Special donor-supported funds at the school became a financial lifeline for senior Savanna Mesch, keeping her on track for graduation.
Savanna Mesch always knew she’d have to pay her own way through college.
She got student loans and scholarships. She took part-time jobs. She spent money carefully. But earlier this year, Mesch — a senior at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism — was down to her last few dollars.
If only she could just make it a few more months, she thought, until the spring semester ended. Her summer schedule would allow her to work enough hours to cover her rent and other living expenses.
But she couldn’t imagine how she’d survive until then. She thought about taking a semester off, just a few credits shy of graduating.
Then she heard about USC Annenberg’s Student Success Funds. Supported entirely by donations from alumni, parents and friends of the university, the funds provide emergency financial aid and support educational opportunities like study-abroad programs for students in need.
Mesch applied for enough help to cover her rent through final exams, and school leaders approved her request. Relief came within days.
“It was this boost of confidence I didn’t know I needed,” she said. “I felt I could finally relax and focus on school. It was awesome just not having to worry.”
Special emergency financial aid can help USC Annenberg students overcome obstacles
Mesch is among more than 140 USC Annenberg students assisted by the special funding in the past year. The financial support is available to undergrad and grad students for emergency situations or to enable learning experiences that would otherwise be out of reach. More than 280 donors have given a total of nearly $3 million to the funds since their creation in 2015.
“This is such a critical source of funding that breaks down financial barriers for our students, giving them peace of mind and access to invaluable career-building opportunities,” said Suzanne Alcantara, the school’s assistant dean of student affairs and director of career development. “It’s a true reflection of the spirit of the Trojan Family, giving back to make sure everyone has the opportunity to thrive and gain professional experience at USC.”
“It’s like the safety net that nobody else could provide.”
Many students apply for support to travel overseas for international study or participate in the school’s popular Maymester programs in New York or the Bay Area. Some need help covering the cost of attending an academic conference or doing research for a thesis project. Others are facing financial emergencies that threaten to disrupt their studies.
For Mesch, it meant the difference between derailing her progress at USC or staying on track to complete her degree in communication this December.
“I’m just really, really grateful — sometimes I don’t have the words for it,” she said. “It’s like the safety net that nobody else could provide.”
USC Annenberg student fought hard to support her own education
Mesch grew up in a hardworking and supportive family, but money was always a challenge. Her parents split up when she was young, leaving her mother with two young kids.
Then her mother took sole responsibility for the family’s finances when Mesch’s stepfather died in 2016 from pancreatic cancer. While Mesch is at USC, her mother works as a police and fire dispatcher near their home in Caldwell, Idaho, while also caring for Mesch’s younger sister.
When it came time for college, Mesch was immediately drawn to California. She has family roots in the state and liked the numerous university options, so she decided to enroll at Santa Barbara City College with plans to transfer after a few years. She found part-time jobs to cover tuition and rent, including working as a barista.
USC was high on her list of transfer schools, and Mesch joined the Trojan Family in 2017. A university grant covered much of her tuition, and she received other scholarships and took out federal loans.
“I had savings coming in here, because I knew it would be hard,” she said. “I hopped around from job to job, just trying to get by.”
Donor-supported emergency financial aid enables valuable learning experiences
Despite that string of part-time jobs and a work-study position at a campus library, her savings dwindled. Her stress and anxiety peaked in March, when she should have been enjoying a spring break trip with 18 other USC Annenberg students to Washington, D.C.
The students visited media companies, met with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s staff and attended the USC Women’s Conference with USC alumna R. Rebecca “Becki” Donatelli, a member of the school’s board of councilors who sponsored the trip.
“It was an awesome experience, but it was the middle of the month and I didn’t have money to pay my rent,” Mesch said, her voice trembling. “I was freaking out.”
She reached out to Alcantara, who helped her apply for the emergency financial aid. Alcantara also introduced her to a few contacts in the communications field. Now Mesch has two jobs lined up for the summer. But first she’s enjoying another experience she never thought would be possible: studying abroad.
Mesch had applied to USC Annenberg’s International Communications Studies program, a summer initiative that involves travel to Europe. She received the Bill Faith Endowed Scholarship to cover her travel and housing costs, but didn’t know how she would afford tuition. Mesch thought of the student funds again, but she wasn’t sure she could apply. Alcantara encouraged her to give it a shot.
“I wrote out my story, emphasizing how I always wanted to study abroad as part of my college education,” Mesch said. “I’m so close to being done, and this was my last chance.”
USC student gives thanks for Trojan Family’s support
School leaders approved her request again, and Mesch recently set off for a five-week swing through London, Madrid, Paris, Berlin and Budapest. She is visiting communications companies, connecting with alumni living overseas and getting a firsthand look at the international media landscape.
Her family is ecstatic, Mesch said, especially her grandmother, who told her: “I never would have thought about traveling abroad at 23 years old, but look at you!”
When she finishes her degree this fall, Mesch envisions beginning her career working for a communications agency or media outlet. After years of hard work, and a little help from the Trojan Family, she is ready to take on the next challenge.
“I am extremely appreciative to Annenberg and its dedication to its students, in particular those who traditionally may not be able to take advantage of all the opportunities a world-class university can offer,” she wrote in her request for financial support. “The ability to travel and support myself through college is something I am grateful to have, and I couldn’t make any of it happen without the help of USC.”
By Eric Lindberg