little bit of your pre-mom self in sight.
“I do believe that some of your best performances and best work can be done after you become a mother, and we can’t put these limitations that society kind of forces on us,” Felix said.
“I would encourage women to be strong, still have their same passions, and there’s no reason to shrink yourself at all because you’re in this new role. I think if anything, it motivates you and drives you to be even greater than before and to have a different perspective,” she said.
Felix’s advocacy work is certainly proving this to be true.
Storm Reid maybe a first year at USC but she is already leading young women to success!
Research shows youth are 130% more likely to be interested in leadership roles, 55% less likely to skip school and 78% more likely to volunteer when they have a mentor.
Unfortunately, many children don’t have access to mentoring figures, but Dark & Lovely is aiming to change that.
The beauty staple recently announced that in time for National Mentoring Month this January, they launched Building Beautiful Futures: Closing the Opportunity Gap, a multi-year commitment that will help bring educational and career equity to Black, female college students and young professionals.
In partnership with the NAACP Youth & College Division, they will provide scholarships, mentorship and career coaching opportunities to recent graduates and those pursuing four-year degrees. Helping to spread the word about this initiative is actress and activist Storm Reid.
“As a working actress, college student and Black woman, I know first-hand how important it is to have access to resources and mentors to help you achieve your goals. You can’t do it alone,” said Storm Reid. “That’s why I am excited to partner with Dark & Lovely to help impact the lives of so many young women like myself, who hope to break barriers and shatter glass ceilings.”
Per a news release, Dark & Lovely and the NAACP said they will provide 1-on-1 mentorship, $10,000 scholarships to selected Black female students per year, L’Oreal USA internship opportunities and college and early career care packages among other commitments.
“Now more than ever, young Black women are in need of actionable support that can propel them forward,” said Erica Culpepper, General Manager, Dark & Lovely. “Through this program, we hope to help close the educational and career equity gap by providing tangible resources that help young Black women embrace their limitless potential and shape their legacy.”
Growing up the multicultural child of immigrants — her mother is from Mexico, her father from Jamaica — Chelsea Hylton identifies as both Black and Latina. While she celebrates her multifaceted identity, she finds that others struggle with it.
“Los Angeles is a very diverse city, but I went to predominantly white schools here and faced a fair share of discrimination and microaggressions,” said Hylton, a native of Inglewood. “I would always hear, ‘You’re not fully Black or fully Latina.’ I never got that at home, of course, but other people made me feel like I had to choose.”
She remembers reading local papers and listening to news radio with her father on the way to school — and being struck by how much of the coverage of marginalized communities focused on negative subjects, like crime.
“I felt driven to express myself through stories of people who had experienced discrimination or just other social justice issues that had had an impact on me,” she said. “By the time I was in high school, I knew that journalism was what I wanted to focus on when I went to college.”
Earning a scholarship from the Posse Foundation, Hylton enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, Madison — where she had to deal with not only her first “real winter,” but the fact that she didn’t get into the journalism program as a freshman.
“That really took a toll on me,” she said. “It stunted my confidence. But that summer, I got an internship with a Los Angeles women’s magazine, published some stories, and realized that I could do this. With a better resume, I applied again to the journalism program and was ultimately admitted.”
Hylton became the editor of the Black Voice, the student-led publication for the university’s Black community. Given the small size of that community at the predominantly white institution, she felt a strong sense of responsibility. “We were always under the microscope,” she noted. “People were always looking at what we were doing and how we were doing it. My role was to make sure that we were holding university administration accountable.”
As Hylton began looking ahead past graduation, she ultimately decided that graduate school would be the best choice for her. Noting that most of her experience had been with writing for print and online media, she saw that USC Annenberg’s Master of Science in Journalism program would allow her to build a broader skill set, one that would include audio and video. “If I could hone those other skills, that would make me a stronger job candidate,” she said.
For Hylton, attending USC also allowed her to continue a family tradition. Her father has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from USC Marshall, and in May, her older sister earned her a doctorate in occupational therapy from USC Chan.
“When I got my acceptance letter, that was the best day ever, honestly,” she said.
Being admitted to USC Annenberg also came with much-needed financial support as Hylton was named the inaugural recipient of the school’s Iger-Bay Scholarship. Established by USC Annenberg Dean Willow Bay and her husband, Disney Chairman Robert A. Iger, the scholarship uses proceeds from the sale of Iger’s memoir, TheRide of a Lifetime, to provide funding for journalism students from underrepresented backgrounds at several institutions, including USC Annenberg.
“I know it’s a cliché, but this scholarship definitely allowed me to turn my dreams into reality,” she said. “I’m motivated to make the most of the Iger-Bay Scholarship by being really involved with Annenberg Media and the media center. I’m investing myself in my craft and in my work and focusing on becoming a well-rounded multimedia journalist.”
One recent story Hylton has written for Annenberg Media she has found particularly meaningful has focused on healthcare disparities faced by women of color.
“The new abortion bans that being passed across the country just perpetuate these disparities,” she said. “I’ve been interviewing advocates and activists from different abortion access groups around the country. Being able to connect with people and have them tell their stories and experiences is the best part of this job. It makes it all worth it.”
Looking ahead, Hylton says that, even for all her expanded multimedia skills, she remains a writer at heart, and hopes to work at a major outlet like the Los Angeles Times or The New Yorker. “With everything I’ve learned and all the support I’ve had, a position like that would be a culmination of all the hard work that I’ve put in.”
Growing up the daughter of Haitian immigrants in Miami, Jessica Moulite gained an early respect for journalism — and one journalist in particular.
“My grandma came to America in 1976 and she learned how to speak English by watching the evening news,” she recalled. “I’m one of four girls, and my parents didn’t let us watch TV during the weekdays, except for watching the news with our grandmother: the local news and ABC’s World News Tonight with Peter Jennings.”
Moulite remembers seeing history unfold through these channels: September 11, Hurricane Katrina, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. As she witnessed the power of the news to both move and inform the public, she also noticed that the stories of people from communities like hers were often told badly, or not told at all. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that it’s not that people aren’t able to tell these stories themselves. It’s that a lot of these groups — women, Black people and other people of color, the LGBTQ community —have been systematically silenced.”
Determined to break that silence, Moulite attended Hamilton College in upstate New York, where she majored in communication and women’s studies — with the help of a scholarship from the Posse Foundation, a nonprofit that helps universities recruit potential leaders from diverse backgrounds. But it was after she enrolled in the master of science in journalism program at USC Annenberg that her career goals really came into focus.
“I had a class with Laura Castañeda [professor of professional practice], and she told me there is absolutely nothing wrong if I wanted to make my storytelling focus on communities of color,” Moulite recalled. “She gave me the language to express what I wanted to do and emboldened me to go in the direction of my dreams.”
After earning her master’s in 2015, Moulite went on to work at the Latino-driven English-language channel Fusion before joining the Root, where she flourished telling multimedia stories about the diverse Black experience. Now, as she returns to academia to begin her doctoral studies at Howard University, Moulite has been honored with the Ainslie Award, the Posse Foundation’s annual alumni achievement recognition, which comes with a $10,000 no-strings-attached grant.
Moulite spoke with USC Annenberg about her experience as a Black storyteller, and how she hopes to combine her academic work with her journalism background to effect positive change.
After growing up watching Peter Jennings, you worked with another TV legend, Jorge Ramos. What did you take away with your time working with him at Fusion?
I started out as a production associate for America with Jorge Ramos, and just kept going up the chain until I was working with him directly. With everything that was happening with Ramos during that time — the contention between him and the Trump administration, the way he approached his coverage of everything that was happening at the border — I was really able to take a page out of his book. Seeing how he told stories that very much matter to him and his Latino demographic helped me realize how that ethos can be replicated. He taught me to never forget to use my voice and ask powerful questions.
Why did you make the move to the Root as a video producer?
While still at Univision, I had the opportunity to work with the Root on a multi-part series about climate gentrification in predominantly Black communities in Miami. So, once I got this opportunity to join them full-time, I was there. And it was incredible to work for the premier Black publication for voices and stories all across the Black diaspora.
How did you approach your storytelling there?
Oftentimes the conversation surrounding Blackness is either, you know, “This Black child has gotten into all of the Ivy League institutions, how wonderful,” or we’re talking about how someone was brutally killed. It doesn’t need to only be these two types of stories: Black death and Black exceptionalism. There are so many shades in between, and those stories need to be reflected too. And the Root really champions those stories. One video I’m particularly proud of was a profile of Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, where she talked about her new normal of living with alopecia. I’m very impassioned about telling stories that matter to communities that look like mine — that in the past were often painted with a very flat, monolithic lens.
You worked at The Root until late August, when you started as a doctoral student at Howard University. What’s driving your transition back to academia?
Over the last year, I was so disenchanted as I watched the media industry and how things like the pandemic and the movement for racial justice were reported on. In attempting to be impartial and non-biased, media and journalists do a real disservice to the audiences that they’re meant to be serving. If journalism is supposed to be for the public good, then it is ultimately up to journalists to decide what that is, and to make an informed decision. What does that look like? What is the common good? So, I decided that I want to take a step back to get my doctorate in sociology to create knowledge that addresses these kinds of questions. With an emphasis in social inequality, my goal is the idea that if we can start changing these systems, we can change the world little by little, then — hopefully — the media will be able to get there as well.
How can academics and researchers create that kind of change?
I believe that the world can be better than this — and that there are enough people actively working to make it more just and equitable for everyone. It doesn’t have to be this zero-sum game of who has power and who doesn’t; we don’t have to live in this sort of society. I really do think that in the classrooms, in the streets, and in the boardrooms, there are so many avenues where we need to not just reckon with the disparities that exist, but ultimately subvert them and change them for the better.
And that’s what this Posse Foundation award I received represents. They’re committed to creating the new face of leadership in the future. And that’s going to mean some tricky, uncomfortable conversations — but you know, I think more uncomfortable conversations will do this world and this nation some good.
USC Thornton Popular Music Program Chair Patrice Rushen is a model for what’s possible in a music career.
Patrice Rushen was definitely not the first to know when her 1982 hit song “Forget Me Nots” launched a dance challenge on TikTok.
“My cell phone started blowing up with messages from my students: ‘You’re trending on TikTok! You’re trending on TikTok!’” said the chair of the USC Thornton Popular Music program.
Rushen earned her first GRAMMY Award nomination for that dance-funk single and has seen it remain a part of popular culture over the past four decades. It was featured in the 1988 Tom Hanks movie Big and sampled by Will Smith for the 1997 Men in Black movie theme song. In 2000, it was ranked 34 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Dance Songs, and Rushen still gets a regular stream of requests from artists who want to sample it in their work. It was a phenomenon before it ever hit TikTok. So, when Rushen heard it was trending on the video sharing app, she probably shrugged as she said, “OK, that’s nice.”
Then, her daughter said, “Mom, are you watching TikTok?” Her website developer in the Netherlands asked, “Are you seeing what’s going on worldwide?” And Rushen learned the dance challenge had gone viral — with tens of millions of views.
“It’s crazy when I think back to what we had to do to just give the song a chance to get out there,” said Rushen, who co-wrote the song with bassist Freddie Washington and songwriter Terri McFaddin. “The record company, those many years ago, didn’t hear it. They didn’t like it. We put our pennies together and paid for three weeks of independent promotion just to get it to the radio stations. And it took off.”
“Forget Me Nots” peaked on the Billboard Top 40 pop chart at No. 23, the R&B chart at No. 4 and the dance chart at No. 2.
“It just kept going, going, going, worldwide,” Rushen said. “And it just keeps going on. So here we come back around, and it’s on TikTok. But this time, what’s so cool about it for me is that I’m the one being the hashtag now. I’m getting the credit, whereas before people used to associate it with something else.”
Rushen can’t help but be amazed.
“This has been really cool to see the dances worldwide,” she said. “I’m saying, wow, this is like I’m living the dream, because the kind of musician that I always wanted to be was one able to share in these various worlds and dialects of music, to participate in the classical stage, jazz, dance music, R&B and pop — to just go across genres — because of the joy that all of those musics bring me. And now, that’s what I’m seeing.”
Trending in Classical and Jazz
Rushen is referring to the fact that she’s “trending” in the classical and jazz worlds right now, too. One of her symphonic pieces, “Sinfonia,” was part of Symphony Tacoma’s Oct. 23 season-opening program (and first post-pandemic concert), along with Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky. She is also working on three commissions: a piece for jazz nonet for the Detroit Chamber Wind and Strings as part of the Resonate project with the Carr Center in which seven American composers explore the African diaspora, scheduled to premiere next May; and two pieces for Key to Change’s young persons’ violin ensemble, set to debut in January 2022.
“From one side of the musical spectrum to the other,” Rushen said, “I’m enjoying the beautiful feeling of having my music in so many places, for so many people, all discovering what fun I’m having and defining some joy for themselves in it, too.”
Quinton Morris started the Key to Change studio to provide music instruction to underserved youth in Washington. Outreach has always been a priority for Rushen, who shares her time and talents with the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences’ GRAMMY in the Schools program and other organizations dedicated to music education and mentorship for inner-city youth.
A classically trained pianist who earned her degree at USC and later studied orchestration and conducting, Rushen wrote her first symphony, “Sinfonia,” in 1999 after decades of working with smaller ensembles.
“The piece was really a reaction to not having the full palette of orchestral instruments,” Rushen said. “I wanted to use every color.”
After she wrote the first movement to “Sinfonia,” she was literally boxing it up — “I had my cathartic moment and said, ‘OK, cool. It’s out of my system now.’” — when composer William Banfield called to chat and discovered what she’d written. He encouraged her to enter a reading competition with an orchestra, hosted by the American Composer’s Forum with members of St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. St. Paul and the Detroit Symphony chose her work to perform.
A Model for What’s Possible
Patrice Rushen has seemingly done it all. She signed with the Prestige record label at 17, Elektra at 23 and has recorded 13 solo albums. A three-time GRAMMY Award nominee in R&B and jazz, she has also enjoyed a long career as a film and television composer and as a record producer for the likes of Sheena Easton. She became the first woman to serve as head composer and musical director for the Emmy Awards, the NAACP Image Awards, the People’s Choice Awards and Comic Relief V. She later added the GRAMMYs to her musical direction resume. Indeed, there are far too many career accomplishments to list.
Given the depth and breadth of her work across genres and generations, Rushen is a model for the kind of multifaceted career USC Thornton students are encouraged to build.
“If I’m a model,” she said, “it’s a model for what’s possible.”
As a professor and mentor, Rushen educates and inspires her students to find their passion and purpose, to understand the “sometimes painfully slow and gradual” process (even for GRAMMY nominees) of building a career step by step and to embrace Thornton’s spirit of community.
“In the popular music program, we need to take care of each other, lift each other up and inspire one another,” Rushen said.
She believes Thornton and the popular music program have been able to encourage all of those things, while giving students opportunities and exposure to different techniques, ideas and musical styles. The school is unique in that every genre is represented and students can collaborate and build diverse networks.
“Having the kind of diverse interests and expertise within the faculty ranks at Thornton has allowed for a rare kind of communication,” said Rushen who, for example, has brought her symphonic work into composition classes for professors and students to analyze the orchestration techniques.
“That communication has brought a modern awareness to the table to enhance the music education of the 21st century,” Rushen said. “Music education requires a certain interdisciplinary consciousness and awareness of the intersection of all of the different kinds of music. And we’re doing it.”
Laila Ward, a freshman studying human biology at USC Dornsife, recently took home the crown at the Miss Black Pasadena pageant, which honors local talented teens.
Laila Ward graduated from the Pasadena Rosebud Academy, a charter school for kindergarten through eighth grade in Pasadena, California, at the top of her class, earning a near full scholarship to Pasadena’s prestigious Polytechnic High School.
She was in for a bit of culture shock, however: While her middle school had been majority Black, there were only three other Black students in Ward’s entire grade at Polytechnic.
Laila Ward hopes to win another crown at the upcoming Pasadena Tournament of Roses Royal Court pageant.
Finding peers that shared her cultural values became a key part of Ward’s high school experience, capped off with her win in the local Miss Black Pasadena contest. Although snagging the crown was a thrill, meeting kindred spirits was the most valuable part for Ward.
“I loved the empowerment aspect of it. I think all Black girls need to feel empowered and to be around other girls who are just like them,” says Ward. “I got a crown and the sash but, to me, we were all queens and we all won.”
Her decision to attend the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences continues her journey to find community. Although she’d also gotten into University of California, Berkeley, her father’s alma mater, she opted for USC due to its more diverse student body.
Ward was born and raised in Pasadena and became an active member of the Los Angeles suburb that hugs the San Gabriel Mountains.
She was a member of the Pasadena Youth Council and served as a Youth Ambassador for the City of Pasadena, providing hot meals to the homeless. As part of her work on the council, she’s helped provide advice on where to place benches or improve lighting around town. She also worked on a project aimed at reducing teen vaping.
“I think, a lot of times, kids are just bored. If they have activities to attend and more access to opportunities, they’re less likely to vape or drink,” says Ward.
It’s unlikely Ward has suffered from boredom much herself. In addition to her community service, Ward played volleyball, ran track and led her school’s Black Student Union. Ward also participated in Polytechnic’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council, which advocated for more diverse representation in school curriculum.
It wasn’t always easy being one of the only Black students on campus.
“I often felt alone and it wasn’t a good feeling. Socially, economically, there’s just so many different things that divide me from my classmates,” says Ward. “However, I always tried to find something in common with them because I know I have something in common with everyone.”
Voice of a generation
Like lots of girls growing up in Pasadena, Ward was enthralled by the annual Rose Parade’s Rose Court Pageant. She planned to enter herself once she became eligible, but her aspirations were delayed when COVID-19 canceled the parade during her senior year of high school. Luckily, Ward discovered that the Miss Black Pasadena pageant was continuing on virtually.
Tamieko Foster launched Miss Black Pasadena in 2018 to help teen girls who felt overlooked or pigeonholed by mainstream pageants and media. “The media will often portray only one type of Black girl. We are here to shed light on the many faces of Black and all of the magic that we encompass,” says Foster.
Ward and seven other competitors participated in weeks of workshops that focused on public speaking skills, career building and healthy relationships. At the end of the competition, the group gathered at a local restaurant for the crowning of the winner.
Ward stood out from day one, says Foster. “Laila is well-spoken, sincere, and has such a powerful perspective. She is definitely a change agent in the community and a voice that can advocate for her generation.”
Once and future queen
Now as a freshman human biology major at USC Dornsife, Ward has her eye on becoming a dermatologist. She’s struggled with several skin conditions, including eczema, which makes the field of particular interest to her.
Ward also plans to study Spanish and international relations. “I’m passionate about law and I’ve always been into social justice causes. I really like to travel. Learning about international relations combines all of that for me,” says Ward. “I’m excited to explore, learn and just grow and be on my own.”
Her pageant ambitions continue, as well. She’s finally getting a chance at entering the Rose Court this year. She already has a leg up over most of her competitors — she’s now an expert at wearing a crown.
Inspired by a USC Dornsife international relations course — and her brother’s tendency to tap into her personal hair care supply — international relations and global business major Shamillah Iga looks to meet a demand among men looking to sport longer hairstyles.
When Shamillah Iga’s brother decided to forego his traditional fade haircut in favor of a more natural look, she was all for it — until he started swiping her hair care products to treat his textured hair.
“Like my brother, a lot of black men are now opting for longer hairstyles, but a lot of products for their hair type are marketed towards women or aren’t formulated for their curls,” explains Iga, a senior majoring in international relationsand global business, at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
So, in 2019, after returning home from a trip to Uganda to find her own style products depleted, Iga decided to create a product to fill her brother’s needs: Nile Hair, a hair care line especially for Black men.
Iga, who is originally from Uganda, says she chose the name not only to honor her connection to the continent, but also to evoke the purity and cleanness of water.
“More people are leaning towards products that are full of clean, natural ingredients and ingredients that are sourced from various parts of the world,” she says. “And especially for me, because of my origin, I really try to incorporate ingredients that are native to Africa into my products.”
Iga says the components of her products are organic, vegan and gluten-free, and free of harsh chemicals, such as phthalates and parabens.
Across two continents
Iga was born in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, but her family emigrated to Louisiana when she was two, later settling in the Dallas-Forth Worth area. Her childhood trips back to Uganda, however, gave her insight into some contemporary issues in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as a sense of how interconnected different parts of the globe can be.
Wanting to explore that interrelationship, Iga says, is why she decided to pursue an international relations major rather than one simply focused on business. She cites one of her courses, “The Political Economy of Africa” (IR 317), as being particularly integral to her decision to create Nile Hair.
“We learned a lot about how development works there, what has stunted Africa’s development, how to move forward, issues of neopatrimonialism, and things like that,” she says. She adds that as someone looking to create a global brand, an understanding of these topics will be crucial.
The business end of Nile Hair was developed through several courses Iga took at the USC Marshall School of Business, where she is pursuing a minor in entrepreneurship. Originally, the company was just part of an in-class project. It wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic sent her home that she decided to develop it into something more concrete. She found a manufacturing partner and a cosmetic scientist and quickly got to work.
Even in the planning stages, Iga knew she wanted social responsibility to be a large part of her business’ mission. Right now, she is fulfilling that component by creating a product with natural ingredients.
“For a long time, a lot of products directed toward Black consumers had harsh chemicals. Historically, the narrative was that taming or controlling our curly hair warranted these harsher chemicals, but that isn’t even true,” she says. Iga adds that in the long run she hopes to be able to source ingredients from Africa.
Currently Iga has only created one product for Nile Hair, a dual-use hair and beard oil, which she sells through the Nile Hair website. But she is looking to further develop the company this fall through the USC Marshall/Greif Incubator, where she will get to meet with faculty, lawyers, marketing professionals and others to help grow her enterprise.
My name is Jevon Torres, and I am a sophomore Computer Science/Business Administration major from Mount Laurel, NJ. Outside of classes, I am most involved in our school’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers, as well as our Black Student Assembly. Both of these organizations, alongside my academic interests aid my pursuit of furthering diversity efforts in fields where students like me have frequently been neglected and underrepresented.
I remember having just started 7th grade when I took a science test that I would never forget. After just a few weeks into the class, just getting settled in and beginning to learn lab procedures and other basic information, we were given an assessment to measure our memory and comprehension of the materials presented. It began smoothly, asking about some safety protocols but also starting to dive into the responsibilities of a scientist. Towards the end of the exam, I would have never expected to read the true/false statement: “Most scientists are male and white,” nor the baffling “correct” answer of “true”.
I was not nearly as offended or taken aback by the question and its inclusion as I should have been, or am now, but something about that sentence stuck with me from that day. Technology had always been a big part of my life even up to that early point, and my engineering interests had been spawned as well through those interests and some extracurriculars that I had explored. But, this day was what sealed the deal. I have always been extremely competitive and at times a contrarian, and naturally saw this as somewhat of a challenge: there might be a mold for what a scientist “looks like” now, but I am going to defy that standard.
Moving into high school, I started to fully realize these future interests. I immediately dove into the computer science courses that my school offered, as well as taking the most challenging math and science courses that I could stack on my plate. At the same time, I became involved with coding ventures in and outside school, such as client web development and a few personal exploration projects. I thought that I was beginning to find my niche, until part of the way through my freshman year. At our high school we were required to take a business class prior to graduation, and I figured that I would knock that requirement off very early. Thus, I took Accounting 1 and soon into the course, I could feel myself gaining interest in the business world as well. Going through high school, 1 year of Accounting became 2, which became 3, which became 4. I had completed the track, while continuing all of my engineering commitments and even picking up some business ones as well.
This left me with an interesting predicament come time for college applications. I knew that I could not go without engineering, in this case the major of Computer Science, but I also could not bear to leave behind my acquired interests in business. Looking from school to school, I came to the conclusion that something would have to go, unless I truly felt like immediately taking on the workload of them both. In came USC, the only program I found that would let me do exactly what I wanted to do, in a program designed to craft expertise in both engineering and business all in 4 years. Seeing that option already began to make me feel like USC was the place for me, and I hadn’t even applied yet.
Now that I have made my way from New Jersey to California, and completed my first year, I couldn’t be more confident in my decision to have applied and accepted a spot at USC. I have found my family, in classmates and alumni, who seem to always be offering to help out inside and out of the classroom. I am happy to say that I have put that true/false test question behind me: those at USC, in NSBE, in my courses, as my professors, have shown that while there is no perfect image of an engineer, I am well on my way to fitting in to the ever expansive fields of STEM.
My name is Princess, and I am a sophomore studying biomedical engineering. For high school, I went to King Drew Magnet High School of Medical and Science. My high school was in Compton, which I had never been to, but only heard stories about. My mom and some other Nigerian moms had the same idea to send their kids to that school because it had a reputation for being rigorous and producing intelligent children. I went into high school with the hope of joining the medical program only offered junior year. This program allowed students to shadow doctors, volunteer at Veterans Affairs, or do research at Charles Drew Medical University right next door.
The school took some time to get used to. Not because I found it very challenging or hard to navigate, but because I came from a very diverse middle school to a school with a majority of two populations; more than fifty percent Hispanic, and the rest of the population is African American. I did not learn until I joined the medical career program and went on a tour of the Compton neighborhood, that the neighborhood around the school was built intentionally to support low-income and under-represented youth. The plan was to create an area for those of us that wanted to be doctors and give that experience and access to the tools we needed to be a successful medical professional and give back to our community. I spent most of the time in the neighborhood around my school, and it was not until I left that I appreciated how much care went into making a safe space for students to guide us toward our journey to medical school.
As I went into my senior year, it was time to start applying to colleges. I went into high school thinking I wanted to be a doctor but later I realized I had more interests. I spent all four years only focused solely on medicine, so the summer after my junior year, I decided to try engineering, and participated in the Johns Hopkins Engineering innovation summer program. I learned from that experience that I wanted to be a biomedical engineer. I was able to mix health and engineering. During this program, I could not help but notice that I was the only African American there. During my four years of high school, it was always a shock to see people that were not Hispanic or African American in an academic setting. I suppose that it was my first taste of the real world in a long time.
I knew I wanted to go with a biomedical engineering route, but I still had to decide where to apply. I applied through Questbridge, and when given the option to pick twelve schools for the free application, I put USC as my last choice. USC did not feel like a serious choice for me until I went to campus for Explore USC. Thankfully I was able to go right before the pandemic closed everything. If I had not come to Explore USC and experienced the campus, all the wonderful people, and learned about all the opportunities the school has for interdisciplinary studies in person; I likely would be here. After I chose USC, I was happy with my decision. Still, I was told by the only staff member at my high school that went to USC that it was a good school with a low African American population, but they make up for it with the many organizations to include African American students. I did not understand what that meant until I started coming to in-person classes.
Living in USC housing and going to classes as a sophomore, I cannot help but notice the lack of African American students. I might be the only one or one of three. I sometimes take note of an African American student passing by me when walking on campus or when there is a group of students because it does not happen very often. This does not bother me, but I take note of it, and it reminds me a lot of the summer I was in the Engineering innovation program. Now that we are back in-person, I can become part of NSBE (National Society of Black Engineers), and join other organizations with others like me. As I continue my time at USC, I will keep taking note of the people that look like me.
For Veteran’s Day 2021, here are a few stories, memories and reflections from a Trojan veteran.
“Veterans have lived the values of duty, honor and country, and they are some of the best friends you can ever have. My ask of all Trojans is to do more than just say ‘thank you for your service.’ Rather, make a friend of a veteran. You won’t regret it.”
When you have a moment to pause and reflect on Veteran’s Day, what do you think about?
Every Veteran’s Day I think about the soldiers with whom I served and the many friends I made at West Point and in the Army during the Cold War.
I also think about the service members and veterans who deployed multiple times over the last 20 years. While I found my own Army experiences to be intense, being deployed into a combat zone takes it to whole different level. I feel humbled by their service and their sacrifices.
I also think about the fact that I have seldom found in the civilian world the same unity of purpose and level of commitment to accomplishing a mission as I found in the military. I miss that high level of teamwork and camaraderie.
How will you observe the day this year? Any rituals or traditions?
I will reach out to my West Point classmates and Army friends with a greeting and reminder that I care deeply about them.
Through social media, I am connected to hundreds of other veterans, making it quite easy for us to recall funny stories and hardships that forged the bonds of friendship that have lasted across the years. In recent years, my classmates have become much more sentimental, perhaps since so many are retiring. We collectively reflect on the impact West Point and the Army had on us – from the formative experiences we had as college students, all the way through our experiences in the Army and afterward.
It certainly affected my own career as I have been working to help the Army my entire adult life.
Your father, Randall Hill, Sr., was in the military. What stories did he share with you growing up?
During training at Ft. Hood, dad was designated as the safety officer for another unit while they practiced shooting down drones being tugged by radio-controlled aircraft.
One of the guns misfired and a 40 mm shell got stuck in the breach of the gun. It was dad’s job to clear the shell, so he went into the turret with his NCO (non-commissioned officer). They unsuccessfully used a pry bar to try get the shell loose, but the shell had burst in the chamber and was mangled to a point that it was wedged in place.
Next, they opened a chamber known as the suicide hole on top of the breach to see whether they could access the shell this way. As it turned out, the bags of propellent powder had not burned, and, after opening the suicide hole, the propellent exploded — perhaps due to the heat in the gun tube. The explosion caused the shell casing to be ejected. Fortunately, neither one of them was seriously injured, but dad lost his hearing for three days. He collected the brass shell casing from under the vehicle and kept it as a memento of the close call.
Not wanting to be bothered, dad never went to the hospital to be checked out after the accident. The shell casing served as an ash tray for many years, and it came in handy a couple of years ago when dad went to the VA (Veteran’s Affairs) because he was losing his hearing. The only proof of the accident in 1956 was this shell casing, and the VA gave him some disability pay and hearing aids.
After graduating West Point in 1978, you were an officer in the U.S. Army for six years. Tell me a story from this time.
I was sent to an artillery detachment in northern Greece near Thessaloniki for a one-year unaccompanied assignment, which meant I could not officially bring my wife with me.
This was during the Cold War, and it was also during a time when a terrorist group known as the Red Brigades was active in the region, killing and kidnapping many people in Italy, including the abduction of U.S. Army Brigadier General James Dozier. This set us on edge because there were other groups operating in Greece that resented our presence there, and who assassinated a couple of different U.S. military attaches. I would routinely drive through towns that had signs that said “Remove the American Bases of Death.”
Our artillery detachment was embedded with a Greek Army unit, and we worked with them on a pretty serious security mission that involved 24/7 guard duty and drilling.
This all relates to my current job in that as a result of my experience in Greece, I decided I would like to become a foreign area officer, which led me to going back to the U.S. the next year for training and assignment at Ft. Huachuca, Arizona.
When I arrived at my new assignment, I discovered my buddy, (fellow West Point graduate) Jeff Wike, was already there, and he helped me get assigned to a software development office with him. I knew nothing about software or computers at that point — at West Point, we programmed in Fortran on punch cards – blah! But very few people had those skills yet, and we had a boss who was willing to help us learn.
He started us out playing some simple text-based computer games: “Adventure” and “Zork,” which are now ancient classics. In fact, I recently went to a Game Developer’s Conference that had a session that was a retrospective on “Zork.”
After a few weeks of “Zork,” we were hooked on microcomputers and the next step was to begin learning a simple database programming language, dBase II. At the same time, we were working with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which was supporting our office with some technical work. Jeff and I traveled to JPL numerous times, and, after one of those trips, we received an out of the blue offer to go to work there. Jeff and I decided to take the offer and were honorably discharged from the Army the same day in June 1984. We joined JPL shortly afterward.
Why did you come to USC for your M.S. and Ph.D. starting in 1984?
JPL had a very generous tuition support program, and they offered DEN (USC Viterbi’s Distance Education Network) classes over the television network that we could watch at the lab’s education center in La Canada. Eager to improve our computer science skills, we enrolled in the M.S. program in computer science at USC. I enjoyed the experience so much that I decided to apply for the Ph.D. program and was accepted. Since I continued to work while taking classes, it was a long road to graduation, and I can thank JPL for supporting me throughout the process.
Two years after completing my Ph.D., I joined ISI and started my work at USC. I joined ICT in 2000 and became the executive director in 2006. Meanwhile, my friend worked his way up to become CTO of DreamWorks Animation. We still watch the Army-Navy together.
Tell us about some of the current projects that USC ICT is involved with that has particular application toward veterans.
The BRAVEMIND program is a virtual reality system designed to assist people who have experienced PTSD to heal from the mental and emotional wounds of war. Based on a clinically proven approach called exposure therapy, BRAVEMIND enables a veteran or service member to revisit the context where they experienced trauma. Under the supervision of a trained therapist, the participant talks through what they are feeling, and, over the course of eight to 10 sessions, gradually habituates to the stimuli that would have previously set off a cascade of difficult emotions. The system has been independently clinically tested and proven to be effective.
ICT also developed a job interview rehearsal system called VITA4Vets, which stands Virtual Interactive Training Agent for Veterans. Service members making the transition to civilian life may not have experience going through a job interview. This system provides a variety of experiences with different kinds of virtual interviewers and questions, ranging from easy to uncomfortable. It gives the participant a chance to anticipate the types of questions they may hear in an interview and then allow them to practice a response.
USC ICT has been building on its previous work with virtual avatars of Holocaust survivors to now capture the stories of current servicemen and women. What can you share about this?
To deal with the issues of sexual harassment and assault, the Army implemented a program called SHARP which stands for Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Prevention. Working with the SHARP Academy at Ft. Leavenworth, ICT developed a number of training systems to help victim advocates, sexual assault response coordinators, command teams, and bystanders. Building on the Holocaust survivor work, we applied the same technologies and techniques to create a system known as DS2A – Digital Survivor of Sexual Assault.
In our first DS2A system, we interviewed a male who had been assaulted as a part of a hazing ritual while deployed in Iraq. This system has trained thousands of SHARP professionals and leaders. We are currently in the process of interviewing a female survivor of sexual assault for the next iteration of the system. The survivors tell powerful stories that have a much greater impact than a PowerPoint presentation, creating the potential for empathy and a greater awareness of the problem, from the incident all the way through the aftermath, which could lead to years of emotional pain.
ICT has created a number of unique virtual humans over the years. Tell me about one of your favorite virtual humans and how real veterans responded to it. Any feedback that stayed with you?
ICT built the Simsensei system that had a virtual human named Ellie, who would help detect depression and PTSD in service members and veterans.
Using multimodal perception, Ellie tracks facial expressions, body language, the tone of the voice and spoken language, and gently asks questions meant to put the participant at ease and encourage them to share how they are doing. Ellie was tested with hundreds of veterans, and it was impressive to see the reaction of people who interacted with this virtual persona. Ellie has a very soothing voice and the questions are open-ended, allowing for the participant to share experiences and feelings.
The startling result of the study was that, in many cases, people are more willing to share their trauma with Ellie than with a human therapist, and this appeared to be because she was not judgmental. It is very moving to hear about participants who broke down in tears while sharing their experiences with Ellie.
In my own interactions with Ellie, the planned 15-minute session stretched to 45 minutes, which was a powerful testament to me of the power of listening by a non-judgmental and empathetic being.
You’re a computer scientist who became involved in storytelling. How did that evolution happen? And why is that particular combination of technology and storytelling meaningful to veterans?
Humans are wired to enjoy and remember stories.
Storytelling is the fundamental way humans share their experiences and knowledge with others, and we can easily become immersed in a story, whether it is in a book or a movie. I have been an avid reader and moviegoer all my life, and it was after I joined ICT in 2000 and began to interact with professional storytellers that I came to have an appreciation for how technology and story could be integrated to create an effective learning experience.
Around 2003, I led a project called Army Excellence in Leadership (AXL) where we made some movies that were used as case studies for Army leaders. We developed the first version of the interactive interview with a human, which foreshadowed our work with Holocaust survivors. After watching the film, class participants could ask questions of the various characters in the story, who would explain their thoughts and motives, giving greater insight into the lessons of the case. This system was used extensively in the Army and at West Point. After watching officers interact with AXL, my takeaway was that well told stories have a much more profound impact on an audience than just listening to the facts of a case. Stories engage both the mind and the emotions, making memories that stick.
If you could make one ask of all Trojans on Veteran’s Day, what would it be?
The veterans among us are typically humble and quiet about their experiences in the armed forces. These are people who volunteered to serve our country in some of the most dangerous and intense regions of the world, and many bear the wounds of war, whether they are visible or not.
Veterans have lived the values of duty, honor and country, and they are some of the best friends you can ever have. My ask of all Trojans is to do more than just say “thank you for your service.” Rather, make a friend of a veteran. You won’t regret it.
Catherine Liang ’21 beat personal struggles — and 14,000 other applicants — to win a one-month internship serving as CEO of The Adecco Group.
Shortly after graduating from the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences this summer, Catherine Liang ’21, like many of her peers, logged into her first day of work. Unlike most in her graduating class, however, Liang’s new employee nametag read “Chief Executive Officer.
Liang had beat out 14,000 other applicants for a coveted internship at The Adecco Company, placing her in the role of CEO for the United States region for one month at the staffing organization, which employs more than 30,000 people around the world.
It wasn’t an easy application experience. Time differences between Liang and the company’s Zurich headquarters meant she completed a final round interview for the position of Global CEO for One Month at 2 a.m. before returning to her full-time job with Goldman Sachs just a few hours later.
She’s an old hand at early morning call times, however. A few years before, Liang decided to attend the United States Naval Academy Summer Seminar. Her friends and family thought she had a death wish for wanting to complete the rigorous program. Yet, soon enough, Liang was out on the field at 5 a.m. alongside Navy officers, top athletes and ROTC recruits, sweating through burpees.
“I walked out of that experience realizing that the only person that could determine what I was capable of was myself,” says Liang.
Citizen of the world
Liang grew up in Sonoma County, California, where her mother encouraged her to explore a wide range of interests, from ballet dancing to piano. “My mother’s been the greatest source of positivity and support. One of my favorite things that she says is to ‘have an open heart and an open mind,’” says Liang.
She was drawn to USC Dornsife because of its emphasis on global citizenship and its array of study abroad options. Liang majored in international relations and global business, interned as a Global Fellow in Taipei, Taiwan, then spent spring break aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Classwork helped her home in on international issues, including IR 310: “Peace and Conflict Studies” with Douglas Becker, associate professor (teaching) of international relations and political science. The course focused on effective philanthropic approaches in countries plagued with few resources or dominated by regressive human rights policies.
Liang picked up some additional hobbies as well: pageant competitor and photographer. She won the crown of Miss Los Angeles Chinatown and took photos for The Daily Trojan.
Peaks and valleys
College life wasn’t all travel and pageants. During Liang’s freshman year, her family’s home was burnt to the ground during the Tubbs Fire, which ravaged Sonoma County in 2017.
“It felt incredibly isolating and stagnating trying to go about my daily college life knowing there was little I could do to help out my hometown,” says Liang.
She was also diagnosed with Hashimito’s disease, in which the body’s immune system attacks the thyroid. Liang went from swimming, dancing and playing the piano to having hardly enough energy to eat dinner.
Determined to get better, she threw herself into health and fitness. She challenged herself to post her workout progress on her Instagram stories, a project that soon grew into a YouTube channel with workouts and her own website with exercise plans. Now, Liang runs her own brand, sharing tips on fitness, healthy diet and skincare.
Woman in charge
Liang continued her fitness advocacy during her time as CEO, which ended in August.
“I developed a ‘Move with Me’ campaign that encouraged employees across The Adecco Group to practice wellness and movement,” explains Liang. “Together, we logged over 8,000 active hours that translated into philanthropic dollars donated to Plan International [which advances the rights of children].”
Now Liang gets up at 5 each morning to fit in a workout before she heads to her job as a financial analyst at Goldman Sachs. She’s the only female analyst on her team, but that isn’t slowing her progress.
“I would be lying if I said being the only female analyst on my team was not intimidating at times. Nevertheless, I feel that having feminine interests, whether that’s fashion, pageants or dance, can differentiate you in a masculine field,” says Liang.
She’s hoping to build her career at Goldman Sachs for the next decade, taking a philosophy that she learned from Joyce Russell, president of The Adecco Group, with her: “Her motto is ‘Putting the Cherry On Top,’ to go above and beyond what a leader can do for her employees,” says Liang. “Rather than demanding loyalty and dedication, simple acts of humble service can go a long way in developing a community of colleagues that have a personal investment in the organization.”
U.S. Air Force officer and astronautical engineering graduate student, Edward Proulx, prepares to fly into space at USC.
Edward Proulx, a master’s student in the Department of Astronautical Engineering at USC Viterbi, always knew that he wanted to fly airplanes. After running into a Marine Officer recruiter at the University of Connecticut as an undergrad, he decided to join. “I figured why not and went to officer training over the summer of my junior year,” Proulx said.
After graduating from initial officer training, Proulx trained as an assault support/MV-22 pilot. He has served in the Marine Corps for nearly a decade, been deployed twice overseas with VMM-365 (REIN) and the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), before accepting his final assignment in the Marine Corps as an operational test pilot at VMX-1. Proulx recently transferred to the Air Force and now serves part time as a captain in the Wyoming Air National Guard as a mobility/C-130H pilot. He additionally works as missions assurance manager at Ball Aerospace in Westminster, Colorado .
Proulx has always dreamed of becoming an astronaut and going to space but lacked the requisite master’s degree to become a candidate. That’s why he decided to come to USC Viterbi.
Today, Proulx balances his engineering studies with two demanding careers and continues to dream of getting to work and live in space. He recently spoke to USC Viterbi.
What was life like in the Marine Corps? Perhaps walk us through a daily routine?
As an assault support pilot, our primary mission was to provide air support to our brother-and-sister Marines on the ground. This meant flying Marines and cargo wherever they needed to go. A typical day, when not on deployment, would involve a training flight where we would go out and practice the basics of providing this support. We might do landings into a confined area, landings to a ship off the coast, practice aerial refueling or just work on flying in a formation at night. The flying, which was definitely the best part, was only a small portion of a typical day. The rest of the time was doing the planning to go flying or taking care of the administrative responsibilities that go along with running any organization.
What is one of your fondest memories of your time in the Marine Corps?
There are too many memories. But definitely the people and the trust we placed in our fellow service members are what stick out the most. Marine aviation, and the Marines in general, are filled with incredible people who you can count on no matter what. I remember one instance when we were going to take off to fly over water a very long distance with no opportunity to divert our plane if the tanker support plane did not show up. We were counting on that tanker crew to be there, and they were. We would routinely make agreements with other units to show up exactly at a specific time, with incredible consequences if they or we didn’t show up. It’s rare to be part of an organization where you can put your life into someone else’s hands solely on the basis of them saying, “I will be there,” and trust that they will show up, but we did it all the time.
What made you want to return to school and want to be part of the Trojan family?
It took me a long time to decide to go back to school because I wanted to be sure that I was really doing something that I loved. It’s all too easy to spend a significant portion of your life doing something you only sort-of like, but don’t truly don’t enjoy. I always knew I was interested in space but never decided to act on my interest. One day while on a ship during my second deployment I had a realization that “I really would love to be in space.” As a kid I would watch shuttle launches and read science fiction books including “The Right Stuff” by Tom Wolfe, and I realized I wanted to go back to school to pursue my dreams of becoming an astronaut.
When I did, I looked around and realized that USC is one of the very few schools in the country with a pure astronautical engineering department, which was a huge determining factor. On top of that, the DEN (USC Viterbi’s Distance Education Network) program allows students like me to either stay in service or continue full time employment.
Why did you decide to pursue Engineering?
I have always had a fundamental curiosity about understanding how and why things work. An engineering education gives us the capability to begin to understand the world around us. But by being able to pursue engineering, it brings me one step closer to my dream.
What do you enjoy the most at USC Viterbi?
So far, I have most enjoyed the quality of the education and the dedication of my teachers, TA’s and classmates. Thanks Thomas and Paige! Everyone at USC has been extremely supportive. This is especially true at times when being a DEN student can make it hard to interact with people at USC compared to traditional on-campus students. It is also fun to get exposed to a lot of different people and different viewpoints. One professor actually, Mike Gruntman, (professor of astronautics and aerospace and mechanical engineering), especially encouraged and motivated me by connecting me with another Marine aviator who similarly completed the M.S program. This may sound weird, but I actually enjoy getting to work on math homework problems, which you don’t get to do too much of as a pilot or manager.
What’s next for you? What does your future look like?
I recently did an inter-service transfer from the Marine Corps to the Air Force to a unit in Wyoming. That unit, the 187th A/S, is going to send me back to flight school soon to learn how to fly the C-130H, so I am looking forward to that.
Thinking about the long term and my future, l am aiming to finish my masters and to ultimately work for NASA, hopefully as a research test pilot, or even better, an astronaut. At the end of the day, I just want to be as close to space exploration as I possibly can and to support all of our space efforts to the best of my ability.
What does Veterans Day mean to you?
Veterans Day is a day to remember the sacrifices that we have asked our service members to make. But more importantly, it is a day for us to think about our involvement in the process that determines what sacrifices our service members are asked to make on our behalf. Do you say thanks for your service but forget to vote? Do you put a yellow ribbon bumper sticker on your car but don’t follow the news? Service members need the engagement, participation and ultimately the judgement of the citizens that they serve in order to ensure that the reasons that we are employed are the right ones. We simply cannot and should not make these determinations without the input of our citizens to determine the lives of service members. The stuff that really matters is paying attention, educating yourself on the facts and making the hard decisions. So, if you haven’t done it already, please make sure to always stay informed and vote! Your participation can have a positive impact.
Giovanni Flores has long been interested in space. The university’s ROTC program has put it within his reach.
Now studying astronautical engineering, Giovanni Flores got his fascination for the Earth’s atmosphere — and what’s beyond it — while sitting in front of the TV.
His dad a mechanic and his mom a housekeeper, he took an L.A. Metro bus to and from school on his own. When he came home, he often played Halo, a military sci-fi game in which soldiers are fighting a civil war set between two rival colonies. But it was the 2014 movie Interstellar, in which astronauts search the universe for a new home for Earth’s residents, that made him think his fascination could be something more.
“I was really curious about astronomy — everything seemed magical almost,” Flores said.
Flores, a sophomore and cadet in USC’s Air Force ROTC program, is training to be an officer while earning his bachelor’s degree from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. Monday through Thursday he’s focused on his USC classes, but Fridays are devoted to officer training. Those days start around 6 a.m. and go into the late afternoon; the day includes physical training — which he also does midweek — along with aerospace lectures and exercises including drills and marching.
The first few years of ROTC are similar to enlisted basic training, with regular workouts, marching and coursework on Air Force culture and discipline. Between the second and third year, there’s a two-week field training exercise in Alabama, which they must pass to contract with the Air Force. After that, during their junior and senior years, they mirror officer roles in the military, overseeing the curriculum for the lowerclassmen with faculty officers supervising.
USC Air Force ROTC program: As old as the Air Force itself
USC’s Air Force ROTC program started in 1947, the same year the youngest branch of the military was born. Since its start, roughly 2,000 second lieutenants have come out of the program, including familiar faces such as Lt. Gen. Stayce Harris, the branch’s first female black lieutenant general, and the late NFL star and broadcaster Frank Gifford. Its courses are conducted through the Department of Aerospace Studies in the USC Price School of Public Policy. In addition to Trojans, students from other schools can come to campus to be part of the cadet program.
Flores, who is in the first generation in his family to attend college, didn’t know much about ROTC until a second lieutenant from the U.S. Air Force came to his high school, Birmingham Community Charter High School in the San Fernando Valley. She laid out an exciting career path through which he could fulfill his dream of being an engineer but also contribute to the greater good. He also learned about available scholarships.
USC ROTC program provides Flores key support
Flores’ tuition and housing is covered by USC grants, an Air Force scholarship and other federal grants.
“To me, it’s very significant because my family is very low income,” he said.
Growing up, higher education wasn’t discussed a lot. His mom, a native of Mexico, and his father, originally from El Salvador, didn’t study beyond high school.
“My parents never said the word ‘college.’ They had no exposure to it.”
“My parents never said the word ‘college,’” he said. “They had no exposure to it.”
The possibility of a four-year university didn’t hit him until he got into Birmingham, a charter high school that prioritizes college readiness and offers resources to students from marginalized communities.
He went from not really caring about grades in middle school to being in an accelerated program, where some classes would translate to college credit. Getting into the charter school was all him. Due to gang violence at the high school near his family’s apartment, he and his older brother worked hard on his application.
An introduction to college
The summer after his sophomore year, he was accepted into a college prep workshop at the University of California, Berkeley.
“I had never been on a college campus till I saw Berkeley,” he said.
He learned about the college application process, testing and requirements. Realizing his love of science, he started to think about what he wanted to do.
“I was adamant about going to college,” he said. “I knew I wanted to be an engineer.”
Flores isn’t sure what his career field will be yet. He’s interested in being a pilot, which requires the biggest commitment — roughly a decade — due to the rigors of training. He’s also interested in careers related to flying, like remote pilots who maneuver drones or air battle managers, who are similar to air traffic controllers. He wouldn’t mind working in the proposed U.S. Space Force, whose ultimate functions have previously been handled by the Air Force. And while he might not have time with his hectic schedule, he’d also love to learn more about space enterprise in the Los Angeles area, such as SpaceX and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
“I am absolutely proud to call myself a Trojan, astronautical engineering student, and future Air Force officer,” he said. “I feel as though my whole life is piecing all together, and I am on the right path to achieving everything I have sought for growing up.”
Thanks to his alumnus father, Garrett Wagner was very familiar with the Trojan Family. After suffering a torn ACL on duty, he decided to help others the way his surgeon helped him — starting at USC.
Garrett Wagner can still describe the pain he felt six years ago when a sudden injury sent him toward where he is today. During a 2015 weapons retention drill — a physical conflict simulation exercise — at a base in Bahrain, the Navy master-at-arms went down hard.
“The guy I was going up against was in a big padded suit,” he remembers. “He was a really big guy anyway. He went for the gun, I spun the elbow, he picked me up by the waist. As we were falling, I felt my knee dislocate. They rushed me to the hospital. They went in with a little camera and told me, ‘Your anterior cruciate ligament is completely torn.’”
Just 21 at the time, Wagner had never suffered a serious injury.
“I’d heard horror stories, but the surgeon — a captain who’d been performing surgeries for 26 years — instilled a lot of confidence in me, told me not to worry. Nine months later, after surgery and physical therapy, I was cleared to start exercising. The surgeon who fixed me up did such a stellar job, I wanted to do that for other people.”
A little tough love from a Trojan dad
Wagner is a dual citizen of Panama and the United States. He was born at Gorgas Army Hospital in Panama City in 1994.
“That’s what happens when your dad works for the Navy,” said Garrett’s father, John Wagner, a retired NCIS agent who graduated from USC in 1988. “We lived all over the world, then settled back in San Diego. I was able to take Garrett to a few games and introduce him to the Trojan Family, so it became his dream just like it was mine.”
After high school, Garrett wasn’t sure what direction to take. His dad gave him a gentle push.
“I told him: ‘You gotta do something, not just play video games,” John Wagner said. “Get a job, find your education or join the military. He took the third option.”
John Wagner said his son was a good writer but not an advanced student when it came to math and science.
“He’s a biochemistry major — an accidental arrival at his destination,” John Wagner said. “He’s thrown himself into it. The kid who was scared of math and science is now running toward it.”
From the O.C. to USC and beyond
After healing, Wagner started studying at Saddleback College. He volunteered at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach and took guidance from a faculty member who — like Wagner’s father — is a USC alum.
This fall, Wagner joined about 1,500 other transfer students at USC. Like Wagner, half transferred from California community colleges.
“You’re in the eye of the storm, and that’s where I want to be.”
“The veterans’ community at Saddleback is strong,” he said. “The transition felt right, and I joined the Veterans Association here at USC right off the bat.”
Now aiming for medical school while he earns his biochemistry degree, Wagner’s path is not an easy one.
“I’m not naturally a math or science person, and I had to start at the bottom. I love the material, so that keeps me going,” the Navy veteran said.
The experience that led Wagner to USC will eventually take him to the emergency room.
“I’m looking at becoming an ER doc,” he said. “In the ER, just about anything can go wrong, and I saw that when I was volunteering at the hospital. Gunshot wounds, knife wounds, poison, cardiac arrest — you never know what’s coming through the door. You’re in the eye of the storm, and that’s where I want to be.”
Athena Fleming, a veteran and student in the online Master of Communication Management program, dreamed of attending USC after attending basketball camps taught by alumna Cheryl Miller.
By now, it’s clear that life is full of curves — but those pursing graduate degrees may understand the adage better than anyone else. For many students, graduate school represents the possibility to pursue a new career or transfer their talents to a different industry.
Fleming currently works as an information officer at the California Department of Veteran’s Affairs (CalVet), and she is pursuing her master’s degree in hopes of one day running her own business. This was not the path that she set foot on, however, during her undergraduate studies.
Fleming initially attended Biola University in La Mirada, California, where she obtained a bachelor’s degree in journalism with an emphasis on public relations. But upon graduating in 2009, she was greeted by a nationwide economic crisis.
“The year I graduated from college was the year that every single newspaper was shutting down. It was a horrible time to be a journalist,” Fleming told USC Online.
With national instability, she needed a new opportunity with job security, and that’s exactly what the Coast Guard brought her. Although both of Fleming’s parents were in the Air Force, she laughed off the idea that they inspired her to join the military.
“I had no plans to enlist, definitely not. I was in boot camp and I was like, ‘What am I doing here? What did I sign up for?’” she recalled.
That’s not to say Fleming didn’t end up appreciating her time with the Coast Guard as a third class petty officer.
“They actually gave me the adventure of a lifetime. So, I’m really grateful and thankful that’s how everything worked out,” she emphasized.
Recently, Fleming has even devoted herself to veterans affairs. On the CalVet communications team, she supports the Veterans Homes program, which offers long-term care to elderly or disabled veterans. There are eight locations across the state, and Fleming works at the second largest Home, West Los Angeles, serving approximately 300 veterans.
“I think it goes without saying that the veterans are the best part of this job. We work with senior veterans, and it’s three levels of care in this facility … It’s nice to kind of provide them that final thank you. That final place to hang their hat because for most of them, this is the last place that they live. There’s a lot of joy that can be found here,” she said.
Inspired by Basketball Idols
Fleming, who describes herself as “a worker bee,” said she has no plans to leave the department anytime soon, and that the reason she decided to look into graduate school was to advance her career in communications.
“I knew I wanted that kind of confidence boost, and of course the degree, too. I always dreamt of going to USC,” she said.
Fleming’s passion for the university started as a toddler when she was introduced to basketball through her mother, who played the sport in the Air Force.
“I grew up going to basketball camps that were taught by Cheryl Miller, an amazing USC alumna … I also grew up idolizing Lisa Leslie, [another USC graduate],” she said.
Although Fleming did not continue playing basketball past high school, she still idolized USC as the “go-to” university and knew she wanted to be part of the Trojan Family. Today, Fleming visibly demonstrates her school pride any chance she gets.
“Every time I’m in class, I’m the one with the sweaters and gear on. I’ve got my lanyard at work, and everyone is like, ‘All right, we get it, you go to USC!’” she laughed. “I’m so happy I enrolled.”
That sentiment is underscored by the fact that she’s already feeling the benefits of USC Annenberg’s online program, which she began just last year: “During class, I’m like, ‘OK, I’ve experienced that in my career.’ Then, I’m learning how I could have approached it differently or how I can approach it in the future,” she said.
By taking classes in subjects such as global communications and audience analysis, Fleming has also been able to better understand the specific needs and backgrounds of the Veterans Home residents and their families.
Finding a Community with USC Veterans
While working full-time and juggling her course load has not been easy, Fleming says she’s been able to achieve a personal and professional balance, dedicating her weekends to school and reserving Fridays as her “self-care day.”
Fleming admitted her social life has taken a bit of hit with her new schedule, but her days are far from lonely, thanks to the USC community. Even with the COVID-19 pandemic shaking up her visions of football games and Trojan comradery, Fleming says the USC veterans network has been a bright spot.
“There is a really nice veterans community at USC, and they’re really pushing hard for us to grow and connect … The VRC [USC Veterans Resource Center] does a lot of Zoom meetings,” she said.
There are even a few residents at the Veterans Home who like to join Fleming in her weekly video conferences, during which they all “sit around and just talk about life.”
“It’s nice because we have that community together as veterans, and so we don’t have to explain the quirky things that we do or certain things we say — we all get it. For me, I think that’s definitely one of my favorite things about attending USC, the real community you build,” she explained.
When asked how others can support veterans like the ones she works with, Fleming highlighted Operation Gratitude, a nonprofit that sends care packages to active duty first responders, police, firefighters, veterans and more.
The package, which can include donations like a knitted scarf, snacks and other essential items, even comes with a handwritten letter. Fleming received a care package herself one Thanksgiving when she was serving and unable to spend the holiday with her family. She still recalls how much it meant to her.
Fleming also personally works with the organization Dress for Success, which provides professional attire, career workshops and leadership development tools to women in the greater Los Angeles area to help them gain economic independence.
“I started to think about this year and COVID and what that means. Obviously, I’m in this program because I want to advance in my career, but there are so many people who are redirecting their careers, possibly without jobs because of the pandemic … It’s all about being able to connect women to these important resources,” she said.
Fleming encourages anyone feeling generally discouraged by 2020 to consider their options, whether it be graduate school, a new career path or a volunteer opportunity.
“I think that with the pandemic, you have a choice: to be upset and stuck at home or make something out of it. There are just so many great resources for people who do want to level up. So, 2021 could be another bad year, or it could be an amazing year filled with transitions. I just encourage everyone to make sure it’s the latter,” she concluded.
Many people fear the places Hector Jimenez needs to be. He relies on his battlefield experience — and his studies at USC, where he’s earned two graduate degrees — almost every day.
In environments where gang violence stalks communities, Army veteran Hector Jimenez is unafraid. He served eight years during the 1990s, then followed a meandering path to a military social work degree at USC.
“I grew up around USC, but I took the long, scenic route to get an education here,” he said. “I ended up where I needed to be.”
Jimenez needs to be in Los Angeles neighborhoods designated as Gang Reduction and Youth Development zones, where gang-related crime is four times higher compared to other parts of the city. Young people in these zones are hounded by the potential for violence, a situation not unlike combat.
“These are the kids we’re trying to reach,” Jimenez said. “There’s peer pressure, and sometimes they don’t really have a choice. They need protection, and they can’t see any other way. If you can put yourself out there, you can understand that.”
Hector Jimenez relies on street smarts, two USC graduate degrees to make an impact
Jimenez, 50, admits struggling to find his way when he returned from active duty. He worked a series of jobs, including a stint leading USC’s Campus Cruisers — a program that provides safe rides after dark.
“Hector’s got a lot of life experience, and he doesn’t blink.”
Jimenez followed the military social work track, then chose to direct his career toward gang diversion and prevention at Soledad Enrichment Action.
“Hector’s got a lot of life experience, and he doesn’t blink,” said Mirna Romero, director of operations at Soledad Enrichment Action. She met Hector when they were both studying at USC. “He won’t back down, but he’s a peacemaker. He’s got this empathetic side, which is a combination you need for this work.”
That work includes developing the talents of at-risk youth and guiding those who’ve been given a second chance by the criminal justice system.
“People are surprised sometimes when they find out what I do,” Jimenez said. “They might say, ‘That’s a really dangerous job.’ My military background says it may be dangerous, but you’re there for a reason.”
Construction engineering senior Mayra Rodriguez is determined to lead construction teams to build cleaner and better by investing in the future.
When Mayra Rodriguez was growing up, her family and teachers could tell early on she’d be defined by her persistence. The oldest of two siblings and the daughter of first-generation immigrants from Argentina, she was always good at setting goals and exceeding them. For example, when Rodriquez was enrolled in ESL (English as a Second Language) classes when she began school in Miami, she stubbornly committed to speaking only English to communicate clearly to her teachers that she was fluent enough to move on.
This determination carried her through high school, where she excelled at math and science, and catapulted her past a major milestone: becoming first in her family to go to college. Applying through Questbridge, a national nonprofit that connects the nation’s youth with leading colleges, she was a finalist for University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering and committed to a big move across the country to continue her studies.
Though she hadn’t formally experimented with engineering as a kid, it was her father’s experiences, first as a mechanic and later as a home renovator, that guided her interest in civil engineering—specifically building sciences, which is her emphasis at the Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
“So my whole childhood, my father would always take things apart and put them back together, or build an engine from scratch so seeing him do that fascinated me,” Rodriguez said.
Growing up in Miami, her fascination with buildings fell upon those her father worked on. “My parents would get a property in really poor condition and renovate it,” she said. “My dad did the actual renovation work himself, which is what got me into the construction aspect of things.”
But it was in Los Angeles that Rodriguez discovered her favorite buildings. As an intern at a general contractor in downtown Los Angeles this past summer, she passes breathtaking relics like the Eastern Building constantly and always takes pause to admire them.
“It’s a big blue, old building—one of a bunch of historic landmark buildings along Broadway. It’s the art deco style for me—the attention to detail that they put into things and how it was built so long ago but has even better structure than buildings built now, which are put together cheaply and quickly,” she said. “They don’t have that long-term quality anymore and that kind of fascinates me.”
At internships at DPR Construction and Turner Construction, Rodriguez served essentially as a construction manager, overseeing the day-to-day of all the different components that go into creating a building. “We oversee all these different trades—the electrician, plumber, mechanical engineers, dry waller. Meeting with everyone, it combines everything I’ve learned and ties it all together,” she said.
Rodriguez likes being the one to make sure that the building is put together according to plan. This requires more than engineering skill, of course, but an ability to work with many different types of people. “You have to be able to understand what’s going on and be a mass communicator,” she said. At times, she noted, this also means proving herself as a woman in a male-dominated field.
“The most challenging part is trying to know everything about all the different aspects of constructing a building,” she said. “While people are often more than willing to explain it to you if you ask, especially being a woman, you don’t really get treated with the same respect. You have to earn that respect and once you do, they’re like ‘She actually knows what she’s talking about, I’m going to start listening.”
Ultimately, Rodriguez sees her passion for construction as a way to make an impact. As of 2019, the global construction industry accounts for 38% of carbon emissions—an increase to its highest level yet—according to the United Nations Environment Programme.
“The construction sector is the number one contributor to carbon emissions,” she said, “I want to reach a level where I can decide which projects to chase after, choosing ones that are more sustainable—those that are “net zero” or produce the same amount of energy they consume.
Rodriguez’ recently awarded academic scholarship from National Academy of Construction is helping her pursue her passions by allowing her to focus on these goals.
“When my parents first came to the U.S., they didn’t speak any English and we were low income. Even though we’re doing much better now, paying rent and affording textbooks is always going to be a concern in the back of my mind. This $2,500 scholarship relieves the stress a bit, so I can focus on what I care about.”
As for what she’s looking forward to this fall, Rodriguez continues to appreciate campus life and eagerly anticipates its return. “I just want to see my classmates in person and actually interact with my professors, forming those relationships that last a lifetime.”
Alums Corina Irvin and Ernie Ocampo are serving as Filipino role models, encouraging others to enter professions like commercial real estate and law.
Soon after starting at law firm Reed Smith, Ernie Ocampo became known as the quiet guy.
He felt comfortable speaking in front of his peers, and he wasn’t shy. But at work, Ocampo acted the way many Filipino children are taught to behave: respect authority and honor your elders.
Yet in the legal world, Ocampo said, “when there’s an office meeting or you’re in a conference call, you are not just supposed to defer to the elders and stay quiet.” He knew he had to change: He had to speak out more and contribute to conversations, even when no one prompted him to do it.
“How would I have ever made partner if I had stayed quiet?” said Ocampo, who graduated from the USC Price School of Public Policy in 2000. He knows that others like him have faced the same cultural struggles in law, and he aims to help them find their place in the field.
Ocampo, who moved to L.A. from the Philippines with his family at age 6, pursued an occupation that is overwhelmingly white. According to the latest federal data, 86% of lawyers are white, and only 5% are Asian. As a member of the Philippine American Bar Association, though, Ocampo is helping build a pipeline to get more Filipino students interested in law school and connected to jobs once they graduate. The work involves going into the community and hosting events where Filipino lawyers talk with potential law students and early-career attorneys.
As more Filipinos join the legal industry, Ocampo is gratified to find more potential role models for law students than ever.
“These days, it’s much easier to find people in our community who hold those positions,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about being the pioneer or being the only person who looks like you in the field. We are trying to show that we are here — there are still too few of us, but we are here.”
He also volunteers with the Los Angeles nonprofit group Search to Involve Pilipino Americans, or SIPA, by providing pro bono legal advice to SIPA itself and participating as a speaker for the group’s entrepreneurship program. He hopes the program shows the community that Filipino lawyers are available to help them succeed.
It is particularly important to highlight the wide range of career options in the legal industry, Ocampo said. Many Filipinos, particularly newer immigrants, tend to associate lawyers with immigration law. That makes sense, given their personal experiences.
“Almost every Filipino around my age, our moms are nurses, and we all came on our moms’ H1 [work] visa,” he said, but a career in law offers choices beyond immigration.
Trojans bring diversity to white-collar industries
One of those alumni is Corina Irvin, who earned her bachelor’s in business administration from the USC Marshall School of Business in 2004. She is a commercial real estate broker and also Filipina. Only about 5% of all brokers in the U.S. are Asian, compared with 84% who are white, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. An even smaller percentage of commercial real estate brokers are women.
Traditionally, being a female broker requires breaking into a male-dominated industry, Irvin said. Business is done during happy hours and golf outings.
“Throughout all of those years, I’ve always felt like an outsider figuring out my own way to navigate the old boys’ club,” she said.
Another reason behind the lack of diversity in the industry, Irvin said, is the perception that being a broker is less stable than other jobs. Many immigrant parents encourage their children to pursue professions like a nurse or doctor. They prefer jobs with good benefits and stable salaries. Brokers work on commission, so some may see it as a riskier profession. But Irvin says it’s perfect for entrepreneurial self-starters. And the lack of a salary means no ceiling in terms of how much she can earn.
USC alum turns a niche into a business opportunity
Irvin spent years in the industry in New York and Los Angeles, working for some of the biggest brokerages in the country. Then she decided to open her own business in October 2019. She saw a shift in the market and noticed how big brokerage firms weren’t focused on serving many minority- and women-owned small and mid-sized businesses. It presented an opportunity.
“My clients deserve proper representation, proper attention,” she said. “I give them that, since they are not getting that at bigger corporations because their space requirement is either too small or the brokers don’t want to spend their time and attention helping them.”
Irvin has also teamed up with the Commercial Real Estate Diversity Coalition — which is made up of various affinity groups like the African American Real Estate Professionals, Filipinos in Institutional Real Estate, the Asian CRE Network and the Real Estate Association of Latinx Professionals — to help develop diverse talent. One of the coalition’s main initiatives is to advance diversity and representation in the industry and to be a resource for access to diverse talent.
“So, when institutional real estate companies say they don’t have access to talent,” she said, “we can tell them to look at our job board.”
Before Hwang Dong-Hyuk was the “Squid Game director,” i.e. the man behind what’s set to become Netflix’s biggest TV series this year, he was a student at a university that boasts the who’s who in filmmaking today: the University of Southern California.
USC’s famous graduates include the creator of “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” franchises George Lucas, one-eyed assassin Elle Driver in Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” films Daryl Hannah, director of films “A Beautiful Mind” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” Ron Howard, and director of the film “Grease” Randal Kleiser.
Hwang joined this illustrious group when he enrolled in an MFA in Film Production at USC’s School of the Cinematic Arts. By then, the Seoul native already held a BA in Communications from Seoul National University — the most prestigious uni in the country — and had credits for writing and directing short films such as “Our Sad Life” and “A Puff of Smoke.”
“I was greatly interested in social issues as an undergraduate so I would often take part in demonstrations,” Hwang told The Chosun Ilbo. “I took up filmmaking because I was so frustrated by all these unresolved social issues I saw.”
The Squid Game director presented the short film “Miracle Mile” — a story about a South Korean woman in search of her long-lost brother in LA — as a degree project at USC. But USC is no mere film school — and Hwang would go on to be no mere director.
Squid Game director alma mater: Home of the greats
USC is known as an “academic stronghold” in cinematic arts. Its film school is not just the oldest in the country but is one of the best too.
From 1973 until 2006, at least one USC graduate has been nominated for an Academy Award.
“We would like to see every student who leaves here have an employable skill,” said Elizabeth M. Daley, dean of the school to the New York Times.
The Squid Game director’s programme is a reflection of this. Modules cover projects shot using digital cameras and edited on non-linear systems, cinematic ethics, and postproduction of an original episodic drama, shot on original sets on stage and on location, to name a few. It’s a combination of theory and practical, from how to use a camera, light a set and learning about film or television theory.
One seminar, for example, contains a “detailed investigation and discussion of various aspects of television, including genre, textual analysis, production and distribution systems and audience studies.”
Ask graduates, however, and some would argue that the most valuable part of their film school is the projects they get to make. As a graduate student, Hwang would have to make several films to complete his degree. The Squid Game director’s student project short film “Miracle Mile” reportedly presented in more than 40 film festivals and won the DGA Student Film Award by the Directors Guild of the US.
Lucas made multiple short films during his USC stint too. These include “Electronic Labyrinth: THX-1138: 4EB,” winner of the 1967-68 National Student Film Festival.
Alum Vimbayi Kaziboni has created a multi-faceted career across continents as a conductor, artistic director, and teacher.
Vimbayi Kaziboni (BM ’10) came to USC Thornton as a rising percussionist, left as a conductor hailed as a major talent, and has continued to expand his musical résumé ever since. An abbreviated list of his accomplishments since his undergraduate days would include:
Named conductor of the International Ensemble Modern Academy in Germany, then assistant conductor of Ensemble InterContemporain in France.
Earned a master’s degree in music in Germany.
Received a Fulbright fellowship to Uzbekistan, where he worked with an ensemble creating avant garde music and experimental theater.
Named assistant professor of orchestral studies and contemporary music at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, where he leads numerous ensembles including the graduate program in contemporary music. (He was Teacher of the Year there in 2019.)
Appointed artistic advisor for the Boston Lyric Opera, where he works on innovative projects such as opera film productions and taking opera performances to neighborhoods, in addition to curating and conducting conventional opera productions.
And, in a normal (non-Covid) year, he lives out of suitcases half the time conducting in the world’s most prestigious concert halls. Even during this Covid-limited year, he made his premiere at the Berlin Philharmonie with Ensemble Modern.
Kaziboni, who came to America at age 13 with his family to escape catastrophic economic and political conditions in his home country of Zimbabwe, heard a great orchestra in person for the first time that year, and knew from that moment he wanted to be a conductor. Here’s how he describes the experience:
“Moving to a new country at that age was one of the most difficult experiences of my young life. It felt very alienating leaving home and adjusting to a foreign culture, not to mention navigating suburban middle school politics in a second language.
“During this time, my great uncle who loved classical music took us to a Sunday matinee concert to hear the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who that afternoon performed Dvořák’s 9th Symphony, The New World, a work in which the composer is grappling with his own experiences in a new country, in America, and missing home.
“It’s at the climax of the slow movement, “Largo,” that the composer seems to get very introspective. He reduces the orchestra momentarily to only the front eight string players in an orchestra of more than 70 musicians. As they play the melody nostalgically, if not melancholic, he puts fermatas right in the middle of the phrases, as if the melody is struggling to go on, as if it has a lump in its throat, as if it is crying.
“This is the moment I knew my calling was to be a musician.”
After living in California for a few years, Kaziboni’s family moved to Omaha. Within a short time, he was in one of the top youth orchestras as a percussionist and received a scholarship to USC Thornton.
Arriving at USC Thornton
Lucinda Carver, Vice Dean and Professor of Practice, Conducting and Keyboard Studies, quickly recognized him as a major conducting talent, and arranged for him to take private instruction with her as an undergraduate, which he continued doing for two years after he graduated.
“Lucinda has been my most important teacher,” says Kaziboni. “As a bright-eyed undergraduate novice conductor, she kindly took me under her wings and helped me unleash my artistic capacity as a musician. In the disguise of learning how to conduct, she taught me how to listen to my inner self and trust my intuition, musically and otherwise.”
He says that over the years Carver has been “a loving and unwavering mentor. She has even encouraged me to take on mentorship roles myself with aspiring conducting students at USC as part of the Thornton Mentorship Program, which has proved to be a very enriching experience of giving back and investing in the future of our art form.”
Carver says Kaziboni’s talent was easy to spot. “First of all, he had that percussionist incredible sense of rhythm. He was so expressive, and he was able to communicate with gesture just so naturally.”
She recalls him as a junior deciding to do a non-required project, staging Act II of The Marriage of Figaro, which was a huge undertaking. “Quite often, our conducting students are struggling to put an orchestra together because the students are busy,” says Carver. “Vimbayi was so well loved that everybody wanted to be part of this project. And he had never conducted opera before. Working with singers and conducting opera is much more challenging than simply conducting an orchestral program. You have to learn to breathe with the singers, you have to have a sort of sixth sense about working with them. And he had that immediately.”
His senior conducting recital was another extraordinary undertaking, she says. It was all contemporary music, with voices and various combinations of instruments. “I can’t even describe it,” says Carver. “He conducted a piece that involved not only conducting but playing, and even motion where at one point he was on the ground. It was choreographed, an unbelievable piece.
“And now he’s done just spectacular things in the world of contemporary music. He has a profound respect for music and a profound respect for the musicians that play it. That quality in a conductor is something that musicians can sense immediately. There’s a humility about him that is so endearing and yet he’s commanding on the podium. He’s truly my pride and joy as a conducting teacher.”
Erica Muhl, Dean of the Iovine and Young Academy, was another of Kaziboni’s professors at USC Thornton. “His musicianship was exceptional, as was his ability to apply a rare combination of passion, creativity and deep scholarly inquiry to fuel new boundaries and new explorations for his artistry,” she says. She adds his many accomplishments have come as no surprise to those who were part of his student journey, and says she is thrilled to be able to reconnect with him in her upcoming role as president of Berklee.
Another seminal influence at USC Thornton was famed composer and National Medal of Arts recipient Morten Lauridsen, who taught Kaziboni in his freshman music theory class, and later gave him private composition lessons. Kaziboni says Lauridsen’s lessons made a deep impression on him, and calls them “life impacting.
“We spoke about everything from music, art, politics, philosophy and life and how they all relate to our work. I grew personally and discovered a lot about myself in those weekly lessons. I learned from Morten Lauridsen about how to live a creative and ruminative life.”
Reached for comment, Lauridsen vividly recalled his first impressions of Kaziboni in his freshman theory class. That’s an accomplishment, because Lauridsen – despite his superstar status – insisted on teaching that early morning, five-times or three-times-a-week class for freshmen for more than 50 years. Kaziboni’s class included Jack Stulz (’10), a violist who became Kaziboni’s closest musical friend.
“That was really an exceptional class and both Jack and Vimbayi were standouts,” recalls Lauridsen. “We covered a lot of ground, and I remember very clearly that Vimbayi really embraced this class. He looked at all these projects that were given to him not as assignments so much but as knowledge, and he used that knowledge with great enthusiasm.
“One of our major projects was a huge one, to compose and orchestrate and conduct and record a set of variations over a passacaglia base. And Vimbayi was exceptionally good on that.”
Warmth and Kindness
Jack Stulz, contacted in Paris where he is a member of the new music group Ensemble Intercontemporain, said that several students in that freshman theory class with Lauridsen remained close during their years at USC Thornton and have stayed in contact, including having a Zoom reunion earlier this year.
While they were still USC Thornton students, he and Kaziboni started a new music ensemble in Los Angeles, What’s Next? Then, a few years after graduation, they auditioned for Ensemble Intercontemporain at the same time. Stulz remembers not sleeping because of jet lag and anticipation for his two-day audition, then staying up all night due to the excitement of winning, then not sleeping the next days due to anticipation for his friend’s audition, and then another sleepless night to celebrate Kaziboni winning his audition. “I’m pretty sure it was six to seven days straight without much sleep,” he recalls.
Kaziboni lived with Stulz when he came to Paris for his assistant conductor duties, and Stulz remembers inadvertently locking Kaziboni in his apartment and going off to rehearsal. Kaziboni had to throw the keys to someone in the street to come let him out.
“Vimbayi’s character is warmth and kindness, and he emanates that when he’s on stage,” Stulz observes. “He doesn’t just smile with his face; he smiles with his whole body. And he’s a very generous conductor. Very collaborative. The other quality anybody will instantly recognize is his honesty. He’s honest in conversation, he’s honest artistically. And that’s something we all respect.”
Stulz says he and his good friend like to have “big, grandiose arguments and passionate discussions” about music. An example of a subject they go head to head about is concert programming. “He’s someone who likes to have a theme for each program and have a reason for each piece,” says Stulz. “And I don’t know if I’m more romantic, but I’m thinking more about each piece itself as an individual experience.”
Kaziboni identifies another recurring argument the two friends have about what is more important, the process or the result. “It’s difficult to keep score because over the years we are each always changing our minds,” he says.
So what’s ahead for Kaziboni? In the coming months, he has a super-charged schedule. He’s collaborating with pioneering opera director Yuval Sharon on an inventive new production of La Bohème with the Michigan Opera Theatre, Boston Lyric Opera and the Spoleto Festival.
He’s conducting the world premiere of a work by Swiss composer Georg Frederich Haas at the Donaueschingen Festival in Germany, and the world premiere of a work by American composer George Lewis at South Bank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall in London.
He’s premiering a new work for orchestra by German composer and director, Heiner Goebbells with the Ensemble Modern at several European concert halls.
He will conduct a production of French composer Gerard Grisey’s orchestral magnum opus, “Les Espaces Acoustiques” in Switzerland.
And he has a forthcoming premiere with the San Francisco Symphony for a program curated by his friend and colleague, flutist Claire Chase.
It’s a fantastic group of assignments with celebrated orchestras from all over the globe and esteemed collaborators that include MacArthur “Genius” grantees, Guggenheim Fellows and National Medal of the Arts winners, but Kaziboni lists them simply.
That’s another quality he displayed at USC Thornton, says his major percussion professor, Erik Forrester. “It was very much Vimbayi’s mode not to talk about what he was doing,” Forrester says. “He would never ever come in and say ‘you wouldn’t believe what I did last week.’ He’s extremely humble.
“But from the beginning, there was so much talent there. It was almost uncontainable.”
As Morten Lauridsen sums up: “I’m not surprised at all that he’s gone on to such an illustrious career. I see all his accomplishments and they are just outstanding. Wow.”
USC Viterbi graduate Harmita Golwala hopes California’s cutting edge research on sustainability can ultimately impact environmental progress in India.
As an undergraduate in India, Harmita Golwala was naturally drawn to environmental problem solving. “I lived at a hostel and one thing I noticed is how much waste was collecting from leftover meals,” she said. “That triggered me.”
She researched existing solutions and their drawbacks. Then she created her own organic waste converter, taking all the leftover food waste and adding biomass to convert it into manure that could be used all around campus. While it was introduced at lab scale, these are the types of endeavors that continued to call to her—engineering solutions that could have a large scale and logical impact.
Golwala, who grew up in Bharuch in Gujarat, India, was always good at math and even dreamt of becoming a mathematician. But then she realized that applying her aptitude to engineering problems could have a great impact on the world. “There are so many things to innovate and actually learn, and there are always logical reasons behind that,” she said.
Surrounded by engineers—her father is a chemical engineer, and her sister is a software engineer—she found her own path. As soon as she realized her passion for environmental engineering, she knew she wanted to study at a university closer aligned with her interests. “I felt like in India, it is still developing, so there is not yet much focus on environmental research. From the beginning, I wanted to pursue research work and USC Viterbi was perfect from that perspective,” she said.
Golwala and her sister had been separated for over a decade, but when she started at USC, she went to live with her sister, who works with Comcast, in Irvine. There her passion for the environment grew through her appreciation of her beautiful natural surroundings: amazing beach sunsets and walks along her favorite beach in Southern California—Laguna.
Meanwhile, studying at the Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Golwala knew she wanted to find a research opportunity that could elevate her connection to environmental progress. As a member of Adam Smith’s research group, she worked on micro-plastics, which come from larger plastic and degrade into smaller and smaller pieces and contaminate the environment, including water sources.
“Most studies had focused on microplastics in marine systems, but our study looked at other major sources that contributed to water contamination. We investigated land-based sources like solid waste,” Golwala said. Like during her college days in India, Golwala focused on food waste, in particular.
When research was shut down due to the global pandemic, Golwala focused her efforts on writing up and sharing the results of this work. It was Golwala’s first peer-reviewed, published research paper that she also helped author, with the guidance of Smith and CEE post-doctoral scholar Syeed Md Iskander. Recently, she was awarded the USC Viterbi Master’s Student Research Award. “It was one of the most memorable moments I enjoyed at USC and one of the happiest,” Golwala said.
For Golwala, micropollutants like microplastic are of significant, long-term interest. “The treatment of wastewater is becoming more and more challenging,” she said. Membranes and other technologies are areas she hopes to continue to explore to help alleviate issues related to water scarcity and emerging contaminants. At the same time, she said that there needs to be more partnership between academia and industry.
“More research needs to be applied at the industrial scale, expanding past academia,” she said. “The transition from lab scale is still lacking—and we could be using these innovations to solve global problems,” she said.
Though India was lagging with environmental research, Golwala hopes that ultimately, she can bring back lessons learned from her work in the U.S. and apply it there. “I hope I can learn many things from here and contribute to India in the future, to provide impact for my home and its people,” she said.
Betty Thai earned a fellowship that could lead to a job as a U.S. diplomat, an ideal fit for the first-generation college student who wants to help solve global challenges.
Like many children of immigrant parents, Betty Thai grew up in the role of cultural navigator.
When it came time to enroll her in elementary school, her parents turned to her to do research and figure out which school to attend. At parent-teacher conferences, she translated between the authority figures in her life, from Chinese to English and back again. When important government documents arrived in the mail, a young Betty pored over the complicated language to figure out what her parents needed to do.
The family had to scrimp and save money when she was little, and she often had to look through the household bills. She would point out expensive charges to her mom, only to be told not to worry about it. “But now I knew this information,” Thai remembers, “and sometimes it would stress me out.”
That responsibility at a young age — as a crucial bridge between two worlds — made Thai deeply passionate about understanding cultural differences. It led her to USC, where she pursues undergraduate degrees in political science and East Asian languages and cultures at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. At the same time, she is working toward a master’s in law studies at the USC Gould School of Law.
The senior envisions a career devoted to exploring other cultures and advocating for vulnerable groups around the world. Others recognize her potential and passion, too. She studied abroad in China on a Gilman Scholarship in 2019 and recently received the prestigious Pickering Fellowship, which covers a two-year master’s degree followed by an overseas posting in the U.S. Foreign Service.
“I realized there are a lot of deep-rooted issues, especially facing underserved communities and minorities,” Thai said. “I want to get involved in politics to help solve those issues and address those structural barriers that people like my parents have to face.”
A child of immigrants finds her passion for cross-cultural exchange
Thai’s parents are both from Southern China and speak little English. Throughout her childhood in California’s San Fernando Valley — in places like Northridge, Van Nuys and Granada Hills — her mom was the family’s sole breadwinner.
In China, Thai’s mother had performed with well-known orchestras as a first-chair violinist. When she immigrated, however, she came up against culture and language barriers in the music world. So, she put herself through school and got an associate degree, Thai says. Now she works night shifts at a diagnostic testing company.
Although her mother pushes her intensely to excel, Thai said it makes sense: “She’s the hardest worker I know, sacrificing so much to create a better life for my brother and me. If she’s working this hard, I can do it, too.”
That work ethic started early. Instead of watching cartoons like many kids her age, Thai spent Saturday mornings at Chinese language school, studying Mandarin.
“But it got me fluent in reading, writing and speaking,” she says. “I want to continue that because I want to help the Chinese immigrant community. This is a skill I have, so why not use it?”
Those weekend studies have already paid off. While studying in China through her Gilman Scholarship, Thai became the de facto translator and navigator for her American classmates. In Chinese language class, she was the only student from the United States, and her peers would ask her about life and politics in America. She’d question them back about their own upbringing and culture.
“I realized there is so much more to this world that I want to see and learn about,” Thai said. “And I loved living internationally. What career would help me advocate for others and continue learning about new cultures and lifestyles?”
The answer came when she learned about the Pickering Fellowship.
Prestigious fellowship sets USC senior on track to U.S. Foreign Service
When Thai realized she wanted to pursue a career in international affairs, the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship Program became her top goal. The competitive fellowship encourages applications from women, people with financial needs and minority groups that have been historically underrepresented in the U.S. Department of State.
If she earned a coveted spot, her tuition and fees at a two-year master’s program in international affairs or a similar topic would be covered. She would also receive a stipend to cover living expenses and would complete two summer internships — first at the U.S. Department of State, then overseas at a U.S. embassy or consulate. In exchange, Thai would agree to spend at least five years as a foreign service officer after completing her degree.
“We need to have these international exchanges to broaden everyone’s horizons.”
She sent off her application but viewed it as a long shot. She didn’t even tell her mom she applied until the acceptance letter arrived in her email inbox.
“I told her: ‘Mom, by the way, I think I’m going to accept this to become a diplomat,’” Thai said. “She was so excited. She was a little upset because it means I won’t live near her anymore, but my whole family is very excited.”
Aspiring diplomat Betty Thai wants to help vulnerable groups around the world
After her master’s program, Thai will go abroad for five years, likely in two or three locations. If she still likes the international lifestyle after that, she envisions a career of service in the State Department. Other jobs appeal, too, like working for a think tank focused on international affairs. And she is especially interested in the relationship between China and the United States.
“From what I understand, the U.S.-China political circle is kind of a boys’ club,” she said. “I’m breaking into that boys’ club.”
Thai has been dismayed by certain hardline policies against China in recent years. In a research project she is now turning into a thesis, she examined the importance of cultural exchanges through study abroad programs. Many students who complete those programs go into diplomacy or international politics, she said.
“When they pulled the Fulbright [student exchange program] from Hong Kong, that was the opposite of what my research was telling me,” she said. “We need to have these international exchanges to broaden everyone’s horizons and really understand the other side of the story.”
Thai’s current goal is to become a political officer in the U.S. Foreign Service. She would analyze politics in her host country and send notes and recommendations back to leaders in Washington, D.C.
It would be an opportunity she’s dreamed about for years: “I could influence policies that can help underserved communities on an international scale.”
He watched Captain America tapes as a child until they wore out
Singapore—Yes, the country can take pride in our very own Marvel star, with Desmond Chiam’s recurring role in its latest series, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
Chiam, 33, who is of Singaporean descent but grew up in Australia, plays Dovich. And while he is not, strictly speaking, a superhero, he does have super-soldier abilities on the show.
Growing up, the actor spent a third of each year in Singapore, where his father worked. And, interestingly, his first career was in law after he graduated from the University of Melbourne.
And because the law failed to satisfy him, he went on to more creative fields such as breakdancing and then acting. Eventually, he went on to earn a master’s degree in screenwriting from the University of Southern California.
The actor recently took to social media to express how thrilled he is at being part of the Marvel family. On his Twitter account as well as on the popular Subtle Asian Traits Facebook page, he noted how far he’s come and how much the role in “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” means to him.
Posing with Captain America’s shield and calling himself “some random dude”, he explained why.
He wrote that he had been hesitant to post at all, because of “Years of keep-your-head-down culture. Years of being told never to be happy with second place, because it’s just a fancy way of saying you lost. Years of subscription to the idea that only when you’re the best are you even worthy of being seen.”
He also recognised the achievements of other Asian artists this year, with the film Minari winning big in last month’s Golden Globe awards, and Chinese Canadian actor Simu Liu slated to become the first-ever Asian lead in a Marvel movie for the upcoming “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”.
Compared to these highlights, his holding Captain America’s shield may not seem a lot, but Mr Chiam wrote “here I am attaining a bit of a childhood dream” because “Captain America was my favourite character growing up”.
As a child, he had got old VHS tapes of the superhero cartoon, both of which he watched “until they wore out.”
“In a really simple breakdown, his status as my fave makes sense. There were a lot of demands for excellence placed on me, both mentally and physically, growing up. What better idol than a guy whose power is being peak human? The best a human can be. If he could do it, I could do it.”
And, after he lost his best friend in an accident, the actor “turned back to early childhood crutches”.
He added, “Steve Rogers’ mate died and he became a superhero. I gotta stress – this is a terrible way to deal with trauma, so please – if you need help, seek help. I didn’t, but Cap as a totemic force kept me on the straight and narrow. At the very base level, he kept me functional. And from there I rebuilt and got my mind and body right.”
Chiam went on to talk about the difficulties of making it in Hollywood, and added that as he took the photo of himself holding Captain America’s shield, everything came flooding back.
This was when the prop man, also an Asian, and who seemed to understand the actor’s emotional state, gave him a paint fleck that had fallen off of the shield used in the first Captain America film.
“Tells me to put it in my phone case. ‘Now you got some OG Vibranium, dude.’
Straight up, tears,” the actor wrote.
At the end of his post, he wrote that Captain America means so much to him because of “his place as a human amongst literal gods.”
“For a guy who would be solidly below second on any tier list, he does all right. And I think that’s a message that means a lot to me, personally – I’m human, yeah, I’ve failed and lost and f*cked up a lot, either by standard metrics or the crazy Asian ones our parents pass down to us – but hey. It’s fine.
USC Dornsife junior Danika Banh created the Music Inspiring Community club to bring regular music lessons to underserved elementary school classrooms.
Once a week, kindergarteners at Los Angeles’ Dr. Theodore T. Alexander Jr. Science Center School log in to their computers for a music lesson. Through interactive games like Bingo and “hot and cold,” the children get introduced to music theory, music history and a variety of orchestral instruments.
Normally, these students would only receive one music lesson a month. Limited funding made weekly classes impossible for this school. Then, along came Danika Banh, a biological sciences major at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and a piano minor at the USC Thornton School of Music.
In 2019, Banh formed the club Music Inspiring Community, which matches USC student volunteers with elementary school classes to give a weekly lesson.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, they taught the music lesson in person, but the club has since switched their classes to Zoom. Banh concedes the new format isn’t always ideal, but it’s allowed her volunteers to continue an initiative she believes is a powerful boon to early education.
“With music, you’re learning another language, basically, because you have to learn how to read notes,” she explains. “It gives students patience and teaches them to cooperate with one another. They learn to listen, and then analyze and respond.”
Once in-person classes can resume, Banh hopes to expand the music lesson program to even more local elementary schools who are struggling to provide regular music classes.
Passing her good fortune on to others
Banh’s inspiration for the club was partly her parents. They’d both fled war-torn Vietnam as children, spent time in Malaysian refugee camps and eventually joined family in Southern California, where Banh was later born. Neither had ever had the opportunity to learn to play an instrument themselves, so they made sure Banh had lessons as a child.
She studied piano and played marimba in her high school marching band. “I really love the camaraderie of the large group and playing with everyone else. It gives you that feeling of teamwork and helps you build your skills in leadership and confidence,” says Banh.
As a freshman at USC, she taught science lessons to elementary students through USC Dornsife’s Joint Educational Project. “I was talking with the teacher and she told me they had a music teacher who came in only once a month. I thought, ’How can they really learn anything in the span of an hour a month and retain it?’” says Banh.
She thought about her own parents, who had never been offered the chance to learn to play and how fortunate she was to get an opportunity herself. “I was very privileged to have music as a fundamental part of my life since I was very young,” she says.
Banh talked with friends who also had a musical background but who, like Banh, felt too committed to studies to dedicate themselves to a musical group. They decided to pitch to the university the idea of a club that would match USC students to local classrooms for music education. Music Inspiring Community began. The group now teaches hour long lessons to kindergarten and first-grade classes at the science center school.
The switch-up during the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t the first time the group has made adaptations to their teaching format. They initially offered lessons on the USC campus, but with parking and accessibility a challenge, they switched to teaching in the classroom. The school is within walking distance of campus, which makes for an easy commute.
Zoom lessons do have advantages. Banh says it’s allowed her volunteers to bring in more guest performers, often fellow USC music students, to showcase their instrument — which sometimes produces moments of hilarity.
“One of my session members plays the clarinet and when all the kids see it they’re like, ‘Squidward, he’s just like Squidward!’” says Banh, referencing the clarinet-playing character of the SpongeBob SquarePants cartoon.
It’s a testament to the joy of teaching that her volunteers, despite Zoom fatigue from their own classes, expressed disappointment when they learned their semester was coming to an end. At a recent online meeting, when Banh told them the next week was their last, all of the volunteers collectively unmuted and shouted, “No!”
Once coronavirus restrictions ease, the volunteers will head back into the classroom, where they can resume popular activities like building pan pipes out of paper. Banh is also raising funds to purchase instruments, perhaps clappers or shakers, that will let students keep rhythm and play as a group, just the sort of experience Banh benefited from during her own childhood.
As the child of refugees from Vietnam, Vanessa “Vanni” Le held two very important jobs for most of her youth: interpreter and advocate for her parents. “There are people out there who would judge my parents’ intelligence based on the way they speak English,” said Le, who was born in Orange County, California and moved to Tampa, Florida when she was 7. “It was really frustrating to see them have to work 10 times harder to make up for such an arbitrary skill and have to prove themselves.”
Le came to USC excited to return to her native West Coast and driven to continue to advocate for people — “without having a comprehensive understanding of who exactly I was advocating for,” she said.
She arrived on campus in 2015 as a public relations major on a pre-law track, with the hope of emulating the crisis communication skills of Olivia Pope from the ABC hit television drama Scandal. Within her second semester, she realized that law wasn’t for her, but stayed focused on PR. “I wanted to learn more about advocacy communication, and how to communicate, not just on the page, but verbally and through other mediums as well,” she said. “I really want to create social impact in some way.”
One of her defining experiences while at USC Annenberg was the research work she did with Stacy Smith, the founder and director of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative (AII). As part of her internship with AII, Le watched movies — frame by frame — to determine a character’s race, gender, sexual orientation, as well as other factors including disability. “I seemed to be constantly checking the box, ‘No, there is no diversity,’” she said. “It was really disappointing, but also made me think how important it is to see yourself represented in the media, not just in front of the camera, but behind it as well.”
During her four years at USC Annenberg, Le worked with her academic advisor to make sure that the many AP and IB credits she took in high school counted towards her college credits and then planned a schedule that “really, really fit.” She earned a bachelor’s degree in 2018 after three years and added on a master’s degree in digital social media.
In her graduate work, Le was looking to expand her understanding of how communication in society was rapidly changing. “I remember real-life examples coming up in my classes,” she said. “We talked about the legalities of Peloton classes. Is it live streaming? Is there copyright infringement of the song, and if so, what does that mean? As well as all these really relevant problems today. Too be able to discuss that in an academic setting with other people who care and are as interested in that as I am, was really, really great.”
While at USC, Le also took advantage of a variety of internships, including two in the entertainment field. She was a franchise management intern for Disney during her junior year and then moved on to intern at Sony when she entered the master’s program in 2018. There, she worked as a strategic alliances graduate intern.
All of these seemingly “random skills” Le said she acquired from USC Annenberg, went “toward being who I am as a person and also helped make me a competitive employee.” Upon graduation in 2019, Le worked at A+E Networks as a consumer enterprises coordinator and then in late 2020 was hired at RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to advance opportunities for, and fight stigmas against, people with disabilities. As their entertainment outreach program manager in their entertainment media department, Le is tasked with consulting with the networks and major studios on projects that feature people with disabilities.
Le went on to say that she doesn’t think she would have been hired if not for the skills she gained at USC Annenberg through her coursework, AII, and the many internships she chose. “Annenberg really taught me how to do essentially everything related to coordination, project management, communication — and how to be incredibly adaptable,” she said. “I was also able to get certified in Photoshop and InDesign through the Digital Lounge, which was a requirement for this position.”
As far as her new job at RespectAbility, Le said it was a “dream come true. While we have a long, long way to go as far as diversity is concerned, I think it’s really great that strides are already being made. And that I also get to be part of the fight too.”
As they commission during a pandemic, the three international relations majors remember what brought them to USC while looking positively toward the future.
Between the three of them, they speak nine languages. All have family ties to Asia and grew up in the United States. This year, they graduated with degrees in international relations from USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and commission in the U.S. Air Force, launching military leadership careers in the midst of COVID-19.
Inkoo Kang, Sean Liew and Jong Su Kim are among a handful of USC Air Force ROTC cadets that comprise the Class of 2020. The three friends are so close that they can make each other laugh with just a gesture or an expression. They share a worldview that is both positive and realistic, yet each has his own story to tell.
Inkoo Kang: Curious, ambitious and grateful
When he was 4, Kang’s parents brought their son and daughter from South Korea to New York, then Kansas City. When he was 13, his father returned to South Korea for professional reasons.
“That sort of ripped the Band-Aid off, made me grow up fast and forced me to lead from a young age,” Kang said. “Before he left to go back to Korea, my dad told me I was the man of the house. I couldn’t let the family down, and that still resonates.”
Admitted as one of the first ROTC Warren Bennis scholars at USC in 2016, Kang is modest about his list of impressive accomplishments. He is fluent in three languages and recognized as a distinguished graduate of Air Force ROTC, an honor reserved for the top 10% of all graduating cadets in the U.S. He has a slot to become an intelligence officer, and he will head to San Angelo, Texas, after he’s commissioned.
“I’m curious, I’m ambitious, but I’m also very grateful,” he said. “Very few have the education I’ve had or the parents I’ve had. I’m going to serve the greatest military in the world. It’s something I believe in.”
Sean Liew: Piloting in a time of instability
Born in Hong Kong, Liew emigrated with his family when he was 4.
“I struggled growing up. Kids made fun of me, as kids do, because I didn’t speak English. That sort of thing allowed me to become the person I am now,” he said.
Liew joined Air Force ROTC after he enrolled in a community college. Two years in, he transferred to USC.
“It brought together the best of both worlds: USC and my dream of flying,” he said.
The only one of the trio who will train as a pilot, Liew starts training in the fall. He believes the COVID-19 pandemic has forever changed both the world and his future as a service member.
“It’s more than just a disease or a virus,” he said. “It will have long-term destabilizing effects. Being in the military, we’ll be at the forefront of that, making sure the United States stays safe, and we take that very seriously.”
Jong Su Kim: At a young age, understood the value of the military
Unlike his two colleagues, Kim began life in the U.S. Born in Yuma, Ariz., he moved with his family to San Diego as a child. His father worked in Mexico, and the two saw each other only about once a week.
“Growing up, my dad would say, ‘Repeat after me: I’m joining the military,’” Kim said. “That sort of thing can have the opposite effect on a kid. But my parents’ view of the military is a bit different because service is obligatory in Korea. It’s not viewed the same way, not valorized like it is here.”
A bit more reserved than his two colleagues, Kim, who also earned a master’s in geospatial intelligence, spent his first year at USC “ROTC free.” He started his college career with an interest in public service and diplomacy, then started considering Air Force ROTC after talking with a friend in the Naval Academy.
Like Kang, Kim is headed for Goodfellow Air Force Base in Texas to train as an intelligence officer.
“Most of my graduating friends are scrambling, and they don’t know if or when they’ll have jobs,” he said. “Commissioning in the midst of COVID, we’re entering one of the more secure workforces because it’s tied to national security. This is what we signed up for.”
Katherine Ho, a former contestant on The Voice, recorded the demo for hours while her parents coached her Mandarin dialect over the phone
Trojans watching Crazy Rich Asians on the big screen should listen carefully to its score. They might recognize a voice or two on the soundtrack.
From Twitter to Cosmopolitan to The Washington Post, the internet is blowing up about one of the songs in the film’s final scenes, a cover of Coldplay’s “Yellow” sung by USC alumna Katherine Ho.
Ho, a past contestant on NBC’s The Voice, remembers when she got wind of the gig. A director from A Cappella Academy, a summer camp she went to in high school, called to ask if she could sing in Mandarin and if would she be interested in recording a demo for an unidentified film or TV project.
Ho, who grew up singing in Mandarin, jumped at the chance.
“I recorded it in a practice room on campus the day [he] texted me,” said Ho, a biology major who wants to minor in songwriting.
She recorded the song for hours, while her parents, who immigrated to the U.S. from China, coached her dialect over the phone. She was so tired she passed out and woke up in the room at 7 a.m. the next day, she told the Post.
A surreal meeting before recording ‘Yellow’ from Crazy Rich Asians
She had no idea what it was for and didn’t have high hopes.
“I’ve auditioned for a lot of stuff,” she said. “I just tried to move on from it.”
But then one night, while doing homework, she got an email saying she got the job. They needed her to come in to do the final recording.
“I didn’t know what it was for until the car ride there,” she said. “One of the Warner Bros. executives called and told me what it was for and I totally lost it. Constance Wu is one of my all time idols — not just as an actress but as an activist and person in general.”
When Ho got to the recording studio, director Jon M. Chu — a USC alum — was there. It all kind of sunk in.
“It was just so surreal,” she said. “It was hard not to be nervous after I found out what it was for.”
Ho has seen the movie five times. She saw it first with another Trojan, Cheryl Koh, who goes by Cheryl K and sang the song “Money” for the film.
While the term yellow is often used as a slur against Asians, Chu wrote to Coldplay for permission to use the song — and re-appropriate the word.
“I know it’s a bit strange, but my whole life I’ve had a complicated relationship with the color yellow,” he wrote in the letter, according to The Hollywood Reporter. “From being called the word in a derogatory way throughout grade school, to watching movies where they called cowardly people yellow, it’s always had a negative connotation in my life. That is, until I heard your song.”
It changed the way he saw the word, he said: “The color of the stars, her skin, the love. It was an incredible image of attraction and aspiration that it made me rethink my own self image.”
Coldplay reportedly approved the request a day later.
Ho’s dad is her biggest fan
The song Ho sang is based off a cover sung on China’s version of The Voice.
For Ho, it’s special to a sing a song she’s loved since she was a kid growing up in Thousand Oaks, in the native tongue of her parents.
“I really do think being Chinese-American is a separate identity from being just American or just Chinese. I think the song is symbolic of this. It’s this classic Western hit with Mandarin lyrics,” she said. “It sounds cheesy. I really never have been more proud of my Asian-American identity until I saw this film.”
And now she has a whole new set of fans — and some she’s always had, like her dad.
“My dad told me — he has a long commute to work — he told me he’s been listening every day,” she told Cosmo.
Shortly after visionary founder Glorya Kaufman made her gift to establish the University of Southern California’s School of Dance in 2012, Dean Robert Cutietta, Founding Director Jodie Gates and Glorya Kaufman herself flew to Frankfurt, Germany to meet with William Forsythe, one of the dance world’s foremost choreographers. According to Cutietta, their purpose was to seek his advice on starting a new dance school.
From their ensuing conversations, it was clear that Forsythe’s enthusiasm and vision for the future of dance would help create the foundation of a unique and influential school. A year after that visit, Forsythe officially joined USC Kaufman as the recipient of the inaugural Claude and Alfred Mann Endowed Professorship in Dance and became a major force in laying the groundwork for the School of Dance.
An influential partnership begins
Forsythe and Kaufman have enjoyed a collaboration of the heart since that first encounter. She recalls having dinner with Gates and Forsythe at her favorite restaurant, Il Piccolino, when Forsythe signed his contract with USC. “I screamed with joy,” she said. “Bill knew how much his involvement meant to me from a deeply personal perspective, as well as the stature we both knew he would bring the project. He wanted me to be there for that moment.”
In addition to “sharing wonderful conversations over dinner,” one of Kaufman’s favorite memories during Forsythe’s time at the School of Dance included an “unforgettable Cinderella moment,” in which the two danced together at USC Kaufman’s opening on October 5, 2016. According to Kaufman, “few people at his level are as thoughtful and generous as Bill. I treasure him and all that he has brought to our new school, to our students and to the future of dance.”
Cutietta also spoke to Forsythe’s generosity of spirit. “He cared so deeply about the school and the students that he was in the classroom with them on the very first class of the very first day that the school opened in fall 2015,” he said.
The School of Dance opens its doors
Gates, who has known Forsythe since she was 18 years old, recalls standing with him that first day in the USC Physical Education Building, where dance majors took classes until the Glorya Kaufman International Dance Center opened in fall 2016. In the empty studio, they were preparing to co-teach ballet for the first time. Gates remembers holding her breath, waiting for the inaugural Class of 2019 to show up ready to dance.
“We were just hoping that the vision was going to work,” she said. “I have taught ballet classes my whole career, but both of us were nervous. I remember how beautiful it was as we were circling the room. He was on one side and I was on the other. I’d give the combinations, and he’d be coaching. I realized this is such a beautiful space to be in with this very reciprocal respect for one another.”
When the School of Dance officially opened its doors in 2015, Glorya Kaufman’s generosity ensured that future students would experience the joy and intellect of dance through its BFA program. She applauded Forsythe’s early contributions to USC Kaufman as an internationally acclaimed artist.
“Bill Forsythe made a name for himself on a global scale, yet returned to the United States to teach a new generation of artists and thought leaders,” Kaufman said. “He promotes reinvention through his groundbreaking work in ballet. This empowers students in the classroom and beyond. His time at USC produced a refreshed approach to collegiate dance that cannot be found anywhere else.”
Providing foundational knowledge
Forsythe played an integral role in providing foundational knowledge for USC Kaufman in its infancy. From the beginning, Forsythe has imparted his modern wisdom on the School of Dance in his approaches to ballet, improv, composition and more. Now, as he prepares to move on from USC Kaufman after this semester, his colleagues celebrate his lasting impact.
Saleemah E. Knight, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Dance, joined USC Kaufman as a Founding Faculty Member in its early days. She remembers regular conversations with Forsythe in her office centered on the trajectory between contemporary ballet and jazz, her specialty, at the School of Dance. Through their collaboration, Knight understood Forsythe’s intent to provide young dancers with more agency in the studio by deconstructing the traditional, strict standards of ballet.
“He made dance accessible to all bodies. He saw all the students in the room as their own unique, valuable individual,” Knight said. “Everyone in the professional world knows him as William Forsythe, but at USC Kaufman he’s Grandpa Bill. He didn’t have an air of superiority with the students. He kept a sense of professionalism, and also made the students feel very comfortable talking to him.”
Broadening “The New Movement”
Like Knight, Jackie Kopcsak, Assistant Dean of Faculty, acknowledged that Forsythe championed greater autonomy for students in the classroom. Kopcsak also noted that this practice can be rare in the ballet world, but it smoothly aligned with “The New Movement,” USC Kaufman’s model for dance education. She also explained that during his time at the School of Dance, Forsythe envisioned the interplay of distinct disciplines. Even as a ballet maker, he was a strong advocate for the addition of hip-hop to USC Kaufman’s curriculum, Kopcsak said.
“Bill appreciated the musicality and improvisational elements of the hip-hop cypher,” she said. “Those things coupled with his philosophy about improvisation, composition and music fit perfectly with our hip-hop curriculum. It made this interesting synergy with the best of both worlds. His legacy is for us to continue to bring what can feel like the binary, these extreme opposites of ballet and hip-hop, together to meet.”
Shaping artist scholars
At USC Kaufman, the faculty aims to build their students into artist scholars. These are intellectual dancers thinking in real time about their work and offering input to professors as they learn. Margo Apostolos, a Professor of Dance, saw this goal in Forsythe’s approach with students.
“Working with Bill Forsythe has been a true privilege and honor,” she said. “I have enjoyed watching him work with our dancers as he broadened their creativity and inspired their work. As a colleague, I most enjoyed my conversations with Bill and exchanging ideas and laughter.”
Forsythe’s legacy at USC Kaufman
Cutietta recognizes the enduring influence Forsythe leaves on the school and its curriculum. His insight has cultivated modern techniques that revolve around student curiosity and growth that shapes USC Kaufman’s path forward.
“Bill Forsythe is skilled not only at articulating his vision, but also in helping students understand their true potential. His presence has contributed to new discoveries in the studio and widened the scope of ‘The New Movement.’ He has been fully engaged in their learning and we are forever grateful for his contributions to USC Kaufman.”
Forsythe’s latest project with CLI Studios, “The Barre Project (Blake Works II),” premieres March 25 and March 27, 2021. Watch the trailer below and RSVP for live streaming here.
Industrial and systems engineering student Carlos Acosta is active in a range of student organizations, as well as much-needed volunteer relief efforts for his homeland of Venezuela.
Venezuela is presently in the grip of a heartbreaking humanitarian crisis amid the political turmoil that has gripped the country for over a decade. Severe shortages of food, medication, fuel and other essential items, on top of widespread unemployment have forced over five million Venezuelans to leave the country since 2015 to escape ongoing starvation and unrest. The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 has only amplified the crisis for a country in which there has been an 85% shortage of all medicines.
Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering undergraduate student Carlos Acosta immigrated to the USA with his family when he was just nine. Seeing his home country continue to go through so much devastation in recent years spurred him into action.
Since 2015, Acosta has been an active volunteer for All for Venezuela, a Southern California-based organization that offers support to alleviate the humanitarian crisis and raise awareness about the plight of Venezuelans.
“As a Venezuelan, I have always felt a sense of responsibility to give back to my community given the current political circumstances,” Acosta said. “Being in a position of privilege having moved to the United States at a young age, I try to do my best to support the Venezuelan people because we have all had to sacrifice our family, our home, our health, to some extent our traditions, and much more.”
Acosta said that he and his All for Venezuela colleagues gather a range of goods including food, medical supplies, clothing, and monetary donations, which go directly to Venezuelans in need. The teams then sort the donations, pack them for shipment and arrange them in their designated warehouse to be sent.
“Personally, I focus on the collection of donations at the end of a school year as people move out of their apartments,” Acosta said. “Currently, during the pandemic, we have been receiving donations, sorting them, and preparing them in boxes so they can be shipped. Additionally, in moments of crises, we also send donations to other places in grave need such as Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.”
Acosta is also the first member of his family to study for a bachelor’s degree, which has made him acutely aware of the needs of first-generation students, and all the more determined to support them. He works as a student leader within the First-Generation Student Leadership Program (FGSLP) at USC, where he mentors students and supports them on their academic journey.
“Alongside the other phenomenal first-gen student leaders, I act as an aid during orientation,” Acosta said. “We provide insight to the first-generation student experience at USC through panelist events, guide students through difficult times, provide resources, and host events for students to earn skills and meet other first-gens.”
Acosta is also Social Media and Communications Co-lead within the program, responsible for outreach to the community via social channels such as their @USC FirstGen Instagram.
“We make videos teaching students how to access USC resources, scholarship application deadlines and information, mentoring services, and we host takeovers to showcase our first-generation community, and much more,” Acosta said.
For Acosta, one of the most satisfying aspects of his involvement as a first generation mentor is the chance to support people in the same position he once was in–unable to turn to parents for support because they hadn’t gone through the college experience.
“As first-generation students, we have to walk the extra mile to just have access to resources,” Acosta said. “I feel proud to be part of a group that supports one another and that we help each other up to be as successful as possible.”
After Acosta’s first semester at USC, he was awarded a Norman Topping Student Aid Fund Scholarship, which he described as one of the biggest blessings of his academic career. This also prompted him to act as a mentor to new scholarship students, offering advice and support and information about accessing resources.
Acosta also participates in other student organizations, including QuEST, which supports LGBTQ+ engineers and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), which advances Latinx participation in the industry. Acosta said a key highlight for him has been the opportunity to attend the SHPE National Convention where he took part in workshops and talks and networked with fellow students and companies. He also takes part in classes and community events as a Latino Alumni Association scholar.
“I have received the guidance of some of the most amazing mentors within the Latino Alumni Association that have supported me during my academic journey leading me to the position I am in today,” Acosta said.
Trojan alumnae and former foster youth Carmen and Lucero Noyola leaned on the Trojan Guardian Scholars for guidance and support. Now they’re returning the favor.
Two sisters came to USC with hopes of making a better life for themselves. If you hear them tell their stories, you might be amazed they made it to college at all.
Both had been in and out of juvenile hall and foster care. As teenagers, they became single moms.
And both left USC with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in 2019.
Twin sisters Carmen and Lucero Noyola worked hard. But they never pretend they did it on their own. They credit much of their success to their USC supporters at Trojan Guardian Scholars.
When they felt overwhelmed, alone or unsure where to turn for help at USC, friends at the program, known informally as TGS, stepped in to guide them. The initiative has helped hundreds of college students who went through homelessness or foster care. Jasmine Torres — a former foster youth who became a student at USC — founded Trojan Guardian Scholars some seven years ago.
Now that the two sisters are alumni, they have a chance to give back. They recently had the opportunity to donate money to a deserving organization as part of a fellowship in a national philanthropic network, and they knew right away what to do.
“We love TGS, and we’ve felt its love for us,” Lucero said. “We just want to see it continue at USC. We don’t want people to forget that this community with unique needs still exists.”
Trojan Guardian Scholars helps former foster youth thrive at USC
Lucero felt stressed and confused about college life when she first arrived at USC. Many college students feel that way, but Lucero faced challenges most classmates didn’t understand.
Growing up in South Gate, Calif., she had been in trouble with the law as a young teen, then lived in a foster care group home. She got pregnant at 18 and had her daughter, Aurora. That gave her a new perspective — and the motivation to pursue education as a way to start anew. Lucero studied hard at East Los Angeles College and transferred to USC.
But she had to commute two hours from transitional housing to get to campus. Aurora needed a babysitter while Lucero took classes and studied. She knew she qualified for government support and resources, but nobody knew how to help.
Then she heard about Torres, another USC student who also grew up in foster care. Torres had just started Trojan Guardian Scholars to support other undergraduates like her. Lucero attended the program’s first meeting and soon got assistance with childcare, financial aid and other resources. She also found companionship and understanding.
“Most of the students we serve have already overcome great difficulty in their life to get to where they are, so our program is really here to help them make sure they have the additional resources and adequate support to be successful while on campus,” said Flavio Guzman Magaña, program coordinator. “There are so many different challenges when students are former foster youth, including how they apply to college and financial aid and other things most students don’t necessarily think about.”
Education becomes lifeline for twin sisters
As Lucero began to chart a new path for herself, her twin sister, Carmen, took notice. She also had brushes with the juvenile justice system, lived in foster care and got pregnant as a teenager. She finished high school and took a few community college classes as she tried to provide for her young son, Adam, as a street vendor and retail worker.
“It was very much the feeling of family and acceptance — somewhere you could feel comfortable.”
She had married her son’s father. But serious relationship issues soon led her to cut off contact and seek a fresh start. Lucero had just been accepted to USC, and Carmen felt inspired.
“I wanted to go to USC, too,” she said. “I had seen my sister do it, so I knew I could do it.”
Carmen charted a similar path: She started at East Los Angeles College and jumped to USC. Trojan Guardian Scholars helped her make an even bigger leap: TGS supporters figured out child care for Adam so his mom could travel for a summer fellowship in Taiwan.
“It was very much the feeling of family and acceptance — somewhere you could feel comfortable,” she said.
Sisters find support and strength through Trojan Guardian Scholars
But because they both graduated in the same year, Lucero could only drop by Carmen’s ceremony briefly before running to her own. Only a few family members could be with them to celebrate their achievement, primarily their kids.
“I was able to take my son on stage with me, which was really nice,” Carmen said. “But the reality is people didn’t understand what was going on.”
She felt deflated until she attended a special graduation celebration later with supporters, staff members and other students from TGS.
“It felt like there were people there cheering you on and loving on you — people who had supported you all along,” Carmen said. “Now I always really look forward to TGS graduations.”
Lucero had a similar experience. When buying her cap and gown for commencement, she saw many parents purchasing frames for degrees and other special graduation gifts. She would have felt left out, except TGS helped pay for her regalia. The small gesture meant a great deal, she said: “TGS stepped in at that moment as a parent.”
Donation will help USC program support former foster youth
As the Noyola sisters grew and gained new skills, TGS grew alongside them. Guzman Magaña noted the program now serves five times as many students compared to when it began.
“I feel very lucky to have the experience of working with students like Carmen, Lucero and so many others who have overcome so much and found a way to be successful,” he said. “But there’s a lot more work to be done. We need to continue to show others that USC is a school for everybody.”
And Carmen and Lucero are doing their part. They both landed three-year fellowships with the Youth Transition Funders Group. This national network brings together philanthropists, foundations and other funders to support vulnerable young people. As part of their fellowship, the Noyolas helped lead the process of awarding a grant — from searching for deserving organizations to presenting their proposal to the group’s board of directors.
“We knew we wanted to support an organization that was small, grassroots and student-led,” Lucero said. “That’s how we picked TGS.”
The sisters got approval for their plan and recently sent the official donation announcement to TGS. The $6,000 gift will go a long way toward supporting other USC students with similar backgrounds as they pursue their degrees. But the Noyolas know their work must continue.
“We know TGS needs so much more,” Carmen said. “We want to leverage this gift as a way to highlight the program and get more support. This community is still at USC and still in need.”
Patrice Washington started her career before graduating college.
The USC grad became a real estate broker while juggling classes and homework during her senior year.
After graduating in 2003, Washington opened her own boutique real estate and mortgage brokerage. She immediately had to hire employees to keep up with demand.
By 2007, she had made millions and reinvested all of her earnings into 13 investment properties.
Then the housing market crashed, and Washington’s company went out of business. The real estate she had parked her cash in was now worth a fraction of what she paid.
Today, the 39-year-old Washington is a successful entrepreneur, bestselling author and podcast host. Check out this video to learn how she rebuilt her life after losing everything and to hear her advice for anyone struggling in the coronavirus economy.
Associate Professor of Theatre Practice John DeMita loops students and alumni in with his Netflix directorial projects.
Step into the booth of a recording studio with Associate Professor of Theatre Practice John DeMita and you’ll soon realize that well-dubbed voice work is an artform that takes a tremendous amount of skill.
“The dubber must not only honor the choices of the actor on screen, but also create a completely natural and personal performance of their own. It is very much the balance of intuition and technique, just like any form of acting on stage or screen,” he explains.
A seasoned voice actor, as well as a screen and stage actor and director, DeMita has lent his voice to hundreds of television series, films and video games, while teaching and directing at USC. His most recent role, however, is serving as a voice director for Netflix International Originals.
For Netflix, DeMita works with original talent and local voice actors to create English language dubs for films and television shows worldwide. Projects include films My Happy Family (Georgia), The Resistance Banker (Netherlands); and television shows Bordertown (Finland) and My Holo Love (Korea); among others.
During a typical recording session, DeMita shows the voice actor the scene in the original language while their lines scroll at the bottom in English. He then discusses major events of the scene, with a particular attention to transitions and beat changes, and other details like the distance between actors and background noises.
“Successful voice acting involves breath and articulation control, textual and rhetorical analysis, rigorous focus, and fearless improvisation,” says DeMita, citing that all of these as invaluable skills students learn at the USC School of Dramatic Arts. That’s why the professor looks to alumni and students when he is casting for voice work.
“While the job is matching someone else’s voice, there’s so much more than just the voice that goes into creating any performance. So being able to feel out another actor’s physical experience while voicing the English words is helpful,” Connor Kelly-Eiding BFA ’11 says.
The alumna — who auditioned and landed the English dub role for lead character Lea on Netflix’s We Are the Wave — has found her theatre training helpful in this line of work. At USC, she not only refined her ability to cold read, and maintain focus and presence, but also found that “there is a bodily awareness instilled by theatrical training that definitely comes in handy [with dubbing].”
While a student at SDA, Evan Macedo BA ’20 was cast in the Spanish melodrama Elite as the English dub for principal character Ander, as well as voice work for We Are the Wave.
“John’s voice class taught me all the skills, vocabulary and mindset to be able to confidently walk into any booth and understand what is expected of me,” he says.
For Angie Sarkisyan BA ’19, working with the familiar presence in a professional setting allowed her to excel.
“Going in, I knew I was in good hands even though I was really nervous. It was John’s talent as a director and the love he has for the art that really helped me to get out of my head and do my best,” says Sarkisyan about her voice work as Zazie on We Are the Wave. She also worked with DeMita on a second Netflix project, the recently premiered Brazilian drama Good Morning, Verônica.
With COVID-19 altering the process, DeMita now works from home to limit the number of people in studio. His office looks a lot like NASA mission control, he says, with numerous mics and monitors. In one of the bedrooms, he even has a recording booth set up.
For the German series Dark, all of the actors recorded from home — including Associate Professor of Theatre Practice Laura Flanagan, who was cast as a new character in the series. Some were equipped with professional booths, while others recorded from their bedroom closets.
“It was a constant challenge, negotiating internet speeds and ambient noises, but with the help of an excellent mixer, the show sounds great,” DeMita says.
While directing the show, DeMita spent his evenings directing an Asian American voice cast in the dub of the Korean film Time to Hunt. “It was an intense period, working 10-hour days, trying to make up for the lost time due to the first weeks of COVID,” he says.
Being a professor and a practitioner of the craft, DeMita has kept a busy schedule, to say the least, but both have kept his career fulfilling.
“In [their] senior year, my students focus on developing a deep understanding of why they have chosen to be artists. That answer for me has always been a need to help others tell their stories. Teaching has allowed me to do that for my entire career and I am very grateful.”
The USC alumna and former dean helps minorities enter the social work field.
When Barbara Solomon PhD ’66 joined USC’s social work faculty in the 1960s, the nation seemed at a turning point.
In that time of activism, social workers fought against poverty and pushed for civil rights. “The social work profession had begun to define institutional racism,” Solomon says.
Fast forward two decades. When USC leaders wanted to establish a scholarship to encourage more minorities to enter social work, they asked Solomon to consider lending her name to it. Solomon’s reputation as an advocate for underrepresented minority families made her a natural for the honor. She had become the first African-American dean at USC in the 1980s, heading the USC Graduate School.
She ultimately agreed to lend not just her name, but also her support. She approached others in the community to contribute, and recently pledged $25,000 of her own money to the scholarship fund, serving as an example of social workers who give back to others.
The Barbara Solomon Endowed Scholarship is awarded to African-American students pursuing a Master of Social Work at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work with an interest in working within the African-American community. Today, under Dean Marilyn Flynn’s transformational leadership, the school has expanded its focus, building programs serving veterans and their families and introducing an online nursing degree. The school holds a reputation for building social work knowledge and expertise that serves diverse communities.
Says Solomon: “I see the need for African-American social workers, who understand the communities and can communicate with the residents, as even greater now than it has ever been.”
Adela Steinman was the lone female graduate in the School of Engineering’s 251-member Class of 1947, and one of the first women to earn a bachelor of engineering degree from USC
In the black-and-white graduation photo, she’s impossible to miss.
The petite 21-year-old stands front and center, surrounded by a sea of 250 men who earned bachelor of engineering degrees from the University of Southern California in 1947.
The Los Angeles Times reported then that Adela Wolf was the lone “girl” in that year’s graduating class, referring to the Brooklyn native as a “brunette miss.” Now Adela Steinman, she was one of the first female graduates of what is now the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.
For that graduation ceremony, she wore a dress she made from fabric her father had bought her and navy blue high heels that her classmates jokingly passed around after she took them off following the long walk from the engineering school to the ceremony at the L.A. Coliseum.
“A lot of the guys in my graduating class were older — many had been in the (military),” said Steinman, who celebrated her 90th birthday in February.
Although today 18 percent to 20 percent of engineering students in the U.S. are women, there were almost none just after the end of World War II.
“I think there was a woman in the 1930s who was the first to graduate from the USC School of Engineering — I think I was the third or fourth,” Steinman said during a recent visit in her two-bedroom condominium near Beverly Hills.
The first in her family to attend college, she considers the quality of her education at USC very good.
“I had some very devoted professors,” she said. Nonetheless, she added, “Looking back, I think the professors were harder on me than they were with the boys. And they were very lenient with the boys who had been in the service.”
Besides the passing-around-the-high-heels incident, Steinman said she mostly was treated like just one of the guys during her two-plus years as an industrial engineering major at USC, following some college classes in New York.
“I don’t know why,” she said of the male-dominated environment, “but I just didn’t feel uncomfortable.”
Her role model?
Eleanor Roosevelt, the progressive and independent-minded first lady from 1933 to 1945.
Coming to California
Steinman was 19 when her father, a cab driver, relocated the family to live near relatives in Southern California after he lost his job at a Navy shipyard. Morris Wolf opened a store near Little Tokyo that sold used clothing. Her mother, Caroline, also worked — which helps explain how Adela ended up at USC.
“When it came to an education for me and my sister,” said Steinman, referring to her younger sister, Muriel, who became a nurse, “there was no limit to (financial support from our parents).”
Tuition was $500 per semester at USC in the mid-1940s — at the time, a lot of money. But why engineering?
“My mother and father decided I should take it up,” Steinman said. “They said to me, ‘You’re going to be an engineer.’”
The idea didn’t totally come out of left field. As a child, Steinman had excelled at science and math. And her father was “very much into science” but drove a cab to support the family.
“He always wanted to be an engineer,” Steinman said, “and I was supposed to be a boy.”
At USC, Steinman was very active in Hillel, the Jewish student organization. Today, Jewish students account for about 12 percent of USC’s total enrollment.
“I had a very good friend — he was Italian,” Steinman recalled. “We broke our friendship off because we started to get too close. He would never marry someone who wasn’t Catholic, and I would never marry someone who wasn’t Jewish.”
She remembers playing a lot of bridge in the community room of the engineering building — maybe too much. She blames the game for causing her to fail Material and Processes —her only F.
“I needed to pass that course to graduate,” Steinman said, “so I took it again. I think I got a C.”
After graduating, Steinman wanted to go to work in the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. But that didn’t work out, so she latched on to a career in accounting, which was part of her curriculum at USC and one of her favorite classes. She took some extra accounting classes at UCLA after she landed work as a bookkeeper and accountant at a glass factory in Los Angeles.
She returned to New York to attend her sister’s wedding, and decided to stay. She landed an accounting job there, and later met her husband, Jack Steinman.
The couple relocated to California in 1978 after their only child, Maure, graduated from the University at Albany. Maure Gardner, now 58, lives nearby in Beverly Hills and is director of Employee/Labor Relations and Compensation at UCLA Health.
“My mom is an extraordinary person, yet she always made our lives seem normal and regular,” Gardner said. “She was a role model for me while I was growing up. It is really at this point in her life that I see all of her incredible accomplishments, the respect of her peers and mine, as well as modeling a life lived with dignity and love.”
Steinman said her USC industrial engineering degree “rounded out” her thinking.
She went back to USC in 1997 for the 50th reunion of her graduating class in the School of Engineering.
The 70th reunion is next year. She plans to be there.
Angela Masson paved the way for women in the commercial cockpit — and she holds four USC degrees.
During her first flying lesson, Angela Masson ’71, MA ’75, MPA ’75, PhD ’76 could barely contain her excitement as the plane took off. What the 15-year-old didn’t expect was the Cessna 150’s door suddenly flying open when the plane was in mid-air because the instructor hadn’t shut it properly. Anyone might assume she would stay permanently grounded after the experience. Yet Masson couldn’t wait to get back into the cockpit.
Flying had been her father’s suggestion. “I wasn’t doing well in school and my family wanted me to find something positive to keep me interested,” she says. After that memorable first lesson, Masson would go on to set the record as the youngest person to fly coast to coast in a high-performance aircraft when she was 21.
First Female Pilot
She was the first female pilot licensed to fly a Boeing 747 and the first woman to become chief pilot at American Airlines, where she flew for 31 years. Today, she teaches at the St. Augustine High School Aerospace Academy and at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. “Every day, I try to share with my students the love of flying,” she says. “Aviation is a lifestyle. There’s something sparkly in it for everybody. It gives you a reason to wake up in the morning and play with the reality of being alive.”
Over her career, she has also cleared the flight path for other women. In her first job as a flight instructor at a military academy, her students were all men. She soon learned that women couldn’t become military pilots. The issue became her doctoral thesis topic at the USC Price School of Public Policy.
“The place where I was teaching had two bathrooms, and both were for men. So I wrote ‘WO’ in lipstick in front of the word on one of the doors,” Masson remembers with a laugh. “There was a law on the books that said, essentially, ‘Women shall not fly for the military.’ I thought, Wait a minute, why can’t we be pilots? The military’s excuse was they didn’t have helmets that would fit us.”
A female Navy pilot who flew helicopters (which was allowed, since the military didn’t consider them aircraft) entered Masson’s dissertation, “Elements of Organizational Discrimination,” into the Congressional record. The prohibition on female pilots was lifted soon afterward.
“If an opportunity looks interesting, I’ll pursue it. Why isn’t everyone out there pursuing myriad opportunities? Life offers an abundance of joyous adventure!”
Asked to pick her proudest moment, Masson rattles off a dozen answers. Her first solo flight. Getting her passengers to their destinations safely on every flight. Patenting the Electronic Kit Bag in 1999, a digital device now used on nearly all planes to store flight information. Being inducted into the California Aviation Hall of Fame in 2018 — “It was an honor to get that recognition from my peers, and all the people I always looked up to.”
But Masson doesn’t think of herself as a trailblazer. “I consider myself an inquiring person,” she says. “If an opportunity looks interesting, I’ll pursue it. Why isn’t everyone out there pursuing myriad opportunities? Life offers an abundance of joyous adventure!”
In high school, I developed a strong affinity and passion for physics. I saw physics as this incredible-looking glass that allowed me to deeply understand the inner mechanics of the world. My interests in physics, mathematics, and design drew me to Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE). After learning about USC Viterbi’s uniquely flexible and multidisciplinary engineering programs, I knew that it was the school for me.
And yet, as I began my sophomore year at USC, I started to feel a bit lost in ECE. This major is exceptionally broad and although that’s one of the best things about it, it can be hard to find your place in such a program. At that moment I was fearing that I lacked direction. I just wasn’t connecting deeply with anything yet.
Less than a year later, however, my connection to ECE was flourishing. I was presenting my summer research project PyREM at the national Sigma Xi student research conference, and then winning the Top Undergraduate Poster Award in Engineering. My project PyREM implements a computational model for the airborne respiratory droplet-based virus transmission of COVID-19 in python. It seems almost unreal that within a year, I went from being this aimlessly wandering student to presenting novel research at a national conference. In fact, it was all thanks to one course and the brilliant and compassionate professor who taught it.
“To aspiring engineers, your world doesn’t end where engineering ends. Research is what makes engineering boundless. It is a completely challenging, inspiring, and fulfilling experience.”
You may be wondering what was this course that completely changed my perspective of Electrical Engineering and opened up the entire major to me in new and exciting ways. The course was EE 250, Distributed Systems for the Internet of Things. Through this class, I began to see all the pieces of the puzzle coming together to form this immensely diverse major. We touched upon IoT devices, Wireless Networking, Signal Processing, AI and machine learning, analog, and digital circuits, control systems, and cybersecurity.
Because of EE 250, I no longer feel intimidated or lost by the vastness of ECE. Now, the comprehensive nature of electrical engineering only brings me excitement and clarity. The new perspective I have acquired is not only refreshing but is crucial in showing me what I will do o
However, the real highlight of this course was our teacher. Professor Bhaskar Krishnamachari was so much more than an instructor. He was more like a curator who helped me see the true value and depth of electrical engineering and education. On the first day of class, he shared a quote with us by Mark Twain: “Don’t let schooling get in the way of your education.” I deeply resonated with this philosophy: it is not only important to learn the course material but to adopt the right mindset and attitude when we approach something new. After all, our mindset carries over into anything that we do in life and it is something very important to cultivate at an early stage.
Thinking about education and learning through these lenses led me to this question: why was I limiting myself to only the things I learned in class when I could go beyond course content and explore things that piqued my curiosity? There was an ocean of knowledge just waiting to be explored. And research was one kind of vessel to navigate these uncharted waters.
As a freshman, I didn’t even know what research truly was. For some reason, I associated it with my dreaded Chemistry labs from freshman year that entailed hours of tedious tasks to try to observe some physical phenomenon I wasn’t particularly excited about. However, this is no longer the case at all. On the contrary, becoming involved in undergraduate research in ECE has been the best choice I’ve made in my educational career so far.
It’s amazing how things work out sometimes. Just as I was opening up to the idea of research, EE 250 was coming to an end. At the same time, a summer internship I had secured was canceled due to COVID-19. I worked up the courage to ask Professor Krishnamachari if he had any openings for undergrads to conduct research in his lab.
Even today, though Krishnamachari Professor isn’t formally teaching any of my classes, I continue to learn so many new things from him. It is truly a privilege to have him as my research advisor and to conduct research in his Autonomous Networks Research Group (ANRG).
Researching with Professor Krishnamachari has been an even more incredible journey and experience. He has been instrumental in opening the doors of academic research to me while providing the right combination of mentoring, challenge, and encouragement.
I began my research last Summer with ANRG completely remotely, working on the Python Respiratory Exchange Model (PyREM). PyREM aims to quantify an individual’s accumulated exposure to respiratory droplets containing SARS-CoV-2 viral RNA over a given period of time in Python. The project involved mathematical modeling, physics, and programming to visually simulate the effects of temperature, humidity, proximity, and droplet size, on the total viral concentration of droplets present in the air after a particular duration of time.
Through PyREM I’ve recognized that I enjoy research in ECE because it facilitates my genuine love for self-driven learning. It’s exciting to think creatively while venturing into uncharted waters. Every approach failed or successful, is an opportunity to discover the intricacies of the open-ended problem. To continue my journey in research, I plan on applying to Ph.D. programs in Electrical Engineering.
Today I continue to research with Professor Krishnamachari. In our current project, we are looking to explore the benefit of evolving communication in engineered systems. The amazing part of this project is how multidisciplinary it is. Through the research process, I’ve gotten to read different types of literature about Darwinism, communication in nature, Game theory, the Prisoner’s dilemma, and evolutionarily stable strategies. Communication, whether in nature or between artificial agents, can be broken down into a pair of behaviors, namely, a signal and response. This is what enables us to explore behaviors we observe in the natural world into a simulation involving artificial agents.
To aspiring engineers, your world doesn’t end where engineering ends. Research is what allows engineering to not have any boundaries. It is a completely challenging, inspiring, and fulfilling experience.
As part of President Carol L. Folt’s senior leadership team, Christopher Manning will reinforce the university’s commitment to inclusion, diversity, equity and belonging.
Christopher Manning, an experienced leader and advocate for diversity in higher education, has been named USC’s first chief inclusion and diversity officer, President Carol L. Folt announced Monday. He will report directly to the president and begin his new role on March 1.
Manning joins USC after serving as both an assistant and an associate provost for academic diversity for nearly five years at Loyola University Chicago. During his tenure at Loyola, he also spent many years teaching and conducting research on the histories of marginalized populations.
“Chris has a strong track record of collaborating with administration, faculty and student leaders to effectively create practices that promote inclusion,” Folt said. “He brings the passion of a former student activist along with decades of scholarship to bear on the issues of campus diversity, and we are delighted he will be leading our efforts.”
As part of Folt’s senior leadership team, the chief inclusion and diversity officer will have the support and the resources to build a framework for strategies, programs and initiatives that reinforce USC’s commitment to inclusion, diversity, equity and belonging and to address ongoing challenges of discrimination and bias. Manning also will lead the university’s Diversity and Inclusion Council and work collaboratively with faculty, staff and student leaders across USC to deliver sustained, measurable improvements in educational and organizational environments.
In addition, he will take an active role in several of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives spearheaded by Folt already underway at the university, including the President and Provost’s Taskforce on Racial Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and the Department of Public Safety Community Advisory Board.
Manning chosen as USC’s chief inclusion and diversity officer after extensive search
Manning’s appointment comes after a search committee headed by Provost Charles Zukoski and Senior Vice President for Human Resources Felicia Washington sought extensive feedback from the USC community, which helped both to define the role and guide the four-month national search process.
“The empowerment of underrepresented people has motivated my entire career, and I want to be part of a mission-driven, social justice-oriented environment. That is why I am excited to join USC,” Manning said. “The experience of transforming protest into policy will inform how I approach this new role, which requires building trust and credibility.
“My philosophy — that the future of higher education lies at the intersection of diversity, student success and innovation — is in perfect alignment with President Folt’s strategic vision.”
“I want to be part of a mission-driven, social justice-oriented environment.”
Manning spent much of last year in San Diego, where he completed a yearlong leadership fellowship with the American Council on Education at San Diego State University, gaining a broader understanding of university leadership, operations and culture.
At Loyola, Manning became the first assistant provost for academic diversity in 2016. He evaluated the campus climate and created practices to promote inclusion as he sought input from students, faculty and staff. Identifying barriers to student success and the retention of diverse faculty were among his top priorities.
He recruited and developed 13 faculty diversity liaisons and provided equity and inclusion training across the university. He organized 10 workshops a year on topics such as avoiding implicit bias in hiring, navigating difficult conversations about race in the classroom, microaggressions and diversifying new hires. He created identity-based networking and professional development events focused on faculty who were people of color, women and LGBTQ. His initiatives built a foundation for faculty support and success that contributed to a 14% increase in diverse faculty hires.
Manning also helped create a course for the core curriculum to teach students how to reflect on their biases and interactions with others.
Christopher Manning brings scholarship, love of the arts to USC
Manning also has a strong connection to the arts. He was a professional Latin dancer and the executive director and founder of the nonprofit dance company Inspiration Dance Chicago, which offered free youth and adult Latin dance training in Chicago.
In addition to administrative experience, Manning brings significant scholarship to the position. Manning has been an associate professor of history at Loyola since 2008, teaching subjects such as Black history, the civil rights movement, Black politics and 20th-century American history.
He earned his PhD in history from Northwestern University, where he also earned his master’s in history. Manning earned his undergraduate degree in history at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. There, as he completed his honors thesis titled: “Cajuns, Catholics and Klansmen: An Analysis of the Rise and Fall of the Ku Klux Klan in Louisiana, 1917-1926,” Manning also organized a march of the city’s three universities to honor Martin Luther King Jr.
On a hot and humid Saturday night in Birmingham, Alabama, Sam Cunningham stood patiently on the sideline of Legion Field waiting for his number to be called. The fullback from the University of Southern California was about to make history in a game that would later be credited with changing the course of college football forever. Sometimes history is made almost entirely in secret to its participants. Sometimes fate calls on one man who is simply in the right place at the right time. That Saturday, fate tapped on Sam Cunningham’s broad shoulders, and the sophomore fullback from USC did not feel a thing.
“I knew that if I didn’t play well, I wouldn’t be playing again,” Cunningham recalls with a laugh nearly 45 years later. “So that pretty much trumped everything.”
He is sitting in a faded red seat across from the Coliseum peristyle, reaching back into the depths of his memory to describe the night that changed the course of his life.
The story of the 1970 USC-Alabama game has become well-documented legend. Bear Bryant’s all-white Alabama Crimson Tide hosted the Trojans in the opening game of the season, a showdown of two of the best and yet two of the most different teams of the previous decade. USC featured a black starting quarterback, fullback and tailback along with a host of other African-American players, and would be the first fully integrated team to play in the state of Alabama. The outcome would change everything about SEC football in the years to come.
Sam Cunningham was somewhat of an unlikely hero to play a shaping role in integrating college football in the South. Born and raised in Santa Barbara, he grew up far removed from the events of the Civil Rights Movement. When he was four, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in schools was unconstitutional. Cunningham was busy running around his neighborhood playing any game with any ball on which he could get his growing hands. When he was five, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery. Cunningham was starting school at Franklin Elementary, in class with children of Hispanic, African, Asian and European descent alike.
“I saw the images on television and I knew there were issues, but where I grew up those issues were not there,” he explains. “That’s not to say that we didn’t have issues, but nothing like the South. We weren’t getting chased by dogs or sprayed with water hoses or fearing for our lives when we went to church. We were able to just live and be kids and enjoy ourselves.”
When it came time to go to college, Cunningham found a school with a storied football tradition just like Santa Barbara High. He was 19 on his first day of class, and while he was focused on adjusting to college football and college coursework, the concerns of the rest of the country were a bit more severe. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated just one year prior, and the South was still entrenched in racial dissension.
But while segregation was still the norm in Alabama, life in Southern California was vastly different. For many years, players of different races had been lining up alongside each other at USC, and African-American players at USC didn’t feel the sting of racism as sharply as their counterparts in the South. As the Trojans prepared to face Alabama in Cunningham’s sophomore year, the concept that integration in football was controversial for some people was a new one.
“That game was my first time having to think about that issue in football,” explains Cunningham.
“To me, I always saw it as you get dressed, you go out here and you try and beat whoever is on the other side of that line.”
Cunningham certainly didn’t intend on stirring up any controversy on his first collegiate road trip, but from the start, nothing was normal about the Alabama game. Upon their arrival, the Trojans were greeted at the airport by an excited welcoming party, including a band, cheerleaders and a crowd of people curious to see the Crimson Tide’s guests.
“We got a police escort through a part of the town that was lower income and had more blacks,” Cunningham recounts. “They all came outside to wave at our bus. They couldn’t see us, but I think they knew we were that team from California with black players.
“After that trip, I thought all the away games were going to be like that,” he says laughing. “They weren’t. That one was pretty unique.”
Cunningham had little basis for comparison, as that Saturday’s game against Alabama was to be his first ever as a Trojan. In that time, freshmen couldn’t play on the varsity squad, which meant the sophomore fullback spent most of the minutes, days and weeks leading up to the game wondering if he’d even get a chance to play.
“I was nervous,” he says with his eyes lost deep in memory. “It was hot, humid and on artificial turf, so there were a lot of firsts. I didn’t have any dreams about carrying the ball or scoring touchdowns.
“I just wanted to play well if I got a chance to play at all.”
Cunningham started on special teams that night, so he took the field for the opening kickoff in front of thousands of white, screaming Alabama fans and awaited the whistle. What followed in the ensuing 60 minutes was far beyond what any of those fans, and Cunningham himself, expected.
“I wasn’t a starter on offense, but after several plays I got an opportunity to get in,” the now 64-year-old explains. “What was even more unbelievable is I got the opportunity to carry the ball. Fullbacks in that era did not carry the ball. I can’t tell you what was on the coaches’ minds that day, but I can tell you that I didn’t carry the ball very much the rest of that season.”
No, in fact, Sam ‘Bam’ Cunningham, the lightning bolt of the 1970 USC-Alabama showdown, would only carry the ball for 488 total yards in the entirety of the 1970 season. His two touchdowns in the victory accounted for nearly half of his rushing touchdowns for the year.
“They weren’t that silent on my first touchdown – it was only seven points – but after awhile it got pretty quiet in there,” Cunningham remembers with a smile. “We were bigger, faster, quicker and I’d have to say probably stronger too. We proved that that evening.”
Whatever the USC coaching staff saw against Alabama to prompt them to play Cunningham like they did enabled the Trojans to take the lead and never look back. The sophomore fullback would finish the game with 135 yards and two touchdowns on just 12 carries. The Trojans decimated the Crimson Tide, before pulling their starters in the third quarter, and won the game 42-21.
“When you watch a football game from start to finish you have a pretty good idea which is the better team,” says Cunningham thoughtfully. “That’s what happened that night in Birmingham. They saw the truth.”
“Athletics has a way of showing you the truth…If you’re paying attention”
Despite what urban legend claims, Cunningham was not grandly introduced to the Alabama locker room after the game, but he did receive a polite and earnest congratulations from one of the winningest coaches in college football history. Bear Bryant met Cunningham, Jimmy Jones and Clarence Davis, USC’s all-black backfield, outside the locker room to compliment each on a game well-played, and the team set off back home to California.
The Trojans would finish the 1970 season 6-4-1, not an especially remarkable campaign for a team that started the year with such a resounding victory.
At this point in the story-telling Cunningham pauses.
“Not many people realize this, but as great as that 1970 team was because of what we did in that first game, we had our own racial issue on that team. That’s why we ended up being 6-4-1,” he says. An honest reminder that change – even on a team heralded as progressive and pioneering – doesn’t happen overnight. “We get to raise the banner for changing college football history, but we still had a fight amongst ourselves about black-white. We still had some issues that we had to work out.”
Cunningham would go on to win a national championship as a senior captain at USC in 1972. He was drafted in the first round (11th pick) of the 1973 NFL Draft by the Patriots and played for New England from 1973-79 and 1981-82. His legacy however, has mostly lived on in the change he and his teammates catalyzed in 1970.
In the 45 years since, the pendulum has swung emphatically to the other side. This fall, when the Crimson Tide played Auburn, 20 of the team’s 22 starters were African-American, something unthinkable to most Tide fans on the Saturday night that the Trojans came to town.
It wasn’t until many years later, after discussions with former teammates and Trojan fans, that Cunningham fully understood the implications of that game. For him, it’s a story and a triumph that belongs to the entire Trojan Family.
“Yeah, I played in the game and all the other guys on that team, but we played for the University of Southern California so the history belongs to this university and this athletic program.”
“It ain’t just me or them or even our team. It’s all of us. It’s a part of our history and our legacy. And it’s something to be proud of forever and ever.”
Just a few yards away from Cunningham, listening quietly, sits his nephew, Randall Cunningham Jr. The younger Cunningham is a freshman at USC this year, just starting his first season of collegiate track and field as a high jumper and hoping to play football soon as well. As the next generation of Cunningham embarks on his journey as a Trojan, his uncle is proud to have his legacy to share.
“That game is a part of Randall’s legacy too. At the end of the day he can smile and know his family was a part of something very, very special. And we were a part of that because we are a part of this. A part of USC.”
In large part what Sam Cunningham did on Saturday, September 12, 1970 was made possible by those who came before him, Brice Taylor and C.R. Roberts and Willie Wood and countless others. As the former fullback sits in the Coliseum and thinks about his career and those other Trojans who played on the same hallowed ground, he sees his story as a small piece of something much bigger than himself.
“It was going to happen whether it was us or somebody else,” Cunningham says with the shake of his head. “But for us to be that team, for us to be an important part of history that evening, that’s something I’m proud of. I didn’t know. I was just there to play football, to play as hard as I could and hoping my teammates were doing the same.”
“I didn’t’ know what that day meant at the time but looking back, it was something very special.”
A diving accident in high school left Zachary Pickett paralyzed just as he reached his prime. But that didn’t stop the Swim With Mike scholarship recipient from pursuing his athletic passions
Swim With Mike recipient Zachary Pickett conquered every sport he tried as a kid.
The youngster began swimming competitively at age 5. A string of other athletic pursuits soon followed — baseball, basketball, volleyball, track and soccer. By high school, the lanky teen was a rising star on the water polo team. Murmurs of athletic scholarships started by his sophomore year. Then everything changed.
It was a blisteringly hot day in August. Pickett was working his summer job as a lifeguard at a lake in his hometown of Cameron Park, a suburb east of Sacramento. He decided to take a quick dip with a few of his friends.
When he dove into the water, his head struck a hidden sandbar just under the surface. He knew right away something was wrong. He couldn’t feel anything below his waist. He called out for help.
“One of my lifeguard friends came over and I said, ‘I can’t move my legs. Can you touch my legs?’” Pickett said. “He told me, ‘I’ve been grabbing your legs for like 10 seconds.’ I thought, oh man, I didn’t feel any of that.”
Doctors at UC Davis Medical Center confirmed his fears. Pickett had crushed his C-7 vertebrae, damaging his spinal cord near his neck. His carefree summer had turned deadly serious in an instant.
A competitive spirit pays off
After surgery to stabilize his spine and 10 days in the intensive care unit, Pickett moved into recovery mode. For the next two and a half months, he dedicated himself to regaining strength and mobility.
“It’s weird trying to learn how to get around again,” he said. “You kind of feel like a kid. You have no idea how to do anything. You basically have to learn how to live again.”
He embraced intense sessions of occupational and physical therapy. He turned every task into a competition, pushing himself to eke out one more exercise. It paid off.
A month and a half into his recovery, he noticed tiny flickers of movement in his toes. His spinal cord had not been fully severed. Soon he regained some strength and mobility in his right leg. He could now cover short distances with the help of a cane or walker.
Adjusting to a new life with some familiar pursuits
Four months after his injury, Pickett was back home. He had already returned to school a month earlier, so he barely missed a beat. He maintained stellar grades, served as junior class president and completed his Eagle Scout rank in the Boy Scouts.
And he was back in the pool. By April 2013, nine months after that fateful dive into the lake, he was competing at the Paralympic National Championships. He won the 50-meter backstroke in his division.
Then came the big surprise. He rejoined the water polo team, even though the sport emphasizes leg strength.
“At first, I just started going to practice because that’s what all my friends were doing,” Pickett said. “But then I gradually learned how to play without using my legs. You kind of have to be like a shark. You just can’t stop moving.”
He would often slip into the pool for warmups before anyone on the opposing team noticed, and just looked like one of the guys. That led to looks of shock as he lined up in his wheelchair to shake hands after the game.
“People were definitely confused at first,” he said. “All my friends saw my progression from day one, so I don’t think they were fazed at all.”
Swim With Mike program provides more than money
As his senior year began and Pickett started planning for college applications, one university stood out above the rest thanks to a special program. Pickett had heard about Swim With Mike, the USC initiative that supports physically challenged athletes, within days of his injury. His aunt had competed in synchronized swimming with the sister of Mike Nyeholt, the USC alumnus who inspired the organization. She told Pickett about the program, and USC shot to the top of his list of dream schools.
Not only did was he accepted, but he also received a Swim With Mike scholarship. It provided $50,000 a year, covering much of his tuition. And it gave him an instant network of friends and supporters.
Pickett embraced the program, becoming the Swim With Mike chair of the Trojan Knights, the USC service and spirit organization. He works alongside Ron Orr, founder of Swim With Mike, in the university’s athletics fundraising office. He also kept up his passion for sports, competing in the group’s wheelchair basketball tournament.
“For the first two tournaments, I was the captain of the winning team,” he said. “I went abroad last semester, so I couldn’t get the three-peat, but I’m hoping to defend my title this year.”
He will get his chance in a few days. The tournament takes place Friday, April 6, in advance of the organization’s annual fundraiser this Saturday at the USC Uytengsu Aquatics Center. It will be Pickett’s last Swim With Mike fundraiser as an undergrad. He graduates in May with a degree from the USC Marshall School of Business and a minor in sports media studies. He envisions working in operations or management with a professional sports team.
But he plans to stay involved with the Trojan Family, returning for Swim With Mike fundraisers and encouraging others to support the campaign.
“I just want to try to give back to the scholarship,” he said. “It allowed me to come here and get an education. I made great friends, great connections — it’s just a great path USC leads you on to help you succeed. I’m more than happy to do my part to help the next person.”
It was an ordinary trash can. Other people crossing campus didn’t give it a second glance. But to Lopez, it was a symbol of how far he had come.
“I was collecting cans and bottles out of that trash can when I was 7 years old to help support my family,” he said. “To now have the privilege to be doing exciting research and about to graduate is such an overwhelming and humbling experience that I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Lopez earns his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences this week. For the first-generation college student who grew up in South Los Angeles, it’s the culmination of many years of hard work and determination.
But even as the 22-year-old celebrates his graduation, he is already looking ahead. He plans to complete his PhD in chemistry and someday return to his childhood neighborhood, or one like it, to help children and teens find their calling.
“Ultimately, I see myself giving back to my community,” he said. “I can show these kids that, hey, someone who has your background and went through your struggles was able to overcome that to get a doctorate.”
An aspirational presence throughout childhood
Lopez likes to joke that he might have traveled the shortest distance to become a Trojan. His family lives only three blocks south of the University Park Campus, and he attended Weemes Elementary School, a stroll across Vermont Avenue from USC.
“South L.A. in the ’90s was a lot different than it is now,” he said. “It was definitely a little rougher than it is today.”
On his walk to school, he would pass gang members and graffiti. But he also passed a collection of brick buildings that often drew his attention. When someone told him it was a university, he was intrigued by the idea of being able to study whatever interested him.
USC quickly became a mainstay in his day-to-day existence. He recalls students from the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC visiting his elementary school to provide free oral health screenings and dental hygiene tips. When he entered high school, Lopez would cut through the USC campus and hear the USC Trojan Marching Band practicing on Cromwell Field.
“USC has always had a special place in my life,” he said. “This is the place that put college on the map for me.”
One of his most influential experiences came in the USC Department of Public Safety Cadet Program. He signed up as a teen and went on patrol with public safety officers, flew in a Los Angeles Police Department helicopter and assisted with security and first aid during the 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games. He also received help with his schoolwork from USC students who volunteered as tutors.
Lopez eventually rose to the rank of cadet lieutenant, overseeing the program’s 50 participants. When he became the first graduate of the program to enroll at USC, he returned as a volunteer tutor. At least two other cadets are now pursuing their degrees at USC.
“I wanted to be a role model for these kids,” he said, “to show them that they can be successful.”
Humble origins inspire hunger to succeed
Lopez’s parents always stressed education. His mother had worked in a school in her home country of Mexico. His father was studying to be a lawyer in El Salvador when a brutal civil war in the 1980s forced him to flee as a refugee.
As a child, Lopez saw his father take on multiple jobs to sustain the family — parking attendant, car salesman and bus driver. His parents divorced when Lopez was a teenager, and his father has continued to work diligently to earn a living, driving buses for Montebello Bus Lines for nearly 17 years.
Lopez’s grandmother and aunt also sought refuge in the United States from the Salvadoran civil conflict. He said the challenges they faced are a big part of why he is so driven to succeed.
“My family didn’t escape from their country, fleeing from war, for me to be a nobody,” he said. “They did what they had to do to survive. The best way for me to honor that sacrifice is to be someone they can be proud of.”
In many ways, he views those early struggles as a strength. He learned to be resilient and roll with the punches. Lopez sees those same traits among many of his peers who, like him, received a scholarship through the Norman Topping Student Aid Fund. The program supports students with high financial need, with special consideration of applicants from communities around USC who are the first in their family to attend college.
“They’ve crossed borders, overcome adverse household environments — they’ve defied all the odds,” Lopez said. “You learn how to deal with whatever life throws your way.”
Natural curiosity inspires passion for science
As a boy, Lopez buried his head in books. He would visit the neighborhood library, grab a random title off the shelves and start flipping through the pages, absorbing as much as he could on any subject.
He had always been fascinated by how things work, and the nearby California Science Center quickly became his favorite museum. He devoured his high school chemistry book from cover to cover, then moved on to college science textbooks. By the time he enrolled at USC, Lopez knew he wanted to study chemistry.
He soon narrowed his focus to chemical nanoscience, which involves creating and testing materials that are incredibly tiny — roughly 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. The field has countless applications, he said, such as creating nanoparticles called “quantum dots” that can bind to cancer cells and glow, helping doctors pinpoint tumors.
Lopez has worked on projects involving electrochemistry in the Narayan Laboratory at USC, exploring the use of transition metal oxides to generate oxygen and energy. He won a student award at the American Chemical Society’s annual meeting this spring after presenting his work on potential uses of oxygen created as a byproduct of certain electrochemical reactions.
Giving back to the next generation
He envisions one day working for NASA, designing chemistry experiments in space. Some people have encouraged him to run for political office, a possibility he isn’t ruling out. But he ultimately plans to teach high school chemistry in an underserved community.
“I would love the next generation of scientists to be a more accurate representation of our country,” he said. “I don’t just mean that along racial lines, but socioeconomic, gender and disability lines as well.”
Another long-term goal is more personal: to provide a better life for his family. Lopez said his grandmother, who is 72, still rides the bus several hours each day to get to her job as a housekeeper.
“It’s a dream of mine to buy my family a house — to say, abuelita, you don’t have to worry about the mortgage or the rent,” he said. “You can enjoy your golden years.”
As he reflected on the path that brought him to this moment, about to receive his degree at USC’s 135th commencement ceremony, Lopez described a tradition in the university’s Department of Chemistry.
Established researchers and graduate students wear blue lab coats. Undergraduate students wear white lab coats. Before he walked out of the chemistry lab and spotted that trash can, Lopez was wearing a blue lab coat — a recognition of the advanced work he was doing.
“When I was little, could I ever have imagined everything I’ve gone through and how far I’ve come?” he said. “I’m very thankful for the journey and all the people who have brought me here, because it does take a village to raise a child. I hope the village that raised me is proud to see that kid who was collecting cans and bottles is now about to graduate in a cap and gown.”
USC Dornsife’s Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies has a new director, and he aims to enlist the full spectrum of natural, social and behavioral sciences as well as the humanities to help ensure a more sustainable future.
Joe Árvai was a newly minted marine scientist in the late ’90s when he stood before a small crowd to tell them about the danger of excessive underwater nutrients. The phenomenon, known as eutrophication, breeds bacteria that monopolize oxygen, suffocating aquatic animals.
Gathered as they were near an estuary on the Frasier River in British Columbia, Árvai assumed the people who had come to hear his presentation would be interested in what he had to say.
“It struck me that peoples’ minds were already made up whether the problem was serious or even existed,” Árvai said. “People knew where they stood on the issue regardless of what I said.”
It was at that moment that Árvai realized that facts weren’t enough to advance good science or effective policy.
He had to find a way to break through people’s preconceived notions, prejudices, political biases and other cognitive barriers to help them understand environmental science, which was already flashing a bright red warning light.
So he enrolled in the University of British Columbia, not to study more marine science, but to earn his Ph.D. in a branch of psychology that looks at how people assess risk and make decisions.
Move quickly to ensure a livable future
Amber Miller, dean of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, saw incredible potential for the College to carve out a new space in environmental research.
Other research universities were building initiatives focused on science and engineering to improve things like solar and battery technologies. Indeed, USC Dornsife was conducting its own promising research in these areas. And Dornsife social science researchers were advancing economic theories to create a more sustainable environment and exploring issues of politics, policy, and environmental justice. Its humanists were putting environmentalism into context.
Miller’s vision was to leverage all of the College’s unique strengths to create something entirely new.
Over the past four years, she and her team have been erecting the building blocks for her vision: hiring and retaining the best faculty; building the Academy in the Public Square initiative that encourages faculty to share their expertise with the public; launching Public Exchange, which matches scholars with the private and public sectors to solve societal challenges; initiating the USC Dornsife Center for the Political Future; and forming collaborations with USC’s professional schools.
Properly combined, these assets will enable the college to tackle one of the great unanswered questions of our time: How can we move faster, on an individual and societal level, to avoid global environmental catastrophe?
“Preserving our natural environment is not just a question of science. It is a question of politics, of policy, and of our societal capacity to respond before it is too late,” said Miller. “We need to find ways to break through the roadblocks that prevent more meaningful action.”
Miller realized that USC Dornsife’s Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies could lead this multidisciplinary initiative to look at the entire spectrum of environmental research with a special emphasis on understanding how to more quickly establish policies and practices aimed at ensuring a livable future. The institute was already conducting environmental research, and its mission included connecting science with environmental policy.
But it needed a leader who was versed in both environmental science and human behavior.
West to greener pastures
It’s Oct. 27, 2020 and Árvai has been driving alone for several days. He started out in Detroit, and he’s not far from Laramie, Wyoming. It’s Big Sky Country, but today’s sky is obscured by light snow and some hail. He’d prefer to be riding his BMW R1200 if it weren’t so cold, and if it could carry all the belongs that are piled into his car.
He’s heading west and expects to arrive in Los Angeles in a few days to take up the position as Dana and David Dornsife Chair and professor of psychology, and director of the Wrigley Institute.
“I was drawn to the Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies, not only because of the work it had done in the past around marine and environmental science, but because of the potential there to be so much more when it comes to lighting the way on broad sustainability,” he said during a break from driving.
Árvai said the Wrigley Institute has an exciting opportunity to “fill a gap between really interesting high-quality work on the natural science side … [and] a real opportunity to inject a needed, heavy dose of social and behavioral science as well, to really truly do interdisciplinary work at the interface of environment and people.”
Árvai, who left his position as director of the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan, is also excited by the willingness of California, especially L.A., to invent a more sustainable way of living. He can try things, and get things done, here that he can’t elsewhere.
But more than anything, it was USC’s growing ambition to become a powerhouse for innovative environmental research that caused him to pack his bags.
“Amber [Miller’s] vision and leadership really sold it for me,” he said. “Couple that with President [Carol L.] Folt’s commitment to sustainability, and it seemed like kind of the perfect storm of opportunity that a scientist like me dreams of.”
“The planet is talking to us”
Árvai divides sciences into two broad categories. The first encompasses the fundamental research to understand a given phenomenon. The second is use-inspired science, whereby researchers test solutions to a particular challenge. He wants the Wrigley Institute to combine the two.
That will take some doing. The Wrigley Institute and its antecedents have been home to marine scientists since the turn of the 20th century. And while it has undertaken a growing amount of terrestrial research, it has engaged less with the social sciences and humanities.
“We need to turn the Wrigley Institute into a hub that attracts researchers from across the natural, social, and behavioral sciences,” Árvai said. “But we can’t stop there; we need to give them a platform whereby their work can inspire and accelerate social and environmental change.”
Stemming from his own research, Árvai says there is an urgent need for scientists to bridge the gap between identifying problems and offering solutions. “To get from the diagnosis of a problem to the implementation of any potential solution, people inevitably need to make some tough decisions,” Árvai said. “Figuring out how to best support those decisions, and the tradeoffs that are central to them, is what we’re setting the Wrigley Institute up to do.”
Considering the severity of the sustainability challenges facing California, the United States, and rest of the world, Árvai and his team at the Wrigley Institute have their work cut out for them. Not only is the work vital, many see it as long overdue.
“The planet is talking to us, and more and more scientists, policy-makers and people are listening,” he said.
But, before hanging up the phone and continuing his drive to L.A., he added: “The problem is, listening isn’t enough anymore. We need to get to work.”
The poet and performer wants his art and his own experiences as a Black, queer undergrad to help guide underrepresented members of the USC student community.
As part of an effort to address populations at risk of gender-based harm, USC Student Health’s Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention and Services office has recently recruited established educator and advocate Edwin Bodney as a violence prevention specialist. Bodney’s role is to work specifically in the LGBTQ+ community and is funded through a grant from the California Office of Emergency Services.
Edwin Bodney wants to listen.
USC Student Health’s new LGBTQ+ campus advocate and educator noted that he’ll be teaching workshops and developing programs for the USC student community, too. But first and foremost, he said, “USC students should come to me if they want someone to listen.
“So many of us walk around the world feeling unheard or invisible or silenced,” he added, “and I try to illuminate each person I engage with.”
The 30-year-old, who self-identifies as queer, is also a notable poet, performer and former host of L.A.’s Da Poetry Lounge who uses his work to make others feel heard. He answered a few questions for USC News.
What was your own experience as a queer undergrad college student?
I wasn’t as self-aware and spent a lot of my college time in survival mode, which isn’t an isolated experience for our community. I went to design school before getting my education degree. In art school, everyone is pretty gay, because that’s where all of us weirdos go and congregate. So that was comforting, but my issues were navigating class and race, which we know is really one and the same.
I was one of the only Black people in my classes, and I wasn’t around people who understood what it’s like to not have money. None of my identities take precedence over another. Intersectionality is about the compound experience. All of my work is intersectional. Having that awareness and being able to transform it into empathy allows me to listen better and anticipate the needs of others.
Research shows that members of the LGBTQ+ community experience gender-based harm at higher rates than other populations. How will your work at USC Student Health address this disparity?
Is it gender-based harm or power-based harm when it comes to this community? Gender is different and more fluid in the queer community. So, it’s more about a power-based dynamic. Traditionally, it’s man beats woman. It’s not so black and white in our relationships. All of us who are not trans have to do a better job advocating for trans folks because oftentimes they cannot pass through society unseen and are targeted for violence.
There is disproportionate harm done to the LGBTQ+ community, higher for femme and even higher for trans because society devalues the feminine. We need to shift the narrative of what it means to be femme and how important femininity is in the world.
It’s important to always be having these conversations. And I’m someone who can jump into the conversation as opposed to having to learn about the conversation first. I’m not speaking just from my education but my own experience, too. That makes me an asset as someone who is queer and Black, especially in an affluent environment like USC where most of the students don’t look like me. For those who can see themselves in me, they had to fight damn hard to get to USC.
The Advocate profiled you in 2018 for leading difficult conversations about racism within the LGBTQ+ community. How do you use your poetry and art as activism?
In my poetry, I really enjoy being vulnerable. I try to navigate my experience with people in a very direct and tender way, with more intimacy and honesty. I don’t think there’s enough of that in the world, and I want to contribute to a new narrative. Honesty in poetry and performance is a free power that doesn’t impose on others or take agency from them. It’s something I try to do in my poetry, my performance and my teaching style.
Why is it important to have a member of the Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention and Services staff focused on the LGBTQ+ student community?
LGBTQ+ students don’t feel as safe or as represented as they’d like to be on campus at many campuses. To see somebody in my position, who comes from a life not so distant from theirs, is incredibly important in cultivating safety or bravery in general. I see that person who is speaking about their experiences and sharing themselves unapologetically. I hope that what the students leave with. I hope our LGBTQ+ students feel not just support but seen and amplified by folks in power or agency.
For example, I talk about when I finally got a gay doctor and how remarkable it was. I could come in and feel like I didn’t have to explain myself or define who I am first. It’s great to come into a space and see someone who, in a way, is you. I hope that my queer students and trans students on campus feel that way when I’m advocating for them and cultivating space for us.
How can USC students learn more about you or connect with you?
I’m the only person with this name in the world, so they can Google me to find my performances. If students care to, they can follow me on social media. It’s mostly me and my cat, Myko, arguing with each other, and I post a poem here and there. You can also reach out to me through USC Student Health’s Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention and Services office.
The grant from the California Office of Emergency Services, with partnering organization YWCA of Greater Los Angeles, also provides for training and dedicated time from a Department of Public Safety officer to better serve the needs of this community. The program is part of a larger consortium group, the Coordinated Campus Response Team, which meets regularly to infuse best practices of care into existing frameworks of health care delivery.
Yoofi Quansah fulfilled his dream of playing for the Trojans. After graduation, he’s looking toward life as an entrepreneur
Growing up in Southern California, football player Yoofi Quansah dreamed of one day playing for USC, following in the footsteps of his local hero Matt Leinart. Over the past five years, he has lived out his childhood fantasy, and then some.
Quansah, who graduated in 2018, played backup cornerback for the Trojans for three seasons, but his athleticism at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum only tells half the story. He also tackled one of the most challenging disciplines on campus, earning both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science in just five years with the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s progressive degree program.
Despite managing a full course load and 20 hours of training per week, he also completed two internships as a software developer and was an active member of USC’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers.
“Balancing everything was challenging at times, but it’s in my nature as an athlete to persevere,” Quansah said. “I love football and my passion for the sport drove me to do well in that regard, but I’m also a student at heart.”
A knack for math
Born to Ghanaian parents in Chino Hills, Quansah described himself as an athletic kid who spent more time scoring touchdowns than tinkering with gadgets. But math came naturally to him, so when it was time to choose a major, he enrolled in electrical engineering at the University of California, San Diego. Then he took a coding class to learn how to program in the C language — and it turned out to be a game-changer.
“I thought, wow, this is so optimal,” Quansah said. “The startup cost to construct software is so minimal. Once you have the skills, all you need to make a product is a computer and a good idea.”
At the same time, Quansah was also yearning to get back into football. That’s when he discovered the Department of Computer Science at USC — home of his beloved Trojans. He switched to USC in fall 2014 and tried out for the team the following spring.
“The director of player personnel told me I’d made the cut right after Spring Game,” Quansah said. “That was an incredible, surreal moment.”
Since then, it has been a wild ride: In total, Quansah suited up for 32 games, including the team’s 2017 Rose Bowl victory, one of the most watched college games in history.
But being a student-athlete is no easy task. Quansah’s day usually started at 5 a.m. with a workout, followed by five hours of class before hitting the John McKay Center or Howard Jones Field for four hours of football practice. Later, he would take night classes, study for tests or work on team projects before turning in after midnight.
“I was training pretty much every day for three years, so giving energy to the sport and my studies was definitely tough,” Quansah said.
How did he overcome it?
“Just keep the faith and focus on what you can control,” he said.
Quansah also credits USC’s support network for positively impacting his experience.
“USC has been very supportive and helped me throughout my whole career,” he said. “I’m grateful to my advisers for getting me into the right classes that worked around practice times and my coaches for understanding my workload as a student.”
Football player Yoofi Quansah: Tackling inequalities
From football player to computer scientist to entrepreneur — after graduation, Quansah hopes to create technology to fight inequalities in the education system. His parents, a nurse and insurance agent, always emphasized the importance of education, “but that’s not the case for a lot of people in low-income neighborhoods,” he said.
“Going to college and being thrown into the world allowed me to witness how other people grow up.”
“Going to college and being thrown into the world allowed me to witness how other people grow up. In some areas, we’re not giving a fair representation of what education can do for you. It’s all about equity — it’s crucial that everyone has a fair shot.”
Whether his future endeavor comes in the form of an educational app or low-cost hardware, Quansah may find his future business partner close to home: His brother is also a burgeoning entrepreneur studying software engineering in his fourth year at Syracuse University.
But while Quansah may have hung up the cleats to focus on coding, the sport is never far from his mind.
“For now, I want to pursue my career,” Quansah said. “But I’ll always have love for the sport and I’ll definitely come back to it one day.”
Sierra Drummond, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in NGOs and social change, has hosted a radio show, worked with the homeless, served as a camp counselor with underprivileged youth and spent a semester studying in Scotland.
An accomplished vocalist who plays jazz piano and guitar, Sierra Drummond suffered a misdiagnosed high school vocal injury that prevented her singing for her first three years at USC Dornsife.
Determined, however, not to let her injury curtail her ability to share her love of music, in her junior year, Drummond joined KXSC, USC’s student-run college radio station. Then things began to turn around. A second — this time, correct — diagnosis, resulted in surgery, restoring her ability to sing in her senior year. After a semester of interning at KXSC, she landed her own two-hour weekly music show, naming it “Wax and Gold” after the Ethiopian tradition of layered meaning in poetry and song.
“In Ethiopian culture, ‘wax’ describes the obvious meaning of a song’s lyrics,” Drummond explains, “while ‘gold’ refers to their deeper, hidden meaning, such as the social consciousness that helped inspire political uprising during the period of dictatorship in Ethiopia.”
For Drummond, who graduated on May 11 with a bachelor’s in NGOs and social change — an interdisciplinary major she describes as “a combination of sociology, political science, economics and international relations” — her eclectic and thoughtful radio show reflected the diverse scholarship she was engaging with in her degree.
As a high school senior, Drummond knew little about USC until she visited the campus with her father. She was so impressed that upon returning home to Thousand Oaks, an hour north, she applied immediately. The news that she’d been offered a full tuition Trustee Scholarship — an award based on academic excellence, leadership and community service — made USC Dornsife an easy choice, she said.
“I was overwhelmed with how active and exciting it was,” Drummond noted of her impressions of the college during her campus visit. “Everywhere I went, there was someone doing something different and interested in something different.”
Nevertheless, she didn’t expect her life at USC Dornsife to turn out to be quite as full as it did.
“I found myself surrounded by so many different kinds of people from so many different walks of life. I’ve never had a dull moment, ever,” said Drummond, who is graduating with a minor in consumer behavior from USC Marshall School of Business.
A central part of Drummond’s undergraduate experience has been her participation in USC Troy Camp, a nonprofit mentorship organization that provides after-school tutoring and programming and a summer camp for underserved youth in South Los Angeles. Drummond served as a cabin counselor and also helped run the organization’s public relations initiative.
The experience transformed her time at USC, she noted, giving her understanding and insight into the inner-city community around the university. “If I hadn’t done it, I wouldn’t have met so many wonderful families and built such incredible bonds with them,” she said.
Drummond also gave back by interning at a nonprofit in the heart of L.A.’s Skid Row during her senior year. She used the experience to write a 40-page thesis about how best to address the needs of homeless women.
“I wanted to write a thesis about women’s rights, and specifically the issue of sexual assault,” she said. “When I started getting really involved with homelessness, I realized how pervasive that issue is specifically in the homeless population and how little is being done to address it.”
Drummond says that USC’s inner-city location affected her research focus. “I don’t think I ever could have expected how much USC would shape my interests and my passion for the roots of social conflict and a need for change,” she said. “Had I been anywhere else, I probably would have never decided to dedicate a year of my academics to really understanding it.”
A second home
Drummond also seized on the opportunity to study abroad, spending one semester of her junior year at Edinburgh University in Scotland.
There she found a renewed connection to art and music, took a sound recording class, backpacked through the Highlands and visited the Isle of Skye. She now considers Edinburgh her favorite place in the world and Scotland her second home.
Drummond plans to continue working with public health concerns in L.A. First, however, she wants to fulfill her childhood dream of joining the Peace Corps. If accepted, she plans to leave in November for Nepal. She feels confident she’ll be ready for the challenge. USC Dornsife’s unique opportunities to explore interdisciplinary studies meant that each semester plunged her into a new situation or a new academic focus, making her a very quick, adaptive learner, Drummond noted.
“That’s a great skill that will stand me in good stead for anything I choose to do,” she said, before adding with a laugh, “It’s kind of crazy to think that I didn’t initially plan on coming to USC, but I’m so happy I ended up here.”
Ivan Garcia is among the first graduates of USC’s expanded college-prep program, and now he’s a first-year Trojan. But he almost missed his chance
NAI scholar Ivan Garcia held court whenever his family visited Chinese Friends, their favorite restaurant in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. Garcia’s mother, Laura, remembers how the little boy brought smiles to everyone’s faces in the restaurant when he spoke and sang songs in Mandarin with the staff.
“He spoke it without an accent,” she says, thanks to a Mandarin-language immersion program that he had attended since kindergarten.
Though the 18-year-old Garcia no longer remembers these encounters, his knack for language and communicating across cultures has stayed with him. He studied Mandarin until he was a high school sophomore and also took American Sign Language as a freshman. As he begins his first semester at USC, furthering his study of languages is in the college game plan, as are classes in anthropology, history and philosophy. On the horizon, perhaps, lies a career in immigration law.
Yet the talented young scholar might never have made it to USC — or any college at all — if he had not made a pivotal decision some seven years ago.
He took a chance he nearly passed up, and it changed his life.
In that first year on the Eastside, NAI began recruiting schoolkids around the USC Health Sciences Campus. Garcia’s family lived nearby in the predominantly working-class Latino neighborhood of El Sereno. His parents thought joining NAI would be a good idea, but Garcia had little interest. College was a speck far off his radar. Neither of his parents had attended, and he was admittedly “not the biggest fan of school … like most sixth graders,” he says.
He also balked at the USC college-prep program’s requirements. NAI participants sign on for a seven-year commitment that includes Saturday Academy classes along with weekday morning classes at USC and after-school tutoring. The time investment pays off for their college prospects: 99% of the 1,237 NAI scholars have gone on to two- or four-year institutions, significantly higher than the state average of 64%.
Garcia loved spending weekends outside in neighborhood parks, especially playing baseball. “I wasn’t really excited about having Saturday school,” he says. The seven-year commitment also spooked him. His parents made the expectations clear: “If we’re going in this, we’re going all the way in, and you can’t back out.”
Ultimately, the deciding factor that swayed Garcia to enroll in NAI was something familiar to any sixth-grader: peer pressure. When his friends joined, he couldn’t say no. He had little idea what that choice would mean in the coming years. As he adjusted to the rigorous coursework, he grew to not only enjoy it but also excel.
This past June, Garcia graduated in the top 10% of his high school class. He also became one of the first 41 graduates of NAI’s Eastside program.
Most importantly, in August, he became the first in his family to attend college.
Higher Education Within Reach through USC College-Prep Initiative
In recent years, El Sereno has grappled with the contrasting forces of gang violence and gentrification. Garcia describes his hometown as a quiet enclave where his favorite spots include outdoor spaces like the El Sereno Recreation Center and local Mexican eateries like Cheo’s Tacos (which, to his surprise, has become an Instagram sensation with outsiders).
Garcia’s father, David, who is Guatemalan American, was born in the U.S., moved to El Sereno as a young child and stayed. His mother, Laura, immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico with her parents when she was 3 years old. Both of Garcia’s parents have, until recently, worked full time to support the family — David as a freelance graphic designer and Laura as an L.A. Unified School District special education assistant. The COVID-19 pandemic has made their livelihoods more precarious.
His mother and father value education above all else, and Garcia knows it. They hope to see his two younger siblings attend college, too. As parents, says Laura, “you want better for them.” But until NAI emerged as an option, paying for college loomed as a daunting prospect.
The Garcias knew that NAI could offer critical help in paying for college — students who remain in the program until high school graduation are eligible for a fully funded financial aid package to USC, provided they meet admission requirements. The possibility of earning full college tuition “played a huge role in the effort I put into school,” Garcia says.
In high school, balancing six days of school each week with his other activities was tough. He was also an outfielder on the baseball team, served as a juror for Teen Court — a program for teens to hear real juvenile cases and learn about the judicial system — and helped plan school fundraisers and events. But Garcia credits NAI with motivating him to challenge himself, not to mention instilling discipline and time management. The curriculum in the USC college-prep program helped him reach high-level courses, including AP biology and AP calculus, in his senior year.
He found the NAI tutors — many of whom are alumni from both NAI and USC — to be particularly helpful. They served as role models. “Some tutors were even there from sixth grade up until 12th grade,” Garcia says. “They’ve seen us grow, and it’s amazing having a bond with some tutors who’ve known us that long.”
Garcia ultimately gained admission to his two top-choice colleges: USC and the University of California, Berkeley. He knew that no matter which school he chose, NAI would be there to support him throughout his college years. NAI’s retention efforts help ensure that participants’ hard work getting into USC or any other institution pays off. Support counselors make sure scholars transition successfully to college life and complete a degree.
In the end, USC’s full-tuition grant and his NAI experience influenced him to stay in L.A. and become a Trojan. “I’ve been helped by USC all this time,” Garcia says. “It just felt like the better option for me.”
The first-Year Student from NAI Builds a Trojan Family
Garcia is keenly aware that many of his classmates outside NAI face a tougher road to college than he did. Some of his friends are undocumented young people commonly known as “Dreamers” — named after 2011 Congressional legislation that would have provided protection to youthful immigrants. The legislation was never passed, and these students do not qualify for federal loans or grants to finance their education.
Witnessing their plight has deepened Garcia’s longstanding interest in law, which he traces to his love of watching the show Law & Order since he was a kid. He also credits his aunt Jacqueline Guevara, a paralegal in Los Angeles, for spurring his enthusiasm. Garcia dreams of specializing in immigration law as a way to assist undocumented members of his community. “Hopefully, they’ll be able to receive aid, attend better schools or even receive their citizenship,” he says.
This fall, his interest in immigration politics prompted him to enroll in Laura Isabel Serna’s history course “The Latin American Experience,” in which the USC associate professor of cinema and media studies explores the impact of Latin America on the world. At the same time, he wants to learn about people from cultures far different from his own, especially within USC’s diverse community.
As he makes new friends at USC, he still has his old friends, too. Of 94 students in NAI’s 2020 graduating class, 39 were accepted to USC and 36 enrolled. Many of the same buddies who persuaded Garcia to join NAI back in sixth grade have become Trojans. “I’ve known some of them since kindergarten and elementary school,” he says.
Garcia is also lighting the way for his sister, Dianna, 15, and brother, Ismael, 12, both of whom are in NAI and want to attend USC as well. “He’s helping us set the bar, and that’s their example,” their mother says.
Reflecting on the rewards that have stemmed from his participation in NAI, Garcia is glad that he didn’t pass up the chance to join as a skeptical 12-year-old.
“Looking back on it,” he says, “Saturday school is not that bad.”
Ostrow alumna finds herself at ground zero of the coronavirus crisis while completing her dental anesthesiology residency in New York
Rining in 2020 New Years Eve, Tiffany Neimar DDS ’18 couldn’t have known the personal and professional transformation the next few months would bring.
Working at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx, N.Y., as part of the second year of her dental anesthesiology residency with the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Neimar had just finished her surgical intensive care unit rotation in February when what would become a tsunami of Covid-19 cases began to surge through ERs and ICUs across the city — sparing not even Neimar, herself.
“In the middle of March, I felt extremely weak and feverish,” Neimar says. “My program director said ‘I really think you should get tested. Everyone’s getting sick right now,’ and that’s what I did. A week later, my nasal swab came back positive.”
Though Neimar’s coronavirus case was moderate — with mild respiratory symptoms and physical fatigue — it kept her isolated for 14 days in her studio apartment.
In the time it took her to return to her residency, the world had seemingly shifted on its axis.
“Covid-19 presented us with a unique challenge, and as the only anesthesia residents in our hospital, we had a new role to step into — critical care management for Covid-positive patients,” she says.
Overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients, the hospital assigned the dental anesthesia residents to help run a “stepdown” unit — a unit that’s not quite an ICU and not quite a medical/surgical floor— where they cared for dozens of critically ill patients at a time.
“I had nights where three people would die on me,” Neimar explains. “I did CPR countless times, which often was a futile effort for these patients, because they would not recover from that at all.”
Neimar was also forced to have many difficult conversations with family members who could not see their loved ones for fear of virus transmission.
“I realized that, when I communicated with these patients’ families, it allowed me to connect with the patients themselves, because they were all intubated, so they couldn’t communicate with me,” she says. “I got to know more about them as people — their hobbies and personalities — through their family members.”
The difficult life-and-death conversations also proved therapeutic for Neimar who, during her first year in dental school, lost her own father to cancer.
“When my father was dying in the hospital five years ago, nobody returned my calls or gave me updates on his condition,” Neimar says. “From that experience, I knew what these families need to hear, and I felt as though I was healing my own old wounds.”
Taking the reins
For weeks, Neimar worked around the clock, finding herself naturally stepping up to leadership status within the unit.
“I really threw myself into managing and running the ICU because I knew that putting in the daily work and organizing a great team would ultimately result in a structured workflow,” she says. “These patients needed consistency of care, especially during the most critical times.”
She would bargain with other units to get supplies her staff lacked; she would check in on her colleagues and offer moral support (and caffeine); and she worked with local restaurants to make sure the healthcare workers were well fed.
“There were days when I was standing in the middle of the unit, having five different people asking me, ‘Should we do this?’ ‘Where do these labs need to go?’” Neimar explains. “My autopilot was to create structure and provide leadership, and I don’t know where that came from. When I say I evolved into this person, it came out of a part of me I had never experienced before because I was never put in such a position.”
At least part of her abilities come from her days at USC, she says.
“USC taught me to be committed to my work and really prioritize my commitment to patients,” Neimar explains. “I definitely developed my strong work ethic and perseverance during dental school.”
Finding strength within
Fighting in the trenches, day in and day out, certainly took its toll on Neimar, who often found herself in tears when she was alone, just struggling to process the magnitude of the uncertainty and death she saw every day.
Certainly, there were good times, too.
“It was always such a special day for us when a patient would actually walk out of the hopsital,” she says. “The whole hospital would play songs for patients when they were extubated and discharged home.”
News of Neimar’s compassion, organization and leadership skills made its way to hospital leadership.
“My greatest lesson came from the strength I found within. I found this person who run into the fire without hesitation and is capable of incredible perseverance”
“My trauma attendings told me everyone was talking about me and our unit, that we were doing great work,” Neimar says. “They said ‘You guys are helping people, and you are an exemplary resident. You stepped completely outside of your scope of practice and handled something that was above your pay grade.’”
Consequently, Neimar has been selected for the chief resident position in her program. “There’s a lot of work involved, but that’s OK; I’m not unfamiliar with work,” she says.
But, now, that New York City’s coronavirus curve has flattened, Neimar finds herself, finally having the time and space to process all that occurred to her this year. She’s even started channeling some of her feelings into painting.
More than anything, she realizes she’s no longer the person she was when 2020 began, with a very different perspective, both personally and professionally.
“My greatest lesson came from the strength I found within. I found this person who would run into the fire without hesitation and is capable of incredible perseverance,” she says. “Today, the depth of my passion for healing and helping others has taken on a new form and has, once again, changed my journey in unimaginable ways.”
Jackie Schiffner is a senior BFA student at the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance. In her last year at the school, she is looking to bring dance to those who might not have access to it.
Each senior at USC Kaufman was tasked with creating a final project that combined three areas that interest them. For Schiffner, combining her passions for dance, education and psychology to create a dance outreach program for elementary schoolers was an easy choice.
The Dance Outreach Goals
Schiffner decided to partner with Sequoia Elementary School in Westminster, Calif., for the year. She now focuses on bringing a range of dance styles, as well as her mentorship, to 40 students in the dance outreach program.
“That was something that was really important to me—not doing what has typically been done in schools before where you just kind of learn ‘step-together-step,’” said Schiffner. “I really wanted to put a focus on different styles of dance and differentiating between them, and also having a focus of choreography. I wanted to have them be able to create something and use that problem solving to figure out, ‘Okay, this doesn’t work here. How do I fix this?’”
Dance outreach and a STEAM Education
Her idea for this project initially came from a psychology course she took at USC. In the class, she examined research that proved how dance education can lead to better results in math and science. For this reason, she wanted to work specifically with a school that had a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) focus, as Sequoia Elementary does.
She also wanted to partner with a school that did not already have a fully developed arts program. At Sequoia Elementary, Schiffner’s mother, who is a teacher there, was previously tasked with leading the students’ dance lessons.
“You have to have a credentialed teacher to teach science and English and math and history,” Schiffner said. “My mom, she’s amazing, but she’s not qualified to teach a dance class.”
Along with bringing quality dance education to the students, Schiffner looks to be an academic and professional mentor for them in her dance outreach program.
“I think sometimes when kids don’t have an example of somebody who is making a career in the arts or is going to college in the arts, they don’t know that it’s a possibility and so many kids can lose out on that opportunity,” she said.
She hopes to expand on the mentorship aspects of the program by bringing in some of her fellow USC Kaufman students to talk on different topics.
“Especially when I get into my more ballet-focused lessons, I’m going to bring Joseph Hetzer who is one of my main partners here. I’ve found that a lot of boys are turned off of ballet, and I really want to make that a focus as well,” Schiffner said.
She is also organizing a campus visit for her students, where they will tour USC and watch USC Kaufman rehearsals. In addition, she is hoping to have them participate in a panel with representatives from USC’s other arts schools.
A Change in Perspective
Currently, though, Schiffner’s program is focused on introducing the fundamentals of dance. With mentorship from USC Kaufman faculty member Jackie Kopcsak and Vice Dean & Artistic Director Jodie Gates, Schiffner is learning to shape lessons for students with little-to-no dance experience.
“It is a very different construction of a class. You have to keep them interested the whole time,” she said. “It’s constantly moving on from one thing to another thing. You have to explain it for people that don’t know how to move their bodies. It’s a very different thing when they can’t figure out how to move their right hand to their right knee.”
While Schiffner is changing her approach to dance in this sense, she is impressed by the ways her students are looking at it for the first time.
“I think the coolest thing for me is just seeing kids have confidence,” she said. “Often-time when you don’t know how to do something, especially as you get older, you shy away from that thing. But kids are so open and you just see them going for things that I would never see my other students. I also teach ballet and contemporary at studios, and they’re often late middle-school and high schoolers. You don’t see them going for things as much as you do with kids.”
“It’s really neat when you tell a child, ‘Good job’ and they start to think ‘Oh I can do this.’ I think if somebody tells them now ‘you can do this’ then that will make a difference in their lives.”
Looking Towards the Future
Students will be putting the dance knowledge they’ve learned from Schiffner towards their upcoming school production of “The Jungle Book.” In the future, Schiffner is looking to arrange a separate dance show for them where they can showcase their new moves.
And once she graduates, Schiffner hopes that her involvement in these types of projects continues.
“I want to be a contemporary ballet dancer. But I’m definitely looking at companies that do some sort of outreach,” she said. “That’s something important to me. To be involved somewhere that does have that aspect within the company.”
USC Viterbi freshman Jovani Esparza, a first-generation scholarship student, has worked since age 10 to support his family
When Jovani Esparza was 10 years old, he was already working 10-hour shifts transporting gravel in the passenger seat of his father’s truck. As an elementary schooler, he could already change oil and help fix and maintain trucks. Over the next eight years, he worked everywhere from a bakery to Walgreens, all while maintaining excellent grades and playing sports.
A Dean’s Scholarship recipient and a new freshman at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering majoring in mechanical engineering, Esparza is a first-generation college student who plans to use his strong work ethic and independence to take advantage of the opportunities at Troy.
“My parents have always pushed me to strive for the best,” he said. “Their story and their work ethic inspire me, and I hope I can make them proud.”
Esparza grew up in Crowley, Texas, a suburb outside of Dallas. Balancing work with excellent grades required Esparza to endure late nights and to study and do homework whenever he could during his shifts.
“Helping provide for my family at such a young age was difficult because I missed out on a lot of my childhood,” Esparza said. “But I always wanted to be able to work to help support my role in the family. I knew we wouldn’t be able to afford SAT books or tutors, so I wanted to be able to help provide those myself.”
Esparza’s pursuit of higher education follows in the footsteps of his brother, Carlos Esparza, who graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington in 2013 with a degree in civil engineering. “My brother was a huge role model for me. If it wasn’t for him, I don’t think I’d be at USC right now,” he said. “Watching him go to college and study engineering was what made me so determined to follow in his path.”
In high school, Esparza played baseball all four years and was also a part of the powerlifting team. Inspired by a love of sports and the outdoors instilled in him by his older brother, Esparza has already joined the USC intramural frisbee team, as well as SC Outfitters, a student-run club that organizes hikes, camping trips, and other adventurous outdoor activities and trips throughout the Southwest.
“Being outdoors is something I’m really passionate about, so the weather in LA was something that definitely drew me to USC,” Esparza said. “Besides that, it was the environment and culture here, which I found to be very supportive and uplifting, especially compared to a lot of the other universities I was considering.”
Esparza’s parents, Jesus and Rosa Esparza, come from a small village in Mexico. Neither advanced beyond the fourth grade, Esparza said. They both came to the U.S. as teenagers to look for work.
“They came to America to provide a better opportunity for my siblings and me,” he said. “I always wanted to make them proud and take advantage of any opportunity that I could.”
Jesus Esparza would leave for work at 3 a.m. and would not arrive home until 8 p.m. He drove trucks to deliver gravel to construction companies, while his wife, Rosa, watched the neighbor’s children, as well as cooked, cleaned and cared for her own three kids. “My parents are the most hard-working people I know,” Esparza said.
“Even though it was hard to balance constantly working with school and sports, it made me independent and dedicated to continue my own education,” Esparza added. When things got tough, it was his family that kept him going.
When Esparza thinks about what he hopes to do in the future, he thinks first of where his parents came from.
“My parents grew up in a village that had less than a thousand people and very poor water systems,” he said. “To get clean water, they would have to walk to nearby rivers.”
His dream: use his degree to work in engineering infrastructure to bring clean water to people in countries that lack access to it.
As a teenager, Jasmin Sanchez suffered a painful medical emergency that taught her to stand up for herself. Now the first-generation college student is a USC Dornsife undergrad determined to advocate for others.
Future occupational therapist, Sophomore Jasmin Sanchez, knows about pain. She also knows what it takes to have to fight to be believed.
When she was 14-years-old, she suffered a year of untreated chronic pain caused by an undiagnosed ovarian torsion triggered by a cyst.
“There were days where the pain wouldn’t let me move,” Sanchez recalls. The physical pain was compounded by the emotional and psychological distress she suffered because her doctor and her family didn’t believe her.
“It was very difficult,” Sanchez says. “I had been going to my general doctor for about a year because of the pain I felt in my body. But every single time I went, she referred me to a psychologist. She thought it was all in my head.”
Sanchez’ mother tended to put her faith in the doctor’s diagnosis, as well.
“My mother always said, ‘You have to listen to the doctor. If she’s telling you that, then it’s true.’”
But then the day came when Sanchez woke up and could not feel her right leg.
“It was just numb and cold. I remember limping and not being able to move it,” she says.
Her mother took her to the hospital, but Sanchez says she was told she was probably just suffering from a urinary tract infection and to come back in two days if she saw no improvement with the medication she was prescribed. Two days later, Sanchez was crying with pain.
Returning to the hospital, she says she had to wait seven hours to see a doctor, who tried to persuade her to go back to her general practitioner to ask for an ultrasound. In severe pain and determined to be heard, Sanchez demanded that an ultrasound be performed immediately in the hospital.
“I felt very alone. I didn’t feel like the health-care system was on my side, nor did I feel I had support from my mom,” she says.
The medical staff finally acquiesced, and when they saw the ultrasound results, their attitude immediately changed, Sanchez says. She underwent emergency surgery and has since made a full recovery. However, she has not forgotten the experience of fighting to be heard and to be believed. Remarkably, she isn’t bitter.
“Instead, I am grateful for that experience because it helped me understand what I wanted to do with my life,” she says.
“What attracted me to the health and human sciences major at USC Dornsife was that it didn’t focus only on anatomy, but also incorporated thinking about society, thinking about the individual. I think health care is in need of people who treat others as human rather than a checklist of symptoms.”
To pursue her career goals, Sanchez is planning to follow her undergraduate degree with a master’s degree and a Ph.D. from USC Chan, currently ranked third in the nation for .
Acting as her own best advocate
Born within two miles of USC to a stay-at-home mom and a father who is a driver for the disabled, Sanchez is the youngest of three siblings and a first-generation college student. Both her parents are Salvadoran and came to the United States in their 20s. Neither received any formal education, either in El Salvador or in the U.S.
While her family background made her path to college more challenging, Sanchez was also fortunate. Her parents bought a house near James A. Foshay Learning Center, part of the USC Family of Schools, which Sanchez attended from 6th to 12th grade. There she applied to join the Leslie and William McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative at USC, a rigorous, seven-year, pre-college enrichment program designed to prepare students from South Los Angeles and East Los Angeles for admission to a college or university.
Although the idea that she might one day go to college was difficult for her parents to grasp, they did support her, attending all the required NAI meetings, Sanchez says.
“I don’t think it was a realistic dream for my parents, since they thought that once I finished high school I should automatically start working. College was not something they really had in mind for me.”
But just as she had done to get the medical care she needed when she was 14, Sanchez now became her own advocate to get accepted to USC.
“I remember that process was very difficult for me,” she says. “Because my parents don’t speak English, I remember filling out the applications myself and having to go to my NAI advisor and school counselor to ask for clarification on certain questions.”
While her mother believed her daughter would make it to college, she didn’t think she would get into USC. Sanchez’ elder brother, Carlos, was more supportive.
“He said ‘I told you since the first day you were accepted into the [NAI] program in sixth grade that you were going to make it. That you were going to get there and you were going to do amazing things,’” Sanchez says.
Diversity was a new experience
Sanchez grew up roller-skating on the streets close to USC’s University Park campus. Now she is buying her first pair of roller blades to ensure she gets to class on time.
But the sophomore still remembers her first day setting foot on the USC campus to go to Saturday tutoring classes as an NAI student.
“It was very intimidating. I had never really experienced diversity. I live in a predominantly minority community. Coming to USC and being able to see people from different backgrounds was a culture shock, even though I was just in sixth grade.”
Sanchez is honest about other challenges she faced as an NAI participant. In addition to the rigorous nature of the program, she had to endure taunts from other students at her high school who were not in the program and who treated those who were as outsiders.
While it was hard at the time, Sanchez says, “Now I realize it was very helpful to be in a group of students who were eager to learn and focused on attaining higher education.”
Sanchez says she also feels gratitude for all the opportunities she received through the NAI program.
“Once I got to USC, I realized my peers had very productive summers. They paid high amounts to take extra classes or participate in activities. NAI provided us with many of these expensive resources for free, such as tutoring and fun, extracurricular activities during the summer. Not only could I learn from those activities, but I could also put them on my resume, as well as my college application.”
Two classes she has taken while at USC Dornsife made a particularly deep impression upon her: A General Education Seminar that focused on Latinos in the United States and an occupational therapist course to help people understand how children succeed, especially those from low-income backgrounds.
“Both of these classes made me grateful to have been selected by the NAI program as one of their scholars. The program is truly beautiful and life changing. It gives opportunities to minority students who are struggling to reach higher education and it gives them the resources they need to get there.”
What goes around comes around
Sanchez is determined to give back, and to become an occupational therapist. Since turning 16, she has volunteered at the hospital where she was treated for her ovarian cyst. There, she will give a presentation to doctors and hospital staff about how to improve customer service, particularly in terms of respectful communication with patients from different cultural backgrounds — a subject that’s understandably close to her heart.
Sanchez works with many different programs, including the Young Scientists Program, an experiential learning initiative of USC Dornsife’s Joint Educational Project, where she teaches third-grade science. She also volunteers with NAI, providing academic and personal mentoring as well as helping participants stay focused on the college application process.
Volunteering at NAI, Sanchez says, enabled her to see that others are facing similar difficulties.
“I am in a position where I can be there to help them, and make them feel heard. I will always want to give back to a program that gave so much to me.”
E-Coliseum co-founder Rustin Sotoodeh didn’t even see games as a career option until he crossed paths with a USC Marshall entrepreneurship expert
About 40 people are packed in what looks like an old warehouse space in Downtown Los Angeles.
Beams and insulation are exposed overhead. Everything is white, from the sofas to the brick walls. The room goes from pink to purple thanks to color-changing lights, in step with the hip-hop playing.
This isn’t a nightclub or bar. This is E-Coliseum, what its owners call “the world’s first esports gym.”
The South Park spot has only been open about a month, but Trojan co-founder Rustin Sotoodeh expects about 70 gamers to come out tonight for the “Fortnite Friday” tournament. The video game recently got mainstream notoriety when rapper Drake was seen playing it, with hundreds of folks streaming in to watch.
“Last week, when we did [Fortnite Friday], there was a line around the block,” Sotoodeh said, a graduate of the USC Marshall School of Business who started the business with his friend Kha Lu.
How the pair ended up founding E-Coliseum is surprising, since Sotoodeh didn’t even consider games as a career option until he crossed paths with a USC Marshall entrepreneurship expert.
E-Coliseum: at the center of esports in Los Angeles
At E-Coliseum, gamers can either drop in or become members for a $40 monthly fee that gets access to top-of-the-line gaming equipment, such as Dell’s Alienware.
“Alienware is like the Nike of gaming,” said Sotoodeh, 22. All the equipment — from the fancy Vertagear gaming chairs and Cooler Master surround sound headsets to ViewSonic monitors — is sponsored.
The players line up in rows and enter the game at the same time, 8 p.m., competing for $100 in cash. There’s a Nike Air Force 1 giveaway, an artist customizing them at a table nearby. A pro gamer plays live from the lounge, streaming to folks around the world.
“Everyone thinks gaming is a hobby that people play at home in a basement,” he said. “We’re providing this social experience … and showing gaming is a lifestyle in the same way basketball is a lifestyle.”
Sotoodeh pointed at a gamer near him: “Look, this guy is wearing Yeezys and playing Fortnite.” Sotoodeh himself was wearing the pricy Adidas sneakers that run for up to $800 a pair.
A decade or so ago, you might have gone to an internet cafe to play Call of Duty alongside friends. Sotoodeh said E-Coliseum is doing something different.
“Internet cafes are like let’s cram as many people as possible into one room and just give them computers,” he said. “Whereas us, we’re trying to foster a community. … You’re being part of a movement of people.”
Participants can enter tournaments, hire trainers and even meet esports influencers like social media star Rachell “Valkyrae” Hofstetter, who recently did a meet and greet at the space and played Fortnite live, streaming it out.
Staples Center and USC’s Galen Center have hosted esports events, with thousands buying tickets to see gamers play live. Actor Joel McHale is playing in a celebrity tournament this month. The University of California, Irvine and the University of Utah have esports teams, the latter declaring it part of the school’s athletic program — with scholarships available.
“It just legitimizes it even more,” said USC Associate Professor of Professional Practice Jeff Fellenzer, who teaches classes on sports, media and technology. “This is a revolution — something you’ll talk about years from now and say ‘I remember when esports was just starting.’”
In high school, Sotoodeh, who grew up in Tustin, played Super Smash Bros. competitively, hosting mini tournaments with friends.
“Then I went away to college,” he said. “I would come home on winter breaks and over summer and they would be 20 times better. I was like, ‘Crap, how do I get back into this?’”
Unexpected career path
Sotoodeh didn’t even know esports was a career path until he met Anthony Borquez, a USC Marshall adjunct professor of entrepreneurship. And interestingly enough, it started with a pair of Yeezys.
Sotoodeh, who sells high-end sneakers, was taking one of Borquez’s entrepreneurship classes and noticed the professor had nice sneakers. He started selling him shoes and asking him about his gaming company. Eventually, he got the chance to work at Borquez’s AR/VR company Grab Games and learn about the industry.
It brought Sotoodeh back to that question — about having a community for gaming.
Sotoodeh got the initial money to start E-Coliseum in 2017, winning $10,000 at USC’s New Venture Seed Competition, hosted by the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies.
“My mom jokes … I was destined to open a place like this,” Sotoodeh said. “In elementary school, I would bring my Nintendo GameCube and I would charge people to play Super Smash Bros. at school.
Emily Cooperdock, assistant professor of Earth sciences, has hiked the Appalachian trail, studied rocks in the Swiss Alps and Oman, and is building a lab at USC Dornsife aimed at revealing new information about Earth’s history
Hundreds of millions of years ago, beneath the ocean’s crust, a beautiful green stone forms. Rocks rich in iron and magnesium, altered by heat, water and pressure, turn the color of jade. Time passes, the planet’s plates shift, and ridges of the material push up along fault lines, making it accessible to humans — and their ingenuity.
Ancient Artic indigenous tribes carved bowls out of it, into which they poured seal fat to create oil lamps. It earned the name “serpentinite” for its slippery similarity to snakeskin. Modern architects, admiring its color and resemblance to marble, cut columns of the stone and installed them on the USC campus, at the USC Admission Center, where visitors can still view them today.
The columns help USC feel just a bit more like home for new faculty member Emily Cooperdock, assistant professor of Earth sciences at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. Serpentinite happens to be at the center of her research. “I’ve kind of made my name on studying serpentinites,” she says.
As a Ph.D. student, she studied the metamorphic rock around the world, from ancient ocean basins high up in the Swiss Alps to the Arabian Peninsula. “Oman is really famous for having the largest slice of what was once oceanic crust that was thrust up onto the continent and is now just totally exposed,” she explains. “You can walk through miles of these mantle rocks.”
At the USC Dornsife Colleges of Letters, Arts and Sciences, her new USC Helium Lab focuses on innovative ways to date minerals, using the decay of uranium and thorium to measure the age of rocks, which produce helium during that decay (hence the lab’s name).
“In my Ph.D., I worked on figuring out new methods for dating minerals and rocks to ask questions that weren’t accessible before because we didn’t have a method to figure it out. Now, I’m setting up my lab to use these techniques to date rocks and measure chemistry, to ask big picture questions about plate tectonics: how things have moved in the past and how they change over time,” says Cooperdock.
Her work could help us better understand our planet’s geological history, unlock information about earthquakes and volcanoes and, in the future, enable us to understand the plate tectonics of planets across the solar system.
A family affair
Cooperdock spent her childhood split between an army base in Germany, where her mother worked, and New York, where her father is a professor of Earth sciences at Columbia University.
She enrolled as an undergraduate at Columbia with the intention of focusing on environmental advocacy. “I thought I wanted to be an environmental scientist and work on conservation issues.”
As she moved towards graduation, her interest in minerals grew. This burgeoning passion was first sparked by an earlier experience with AmeriCorps. She took a gap year between high school and college, clearing trails and restoring natural habitat with the Nevada Conservation Corps.
“What I found was that I was really, really enthralled by geology and being able to read the rocks. We’d go out to national parks a lot, we’d see these arches and all these really cool features, and they were super mysterious and beautiful. Now I go and I see geological processes. I can decode it all.”
In 2017, she received her Ph.D. in geological sciences from The University of Texas at Austin, then headed to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution for postdoctoral work. Shortly after, she accepted her current position at USC Dornsife, moving once again. As an Army brat, she wasn’t particularly phased by this. “I’ve moved maybe every five years of my life,” she says, laughing.
By her side for this entire journey has been her husband. They met at age 17, on a summer job building hiking trails in Virginia. The two convinced their parents to allow them to take that gap year with AmeriCorps together, and they maintained a relationship while undergraduates at different universities (he at the University of Maine).
Their love of trails has remained consistent over the years. “We finally got to be in the same place after graduating from college and we hiked the Appalachian Trail together,” recounts Cooperdock. “We had to wait out flooding in Pennsylvania because of tropical storm Lee, and we got trapped in New York City because there was a tropical storm. We got ambushed by ice and snow unexpectedly and had a night where we woke up to everything being frozen.” Despite the tumultuous weather, the 2,200-mile journey was the adventure of a life time for the two.
As her career grew, so did the Cooperdock family. “I defended my Ph.D. while pregnant, moved, started a postdoc and then had my daughter a month and a half into postdoctoral research.”
The trail blazer
Cooperdock says her rock and mineral research, while fascinating, can seem disconnected from real-world problems. “If I’m being completely honest, my work is not directly relevant to everyday life. That’s always bothered me. I happen to be very passionate about this science, but I don’t want to spend my life decoupled from making the world a better place. That tripped me up for a long time and then, finally, I realized I can just do it anyway.”
She’s determined to promote equity, inclusion and diversity in the Earth sciences. She helped friend and fellow Earth scientist Rachel Bernard, whom she met while a Ph.D. student, write a paper published in Nature Geosciences in 2018. It highlights the persistent lack of diversity in earth, atmospheric and ocean sciences.
“Only in the past decade have we started to approach some sort of gender parity in the fields of Earth and oceanic science, where about the same number of women as men are earning Ph.D.s. But if we look at racial and ethnic minorities in the United States, we’ve seen effectively no change in the past forty years,” Cooperdock says.
Their paper has kicked up conversation across the field. “Since writing this, I now have these discussions with a lot of people as I travel around, from graduate students, to department chairs at different universities to deans.”
As she builds her lab at USC, she’s working on ways to create a space that embraces those values. “When I send out my ads for students, I list that we’re looking for someone who’s interested in these topics scientifically. Also, that we support working on issues surrounding diversity, inclusion and equity. What I’ve found is that almost all the postdocs and Ph.D. students who contact me reference that part of the ad.
“My level of power, influence and responsibility has changed dramatically in the past two and a half years,” she said. “I’m figuring out how I can use my position to affect the most positive change.”
Her time on the Appalachian Trail taught her important lessons about perseverance, no matter what project she tackled. She encourages her students with this philosophy as they work towards their own academic goals.
“Sometimes you’re wet, you’re cold, you’re tired, you’re bored, you have that feeling of ‘I just want to sit here and I don’t want to do it anymore.’ Well, if you just sit there, then you’re going to be in the same situation in an hour and two hours and 12 hours,” she says.
“The only thing that’s worth doing when you’re feeling like that is to put one foot in front of the other and keep on going. Even if it doesn’t look great in this short view that you have, you’re moving toward this larger goal. Once you hit a hard spot, you’ve just got to keep on walking forward at whatever pace you can manage and you will get to a better place.”
By day, Lauana Rodrigues Pereira Herbert helps her medical team respond to a global pandemic. At night, she studies for her MBA in USC Marshall’s International Business Education and Research program.
Leading a COVID-19 medical team aboard a cruise ship by day and studying for her MBA degree by night, physician Lauana Rodrigues Pereira Herbert is placing the health and welfare of others first.
Herbert has spent a decade working on cruise lines as a ship’s physician. Over the course of her career, she’s implemented numerous procedures and protocols that have improved patient health and also reduced the cost of medical supplies and equipment.
Last July she enrolled in the International Business Education and Research (IBEAR) program at the USC Marshall School of Business, a one-year, accelerated general management MBA program for mid-career professionals. Her goal: to gain the additional skills needed to transition to a career in health care consulting. While Herbert said she enjoys being a doctor, there are changes in medicine she wants to see happen and feels they are far more achievable with a business degree.
She was two-thirds through her in-person studies when the coronavirus broke out. “It made me anxious. I wanted to help, but legally I can’t work here,” said Herbert, who is from Brazil.
When COVID-19 was discovered on a cruise ship operated by her former employer, everything changed.
“I got a call that conditions were extremely bad aboard a ship in San Diego,” she said. “They needed a doctor who could lead internal and external teams and liaise with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and a number of government and non-government entities.”
Former cruise ship doctor gets clearance to ‘sail’ again
So why approach Herbert? Given the current crisis and its resulting circumstances, reaching out to her was a logical and expedient decision.
First, working aboard a commercial ship requires a seafaring safety certification, which can take a week or more to earn. On top of that, a combination of industry travel bans, closed consulate offices and a CDC no-sail order had made it virtually impossible for cruise operators to relocate personnel.
Those barriers notwithstanding, the decision also had a lot to do with Herbert earning her MBA. Beyond clinical expertise, her former employer needed other essential skills she’d been honing — operations and supply chain management, communications, mediation — all critical for coordinating with diverse stakeholders like the CDC, the Coast Guard, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the city of San Diego and local hospitals.
One big problem remained: how to get Herbert clearance to work in the United States. USC Marshall staff scrambled to find work/study options and reached across the university for ideas and assistance. In the end, the lawyers at her former employer negotiated an agreement with the CDC that has allowed her to volunteer until the end of May.
The complications of responding to COVID-19
Her exact “job”: to stabilize the current situation and comply with the CDC’s industrywide no-sail order. The order — announced mid-March and extended in April — shut down passenger operations and also implemented strict measures for cruise ships with crews still on board.
Ships are required to develop and administer comprehensive plans for preventing, detecting, responding to and containing COVID-19. They must also ensure they have enough medical staff, equipment, supplies and other resources to provide care and, if needed, be able to transfer the sick to an onshore hospital.
When Herbert reported for duty on April 4, she joined a crew of 800 from 72 countries. “Although some of them were infected with the coronavirus, the good news is that several have recovered and we have enough medical supplies and personal protective equipment on hand,” she said.
While she said things were “as good as they could be,” she noted that it’s been mentally and emotionally hard for the crew.
“Their mood fluctuates,” she said. “They’re concerned about their own health, far from home. And with the CDC’s measures on repatriation, they’re in limbo too. They can’t disembark through commercial transportation means, so they’re dependent on the cruise lines providing private-chartered transportation or the CDC lifting its restrictions.”
A day in the life of a cruise ship doctor during COVID-19
Herbert has learned there’s no off-the-shelf job description for what she’s been asked to perform.
“This isn’t a role that existed before,” she said. “While it does rely on my clinical expertise and understanding of diseases and outcomes, it’s much more than that. It’s truly a very specific set of knowledge and skills.”
Her day starts with a medical team meeting and then revolves around helping them do their jobs.
“Their role is to focus on the health of the patients,” she said. “I manage the reporting, operations, logistics and communications, which allows them to maintain that focus. It’s a lot of coordination and mediation with shoreside and, of course, adapting to constant change.”
The crisis continues to present a number of very fluid situations, and the details surrounding them can be mind-blowing. For example, CDC guidelines and requirements can change daily, and any medication ordered has to be cleared through them, the FDA and sometimes U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Every package loaded aboard a ship must go through multiple sanitation and cleansing protocols before reaching the medical team.
“The ship is like a small city,” Herbert said. “The captain is the mayor, and I’m the director of the health department.”
Balancing full-time work and MBA study
After a full day, one would hope Herbert could put her feet up and relax with one of those fanciful cruise ship cocktails. Instead, she logs on to her computer to watch recorded classes, work on group projects and study.
“Oddly, study is therapy,” she said. “Plus, my day never really ends. At night, I’m the on-call cruise ship doctor in case of emergency.”
While Herbert admits the combination of full-time work and full-time study has been trying, she credits her MBA education for helping her manage and thrive.
“The training has certainly helped me to organize things and even mitigate some cultural clashes,” she said. “If this opportunity had come up a year ago, I wouldn’t have been as successful.”
Her classmates and USC Marshall faculty stay in touch and have offered encouraging messages and care packages of brownies and home-cooked foods.
“She is amazing, so caring and willing to help despite putting her own life in danger,” said Ivonne Castillo, IBEAR program specialist.
As Herbert thinks about the future and the effects of her shipboard COVID-19 experience, she says she’s even more resolved and confident in her decision to become a health care consultant.
“There’s a disconnect between the providers — the doctors and nurses — and the health care and hospital administrators,” she said. “They’re not speaking the same language, and the decisions being made don’t make sense. In the end, it’s costing a lot of dollars and a lot of lives.
“I want to help bridge that gap and foster greater understanding.”
Herbert returned to Los Angeles on Friday. After almost two months onboard treating numerous severe outbreaks, she was pleased to report the ship is now COVID-19 free.
Even though her USC journey has just begun, Natalie Battiest already understands the value of embracing her heritage.
Natalie Battiest is no stranger to USC. As a Bovard Scholar, she lived on campus during summer 2019. And earlier this year, she helped lead the Native American Student Union’s biggest College Exploration Day to date.
“Native American students don’t pursue higher ed or graduate school because they don’t think that’s an option,” she said. “I never saw myself going to a prestigious school. You can see that on reservations — just a lack of opportunity and guidance.”
College attendance and six-year graduation rates for American Indian and Alaska Native students ages 18 to 24 is lower than any other racial or ethnic group. Cultural unfamiliarity and a sense of isolation have been cited as factors.
“Growing up, I never met another Native student,” Battiest said. “I did feel alone at times, and I didn’t see my culture represented. I was able to develop friends over time despite the differences.”
There will be a change
A descendent of the Choctaw tribe, Battiest was raised by a relative who moved to Downey, Calif., from Oklahoma.
“My biological parents weren’t fit to raise me, so my aunt took over,” she said.
While attending Warren High School, Battiest earned the title of Miss Teen Downey and used it to create connections.
“I got immersed in my Downey community,” she said. “I did an event with firefighters and a Christmas tree lighting, and I sold food at festivals. With that crown and sash, I could be a mentor and a role model for younger girls.”
“I don’t want Native youth to go through what I went through growing up.”
After becoming a Bovard Scholar as a rising high school senior, Battiest was accepted at Columbia University, Northwestern University, Emory University, Brown University and the University of California, Berkeley, where a Regents’ Scholarship was offered. She chose USC.
Now a Gates Scholar and a Presidential Scholar, she’ll pursue a degree in health promotion and disease prevention studies.
“We have a predominant presence of drug addiction, so I want to research in that field and help my reservation,” she said. “I don’t want Native youth to go through what I went through growing up. I want to see growth, and I think there will be change.”
Colin Roedl — a college-bound student who lives in Germany — presses forward during a wildly different summer session at USC, seeing opportunity in a time of upheaval.
Had things gone according to plan, Colin Roedl would be at USC right now. The rising high school senior was set to spend four weeks living on campus, taking college courses and engaging with hundreds of other high school students during the summer session.
Instead, his courses and activities — like a DJ jam session — are taking place online. From his home in Stuttgart, Germany, he now adjusts for time zone differences daily as he navigates the summer of 2020.
“It has slowed things down, and that allows for more freedom,” he said. “It’s given me the ability to take time and focus on what matters, and I’m appreciative of that.”
Roedl, 17, is one of 29 recipients of the USC Provost’s Pre-College Scholarship for Military Families. Now in its seventh year, the scholarship pays all expenses, which normally include travel, for a four-week immersive college experience on the University Park Campus that includes one intensive college-level course taught by USC faculty.
But the summer program had to make big changes on short notice in response to the rapid, worldwide spread of the novel coronavirus. With less than three months to go before hundreds of students were to arrive on campus, the in-person experience pivoted and reinvented itself.
USC summer scholarship student grew up globally
Born in Texas, Roedl lives with his parents and two younger siblings in Stuttgart, where his father — who serves in the U.S. Army — is stationed.
“USC is a rigorous program, and that’s what enticed me.”
An Army JROTC Battalion Commander, Roedl has served in student government throughout his high school career. He’s captain of the varsity tennis team, serves as a tutor and was the only freshman in his high school to venture into a Model United Nations program.
“I’m always seeking leadership opportunities, and I find that’s a way to help other students,” he said. “As for the summer session, I was looking for a larger university where people share experiences and memories. USC is a rigorous program, and that’s what enticed me.”
Quick turns for USC summer students
The rigorous workload during the summer session remains, as does student socializing, but the program otherwise looks completely different. Social events like speed friending, a DJ jam session and yoga classes became online experiences. Enrollment skyrocketed in a new course called “The COVID-19 Crisis: The Past, Present and Future of Global Health.”
“There’s a commitment to the same academic rigor and teaching excellence, bringing USC’s core values and sense of community to the digital space. We’ve got students, some of them overseas, running complex 3D modeling software remotely,” said Jennifer Colin, chief marketing officer of strategic and global initiatives. “Somehow, our students are navigating these rapids, and Colin is an example of that.”
USC pre-college student shares stories of racial tension
Roedl felt close to the racial conflict when the killing of George Floyd set off protests in the United States and Europe. As a biracial male, he’s felt both prejudice and privilege.
“There are a lot of people who favor biracial over Black, and I’ve experienced that privilege,” he said. “When I go to school and take rigorous classes, I’m labeled white.”
But in other settings, he has experienced anti-Blackness.
“I’ve boarded full buses in Germany and gotten a seat because someone would rather stand than sit next to me,” he said. “I went to the Stuttgart Library with a group of friends, all persons of color, and we were asked to identify ourselves ‘in case something went missing.’”
“The Black Lives Matter movement is going to continue well into 2030. It’s not enough to get streets renamed.”
Roedl’s experience has deepened his understanding of racial perceptions. An essay he wrote about minority representation on television earned a prize at a European junior science and humanities competition. He intends to continue focusing on racial equity long after the summer session ends.
“The Black Lives Matter movement is going to continue well into 2030,” he said. “It’s not enough to get streets renamed. We need legislation. I’m excited that the people going to college now are the ones who are going to be making changes.”
The rise and rise of CAIS++, the student branch of USC’s Center for AI in Society, where undergraduate students are using artificial intelligence to tackle projects with environmental and social impact.
From preserving and protecting endangered languages to helping doctors detect signs of lung cancer, USC students involved in CAIS++, the student branch of USC’s Center for AI in Society, are finding new ways to approach problems and improve people’s lives through artificial intelligence.
“Our belief is that AI can and should be used to solve society’s grand challenges, especially where traditional technology has fallen short,” said Head of Projects Leena Mathur, a computer science and cognitive science major in her junior year.
Mathur joined the club in her first semester and recently wrapped up a summer research internship in machine learning at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland. She says she probably wouldn’t have landed her dream internship without her experience in CAIS++.
“What really spoke to me was the sense of community we have as a club,” said Mathur.
“Everyone is so passionate about sharing their love for AI, and it makes us all more knowledgeable – it’s important to be surrounded by a community of people who support you.”
If you build it, they will come
Computer science senior Lucas Hu established CAIS++, the first student club of its kind in the country, during his freshman year in 2016, when he noticed many undergraduate students were interested in AI for social good. What started as a small group of eight freshmen from Hu’s dorm is now a thriving club, with 50 active members.
“People are so excited about their projects, they take the idea and run with it,” said Hu, who plans to join a “moonshot startup” after graduation, potentially focusing on using drones to deliver medical aid in Africa.
“It’s hugely rewarding to be part of a community that cares about lasting impact of technology and seeing people grow during their time with the club.”
The team meets once a week for student-led mini-tutorials based on the curriculum developed by the students in collaboration with faculty advisors. Each semester, a new cohort walks through an introductory AI curriculum, complete with online lessons and in-person coding workshops.
Preserving endangered languages
Members are able to choose projects that interest them. As a member, Hu’s team developed AI algorithms to detect signs of lung cancer in 3D scans, while Mathur is part of a team working with USC Dornsife linguistics Professor Khalil Iskarous to speed up the process of transcribing endangered languages. Experts say a fifth of humanity’s languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers, with one language going extinct about every two weeks.
The team, which has been working on the project since January 2019, is using partially labelled audio data in an endangered language called Ladin, mainly spoken in the Dolomite Mountains in Northern Italy, as training and test data. The ultimate goal is to develop a model that could be applied to any human language with limited changes.
“The CAIS++ students are some of the brightest student I have met,” said professor Iskarous, who meets with the team on a weekly basis.
“They’re brilliant and they bring very different skillsets to the table, from math to neuroscience to computer science and machine learning to linguistics and philosophy. I think working for the public good really motivates and inspires people and I’ve seen real evidence of that working with this team.”
Bistra Dilkina, a WiSE Gabilan Assistant Professor in computer science and CAIS associate director, developed her new undergraduate course, “Artificial Intelligence for Social Good,” this semester after speaking with members of CAIS++ leadership and realizing how much interest there was among USC undergraduates to learn about AI for social good.
“I have been impressed at the initiative, self-drive and passion for AI and social impact shown by the CAIS++ leadership and members,” said Dilkina.
“CAIS++ is an important student club because it raises awareness about the ability of AI to benefit some of the most pressing societal challenges among our undergraduate populations, hopefully inspiring them to learn AI and be good global citizens at the same time.”
Diversity is a big focus for CAIS++. Currently, around half the club’s members are computer science majors, with other members focusing on electrical engineering, astronautical engineering, neuroscience and linguistics.
“My favorite thing about CAIS++ is the drive towards an interdisciplinary engineering effort,” said Lauren Potterat, a senior in astronautical engineering with a specialization in computer science who worked on a project to identify wildlife poachers using artificial intelligence.
“The organization caters to, and was founded with the intent to unite a vast array of majors under a similar technical toolkit: artificial intelligence. In this way, business, finance, computer science, astronautics, social work and humanities bring a diverse mind and skillset in the pursuit of solutions to societal problems.”
This year, the club is partnering with the USC Sydney Harman Academy for Polymathic Study to run talks on the intersection between technology and humanity, especially with regards to the future of AI. Open workshops will also be on offer for those interested in learning some of the basics of machine learning.
“I am keen to reaffirm the positive potential of AI to students and the community,” said the club’s incoming president Benjamin Brooks.
“CAIS++ is about providing access to machine learning for those who might not have the opportunity to otherwise learn and apply their skills. We are working to build a more welcoming community for students who would otherwise be under-represented in the industry.”
Anish Parekh, the son of a USC professor, studies the spread and possible control of diseases as part of his public health degree
Policy decisions on health care challenges are made at local, state and even international levels.
By opting for a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree, USC medical student Anish Parekh aims to develop the skills and experience to work with policymakers on one of those pressing challenges — global warming.
Parekh, a third-year student in the Keck School of Medicine of USC’s dual-degree MD/MPH program, said his goal is to affect public policies to help underrepresented communities deal with the inevitable health effects of climate change.
“I hope to work at a national, or even international scale, because these issues will be global in scope,” he said. “But doctors always work at a local level, too — with patients, local authorities, city municipalities, various departments.”
Parekh said the MD component of his education will be important to making a difference, just as much as dealing with statistics and regulatory structures.
“I read a study that said that the people who are most trusted for information about climate change are doctors — primary care physicians,” he said, echoing a frequent theme at USC’s Health Sciences Campus: that physicians with direct experience with patients have a special credibility not only with patients, but with elected officials.
Global climate change and Affordable Care Act fallout
The group met with Assemblyman Jim Wood, co-chair of the Select Committee on Health Care Delivery Systems and Universal Coverage in California. They interacted with Wood during a 90-minute discussion of how California will deal with the fallout from changes to the Affordable Care Act, and the failure of attempts to establish a statewide single-payer system for covering Californians’ medical expenses.
Parekh — whose father, Dilipkumar Parekh, is a professor of clinical surgery at the Keck School of Medicine — said that USC offered a vibe that he felt had a special appeal.
“USC is one of the few institutions where you truly feel cosmopolitan, in the sense that there are so many opportunities open to you that you may not even realize what they all are,” said Parekh, who completed his undergraduate degree in biology at the university.
“I wouldn’t have known JPL had an opportunity for a med student,” he said. “But one of my instructors knew the lead scientist on the project.”
At JPL, Parekh studied satellite data to determine if changing factors such as humidity could be used to forecast future outbreaks of influenza around the world. Eventually, researchers believe health care organizations may be able to get three to four weeks’ advance notice before they need to mobilize resources to combat an outbreak.
“If I hadn’t been at USC,” Parekh said, “with those kinds of connections among people in widely diverse fields of study, I wouldn’t have had that chance to get important experience in global health work.”
Despite the long, intense curriculum of a dual-degree program, one of which is the seemingly sufficient challenge of a traditional MD degree, Parekh said such experiences outside the classroom were a critical part of his education.
“There are things that happen to you in medical school that you don’t expect,” he said, “but they’re just mind-blowing.”
Lexi Brooks, a first-year USC undergrad born without a left hand, helped build 3D-printed prostheses and organized fun events for children with limb differences as a teenager.
USC student Lexi Brooks knows how tough and isolating it can be to look different than everyone else at school.
As a child, she noticed the stares and heard the whispers. Some classmates even teased her — all because she was born without a left hand.
Brooks brushed it off, but she felt alone. She yearned to connect with other kids her age who understood what she was going through. So when the teenager from Newport Beach reached high school, she decided to build a supportive community where children and others like her could come together.
Her idea turned into the nonprofit High Five Project, which has hosted trips to the beach and other fun events for people with limb differences. The response from Orange County families floored her.
“I saw how much it meant for these young kids to see someone else like them.”
“The first time, I was in awe,” she said. “Some of the parents were crying, and I saw how much it meant for these young kids to see someone else like them. For the parents, it seemed like they realized it’s going to be OK. Their kids will be fine.”
Now a first-year student at the USC Marshall School of Business, Brooks continues those efforts, both back home and as a Trojan. She wants to ensure children born with limb differences get the encouragement and support they need to thrive.
“There isn’t a lot of representation in media, so it’s about helping them realize, ‘Oh, I’m not the only one going through these struggles,’” she said. “You can also learn from other people. How do you tie your shoes? How do you blow-dry your hair? And it’s just good to see how we come in all different shapes and sizes.”
Personal experiences fuel student’s passion to help others with limb differences
Brooks got a lot of practice as a kid explaining to others what it means to have a limb difference. She started her childhood in Newport Beach, but soon the family had made stops in Denver, Sacramento and Oklahoma City. Her dad, Scott Brooks, coaches in the NBA and is now the head coach of the Washington Wizards.
Moving every few years was tough, but she learned how to handle the transition to a new school and the same questions from her new classmates. Many were simply curious, asking what had happened and how she managed her daily routine.
“I wish that more people were less shocked by it,” she said. “It is the worst when you can tell that your limb difference is the elephant in the room. Sometimes it is best to just ask the person about it. Limb difference should not be something that makes people uncomfortable or feel bad for the person.”
After a tornado scare in Oklahoma, Brooks and her mom and older brother retreated to Newport Beach, where the kids finished high school. It proved fortuitous for Brooks, who discovered that her high school had a service program that was a perfect fit for her.
Students in the group use 3D printers to create prosthetic hands for children who can’t afford or don’t have access to a traditional prosthesis. The lightweight plastic devices are provided at no cost to the kids’ families, and the group gets requests from across the country.
From building custom prostheses to helping kids connect
Using detailed photographs from recipients, the students print and assemble dozens of components. The result: a custom prosthetic hand that fits well and responds to movements in arm muscles, allowing the user to pick up and grasp items.
“It’s definitely not high-tech, and they usually last about six or seven months,” Brooks said. “But a lot of the recipients are younger kids, so they grow out of them pretty quickly anyway.”
Prosthesis recipients often bond with students in the group, especially when they live nearby and can drop by to watch their device be assembled. Brooks recognized she would have benefited from an experience like that when she was growing up.
As a child, she had one important role model: Jim Abbott, the famed professional baseball player born without a right hand. Brooks had become close friends with Abbott’s daughter, Ella.
“We both realized as children how important it is to see people who look like you,” Brooks said.
USC student’s nonprofit supports children with limb differences
Brooks and Ella Abbott joined forces to launch the High Five Project during their senior year of high school. They raised money for the nonprofit and organized events like a visit to a baseball game at Angel Stadium of Anaheim.
“A lot of the people coming to our events are on the younger side, so we try to make it a fun day where they are able to play and interact with other kids like them,” Brooks said.
During the baseball trip, they saw 8-year-old Hailey Dawson, born with underdeveloped fingers on her right hand, complete her goal of being the first person to throw the ceremonial opening pitch at every Major League Baseball stadium. Hailey used a 3D-printed prosthesis to toss the baseball to Angels player Mike Trout, and Jim Abbott joined her on the mound to celebrate.
Enabling that kind of encouraging experience for kids with limb differences is inspiring and impressive, said Thomas Knapp, an associate professor of clinical entrepreneurship at USC Marshall who met Brooks when she took his summer entrepreneurship course before her senior year of high school.
“Anytime you can find ways to be impactful and get people involved in life, it’s great,” said Knapp, who serves on the board of the Challenged Athletes Foundation. “Lexi is a great ambassador, and she has that drive to have an impact and make a difference.”
First-year student uses mind for business to give back
Knapp gave Brooks advice on building up her nonprofit during his summer course, Exploring Entrepreneurship. The experience inspired Brooks, who enrolled as a business administration major after being accepted to USC. It was her top choice after she fell in love with the campus while visiting her brother, who completed his degree in economics at USC last year.
Now Brooks wants to put her newfound knowledge about entrepreneurship to work by expanding the High Five Project to USC and its surrounding community.
“She really wants to make an impact, not only for the kids she is serving, but for the families and the community,” Knapp said. “I’d be surprised if she wasn’t successful at whatever she chooses to do moving forward.”
And although she is still figuring out what she wants to do after college, Brooks said she plans to continue building awareness and acceptance of people with limb differences.
“From a young age, my parents have always emphasized the importance of giving back,” she said. “I think it is important to see the change that just one person can make and the impact it has on others.”
“Lawyers were literally on the front lines,” she said. Researching the plight of refugees — many of them victims of human rights abuses — she realized the pivotal role attorneys can play in seeking justice for some of the most brutal abuse.
“My research showed that lawyers could not only significantly help protect refugees from human rights abuses, but empower them to claim their rights.”
“It was a life-changing experience,” she said. “My research showed that lawyers could not only significantly help protect refugees from human rights abuses, but empower them to claim their rights. After my time there, I knew I wanted to be an international human rights attorney.”
Now a clinical professor at the USC Gould School of Law, Garry helped establish the first legal aid clinic for refugees in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Twenty years in, the clinic continues to change lives — assisting refugees fleeing neighboring countries and representing them before the United Nations and the Ugandan government.
International human rights lawyers at work
These days, Garry spends her time training fledgling attorneys through USC Gould’s International Human Rights Clinic. Since founding the clinic in 2011, Garry has supervised more than 60 students working with international criminal tribunals and prosecuting mass atrocities. Domestically, they have represented survivors of human rights abuses, including human trafficking victims and human rights defenders.
“We are dedicated to using the law to fight for ideals of truth, justice and reconciliation,” she said. “Human rights must be upheld and fought for with fierce determination.”
Garry grew up in a farming town of 5,000 people in rural Illinois, the oldest of six children. It wasn’t until she was in her early 20s that she first ventured beyond the Midwest. International law was initially not on her radar.
But from an early age she dreamed of being a lawyer.
“I grew up in low-income circumstances,” she said. “I thought that if I became an attorney, I would always have financial security, and I knew that I wanted to help people.
“Although my parents had limited means, they were really good at teaching us about the importance of volunteering and taking care of others,” Garry said. “I knew that I also wanted to serve others with my law degree.”
Intrigued by international human rights
Garry was the first in her family to attend college, graduating summa cum laude from Wheaton College with majors in history and political science.
Intrigued by international human rights after interning with a human rights advocacy group in Washington D.C., she went on to earn master’s degrees in forced migration studies from Oxford and in international affairs from Columbia University, before completing her JD at the University of California, Berkeley. At Boalt Hall, she was managing editor of the Berkeley Journal of International Law and was active in the International Human Rights Law Clinic.
But in the middle of her graduate studies, Garry took a detour to Uganda.
Crimes against humanity were in the headlines, both in Africa and Europe.
“I wanted to get some life experience,” she said.
“It was the Rwandan genocide, and it was the conflict in the Balkans. At the time, it was the worse refugee crisis since World War II,” she recalled.
Over the next 18 months, Garry implemented sociolegal field research into the protection of refugees under international law in Uganda and Kenya, where she was a field researcher with Oxford and Makerere University in Kampala.
International human rights lawyers: The next generation
Garry is focused on training the next generation of international human rights lawyers.
After completing her JD in 2002, she went to work for the international courts, also known as tribunals. Garry was first a legal officer with the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda and deputy chief of staff for the presidency of the ICTY. After entering academia, she has provided legal advice to international judges as a visiting professor at the International Criminal Court and a senior legal adviser to the Cambodia Tribunal.
“Working in international criminal courts gives you a unique global perspective,” Garry said. “Justice can, at times, move slowly in these complex cases, but the hope is that through the process, truth and reconciliation are achieved for victims and affected societies.”
She also has experience in U.S. courts, having clerked for the Hon. Rosemary Barkett on the U.S. Court of Appeals, 11th Circuit, who is now an international judge on the Iran U.S. Claims Tribunal. Her private-sector experience includes work as an associate at Freshfields, Bruckhaus, Deringer LLP, where she practiced in international arbitration, dispute resolution and public international law groups.
Since 2010, Garry has focused on training the next generation of international human rights lawyers. In 2015, she was the recipient of the USC Mellon Award for Faculty Mentoring Graduate Students, a top recognition for USC faculty members. To date, she has helped nearly 40 USC Gould students to obtain competitive human rights fellowships and internships abroad.
Her next goal is to take USC Gould students to the clinic she helped establish in Uganda more than 20 years ago, building on experience gained this year in Beirut, Lebanon, where students represented four Syrian and Iranian refugee families in need of resettlement due to serious security threats and medical needs.
“It would be a dream come true,” she said, “to take my students to the Kampala clinic and have them also assist refugees in East Africa.”
And a chance to show them firsthand how lawyering can be life-saving work.
Anne DeSalvo had never been to the Middle Eastern country before; her experience there was not what she expected — in a good way.
When Anne DeSalvo, an instructor in the USC School of Cinematic Arts, got the call to go to Saudi Arabia to teach acting, she was a bit surprised. DeSalvo, who has performed in TV and film, knew about the country’s history of media censorship.
It recently lifted its ban on movie theaters, which had been outlawed since the early ’80s. Much of film and TV there is consumed through DVDs or streaming.
DeSalvo was invited by the Saudi government to host a four-day workshop, which would go over everything from improvisation to acting out scenes and included a screening of The King’s Speech. It was part of an arts and cultural festival called Colors of Saudi, hosted by its tourism bureau.
It was her first trip to the country and felt like an opportunity to learn more about a nation sometimes closed off from the west and for her to share her experience as a performer. DeSalvo has performed on Broadway and starred in TV shows and films, such as Entourage, Monk and the 1980 Woody Allen picture Stardust Memories.
Enthusiastic students in acting class in Saudi Arabia
The country’s entertainment industry is still heavily censored and small, and most of DeSalvo’s students there — professionals in their 20s and 30s — weren’t planning to be professional actors or producers. Still, she said the students were some of the most enthusiastic she’s ever taught.
“No one ever missed a class. Everybody was so into it and laughing and enjoying themselves.”
“No one ever missed a class,” she said. “Everybody was so into it and laughing and enjoying themselves.”
The December workshop had 19 men and a few women, a less diverse group than she had hoped for but still a sign of progress for a country that’s slowly increasing the rights of its women. Last year, the nation lifted its ban on women driving and in recent years has seen women take on roles in law.
But progress is slow-moving. While the majority of its university students are women, they only make up about 17 percent of the country’s workforce, according to 2016 statistics from the International Labour Organization. For the most part, women can only work among other women and must have a guardian’s consent. Until last year, women weren’t allowed to attend sporting events at stadiums; now they can, but with segregated seating.
DeSalvo had to work around the strict traditions of the Islamic country, such as women not touching men outside their family. At first, she thought this would make scenes — such as between lovers or partners — difficult. But she found scenes where emotion was more nuanced.
Two days of acting classes were followed by two days of filming, where students got the feeling of being part of a production.
“They said to me, ‘You know, you’ve taken us so far in such a small time,’” she said.
Although she was only there for eight days, she said it gave her a small glimpse into a country that’s generally in the headlines due to conflict or controversy. She went shortly after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the Saudi government allegedly orchestrated.
“I had never been around people who were so generous charming and educated,” she said. “[I told someone] my experience of the Saudi people was so different than what I perceived coming here. He said, ‘We hear this a lot.’”
Acting class in Saudi Arabia: “Arts diplomacy”
Jay Wang, director of the Center of Public Diplomacy at the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, said trips like this are dubbed “arts diplomacy” in his world — an opportunity for a nation-to-nation exchange at a micro level.
“The arts as a form of communication is more capable of revealing emotional truths about us as human beings.”
“The arts as a form of communication is more capable of revealing emotional truths about us as human beings,” he said of opportunities like the acting workshop. “It doesn’t matter what culture you live in.”
It also allows us to connect in a way that’s tangential to larger conversations happening perhaps at the state department level. There are other examples of this, like when famous musicians visit countries, called music diplomacy, prompting international conversations.
“This type of narrative medium allows us to develop empathy,” he said.
When it comes to do’s and don’ts of the cultural exchange, he says that both go in with a set of preconceived notions. The important thing is awareness.
“We always bring our own cultural biases. The beautiful thing with art is it probably makes them more aware of that,” he said. “We can see other cultures and other places both in our own light but also through their lenses.”
In fact, research shows that getting to know someone unlike you — dubbed “contact theory” — increases your awareness and understanding of another culture or background, he said.
That can be through high school or university exchanges, job placements or contact with the arts, he said.
Tenacity and a belief in the power of education helped transfer student Nicholas Chapman build a better life for himself. He wants to become a doctor to give others the same chance.
After yet another morning tinged with the smell of whiskey and coffee on his father’s breath, Nicholas Chapman left home to live on the streets. He had finally had enough of the screaming matches, enough of the strict rules.
Chapman grabbed his cell phone. A friend gave him a backpack, $20, a change of clothes and some deodorant. With that, he became one of the thousands in Southern California who have no place to call home.
He was only 17.
USC grad overcomes early obstacles on path to career in health care
The 25-year-old plans to pursue that vision with the skills he gained at USC. He graduates this month with a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience from the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
Medical school is up next. He’ll work on his applications later this year after taking the MCAT exam. As a doctor, he can make a tangible difference in people’s lives, he said.
“There’s no doubt this is what I want to do, in terms of aiding people. I want to put a mask on and help a person, then take the mask off and also help a person. Advocacy will always be a part of what I do.”
It’s a lesson he learned at a young age from his mother. The two left the United States for her native Brazil when Chapman was 2. They lived in Curitiba, a city near the coast about 250 miles south of São Paolo. She struggled to find work and would tell her young son that education was his best path out of poverty.
Seeing no way forward in Brazil, she encouraged him to return to the U.S. to better his life. He moved in with his American father in Long Beach at age 14.
Chapman had to learn to read and write in English as a teenager. He hid his struggles from teachers and peers, taking strategic bathroom breaks to avoid reading out loud in class.
Then there was the strained relationship with his dad, a topic he discusses openly.
“My dad’s an alcoholic,” he said. “He knows that. My whole family knows. I think it’s important for people to understand that it’s just the reality of life. That’s sometimes just how things are.”
He also talks honestly about when he got caught sneaking out to visit friends a week before Thanksgiving in 2012. His dad had grounded him for a year and a half already over another issue, and no end to the punishment was in sight. Chapman decided it was time he left for good.
“You have to make choices in life and sometimes they are hard,” he said. “Sometimes you sacrifice a lot. I stayed in Metro stations. I stayed in homeless shelters. I stayed on friends’ couches.”
To survive, he played chess for hours at coffee shops, where older players befriended him and bought him food. Because he was young, kids liked to watch him play, and soon he talked their parents into hiring him for $20-an-hour lessons.
Although he had dropped out of high school, Chapman remembered his mother’s advice: get an education. He visited a $1 bookstore in downtown Long Beach, where he pored over economics textbooks for hours. He earned his GED, then enrolled in classes at Long Beach City College.
He did well at first, but lack of sleep and the constant grind of day-to-day survival caught up quickly. His grades slipped. “My 4.0 went to a 1.7, just like that,” he said.
A powerful advocate at USC
After a rough transition as a transfer student, Nicholas Chapman decided to advocate for others like him.
As president of the Transfer Student Community, he established the Emerging Leaders Program. The initiative helps transfer students develop their leadership, mentorship and advocacy skills.
He also led an effort to establish a “forgiveness” policy for transfer students, allowing them to retake courses from their initial semester at USC without affecting their GPA.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, he rallied the transfer student group to raise funds to benefit frontline health workers and vulnerable groups. As a result, they:
Donated a pizza dinner to surgeons at the Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center.
Supported a nonprofit that provides resources like food and clean water to families living in poverty in Brazil.
Acquired and donated 150 face shields to health workers at a local hospital.
Desire to help others set USC student on mission to study medicine
Then at age 19, stability came in the form of a part-time job at a mom-and-pop hobby store. He sharpened his sales skills and soon became a manager. He slept some nights in the shop, curled under a fire blanket. His grades recovered.
A year later, the store closed. But Chapman had saved some money and made friends with a few regular customers. They launched their own hobby shop, called Power 9, with Chapman as CEO. They sold figurines, board games and “other nerdy things,” he said. He soon could afford a car, then a rented room in an apartment.
Although he felt secure in his personal life, his business and economics classes left him uninspired. Nothing clicked. Then one day, the uncle of a boy he tutored had an epileptic seizure in front of his family and Chapman. Nobody knew how to react. Eventually, the man regained consciousness, but Chapman felt shocked and helpless.
“I went to that $1 bookstore, grabbed a human biology textbook and read all about the nervous system,” he said. “That’s when I started falling in love.”
He switched his major from economics to psychology. He planned to transfer to the University of California system or USC, with the goal of applying to medical school. But his academic counselor said with the string of poor grades early in his college career, he had no chance.
Chapman applied anyway, relying on advice from a USC admissions adviser. He got into three UC schools and USC, and he enrolled as a Trojan in spring 2018.
USC transfer student forges his own way forward
Life as a transfer student was rough at first. Chapman commuted 45 minutes each way from his Westwood apartment to the University Park Campus. He had little money for food. He knew he wanted to be a doctor, but how could he achieve that goal?
“I had a large course load, but it was unclear what courses I needed,” he said. “I didn’t know what financial aid would cover or what programs there were to support me.”
As he gradually found his bearings, Chapman realized research skills and internships would shine on his med school applications. So he blitzed professors at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles with emails.
Mark Krieger, senior vice president and surgeon-in-chief of CHLA’s Department of Surgery, recalls getting a request from Chapman to shadow a few surgeons. He was impressed by the young student’s determination.
“To become a neurosurgeon, you have to have basic tools like intelligence, diligence and the ability to work with other people, and he certainly has that,” said Krieger, a professor of clinical neurological surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “But the other thing you need is grit. You need to be able to overcome obstacles and work through barriers, and Nicholas has certainly shown that over time.”
Chapman’s persistence paid off with internships in neurosurgery and radiology. He analyzed brain scans, observed many surgeries and helped write a conference paper on how children with cancer recover from radiation treatment.
“He works at a much higher level than the standard undergraduate student,” said Natasha Lepore, associate professor of research radiology at the Keck School of Medicine. “He’s certainly at the same level as some of the PhD students I’ve known.”
Through medicine, neuroscience grad aims to give others a better life
Now as he moves into the next phase of his life, with medical school planned for fall 2021, Chapman took time to look back on his experiences. He summed it up succinctly.
“My life has been about survival and lost innocence,” he said. “Working at Children’s Hospital, you see that same innocence diminish when kids realize they are going to die. It’s the same innocence you see lost when a transfer student comes in and struggles. I lost that innocence at a young age, being on the streets.”
If Chapman achieves his goal of becoming a doctor, he feels he will have gained resources and credibility that he can use to help others. And perhaps sharing his past will give someone the courage or persistence they need to survive.
“There’s some kid out there on the streets crying in fear, or getting abused by their parents, or unable to have an education,” he said. “I want them to see my story and realize that they can push through, that they should conserve life and believe in themselves.”
For Marvin Young — better known as rapper Young M.C. — it was a phone call to his USC dorm room that led to the big break in his music career.
Economics major Marvin Young was living in the Troy East on-campus apartments during his junior year at USC when he got his big music industry break.
The year was 1987, and when Young wasn’t studying microeconomics or serving as a student senator, he was looking to make a name for himself in hip-hop, rapping under the name Young M.C.
The previous summer, while he was home in New York City visiting his family, Young made demos and shopped them around to local music labels. Then a friend connected him with the founders of Los Angeles-based Delicious Vinyl.
Back on campus for the Fall semester, Young got a call from the label’s executives asking him to give them a sample of his rhymes.
“I rapped about five verses over the phone and they liked it,” Young said. Soon after, they sent a record contract to his dorm room. “I didn’t really have money for an attorney so I read it over thoroughly and I asked some of my friends in the law school to look it over for me. Then I signed the deal.”
A banner year
The first record that Young produced was Stone Cold Rhymin’ in 1989 — the same year he earned his bachelor’s degree in economics from USC Dornsife.
“Graduation is normally a time of concern because you don’t know what exactly you’re going to be doing next,” Young said. “But I had a pretty decent idea of what the next six months were going to be. Then the record took off and by around January of the year after I graduated, I won my Grammy and the record was double platinum. Everybody knew me.”
His break-out single “Bust a Move,” which came out during finals week of his senior year, skyrocketed Young to stardom. The song earned him a Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance, an American Music Award for Best Rap Artist and the Billboard Award for Best New Pop Artist.
Young took home a Grammy Award in 1990 for Best Rap Performance for his hit song “Bust A Move.” Photo by Alan Light.
Young recalled that it took a while for him to realize exactly how well-received his music was. Prior to Stone Cold Rhymin’, Young had co-written the multiplatinum hits “Wild Thing” and “Funky Cold Medina” with hip-hop artist Tone Lōc, on whose record, Lōc-ed After Dark, they appeared. Young was worried he would be known for writing hits for other people, but unable to write a hit for himself.
“When ‘Bust a Move’ came out they played it on MTV, but I didn’t have MTV in my little apartment. You have to remember, cable was in its infancy. There was no Internet. Hardly anyone had a cell phone. I only knew the record was hot when I landed in a city and the people there knew it. I thought, ‘Oh, they like me here.’ Then I went to another city and thought, ‘Oh, they like me here, too.’”
The real “pinch-me” moments came when he met musical icons — Anita Baker, Prince, Gloria Estefan, Sting — and they knew his music.
Young started rapping as an 11-year-old in the Hollis neighborhood of the New York City borough of Queens, where a number of hip-hop artists, including Run-DMC, came up.
As Young recalled, “Jam Master Jay got his hair cut at the barber shop near my house. Run-DMC lived close by. LL Cool J was not far away. At that time you could take a New York City subway map and you could mark a lot, if not the majority, of the hip-hop world.”
He was the youngster on the scene, but that didn’t stop him from performing alongside his older counterparts.
“It did amazing things for me in terms of my musical talent and my maturity. It’s almost like I was JV competing against varsity all the time so I just developed my skills to a certain place where I was like, ‘I don’t care if this person is twice my age, I’m going to hold my own lyrically.’ I’ve taken that with me. So even now, going out and doing shows in my 40s, I still have the same approach and zeal that I had when I was a teenager and a pre-teen.”
Joining the Trojan Family
When the time came for Young to attend college, he chose USC for its academic program and to broaden his horizons by moving to a new city.
“I wanted to go out west and I liked ’SC,” Young said. He was inspired to study economics by a high school teacher. Young had attended the academically rigorous Hunter College High School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “I took economics during my junior year and fell in love with it. I knew that I wanted to study microeconomics in college. From household budgets to municipal budgets — I could relate to it.”
At USC, he found the faculty and the teaching assistants to be very supportive. “I found a really nurturing relationship from when I first arrived at USC,” Young said.
Young served as vice president of Trojan Hall during his sophomore year, and then later as a student senator during his junior year — a whirlwind time for Young, to say the least. That year, he was taking a full load of classes and working as a ticket-taker and usher at the Coliseum, all the while recording his first album.
“That was the busiest time for me, 3,000 miles from home, as it was,” he said. “But I found myself so focused, and that really led to a lot of my approach to my work in adulthood. I’m such a multitasker.”
Young said that his degree has served him well as an entrepreneur. As someone who has had a music corporation since his junior year in college and manages his own music career, he said it’s an asset.
“In my business, if you’re sitting across the desk from an executive, they normally don’t expect the talent to have any kind of formal education, or any education close to theirs,” he said. “So it has been positive for me in terms of conducting business on my own behalf.”
Rhyming and writing
To date, Young has released nine albums and continues to perform — he’s currently part of a national “I Love the ’90s” tour with musical contemporaries such as Tone Lōc, Salt N Pepa, Coolio and Kid N Play.
Recently, Young has also ventured into filmmaking, which is no surprise since his lyrics have always been defined by a narrative style — “Bust a Move” is at its core a series of vignettes about wooing a girl.
He wrote, directed and acted in the film Justice Served, which he’s shopping around for distribution, and has plans to produce additional movies in the future.
Young points to the same traits that he developed in college — perseverance and focus — as essential to his success in his music career and key to his foray into movie-making.
“I’m looking forward to working on my next film for the simple fact that I’ll have the confidence of approaching it the same way I have the confidence in approaching music and the same way I had confidence leaving home, going to college in California, rapping over the phone — all of these pretty extraordinary things that have happened to me. It makes me realize that I can accomplish quite a bit.”
When it comes to dreaming big, Young’s advice to students — especially if their career path is nontraditional — is to keep working hard at what they love and to focus on their successes.
“Even if you fail 99 times, if you feel success is your norm, that one time you make it, it will feel normal and those 99 failures will feel like anomalies. That’s how I approach things.”
I became excited about engineering from the moment I first touched it in as an undergraduate student. Growing up in Jiangsu, China, I loved to imagine myself as a machine and figure out the proper way to write programming. It was this passion and confidence that led me to USC Viterbi. And it was at USC Viterbi that I first met Professor Peter Beerel. I would not be where I am today – a PhD graduate starting a job as a CPU Implementation Engineer with Apple in California – without the experiences I’ve had here. I certainly never imagined I’d help design a novel circuit that may one day change the portable electronics and Internet-of-Things industries.
Like many new Masters students, I took Professor Beerel’s asynchronous circuits class in my second semester. I found him to be extremely knowledgeable, and his class was always full of fun and excitement. I simply had to go deeper into this area. This started with directed research in my third semester. Directed research is a special course at USC Viterbi that gives undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to work closely with professors and Ph.D. students on more advanced research. Through this experience, I realized not only that I wanted to go for a PhD, but also that I had the ability and support to do so!
“Our design greatly improves power consumption to such a degree that we expect it to have a significant impact on the world of portable electronic devices and Internet-of-Things (IoT).”
Soon, I was a full-time PhD student working on Very Large-Scale Integration (VLSI). This is the process by which engineers put millions, or even billions, of transistors on a single chip. The work is done at the nano-level and these integrated circuits form the cornerstone of nearly every modern piece of electronics. However, with the ending of Moore’s Law, the market must adapt to a relatively fixed technology base. This has made improvements in VLSI and energy-efficiency more difficult and it is one of the challenges I set out to help solve as a PhD student.
I work in an area called the synchronous domain. These are VLSI devices that have an internal global clock. That means that every computing process has to finish at every cycle of the clock. They have many advantages, but their major weakness is that they are incompatible with highly effective logic gates called latches. Latches have the advantages of high performance and low power consumption. They can also be robust and have high tolerance to process, voltage, and temperature (PVT) variations.
At least, they were incompatible until now! In my dissertation, “Automatic Conversion from Flip-Flop to 3-Phase Latch-Based Designs”, my advisor and I proposed a novel design which allows latches to be used safely on synchronous VLSI circuits. Our design greatly improves power consumption to such a degree that we expect it to have a significant impact on the world of portable electronic devices and Internet-of-Things (IoT). It may seem small (of course, everything in VLSI is small!), but it is actually a major breakthrough. I believe this work will inspire more brilliant ideas in this field.
For future students interested in VLSI or circuit design, I would suggest taking courses such as computer architecture (EE 457), VLSI circuit design (EE 477, EE 577A, EE 577B) testing (EE 658), and verification (EE 580). These courses provide knowledge that can be applied professionally in VLSI fields and also help immensely during interviews. For my fellow USC Viterbi students, I highly suggest Professor Beerel’s classes. He has so much professional experience from his years at Intel and his own start-up. Under his guidance, we can bring what we have learned to practice.
Finally, I want to say that when people think of a PhD, they mostly think of the challenging research. But a PhD challenges you in many other ways too. While conducting my dissertation research, I realized the challenge is often learning how to persuade experts on the importance of our work. During my years of research on this project, I received many discouraging comments. Fortunately, I got much support and help from my advisor. He gave me confidence and always believed our work had value. He explained that creating value is one thing and clarifying that value to decision-makers is another thing. This is an insight I will always keep with me.
Just as importantly, a PhD makes you highly resistant to stress and gives you exceptional problem-solving skills you will use in every aspect of life. If this past year has taught us anything, it is that in life things don’t always work out as we plan. PhD training teaches us how to be a person with a high emotional quotient (EQ) when you are suffering dealing with something difficult. I think this is one of the most important values I gained.
To future PhD students or those considering a PhD, I would say please be happy and open-minded! PhD life is hard but it’s also incredibly rewarding. Learn how to balance research, studies and personal life. USC Viterbi provides PhD students with so many course options you might be interested in, countless directions for your research to go in, lots of activities, and a strong and welcoming community for everyone. Again, enjoy this wonderful moment in your life.
A support consultant and Magic Castle member works in multiple roles at the business school
any folks at the USC Marshall School of Business have called upon Scott Smith to work his magic on their crashed computers or misbehaving operating systems.
But not as many realize that they can call upon Smith to work his magic. Period.
Scott Smith — whose official title is information technology support consultant/engineer — is a magician. A card-carrying member of The Academy of Magical Arts at Hollywood’s famed Magic Castle. And he’s been practicing since he was a kid.
“I do tech by day, magic by night,” he said.
Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, he was smitten early on with sleight of hand and card tricks he first saw on TV. Then he and a friend found a book of card tricks in the library and his fate was sealed.
He began hanging around Bert Wheeler’s Hollywood Magic shop (“… where the real magicians hung out!”) and was such a keen student he was asked to stick around and demonstrate tricks to customers. And presto! Just like that, he began what was in essence a paid apprenticeship in magic.
He eventually got to college, attending California State University, Northridge to study radio/TV/film. Like so many curious, restless sorts, he ended up in technology, working for a variety of early software companies, learning his trade from the ground up, much like his magic.
But while he switched careers until he found a good fit at USC, the magic was constant.
In 2000, he decided he was good enough to go professional. His first step was getting his membership at the Magic Castle. That requires an audition before other magicians, a nerve-racking process for anyone. But Smith, trained by the best and with years of experience behind him, aced it and was welcomed into the small fraternity of professional magicians.
Over lunch at the Castle, Smith is in his element. He knows everyone from the valets and waiters to the current president. There’s even a photo of him on the wall, not far from the signed photo of Tippi Hedren and a poster for Siegfried and Roy. He met his wife there in 2004. He’s held both administrative and volunteer roles — each year he joins the crew putting together the annual Academy of Magical Arts Awards show (The Oscars of magic). This year the ceremony will be held at the Saban Theatre in May.
At USC Marshall, believe it or not, his abilities have yielded a distinct advantage. Magic, it turns out, is the perfect icebreaker. He is often hired as the strolling entertainment for the school’s classes and functions.
He recently was hired to perform at an annual Christmas party. And each fall he attends the opening reception of the Executive MBAs’ residential week.
“Magic opens them up a bit,” he said. “It gets them talking and laughing with each other.
“Working at USC has given me the freedom to do magic when I want and for whom I want,” he said.
And it’s helped his role in information technology.
“You have to read people for I.T.,” he said. “And you have to read people for magic. Working at Marshall has sharpened those skills.”
USC-trained medical clowns believe laughter can bring foster families together
It is Saturday morning and a little boy in an orange shirt and blue shorts squeals with laughter. He has just spotted a group of familiar friends headed his way.
The 3-year-old drops the plastic toy he is playing with and sprints toward a group of people wearing colorful clothes, oversized shoes and big red noses.
“We’re three clowns running into the room, singing and dancing,” said recent USC graduate Casey Dunn. He is part of a group of theatrical performers from the USC School of Dramatic Arts’ medical clowning program that uses drama therapy to help bring healing and well-being to patients. “All of a sudden, that’s their world for as long as we’re in the room.”
That room is usually inside a hospital for seriously ill children, but today the clowning program is somewhere it has never been before: the Children’s Bureau. The children’s advocacy group is the largest investor in child abuse prevention in the country, contracted with the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services to provide adoption promotion and support services for adoptive families and children in foster care.
“This collaboration with USC is incredible,” said Sean Sparks, program coordinator at the bureau. “It’s something I would have never thought of, but it makes perfect sense. It’s like this blessing from the universe.”
With a grant from USC Arts in Action, an initiative created by the Office of the Provost that supports positive social change through the arts, the clowning program has partnered with the Children’s Bureau to bring medical clowning into their mental health programming and provide a space for affected children to receive emotional and transitional support.
Together, USC and the Children’s Bureau have launched a pilot program that will combine medical clowning and foster care with the goal of increasing the bond between the foster parent and child. The program will begin by introducing the medical clowns to a group of foster parents and a group of foster children. Eventually, the clowns will interact with both the parents and children in the same room to help the two groups bond.
“They don’t have the benefits of a parent-child biological relationship. They kind of need to get comfortable with the idea of bonding,” said Zachary Steel, assistant professor of theater practice at the School of Dramatic Arts and director of the clowning program. “The objective is to use medical clowning as a conduit to get the parents and the youth to embrace play as a bonding tool.”
That doesn’t always come naturally to foster children.
“Anytime there is a disruption in a relationship with a primary caregiver such as an early breach in attachment, research shows there’s a change in the brain. Neuropathways in the brain shift, which creates a world that is unsafe. Not only is the world unsafe, but relationships are unsafe,” Sparks said. “The thinking for a foster child is: If my birth family didn’t keep me, then why would anyone else stick around?”
Building relationships among foster families
With roughly 30,000 children in foster care in Los Angeles County and 1,400 awaiting adoptive homes in L.A., parent-child bonding is essential to increasing permanency and stabilization for children within the foster care system.
In addition, many of the children in care of the L.A. County Children and Family Services who frequent the Children’s Bureau are Latino. According to the bureau, understanding cultural heritage is vital to addressing specific foster care needs.
“My focus is on helping people in the American Latino community to find and connect with their inner clown,” said medical clown Raquel Gendry, the Spanish-speaking ambassador of the troupe. “The Latino community prides itself on hard work, and sometimes the foster parents think of play as frivolous or a waste of time. I am here to remind the foster parents that it’s okay to play — not only okay but essential to bonding with their foster children.”
In addition, drama therapy promotes mental wellness.
“Play is this really safe, fun way to build relationship and connection,” Sparks said. “We believe connection leads to healing.”
Indeed, there has been a reported reduction in fear and anxiety for foster parents and children during the counseling sessions, a positive psychological phenomenon that continues long after the clowns have left the building.
“The clowns can change the energy of the room from one that is clinical and stiff to one that is more open and vulnerable,” Steel said. “The hope is that when the clown session is over, the adults and children will continue to be more open and willing to share with the counselors.”
How medical clowning can make a real impact
Katie Snyder, who graduated from the School of Dramatic Arts in 2018, said that she was thrilled when she discovered the medical clowning class because she grew up loving the arts and community service.
“It puts all my passions together,” she said. “I’m very grateful that I found this particular art form.”
Snyder said she is proud to have been a part of the first medical clowning class and encourages other students to take the course, which can lead to fulfillment inside and outside of the classroom.
“If our playful and joyful presence brightens their day even for a couple of minutes, that brings me such fulfillment,” she said. “I think the clowns send a message: No matter what, you can find time to smile.”
And according to the bureau’s program coordinator, that smile could mean the beginning of a truly transformative connection that could change the foster care system as we know it.
“This is so innovative,” Sparks said. “I feel like it’s already had a really significant impact. Medical clowning crosses language, culture, color and socio-economic status. It’s just a really exciting thing going on here.”
It will take a year before the pilot program data is collected and the research is complete, but for the medical clowns, each smile and laugh is proof positive the drama therapy is working. Medical clown Dunn recalled a specific little boy who greeted them earlier in the day.
“The first time we were here at the Children’s Bureau, he was really scared. He was very hesitant and would stand far away from us,” he said. “Versus today, he was sprinting in the room to greet us. There’s such a massive big difference in his openness to the clowns, which will translate into the rest of his life. He will have an openness to new experiences, conquering fears and realizing something really magical: a connection with other people.”
Part artist and part inventor, Phillip Sliwoski makes handcrafted pieces that keep critical USC labs running.
Phillip Sliwoski is surrounded by glass — on his desk, in cabinets, in big bins at his feet.
He’s a scientific glassblower, which means he designs the glass instruments that chemistry professors and students need for experiments. He’s been at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences’ Department of Chemistry for nearly 10 years and is a symbol of a fading art form.
Scientific glassblowers used to populate research universities and corporate labs across the U.S., but due to everything from budget cuts to automation, they’re increasingly scarce. The American Scientific Glassblowers Society has seen its membership drop by 50 percent since the 1970s.
But scientific glassblowers are imperative for chemists who design glassware for their unique chemical reactions. This isn’t stuff you can order in a catalog.
“I make one-of-a-kind items here,” Sliwoski said.
Sliwoski is one of only a few glassblowers left in Los Angeles — Caltech is getting a new one and California State University, Los Angeles has one part-time.
“It’s an art that’s been around for 1,000 years,” Sliwoski said. “You don’t want it to disappear … No matter what, with automation and everything, there’s stuff we still need that’s made out of glass.”
Chemistry Professor G. K. Surya Prakash said his work would literally grind to a halt if it weren’t for Sliwoski.
“All special experiments would stop if we don’t have a guy like Phil in-house,” he said. “Phil is indispensible. I can say that.”
Outsourcing would likely cost more, take longer and leave the department without someone who can make sure an object works — and repair it if needed, faculty said.
Prakash pointed out that glassblowing has always been integral to science. It used to be the norm to take graduate school courses in it. He learned his trade while attending graduate school in both India and Ohio.
“Glassblowing is an art. It takes years and years to become proficient at it,” Prakash said.
Sitting at his bench burner — a flame of 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit burning in front of him — Sliwoski informs you he’s not an artist “like what you see in Venice.”
Scientific glassblowing is more exact, he said, because he’s taking parts and melting them together. But he’s also creating things never made before.
“In some ways, he’s an artist and in some ways, he’s a very sophisticated engineer,” said Chemistry Professor Mark Thompson.
Students will walk in with a complex plan or design and walk out with something much simpler, thanks to Sliwoski, he said.
“My colleagues at other schools don’t have this ability. It enables us to do things that other people just can’t do,” Thompson said. “With Phil, the sky is the limit.”
The student-led initiative aims to bridge physical and emotional pain with art
Breana Wiles walked into the workshop curious.
A part of a USC student-led initiative called Art Rx, the workshop aimed to bridge physical and emotional pain with art. Today’s was focused on scars.
Blue ink was rolled up and down her arms and transferred to paper. For the first time, Wiles saw the deep lines off of her body.
“To see them on a sheet of paper — I know it sounds overly dramatic, but it was life changing,” Wiles said, a Master of Social Work candidate at USC. “It was showing me they’re just marks. They don’t define me. But also, they’re a piece of me.”
Wiles self-harmed as a teenager. She cut herself with razors and later with glass, which cut deeper.
“I was struggling with my sexuality,” Wiles, 25, said. “I always knew that I was different and that I was gay, but I dated boys and tried to ignore it.”
The Art Rx workshop was the first time — outside of a class — she publicly talked about her self-harm, or cutting.
“I knew eventually I would share my story, but I don’t think it would have been as soon and I don’t think I would have been as brave,” she said of the workshop.
Using art to heal
It opened doors for her. In the months since, she’s shared her experience with fellow students, professors and clinicians, so that they can better work with those who self-harm.
Siegel was inspired to create Art Rx while volunteering at a hospital a few years ago, when she was working in the film industry. She remembers a 16-year-old cancer patient.
“According to her parents, she used to be really talkative and expressive but once she got her diagnosis, she wouldn’t speak to a soul,” she said.
The patient had been keeping a journal, and Siegel asked if she would be interested in writing a film script.
“After the first scene, she couldn’t put her pen down,” she said. “This was a game-changer for her clinical experience.”
Siegel pitched the program to USC back before she started in her master’s program; the university’s support for it sealed the deal in becoming a Trojan. Right now, it’s a collaborative effort between the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and the Keck School of Medicine of USC, supported by a team of fellow classmates and seven Art Rx fellows, who will carry the torch when Siegel graduates in May. The fellows study medicine, occupational therapy and social work but all have creative backgrounds.
“My inbox was overflowing,” Siegel said, noting she got about 60 applications. “There’s obvious interest in this little niche.”
Faculty advisers and mentors
Faculty members serve as advisers and mentors as well.
Rosemary Alamo, a clinical associate professor of social work and Art Rx mentor, said it’s about time such an initiative existed. As a social worker, Alamo worked in Los Angeles Unified School District and in the emergency room of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
She remembers a kid she worked with at LAUSD. For most of the year, he hadn’t spoken. She asked him to sculpt with Play-Doh and draw. She put on music.
He drew his home life. He started talking.
“It was really the impact of his parents’ divorce and the violence he would see” that made him close up, she said. Because of this information, they were able to remove him from the home and protect him, she said.
Siegel says Art Rx will remain close to her heart. She plans to stay on as chief adviser.
“It’s something I’ve been so involved with — there’s no way I can step back,” she said. “It has so much momentum.”
Down the line, Siegel hopes Art Rx can form partnerships with schools of the arts, such as USC Roski School of Art and Design or the USC School of Cinematic Arts, where she earned her bachelor’s degree. She also hopes that professors will be inspired — either on the clinical side or in the arts — to think about using creative practices with health.
“If it’s a dance class, maybe they think of movement disorders or a film class around trauma and healing,” she said.
As for Wiles, she has been thinking about that print. It sits in her apartment, recently framed.
She hasn’t decided where she’s going to put it, yet.
“It’s almost hard to point into words,” she said. “It’s taken a long time to see my scars as survival battle marks … as empowerment.”
Cesar Jimenez Jr. has help — from his wife, a service dog, thoughtful professors and a tutor — as he works toward a degree and a future helping others
Before Cesar Jimenez Jr. takes off for a day of classes at USC, he and his wife, Teresa, go over the checklist.
Wallet, check. Keys, check. Phone, check. Laptop and charger, check.
“I make sure I have everything,” he said. “My computer is charged to 100 percent.”
For Jimenez, 50, starting his first year at USC is a big step.
He’s led a fulfilling life — a roughly 30-year career with both the U.S. Air Force and the Social Security Administration, two children and a loving wife.
But at the age of 42, Jimenez was injured during a deployment to Iraq — one of about a dozen total deployments — and it changed the future he had imagined for himself.
In December 2009, he was sent to Balad, dubbed “mortaritaville” by soldiers due to the ubiquity of small explosives.
“We got bombed, shot at, almost every moment of every day,” he said.
Although he went unconscious, he remembers most of what happened that night in April: He was loading a C-17 cargo plane in the dead of night when insurgents got in the area.
“They were firing at us and throwing mortars at us,” he said.
The airmen had lights hooked to generators while they worked, making it almost look like daylight. To the insurgents, they were spotlights. The soldiers were sitting ducks, he said.
“A mortar exploded … and threw me back about 200 feet,” he said. “It blew up my truck, my Humvee.”
Jimenez blew out his shoulder. It took nearly two years to identify his traumatic brain injury, which left him with cognitive delays. He was depressed, and attempted suicide 10 times. He credits his wife for getting him a team of doctors and therapists that he meets multiple times a week — now fitting in those appointments around classes.
He met Teresa while working at the Social Security Administration. They were work pals, both divorcees with kids. They sometimes went to the movies together, but it was always platonic.
While he was away, they kept in touch. They sent emails. He walked three miles to the USO every morning — under fire the whole way — to call her before she went to bed. Sometimes they’d talk for hours.
“That’s what kept me alive,” he said.
When he came home, everything was different. He couldn’t go back to the job he loved.
He wanted to take care of Teresa; instead, she took care of him.
“I didn’t feel like a man anymore,” he said. “I didn’t have a purpose in life.”
Together they learned about PTSD, therapy and rehabilitation. They dated for a year and then Jimenez had all the emails bound into a book, took her to a fancy dinner in Beverly Hills and asked her to marry him. They wed in 2011.
“She’s the only reason why I keep going,” he said.
Thoughts of college
A high school graduate and son of Mexican immigrants — his mother a saleswoman, his father a sheet metal worker — he thought academia passed him by. But one day, feeling the monotony of his unwanted retirement, he thought about nearby Pasadena City College.
“I asked my wife what she thought about me going back to school,” he said. “She said, ‘Do you think you can do it?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, but I’ll give it a shot.’ ”
Initially, it was hard. His last and worst suicide attempt derailed him for a year. But he got help and he got Baylee, his yellow Labrador service dog. She’s always at his side.
“She knows when I’m feeling depressed,” he said. “She senses it and she comes and lays with me by my feet.”
Jimenez ended up finishing his associate’s degree at Pasadena City College in two years, not missing a class or a semester over that time. He met veterans who had gotten into USC and heard it was a veteran-friendly school. It became the only school he applied to, and he’s now the first in his family to attend a four-year college.
He remembers when he found out he got in. It was a couple months ago, during a summer session course at Pasadena City College.
“I yelled out ‘I got accepted to USC!’” he said. “My professor, who wrote one of my letters of recommendation, stood up and went ‘Did you really get in?’ and everyone got up and clapped.”
He wants to go back to helping people, like he did filing claims for folks at the Social Security Administration. A sociology major, he wants to start his own bu