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.”
By Mira Zimet