From a village in Syria to USC Bovard Scholar and first-generation student

From a village in Syria to USC Bovard Scholar and first-generation student

Toni Atieh came to America only knowing two words in English: “hi” and “bye.” Now he’s finishing his freshman year at USC.

Since arriving in the United States nine years ago, Toni Atieh has learned English, adjusted to a new culture and home and graduated at the top of his high school class.

In early 2010, Toni Atieh was with his family in Fairouzeh, a small village in a district of Homs, Syria.

“The biggest possibility I had was as a worker on a farm, or taking over a business,” he said. “Now, I’m in a university — at USC. How do you react to such a big shift?”

Atieh arrived in the United States that October at the age of 10, knowing just two words in English: “hi” and “bye.” After struggling to adjust to a new language, new culture and new home, he would go on to graduate at the top of his class at Jurupa Hills High School in Fontana, Calif.

To get into college, he gleaned from friends, you got good grades and did extracurriculars. No one was pushing him to think beyond high school. His parents, who spoke little English, did not understand the American university system. “Everything came down to me, in the end,” he said.

The summer after his junior year, Atieh earned a spot in the inaugural class of USC Bovard Scholars, a one-year program designed to help accomplished high school students with financial need apply, gain admission and succeed at the nation’s top universities.

“Bovard Scholars aims to address ‘undermatching,’ where academically-motivated students, like Toni, don’t apply to top-tier universities at the same rate as their more affluent peers,” said Anthony Bailey, founding dean of USC Bovard College and its signature program. “As we head into our third year, we’ve seen 70% of Bovard Scholars attend a top 25 university, with many choosing to come to USC. Plus, 86% of our scholars were awarded no-loan packages and scholarships covering full tuition.”

How Atieh became a USC first-generation student

During the program’s three-week summer residency on the USC campus, Atieh joined a cohort of rising seniors from around the country — 85% of whom were also first-generation students. Few, if any, had access to the kind of career exploration, admissions and financial aid counseling, and test prep that students at the top high schools in the country often receive. But most, Atieh quickly learned, shared a familiar story of academic success mixed with individual struggle.

“The scholars work one-on-one with college counselors, explore potential career paths, learn how to navigate financial aid, write essays and — perhaps most importantly — get a taste of campus life, firsthand,” said Jennifer Colin, executive director of USC Bovard Scholars.

When admissions packets arrived the following spring, Atieh chose USC.

The relationships from the Bovard Scholars program buoyed Atieh when he landed on campus last fall — a mere hour from his family in Fontana, and yet a world away. He chose another Bovard Scholar for a roommate, which helped pave the way for a smooth transition into a tough major: human biology, pre-med track. While stories about first-generation students feeling out of place at the country’s elite universities make headlines, Atieh has a different story to tell.

He credits Bovard Scholars with providing a safety net. There was a group of familiar faces on campus, fellow scholars and program advisors alike. He already knew the campus and how dorm life could be.

You meet these people, get to know their background, their struggles, and you realize, ‘Hey, I’m not the only one.’

“At first, it was different,” he admitted. “Then, you sign up for emails and they start telling you about events, ways to connect with other students in the same major, same track or same career path. You meet these people, get to know their background, their struggles, and you realize, ‘Hey, I’m not the only one.’”

Extracurriculars — like intramural soccer and a Christian church group — provided a through line from his early life in Syria, where, he jokes, soccer is practically its own religion.

And a genuinely optimistic outlook has spurred him along. “I try to utilize as many resources as I can on campus, whether for first-gen or not,” Atieh said. As a pre-med student, he makes it a point to attend small meet-and-greets for opportunities to speak with, say, a doctor from Children’s Hospital or a researcher from Keck School of Medicine of USC. “As a first-gen,” he said, “it’s good to go and explore your options, make connections. I’ve done that a lot.”

Tips for future freshmen

Atieh’s advice to fellow first-gen students is charmingly simple: Make friends. Manage your time. Always ask questions. Get involved.

For next year, he is considering a minor in the business school — marketing, perhaps, or entrepreneurship.

“My life just got turned around,” Atieh said in regard to the journey that has brought him to almost the end of his freshman year. “This is something I wouldn’t have imagined even a few years ago. I have a chance to do what my parents didn’t do — even setting an example for my siblings.”

Indeed, Atieh’s younger sister was also accepted into Bovard Scholars last year, and his youngest brother is in middle school: “I’m showing him, ‘Hey, if I do it, you can do it, too.’”

By Laura Lambert

>Read the original story on the USC News

“This is my Los Angeles”

“This is my Los Angeles”

Onetime punk rocker uses photography to tell stories of ‘my Los Angeles’

Star Montana discovered photography during a tumultuous time; now it’s an integral part of her life as she pursues an MFA at the USC Roski School of Art and Design

Star Montana remembers her first photography class.

It was at East Los Angeles College, and since she was in high school at the time, she could take classes for free.

Photography became an obsession, and she was often spending 12-hour days on campus finishing projects.

“You’d be in the dark room for four hours and then you’d be like, ‘I’m going to go get Carl’s Jr.’ Then you’d shove it down your throat and run back across the street to your enlarger,” said Montana, a first-year MFA candidate at the USC Roski School of Art and Design. “Photography kicks you in the butt that way.”

“The Roski School is lucky to have photographer Star Montana join our new class. She tells dynamic and engaging stories about our society through her art. She is truly an artist who cares deeply about our culture and our city.”

Photography found Montana at a tumultuous time. She had been out of kicked out of Theodore Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights and was doing continuation school from home. She was into punk rock, dying her hair pink and purple, going to shows and partying with friends.

“In the punk scene, we all came from poverty and we felt trapped,” said Montana, 29. “Punk was a way of destroying all identities placed upon us.”

Support from friends

Krystal, 2017
Krystal, 2017 (Photo/Star Montana)

Her friends were supportive of her photography, and the camera became an assumed part of Montana. She was there shooting when they hung out after shows, her friends drinking and boisterous. Her camera was by her side on the streets and in the homes in her neighborhood, shooting her best friends, her mom and her cousin Carlos.

“When I pick up a camera, that’s it,” she said. “It’s the way I know how to speak. I stumble on words, on everything else. I don’t stumble in photography.”

Her first photos were shot on film and in black and white, making the early 2000s look like a more distant time.

“It’s a lot of people who are now gone,” Montana said of her early images.

Her cousin Carlos — 21 at the time — was killed in broad daylight in Boyle Heights in 2007. Her mother died due to complications related to Hepatitis C in 2010, a time period she chronicled in her first solo show, Tear Drops and Three Dots, at the Vincent Price Art Museum at East Los Angeles College last year. It showed her home life as her mom’s illness progressed and the aftermath of her death.

“It’s like a family album but also haunting in a way,” she said.

Study and storytelling in New York

Montana earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York, where she frequently told students about the Chicano movement and the history of Mexican-Americans. She felt many of the students were unfamiliar with that large segment of the U.S. population.

She wanted to come back to L.A. — and to USC — to continue showing that community.

“Even though we live in the city of Los Angeles, a lot of these places — Boyle Heights or South Central — it feels like towns that are forgotten,” she said. “I thought there wasn’t visual representation of Los Angeles that showed people who were marginalized. It wasn’t showing my Los Angeles.”

Her latest project is I Dream of Los Angeles, which chronicles the people of her neighborhood, and is on display at The Main Museum in downtown Los Angeles. She’s also its artist in residence, doing workshops and having studio space there.

“This is my Los Angeles,” she said of the solo exhibition.

It’s a collection of portraits — some of friends and acquaintances — taken throughout Boyle Heights. There’s one of Krystal, a teenager in an indigenous dance costume set against the backdrop of a school’s chain-link fence. Montana says danza, the indigenous dance form, saved Krystal from the streets and “gave her a purpose” — just like photography did for Montana.

“I had been on the streets since I was 12 or 13,” Montana said. “You just think you’re going to die. You heard about everybody dying – whether it’s a stray bullet or somehow. You don’t think you’ll live to be 18 or 21.”

Generations struggle

Montana’s work highlights the plight of Mexican-Americans who have been in L.A. for generations but still struggle to achieve what they see as an untenable American dream, she said.

“There’s a rhetoric that’s still being taught that you’re supposed to transcend poverty and be able to go to college, buy homes and become middle class,” she said. “It’s a fallacy.”

But she remains hopeful that cycle can break. She’s attempting to break it herself, as a first-generation high school and college graduate. And now another first: the first to attend graduate school.

“The Roski School is lucky to have photographer Star Montana join our new class,” Provost Michael Quick said. “She tells dynamic and engaging stories about our society through her art. She is truly an artist who cares deeply about our culture and our city.”

Her dream is to be a college professor, to teach others the power of such personal work.

“I think it’s important to be vulnerable with myself and through my teaching,” she said. “At art school, my professors were really vulnerable and open and that’s what inspired me to really teach — them sharing their narratives.”

When she thinks about the purpose of her work, she relates it back to her first passion: punk rock.

“I think it’s just seeing what is real, even if it’s not beautiful. It’s being able to show that it exists,” she said. “I think that’s why we were so angry [in the punk scene]. We felt like we didn’t exist.”

By Joanna Clay

>Read the original story on USC News.

“In order to change the world, you have to begin to imagine it differently”

“In order to change the world, you have to begin to imagine it differently”

Doctoral student student Rogelio Alejandro Lopez links media, activism and civic engagement

On May Day 2006 more than 500,000 people rallied in downtown Los Angeles for immigrant rights. Rogelio Alejandro Lopez, 19 at the time, attended the march with his mother and his younger sisters.

“That’s when I started really seeing the issues reflected in what I was doing and seeing myself personally in the kind of issues affecting my communities,” recalled Lopez, now a doctoral candidate in communication at USC Annenberg.

He and his family first entered the United States as undocumented immigrants. They eventually received sponsorship and Lopez was naturalized at 17, but he continued to view the world around him through the lens of sweeps, roundups and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids.

“In order to change the world, you have to begin to imagine it differently, and for a lot of young people part of seeing themselves in that narrative of social change, begins with that process of imagination.”

As an undergraduate, he studied Chicano/a studies at UCLA and got involved in “Fast for Our Future.” The hunger strike called on more than 1 million people to pledge to vote for immigrant rights during the ’08 presidential election.

After a few days, having not fully prepared, Lopez brought his fast to an end, but realized he could still be involved through media activism. This led him to examine the mechanisms that went into the campaign: how the organizers went about building it and how the media portrayed them.

“All of these pieces started to come together as I was taking courses centered around social movements at the same time as social media was becoming popular for young people,” Lopez said.

This realization became the foundation of his ongoing research, which focuses on how youth use media to get involved politically through activism, social movements and civic engagement.

As a master’s student in comparative media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Lopez expanded his work to document how major news outlets are framing the immigration debate. He wanted to know how the media’s depiction of organizers, movements and protests affect the way that activists themselves develop their talking points, shift the conversation and broaden the issue.

Lopez was able to meet people from all over the country who were using the Internet to connect local issues to a national arena. “It was inspiring for me as a researcher and I knew I wanted to pursue a career in research — so I applied to USC,” he said.

Communication doctoral student Rogelio Lopez introduces students from the Annenberg Youth Academy to different tech tools that can be used to enact social change. Photo by: Olivia Mowry

For Lopez, having scholars at USC Annenberg who also examine what it means to be involved politically with communication — and to look at different cultural dimensions of how to be involved civically — was key.

“I wanted to work with Henry Jenkins whose concept of participatory politics promotes this idea that young people do care about issues, and how they are getting involved is through these different methods of information sharing and community building,” he said.

Lopez, now in the fourth year of his doctoral program, is researching the March for Our Lives youth movement and incorporating previous work he has done around immigrant rights and Black Lives Matter. He is looking into how these groups are using specific media narratives and communication methods to achieve their goals.

“We need to understand the interplay between the types of media strategies that movements develop, the broader players in the ecology and how that affects how we understand issues as a public,” he said.

As part of his field work, over the course of five days, Lopez served as a participant observer at several tour stops for the March for Our Lives “Road to Change” campaign. Lopez studied how these young leaders used their platform to talk to local communities, and weave topics of representation, race and social issues into their messaging.

But for Lopez, playing dual roles isn’t always easy.

“Talking to people who were at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School at the time of the shooting, or meeting families who are torn apart because of immigration policies,” Lopez said, “I find myself trying to find the balance between my role as a researcher versus my role as an empathetic human.”

In addition to researching and teaching at USC Annenberg, Lopez is also involved with Civic Paths. He, along with a group of faculty and fellow graduate students, take on different initiatives to explore continuities between online participatory culture and civic engagement. In the Civic Imagination Project, Lopez and his collaborators ask youth to place themselves in storylines as agents for social change. Students are encouraged to re-conceptualize the world they want to see in the future and how ultimately these visions can inform real action.

Post-doctorate, Lopez would like to keep working to empower young people.

“I hold youth development deeply in my heart,” he said. “I would like to be involved in that type of work — it is really inspiring for me to see young people reaffirm themselves through different rallies and protests. It is incredibly powerful.”

By Sarah Wolfson

>Read the original story on USC Annenberg’s website.

“My mom Facetimed me when my dad and I were driving back to our hotel and said that I’d gotten a package from USC”

“My mom Facetimed me when my dad and I were driving back to our hotel and said that I’d gotten a package from USC”

Jaya Hinton (USC Photo)

What did you do when you first found out you got in to USC?

I was actually in Chicago with my dad visiting Chicago and Northwestern at the time. I had decided to apply to USC sort of on a whim when I realized it was a QuestBridge school, and I hadn’t realized that I had applied by the merit scholarship deadline. My mom Facetimed me when my dad and I were driving back to our hotel and said that I’d gotten a package from USC, and assuming it was a t-shirt or poster like it always was from every other school, I told her to go ahead and open it. When she realized what is was she started crying, I started crying, and then my dad started crying which made both my mother and I cry even harder. It was my first admittance and it was to a school I didn’t really expect to get into, let alone to get a scholarship from, and it was really overwhelming in the best way.

What are you most excited to learn/do/experience/etc. while at USC?

I’m really excited for a lot of things. Football games, exploring LA, and really getting the chance to immerse myself in the Trojan Family. I tend to be a people person and love meeting new people. Going to football games, joining different orgs, and going to different events to meet alumni who are still excited about ‘SC even after graduating is a testament to how deep the Family runs, which is one of the reasons I came to SC in the first place.

What is one thing you brought with you to USC that means the most to you?

I have a bunch of photo canvases on my wall with pictures of my best friends and family members. I’m from Maryland and most of my family is still on the east coast, and the memory of the people I know love me and are still supporting me from across the country keeps me motivated.

What piece of advice you were given about starting college that you’ll follow?

Finding a balance between personal time and work is essential. At a breakfast I went to during welcome week an alumni, John Mork, recommended treating our week schedules like work schedules and trying to put in at least 40 hours a week, 8 hours a day Monday through Friday. While it sounds like a lot, I’m here to develop into the most successful person I can be, and that starts with schoolwork. It also leaves me weekends stress-free so I can go to football games which I am also really excited for, and to take time for myself to relax and enjoy my college experience.

What do you think/hope you’ll be like four years from now?

I hope to be fully confident in myself and in the skills I develop for my career field. As a business major, self-confidence is going to be key in exercising leadership, interacting with people, and (hopefully) running organizations one day. I know that Marshall will give me the tools I need to become as successful as I can be, and I plan on working toward making sure my confidence and positive mentality match it.

Jaya Hinton, a Mork Scholar from Maryland, is passionate about social justice, medicine and the sciences. The American Studies and Ethnicity major says she is very eager to get involved in community service in the surrounding USC community.

“I was so excited my teacher excused me so I could immediately call my parents (who are both UCLA Alumni by the way) to tell them I was going to USC!”

“I was so excited my teacher excused me so I could immediately call my parents (who are both UCLA Alumni by the way) to tell them I was going to USC!”


Justin Weiss, Mechanical Engineering major (USC Photo)
Justin Weiss (USC Photo)

What did you do when you first found out you got into USC?

I was so ecstatic to find out I was admitted to USC! I checked my portal during school and saw my admission decision and I gave out a huge shout right in the middle of my English class! I was so excited my teacher excused me so I could immediately call my parents (who are both UCLA Alumni by the way) to tell them I was going to USC! When I got home, I even started to cry about how happy I was. I am so honored to be a part of the Trojan family!

What are you most excited to learn/do/experience/etc. while at USC?

I’m am extremely excited to be a part of the USC Rocket Propulsion Lab. I saw the lab on my very first campus tour here, and I knew right then and there that USC was the school for me. I can’t wait to launch some rockets! I also love to sing and perform, and I hope to a member of a USC a capella club soon. I’m also looking forward to the social aspect of school. I can’t wait to meet new people and create new memories.

What is one thing you brought with you to USC that means the most to you?

My dad recently went to Ghana, Africa on a business trip. He brought me back an amazing customized USC African Ghana tribal mask. It’s one of the coolest pieces of USC memorabilia I have. It is literally one of a kind, and I could not wait to put it up on my dorm room wall.

What piece of advice were you given about starting college that you’ll follow?

One of the most important pieces of advice I got was to make sure to manage your time. It’s ok to have fun at college, but one thing drilled into me that I believe in is always to handle your “business before pleasure.” Once my homework is done, then it is time to live the college dream.

What do you think/hope you’ll be like four years from now?

I hope I will have made a difference while at USC. I want to be a great student, a future leader, and above all a great engineer. Four years from now I hope that I will be viewed by my fellow students and my professors as a wiser (and a better) student and a great friend and mentor to other USC students.

Justin T. Weiss is a Mork Scholar and Mechanical Engineering major who loves theater and dance. Due to his speech impediment growing up and passion for performing arts, he calls himself a ‘stuttering thespian and hobbled dancer.’