Kyle Le was living in Saigon, teaching history and producing YouTube videos about food and travel, when he got an unusual request.
“One day I received a message on Facebook from a woman in the United States writing, ‘I’m looking for my lost sister. I haven’t spoken to her in 10 years,’” said Le, a Vietnamese-American originally from Orange County. “I’m thinking, ‘Okay, why don’t you just fly to Vietnam and look for her? What am I supposed to do?’ Nobody has ever asked me to do this before, but she kept at it.”
Thinking it was a prank, Le figured he could end the exchange by requesting the money he would need to hire a car and driver to find the missing sister. When the woman sent the money a few hours later, he realized he had no choice but to go.
“I never really expected to find anybody,” he said, instead imagining that this wild goose chase would be “a funny video.” He arrived in the woman’s hometown, a little outside of Saigon, in the pouring rain. He started asking around: One person led to another, who led to another — until he found the woman’s sister’s husband. Le went to their house, talked to the long-lost sister, and together they called her sister in America.
Le had been filming the entire time. When he posted the reunion video on YouTube, the response led to more requests for family re-connections, which in turn set Le on a path to gaining almost 200,000 subscribers for his YouTube channel — and also to earning a master of science degree in digital social media from USC Annenberg.
Though he had visited Vietnam a few times as a child, Le truly fell in love with the country when he traveled there in 2010, the year before earning his undergraduate degree from California State University, Long Beach. Le then spent his senior year in college trying to figure out how to get back. When he overheard Vietnamese exchange students at CSULB switching between Vietnamese and English as they spoke, it hit him: He would go to Vietnam and teach.
Once Le arrived in Saigon in 2011, he spent his first few months sleeping in someone’s kitchen until he got a job teaching high school history and was able to rent his own place. A few years later, he got a phone with better video capability and Le began using social media, YouTube in particular, to share some of his food and travel experiences with friends and family back home.
They weren’t the only ones who noticed his dispatches. A producer from the Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods” found Le’s channel and asked him to appear on the show. “Here’s the guy [Andrew Zimmern] I watched when I was researching Vietnam stuff, and it was a big deal,” Le said. “I remember the director urging me to do more videos, be in front of the camera more. And I listened to them. A couple of months later I bought real equipment and microphones and got more serious.”
It was also about this time that Le slowly moved away from teaching toward filming content full-time. A few months later, that fateful Facebook message appeared in his inbox. The first reunion video led to many more in Vietnam itself, and also in other communities in the Vietnamese diaspora around the world. He ended up visiting over 42 countries, documenting these new friends in such countries as Denmark, Germany, Belarus, Ecuador and Senegal.
“I knew that I couldn’t do this forever because there were only so many countries and so many opportunities to film,” Le said. “Finding the people is one thing, but actually being able to go over there and get an honest interview and to do a really good documentary was really challenging. There was also the worry about where I’m going to live next.”
Heeding the advice of his grandfather, he returned to Southern California, starting the year-long USC Annenberg master’s program in digital social media in fall 2018.
“I was studying alongside a dynamic group of people from all walks of life, and because Annenberg has such a big international community, I was drawn to them,” he said. “Prior to this program, I didn’t have much organization or structure, so even though I have experience in social media, I learned different approaches and theories behind what I was doing and when I was posting.”
For his capstone project, Le once again did a reunion video, putting out a call to “see if there was anybody looking for somebody,” and if so, “hit him up.” A few days later, a 17-year-old adopted girl from Trinidad contacted Le looking to reunite with her birth family. She was living with her biological brother, but her biological parents (whom she had located) and other adopted biological siblings were scattered in different Canadian cities and she didn’t know how to go about setting up the reunion.
Working with Freddy Tran Nager, his advisor and the entrepreneurial communication expert in residence at USC Annenberg, Le went over his plan, wanting to “leave nothing to chance.” Le flew to Trinidad, where he met and interviewed the girl. He also released a vlog (video blog) to explain what he was doing and build excitement for the reunion. Having facilitated the reunion, Le filmed the siblings and birth parents all meeting for the first time.
“Roughly 300 subscribers watched and chatted with me and the adopted kids,” he said. “After about four or five days, it picked up momentum by appearing in many people’s recommended lists. I also made it a point to continue responding to the comments, which led to responses and more engagement.”
Even though he paid for the shoot and the plane fare himself, Le said he felt “more accomplished and satisfied knowing that my project has real-world ramifications and actually affects people online.”
With his degree in hand, Le is in talks to work on more scripted content, as well as the reunion-type documentaries. “The digital social media program allowed me to realize that, on a more professional level, I could use what I’ve learned in my experiences and apply it to a real work and life-experience role,” he said. “Before this, I feared making that jump from being an amateur to actually getting paid by a real company to doing exactly what I did for myself.”
“I was bouncing around between six different elementary schools after my mom remarried and moved to Pasadena and my dad stayed in South Central,” she recalled. “Instability was my stable and my normal.”
She applied to USC after high school in 2007. When she didn’t get in, she tried for a fresh start far away from home at the University of Central Missouri.
“That went terribly,” she said. “I was a black and Guatemalan girl in the middle of Missouri, and this was a pre-pronouns era when you had to choose your box and sit in it. I had a difficult time with that.”
It was also the period when startups like Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook had convinced some in her generation that college wasn’t necessary for success. Borrayo-Gilchriest dropped out, moved to New Jersey and began working in retail.
But something was always tugging at her to return to school: “I love history. It’s my weird thing. I wanted to be an art museum curator or teach kids to love museums.”
Striving museum curator instead finds her calling in education
At age 24, Borrayo-Gilchriest was ready to chase that dream. Her husband was driving a supply truck for Caldwell University in northern New Jersey and managed to get her a meeting with its president. “I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do so I was intimidated, but she connected me with the non-traditional transfer unit,” she said.
In a little over a year, Borrayo-Gilchriest had finally earned her bachelor’s degree in history and walked across the stage at graduation with her new baby in her arms. During the subsequent five years, she taught history at an urban New Jersey high school.
She still reflects on how she found her calling in education, shaping and inspiring young minds.
“I may not have become an art museum curator, but I realized I do curate museums of life all of the time,” she said. “These students are walking pieces of art that I got to be a part of. I’m not the only artist, but a part of me is in the canvas.”
While teaching was rewarding, she missed her family — all of whom were in California. She decided to give USC another shot, this time for a master’s degree.
“I decided if I got in, it would be a sign from the universe for us to go home to California,” she said.
On February 28, 2019, she says, the universe had spoken: “My life had come full circle. I had a new appreciation for being stable and I was ready for USC. At the age of 18, I was not ready for ‘the Harvard of the west.’ With everything I’d gone through as a nontraditional student, a wife and a mother, I realized I was prepared for that moment.”
Returning to L.A. — and USC — let Borrayo-Gilchriest embrace being a student
Borrayo-Gilchriest brought her family back to L.A. While studying at USC, she worked in the Office of Residential Education, developing positive communal relationships for USC students, designing programs that build their emotional intelligence and learning new tactics to bridge the gap between high school and the new generation of minds entering college.
“As a professional graduate student, it’s been a refuge and a comfort for me to come into CBCSA and hear, ‘Be a student, relax, write your paper,’” she said. “And I’m a frequent flyer at La CASA. I’m like the freeloading aunt; they’re always offering me a coffee or tea.”
“I don’t see boxes with the young people today; there’s so much intersectionality,” she added. “I can live with all parts of me and not feel that I’m disconnecting with any other part. Students today and these centers taught me that.”
Borrayo-Gilchriest, who once thought college wasn’t in the cards for her, notes with glee that she recently learned she was accepted into USC Rossier’s doctorate in education program.
“I didn’t get the four years I’d wanted in 2007, but now I am going to get four years at USC,” she said. “This was never the plan or the end goal. It was always, ‘Maybe one day I’ll get a doctorate.’ Now I recognize that I can do this, and this is exactly where I am supposed to be.”
Even as the COVID-19 pandemic has changed much about our daily lives, the rhythms of life and death continue.
Christian Diaz, MSW ’13, a medical social worker at a hospital serving the San Gabriel Valley in Los Angeles County, helps patients and their families cope with some of life’s most challenging moments.
“In the hospital, everything is urgent,” Diaz said. Health issues, big or small, are often accompanied by strong emotions and other critical needs such as stable housing, jobs, transportation, and money. Medical social workers like Diaz offer resources and support as patients and families cope with diagnoses and crisis.
Slowing the spread of COVID-19 has changed how health care looks. Visitors have been restricted in the facility since mid-March. Because the hospital is trying to conserve personal protective equipment, Diaz and his colleagues use phones or tablets to offer resources and support to patients diagnosed with COVID-19, saving the PPE for medical staff. They also help patients connect with their families the same way.
“Some patients aren’t alert or able to talk, but their loved ones feel better seeing their faces,” Diaz said. “As best we can, we want to make sure our patients feel loved.” Most recently, this meant making iPhones available to each hospital unit so that social workers and nurses could connect patients to their friends and family via the FaceTime video chat app.
At the hospital, Diaz is part of a team of more than two dozen social workers, assigned to different units such as psychiatric care, palliative care, emergency, maternity, and oncology but cross-trained to be able to fill in when needed. Diaz works with oncology and medical surgery patients, and also oversees the hospital’s MSW internship program.
A passion for helping others
Diaz, who grew up in the nearby city of El Monte, feels a strong connection to the San Gabriel community. The son of Mexican immigrants who pursued a better life for their children, he won a seat on the Mountain View School District Board of Education. Growing up, Diaz attended elementary school within the district, which oversees 10 elementary schools, one intermediate school, one middle school and one alternative school.
“I was raised with a passion to help others,” he said.
As a medical social worker, Diaz helps connect patients and their families with resources such as housing for those experiencing homelessness, medical transportation, legal assistance, Meals on Wheels, and setting up advanced directives and other tasks related to end-of-life care. He also conducts psychosocial assessments and evaluates patients for the potential of self-harm.
Every situation is different, he said. Diaz sees between five to 20 patients a day. Though he only sees them once or twice, he finds that family members treat him like one of the family for those interactions.
“I build trust with them by being myself,” Diaz said. “I listen and I meet them where they are at.”
That willingness to walk alongside those enduring a highly stressful time in their lives goes a long way with people. Diaz also extends his support to the doctors, nurses, and other co-workers, checking in to make sure they are coping all right as well.
“It can be as simple as asking, ‘what I can do to help?’” Diaz said.
Despite the stress and anxiety that have come with the coronavirus pandemic, Diaz said his goal to adhere to the golden rule stands firm.
“I do for others what I would want done for me, if I were in the same situation,” he said.
A commissioned Army officer and recently graduated USC student, Lt. Justin Lee is on the front lines of California’s pandemic response.
When his coursework at USC went online in mid-March, Lt. Justin Lee drove to his family home in Oregon with his younger brother. He’d been there just three days when his Army National Guard unit was activated by Gov. Gavin Newsom in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Lee drove back to Los Angeles without stopping.
Since then, he has been part of a California National Guard humanitarian mission that has served and distributed 15 million meals.
“The service organizations were heavily impacted by the pandemic,” Lee said. “Before COVID-19, these agencies were primarily manned by volunteers. Being a vulnerable and at-risk population, the volunteers needed to stay home. We were called in to help, and the need has grown many times over.”
Justin Lee: Service in the military and the community
Lee was first in his family to join the U.S. military. As an undergraduate student, he participated in the USC Army ROTC program while volunteering at a local homeless shelter and supporting a student organization that helped resettle Syrian refugees.
He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in international relations and commissioned in 2017, then joined the California Army National Guard as an adjutant general officer with the 250th Expeditionary Military Intelligence Battalion.
Rather than immediately pursuing a career on active duty, Lee chose to stay at USC and pursue his master’s in social work with a concentration in military social work. This academic year, he was an intern at L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Office of Military and Veteran Affairs, where he gained a new perspective on military service.
“Many veterans face a plethora of challenges surrounding employment, higher education, mental health and general well-being,” he said. “It became clear to me that my military-connected community has frequently overlooked barriers while they were wearing uniforms and as they’ve transitioned to civilian life. I believe that, as a nation, we must take steps to better fulfill our solemn duty to care for all those who have served and continue to serve our country.”
National Guardsman and recent USC grad takes action during COVID-19
Since he was activated on March 21, Lee has been one of more than 46,000 Air and Army National Guard professionals on the front lines of the COVID-19 response.
In recent weeks, Lee’s work has been focused at a tactical operations center, where he oversees platoons on humanitarian missions throughout the region. Lee understands this mission may carry well beyond graduation; his degree is among those virtually conferred on May 15.
“I hope that our communities stay resilient, keep depending on one another and collaboratively practice safety guidelines,” he said. “I’m a National Guardsman, a Los Angeles resident and a USC student, and I feel eternally grateful for the commendable leadership that Gov. Newsom, Mayor Garcetti and President Carol Folt have shown throughout this pandemic. Although I am constantly aiming to have a realistic and practical outlook, I will continue to be optimistic as well.”
Cynthia Diana Villarreal has moved beyond how life is “supposed” to go
Cynthia Diana Villarreal embodies the classic idea of the American Dream—a student from a low-income family who, with unshakeable determination, became the first in her family to go to college and earn a doctorate from no less an institution than the University of Southern California.
But her path to such a milestone also reflects how grand ideals of upward mobility often contend with reality, with systems that impede such success at every turn either by design or neglect.
Villarreal graduates this month with a PhD in Urban Education Policy from USC Rossier, and her own experiences are now informing her research into how students can be better supported by their colleges and universities.
Growing up in El Paso, Texas, Villarreal says she had a happy childhood with great parents, but navigating college admissions as a first-generation student had its difficulties.
“Most prospective students go on college visits, they have a network they can connect with at college campuses,” she says. Villarreal did not have that experience. She applied to one college; it accepted her and, with the offer of a full ride, she went.
“The first time I stepped foot on campus was when I moved in,” Villarreal says. “It’s funny because now that I’m doing research on trust in admissions, I realized I didn’t have that. I was putting my blind faith in this institution and that it would be everything I needed.”
Villarreal realized quickly that she hadn’t found the right fit, and that she hadn’t appreciated or known what to ask about campus culture, especially about her college’s support for first-generation, Latina students.
She moved back home, transferring to the University of Texas at El Paso while looking for a longer-term solution. Determined not to stumble again, Villarreal put in the research while facing a relentless bureaucracy.
“When I think about it now, I was given the run-around: you have to go to the business office, counseling, financial aid, etc.” she says. “I could have said, ‘this is too much work, I’m not going to try.’”
Villarreal would go on to graduate from Texas Tech with a bachelor’s degree in English and anthropology. Now officially labeled a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI), Texas Tech set Villarreal on her eventual path toward her doctorate.
“If I didn’t have that experience, I don’t know if I would be here right now,” she says. “That’s why I’m so passionate and invested in doing research in HSIs, and I know they matter.”
If Villarreal’s college experience didn’t go as she initially expected, the same can be said of her doctoral program.
After teaching sixth grade English in San Antonio, Villarreal completed a master’s degree in educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio. A professor there, Laura I. Rendón, nudged Villarreal toward USC Rossier.
Villarreal arrived at USC in Fall 2015, but her advisor, Professor Alicia Dowd, had just taken a new job at Penn State. Dowd offered Villarreal an invitation to join, but having just moved from San Antonio with her fiancé, Elias M. Villarreal, she stayed in the program, working with Professor Estela Mara Bensimon at the Center for Urban Education. It might not have been how things were supposed to go, but CUE would provide a formative experience.
“As a teacher, I felt powerless to change things at a policy level,” she says. “I had an impact on my students, but I knew I wasn’t doing any transformative changes to the institution. I was already thinking about institutional policy, but I didn’t have the language to know how to study it until [working at CUE].”
At the same time, Villarreal and Elias, who is studying to be a veterinarian, also decided to grow their family, welcoming baby Diana in February 2019. It was a difficult choice, she says, because of the kind of scrutiny that is often leveled at early career scholars who have children.
“I was in my head that I wasn’t supposed to have a daughter during the program, but then I decided I’m doing what’s best for me,” she says.
Villarreal credits both faculty and staff, and especially PhD program director Laura Romero and advisor Alex Atashi, for helping her navigate leave policy and providing her space to work on her dissertation.
“I’ve been surprised but very grateful.”
Villarreal decided to focus her research on faculty hiring decisions at HSIs as a borderlands cultural practice and the factors that reproduce White-dominated professoriates. (Borderlands theory examines the concept of geographical and other kinds of borders as instruments that are socially produced, specifically looking at a U.S.–Mexico context.) Research shows the importance of a diverse faculty to the success of a diverse student body.
Villarreal found a new advisor and mentor in Associate Professor Julie Posselt, an expert on college admissions within the Pullias Center for Higher Education. They found a connection as former employees of the McNair Scholars program and as mothers in academe. Posselt calls Villarreal “a joy to mentor.”
“Cynthia is showing that borders are not just places where some line that we draw separates places or cultural spaces,” Posselt says. “Her research and her life show that the border is also where they come together. Whether it’s across countries or across roles as scholar and mother, she’s showing that in their coming together, there’s wisdom and possibility that higher education and society needs.”
Villarreal has also put interest into action, founding the student organization Latina PhDs at USC, a community- and support-building group.
“I was shocked to find that challenges like imposter syndrome, microaggressions, implicit and explicit biases from colleagues continue even after earning a doctorate,” she says. “I’ve intentionally sought out community from other Latinas because we can show love for each other and support one another in a way that is uniquely ours.”
Villarreal is taking life in stride even as the COVID-19 pandemic has put a damper on graduation (Villarreal was selected to be the PhD flagbearer by her peers). Her life has rarely gone the way it was “supposed” to, but that hasn’t stopped her yet; she’s made of strong stuff.
And besides, there’s something bigger to look forward to: As Villarreal prepares to defend her dissertation this summer, she is excited that her daughter will grow up with two doctors for parents.
“It’s a lot to take in,” she says, “and I’m very grateful.”
Tom Capehart did more than most during his time at USC. Now, at age 85, the former four-sport athlete can finally add “graduating” to that list.
For over 60 years, one simple question has consistently bothered Tom Capehart: Where did you go to school?
It’s not as if Capehart didn’t have an answer. The Pasadena resident played football, basketball, water polo and swam for USC in the 1950s. He’s been a Trojan almost his entire life, donating to the university and attending as many athletic events as he can get to. Capehart was always an alumnus — just never a graduate, until now.
At the age of 85, and with his remaining two credits finally out of the way, Capehart achieved what he had set out to do over half a century ago: He has earned his degree from USC as part of the Class of 2020.
“I’m just happy to have the degree,” he said. “I felt sort of guilty all these years — not like an imposter, but I didn’t feel fulfilled.”
Next week, Capehart will leave USC with his bachelor’s degree in education. Saying his road to that degree was unorthodox is an understatement.
Poor beginnings and the route to USC
Born in 1934 on a farm in between towns of Selma and Kingsburg, Calif. — about 20 miles southeast of Fresno — Capehart was the youngest of three, with the closest in age being 22 years older. His father was a day laborer, their home had no running water or electricity and, when he was only 4 years old, Capehart’s mother died at age 49.
His father began to experience his own health problems. After he suffered a heart attack when Capehart was around 10, the family was forced to move into the town of Kingsburg. Only a few years later Capehart’s father would develop cancer, and the youngest of three would turn to the community as his second family and develop his love for sports.
“The community of Kingsburg basically raised me because of my situation with my family,” he said. “The coaches and all the people [of the town] had a very positive influence on my life.”
A four-sport athlete — football, baseball, basketball and swimming — at Kingsburg High School, Capehart was team captain of the football team and helped lead the Vikings basketball team to a league title his senior year. He was also a left-handed pitcher and first baseman who caught the attention of pro scouts.
Capehart was offered a contract by the Boston Red Sox his senior year but was advised by his coach, mentor and surrogate father figure Laurence Langley to get an education. Capehart was offered scholarships to both Stanford University and USC, but Langley, a USC alumnus, encouraged him to become a Trojan and play football for head coach Jess Hill.
Student-athlete sees his basketball and football dreams end
After graduating from high school in 1952 with 52 other people in his class, Capehart arrived at USC that fall to play football for the Trojans. Since he was on the freshman team and not allowed to play varsity, per then-NCAA rules, he decided to also play basketball.
While getting accustomed to a non-varsity role, large class sizes and life on campus, he was dealt two significant blows. He was injured during a basketball game and later diagnosed with a hernia that required surgery. While recovering from the injury that promptly ended his Trojan basketball career, he was dealt the biggest blow: His father died.
“It wasn’t unexpected,” Capehart said before pausing. “But I guess it always is when you lose the only parent you have.”
In his time of need, Capehart found a sense of family with his teammates and freshman football coach Jess Mortensen. After a successful freshman year and fully recovering from his hernia surgery, Capehart was ready to play varsity football for the Trojans. But in his first game, he suffered a left knee fracture. His collegiate football days were over.
Capehart admits that he was lucky those days ever began in the first place. At 13, Capehart was nearly killed when he and a friend were struck by a passing car that was trying to evade police. Capehart suffered a compound spiral fracture to his left femur and was in a cast for around six months. About three years later, he tore his ACL while playing basketball and required surgery to have the damaged ligament removed.
From potential physical education teacher to insurance guru
When he was told he could no longer play football, a USC teammate joked that he should try out for water polo, though Capehart didn’t take it as a joke.
“I took it as a challenge,” he said.
Despite being unfamiliar with the rules, Capehart had a major advantage as a left-handed thrower. After showing his grit by guarding the team’s All-American, he was officially a member. He then tried out and made the swim team once the season came around, though Capehart admits he didn’t particularly enjoy that sport.
“I really liked the team sport aspect of water polo,” he said. “I just never enjoyed swimming as much.”
By the start of his junior year, Capehart was well set on his path of becoming a physical education teacher, before hitting another setback. He needed to take a four-unit course in order to graduate, but there were two main issues: Capehart was still recovering from that serious injury, and the class involved boxing, wrestling and gymnastics. The class was also only offered every other year, and even though his scholarship was honored after the injury, it only lasted four years.
Luckily, during his final year on campus, Capehart began to take night classes with an insurance company. Once licensed, he started selling policies to friends and students on campus. Capehart was working on building his clientele when he returned to take a two-credit salesmanship education course at USC in 1958. He returned to the insurance business and — roughly 15 years later — reached back out to the university about finishing up, only to be informed that USC no longer offered a degree in physical education. And with that, Capehart remained two credits short for almost 50 years.
“Over the years I tried to [come back], but when I found out that they no longer had physical education, I sort of gave up,” he said.
The quest to earn those last two credits
In 1957 he married his college sweetheart, Karen, and the couple had two boys, Bryan and Jeff, born in 1959 and 1961. The couple now has four grown grandchildren as well.
Despite never graduating, Capehart went on to have numerous successes in the insurance business over a 42-year career. He also started his own life insurance agency, Capehart Insurance Services, and opened offices all around Southern California.
Although neither of his sons graduated from USC, Capehart’s passion for the university remained. He went to every home football and basketball game last season and has been making steady donations to the university throughout his life.
Last year, USC Assistant Athletic Director Scott Wandzilak approached Capehart at Annandale Golf Club — where the latter has been a member for over 50 years — about the Trojan Athletic Fund’s Heritage Association Spotlight. While explaining his story and time at USC, Capehart admitted that he had never graduated, and Wandzilak encouraged him to contact the university about a path to earning his degree.
“When he talked about being a few credits short, you could tell how much it bothered him,” Wandzilak said. “He is a perfectionist and so very badly wanted to complete this chapter.”
After writing to the USC registrar’s office, he was told to contact Angela “Laila” Hasan at the USC Rossier School of Education. Hasan oversees candidates who want to teach science, mathematics and physical education, so the two met to discuss what the final leg of his college journey would look like.
“We hit it off right away,” Capehart said.
In explaining his story, Hasan said she was immediately struck with how much Capehart had accomplished throughout his life and admitted she was slightly puzzled by why he would want to come back to school at 85 years old.
“When you’re in school, you’re learning how to become Tom Capehart,” Hasan said.
She decided that, to complete his final two credits, he should write his autobiography. Hasan developed his coursework, and the two started talking about what it meant to tell his story. She also originally planned to meet one on one over Zoom, so he didn’t have to commute from Pasadena every week, but she said he was having none of that.
“At a certain point, I just kind of let him go, and told him to just tell this story the way that it comes to him,” Hasan said. “He researched within himself, and so it was very powerful from that perspective.”
Eventually, his life story came down to around 200 pages. Though he might have to tweak the ending slightly to include exactly what it felt like to receive that diploma — and perhaps include his parting words to his fellow classmates. After all, he was asked to speak at USC Athletics’ student-athlete graduation ceremony.
85-year-old grad doesn’t mind celebrating on Zoom
Capehart won’t have the opportunity to walk across the stage in his cap and gown as a member of the Class of 2020 this spring. Nor will he get to pull his speech out from under his gown, adjust the mic at the podium and look out at his fellow student-athletes.
Still, Capehart isn’t disappointed. He’s still speaking to his classmates, even if it is over Zoom, and imparting some of the wisdom he has learned in his 85 years. But as he shared a few excerpts from his planned speech, one particular part stood out: “When you set your sights on something, do it right or don’t do it at all.”
Though that piece of advice would not exactly be considered a revelation, it’s held true for Capehart. How else do you respond from a serious injury by trying a new sport, or make a successful career out of something you had only take a few classes on? How else do you come back to school at 85 years old to earn your degree?
“All of my teachers and all of my coaches [I’ve had] and everybody that supported me along the way probably wanted to see me graduate, and I never had that opportunity,” Capehart said. “When I originally went to ’SC it was to graduate, to get an education, and now I’ve done just that.”
The enthusiastic optimist sees opportunities for sustainability around every corner.
At the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI) offices, Matt Petersen MPA ’94 sits at his desk and fiddles with a yellow pin on his lapel that reads “electric commuter.” It’s not a fashion statement. It’s a rallying cry for electric-powered wheels of all kinds: scooters, bikes, cars and trains. As a dedicated electric commuter, he paves the way for others to get onboard.
Petersen is president and CEO of LACI, a nonprofit that accelerates green technology by harnessing the creativity of entrepreneurs. Its downtown Los Angeles office is home to 18 startups that are developing diverse sectors of sustainable innovation. They’re working on everything from electric airplanes and better batteries to workforce development and cheaper, greener homes.
Environmental sustainability has been on Petersen’s mind since he was a kid growing up in Modesto, California. His father used to tell the story of how, one day, they walked by a neighborhood park covered in litter after a weekend of parties and picnics. “I said to my dad: ‘Look at it. We’ve got to do something to take care of our planet!’” Petersen was 5 years old. The story is now part of family lore.
Another memory he has of Modesto was watching as agricultural land gave way to suburban tract homes. “That really struck me as wrong,” he recalls. “Why are we building this stuff that wasn’t mostly green housing?”
Matt Petersen, Man With a Plan
He never stopped asking tough questions. That’s why he pursued his master’s degree in public administration at the USC Price School of Public Policy — to help him find answers. There he drove deeper into ecology and systems thinking, the process of understanding how things influence one another within a whole. “You can’t see environmental sustainability as an ‘issue.’ It’s not a thing over there,” he says, gesturing. “The planet is this system. Our economy is this system. Sustainability and climate action have to be core to this system.”
After graduation, he put that philosophy into action. His work stints include leading Global Green USA, an internationally recognized nonprofit. He also served as the city of Los Angeles’ first chief sustainability officer. In that role, he helped develop the city’s first long-term plan for conserving water, creating green jobs and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. He also created Climate Mayors, a coalition of 250 U.S. mayors fighting climate change.
Now, as the head of LACI, he tackles thorny issues from three directions: supporting startups that advance sustainable technology, partnering with corporate and government partners to transform markets, and engaging with underserved neighborhoods through workforce development and pilot programs so that the benefits of green innovation are more accessible.
What makes us unique as the human species? Love, hope and an opposable thumb — I’m optimistic about all three. Matt Petersen
Clean Air Out There
The center recently laid out an ambitious roadmap to accelerate transportation electrification in the Los Angeles region. The goal is to reduce air pollution by an additional 25% by 2028, when the Olympics are slated to arrive.
It’s a tall order, but Petersen is hopeful about the city’s future — and the intrinsic qualities of its inhabitants. “What makes us unique as the human species? Love, hope and an opposable thumb — I’m optimistic about all three.”
Shana Elson MBA ’14 got the vote of confidence she needed to launch her own business at USC Marshall
Some USC Marshall alumni earn their degree with their eyes on becoming a CEO, COO or CFO. Shana Elson MBA ’14 took a creative and delicious turn when she launched Top This Chocolate and designated herself CEC — Chief Executive Chocolatier.
When Elson came to USC, she was trying to relaunch her career in the food and beverage industry. She’d discovered almost immediately out of law school that she didn’t like being a lawyer. But even though she’d taken baking classes at a culinary school and worked as a pastry chef for Roy Choi’s A-Frame and Sunny Spot, she never guessed she’d launch an online chocolate business from her one-bedroom apartment as a newly minted MBA, much less open a brick-and-mortar shop in Ventura, Calif.
“I knew I wanted to learn about entrepreneurship. I thought I might start a business, or I might just get a job,” said Elson, who had a summer associate’s internship at a corporate restaurant group. “But I spent my MBA career vetting the idea in class.”
The idea was a “build-your-own” experience, where customers choose the chocolate and the toppings.
“My company started as a class project. It was taking on steam as I went,” she said. “And then I didn’t actually decide that I was going to do it until I won the $25,000.”
“I knew the entrepreneurship program was stellar, and I knew that the alumni network was amazing.”
Elson beat out 60 competitors to win Marshall’s Women’s New Venture Pitch Competition.
“That was the vote of confidence that I needed,” Elson said, “and then I knew I was really going to do it.”
She launched her business online in 2015. After a mention in Redbook magazine’s holiday gift guide, she had to hire seven people to fill the orders. She knew she was on to something.
In 2019 she opened her shop in the Ventura Harbor Village, a well-touristed complex of restaurants and boutiques near Ventura Harbor. Here customers choose dark, milk or white fair-trade Guittard chocolate, which is poured into bars, and top it with any of 40 toppings, such as gummy bears, nuts, jelly beans, and pretzels.
How does being a chocolatier compare to being a lawyer?
“I definitely have the freedom to be on my own schedule, which is great, but you’re also working a hundred hours a week to avoid a 40 hour a week job. You’re up at night worried about things and trying to solve problems. There are always things that you could be doing or improving or fixing or updating,” Elson said. “So I love it.”
The best thing about being an entrepreneur, she said, is making people happy by doing something you love.
“It’s rewarding when people come in and love what you’re doing,” Elson said. “Everyone in this community is responding so positively to this store. They are very warm and welcoming. It’s almost overwhelming.”
Ready to Win
A Washington, D.C., native, Elson had come to Los Angeles for law school and stayed. She chose USC Marshall for her MBA for two major reasons: “I knew the entrepreneurship program was stellar,” she said, “and I knew that the alumni network was amazing.”
Practically from day one, she was working on the chocolate business. In Entrepreneurship 101, the students were asked to create a business. “They showed us how to vet it, to understand if this is something that we should move forward with or not, to help you discover that if you have a product that is going to cost you $18 to make but you find out that customers are only willing to pay $15 for it, then you don’t move forward with that,” Elson said.
She worked on the idea in any class where she could choose a project. “ It really came together in the Writing a Business Plan class, which I took very early, during my second semester, at the same time as Entrepreneurship 101,” she said. “I also ran a lot of the numbers in Entrepreneurial Finance.”
By the time the pitch competition came along, Elson had already written her business plan and pitched it several times. She was ready to win. “My Marshall education gave me the confidence that I could do anything that I wanted to,” she said.
The most important lessons Elson learned in the MBA program were: “Knowing what your customers are thinking, focusing your time on the things that are most important to your business, watching the money outflows and realizing that not everything has to be perfect.”
It’s a lot to think about, but that’s what gets Elson up in the morning.
That and the chocolate.
“Sometimes I’m jealous of people who are at work when they’re at work and are at home when they’re at home,” she said. “But your business becomes your child almost. One of the most amazing things is how much I truly care about it. In my previous career, I was emotionally distant from my work. And now I’m so passionate that it’s almost scary.”
From an early age, Noriko Kelley set her sights on two things: USC and entertainment. Her grandparents, who often babysat Kelley and her two siblings, lived close by, and a well-worn route to their house wound through the University Park campus and by the Shrine Auditorium. At Kelley’s request, they often stopped outside the landmark building, which has been home to the Oscars, Emmys, and Grammys, before crossing the street and walking past Tommy Trojan.
Little did she know when she walked by the longtime home of the big award shows that she would one day grow up to be the person who decided when those shows aired. As executive vice president of program planning and scheduling at CBS, Kelley works hand-in-hand with executives and talent on all primetime programming — including the Emmys and Grammys — when they cycle to CBS. Kelley has also been instrumental in many of the network’s successful scheduling decisions; according to Deadline, CBS wrapped up the “2018-19 TV season as the country’s most-watched broadcast network in primetime, making it 11 consecutive seasons on top.”
Kelley traces her career motivations back to her parents and grandparents, who made sure the American dream was always within her reach.
“The one thing that I got to see with my parents — who were both educators — is that they absolutely loved their jobs,” she said. “I wanted that same sort of passion, drive, and longevity in my career.”
When it was time for college, “USC stood out for me,” she said. Kelley began her journey as an East Asian languages and cultures major at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “Even though I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life, I knew that I would figure it out once I was here.”
During her senior year, Kelley interned at the Japanese newspaper The Mainichi and was hired on full time after graduating in 1998. She started covering film premieres and her eyes quickly opened to the possibilities within the world of entertainment. With her focus now shifted, Kelley returned to USC in 1999 to begin the master’s in communication management program.
“I found USC Annenberg and thought, this is the perfect blend of everything that I’m looking for: a little bit of business, a little bit of cinema — I could even take classes in law,” said Kelley, who now sits on the USC Annenberg Alumni Advisory Board. “I was learning about the entertainment business, and also individuals who made up the business, whether they’re agents, managers, presidents of divisions, or department heads.”
Through the Annenberg Career Fair, Kelley secured a summer internship as a television research analyst with CBS. The internship turned into a six-month gig, which rolled into a full-time job at CBS after her graduation in 2001. In 2002, Kelley was hired as an assistant to Kelly Kahl ’91, then executive vice president of scheduling.
Over the last nearly 20 years, Kelley has been promoted at CBS six times, with one of her many accomplishments being a decision to relocate the hugely successful The Big Bang Theory to Thursday night. Kelley’s most recent promotion came in 2017, and with this one she broke an important glass ceiling, becoming the first woman to head scheduling at a major broadcast network.
“To me, there’s no better way of saying that you stand for inclusion than promoting someone to be the first,” Kelley said.
As for attaining the childhood dream of loving what she does, Kelley can honestly say she did.
“Growing up, I wanted to be able to wake up every day and get really excited about where I work — and I do,” she said. “I love figuring out how to deliver a schedule that’s going to create high ratings and revenue and I love knowing that anyone in the world can be affected by CBS’s schedule. I live and breathe TV.”
JaBari Brown brings his dedication to service to a new role as culture facilitator
From the moment he first saw the University Park campus as a prospective undergraduate student in the mid-’90s, JaBari Brown knew he wanted to be part of the USC culture. “It was just one of those things where, I could see myself here,” he said.
In addition to helping countless students navigate their USC experience, Brown has been involved in the wider university community for years, earning him the respect of his peers. He represented USC Annenberg on USC Staff Assembly for two terms, and in late 2018, he was elected as the first president of the newly established USC Annenberg Staff Council.
“JaBari’s colleagues across USC often refer to him as ‘The Mayor,’ and you can’t walk across campus without him without being stopped multiple times,” said James Vasquez, USC Annenberg’s associate dean for operations. “JaBari is the best of what USC embodies.”
This year, he took on another important role as a culture facilitator in what is being called the USC Culture Journey. The university-wide initiative seeks to co-create USC’s values, align the supportive behaviors that bring those values to life, and shape opportunities to improve systems, processes, and culture. The process began last October when faculty, staff, and students participated in a values poll. The initial results of that poll are now being shared and reflected up through university-wide and school-specific town halls, discussion sessions and foundation workshops that aim to capture the community’s feedback.
Brown, Vasquez and Senior Associate Dean for Administration Debra Lawler are serving as USC Annenberg’s culture facilitators throughout this phase, which seeks to identify what is working well at USC and what needs to change.
“We are taking this cultural journey very seriously,” Brown said. “The individuals who were involved in these scandals represent less than .001 percent of everybody who works for the university. I take pride in the fact that the majority of us are following the rules and being good stewards of students’ academic journeys.”
A San Diego native, Brown says his commitment to helping others began even before he came to USC. “One of the things that’s been consistent for me is volunteering and service,” he said.
After volunteering with Reading Literacy Learning, a nonprofit founded by his father that gives brand-new books to San Diego kids, he is now on the organization’s board of directors. He also worked as a camp counselor at Troy Camp for three years while an undergraduate, and also has been the staff advisor to the USC Special Olympics Club for the past four years.
“I’ve seen firsthand how involvement with kids from your community can have an impact on their lives,” he said.
The summer after his senior year of college, Brown worked as a student orientation advisor at USC. Shortly thereafter, he left for a position at Loyola Marymount University working in continuing education — but he says he missed direct contact with students. After a little less than two years at LMU, when he had an opportunity to join student services at USC Annenberg, he jumped at it.
Starting as an academic advisor, Brown has taken on increasing responsibility over the years, and is now managing the entire undergraduate advising office.
“One of the things I think has been consistent at USC Annenberg throughout my experience is the care and dedication all of the faculty and staff show when serving students,” he said.
As both an alumnus and a longtime staffer, Brown says the campus scandals of recent years have taken their toll on USC’s institutional culture. “The things that went on were infuriating,” he said. The only way we are going to be able to move forward is by admitting that these things shouldn’t have happened — and we’re committed to them not happening again.”
Along with his fellow culture facilitators Lawler and Vasquez, Brown trained for the role in December and January, as he prepares to lead conversations, which will include town halls, discussion sessions, and foundation workshops. The campus-wide gatherings began in January; USC Annenberg’s sessions will begin in February. All USC faculty, staff and students are encouraged to participate and earlier participation in the poll is not a prerequisite.
“I gladly accepted this role,” Brown said. “I’ve never wanted to sit on the sidelines — I like to get involved and share my voice, and also make sure that the voices of my colleagues and friends are heard, as well.”
That, he believes, will be one of the first steps to helping redefine and strengthen the culture of the university.
Alum and Tuskegee Airmen Ted Lumpkin Celebrates 100, Helped Build Climate of Tolerance in Military
On December 30, 2019, Theodore Lumpkin, Jr. became a centenarian.
If one did not know that he recently celebrated his 100th birthday, with a series of parties given by family, friends and those whose lives he has touched throughout his years, it would not be obvious. He strides into a room, takes calls on his smartphone like someone a quarter of his age, and engages you in conversation about what he has seen and done across a century of living.
As social work education at USC begins its centennial celebration in 2020, it is only fitting that the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work’s most senior alum is a man who served his country in one of the most poignant social justice movements in modern history.
Called Into Segregated Service
Born and raised in Los Angeles not far from the USC University Park campus, Lumpkin, BA ’47, MSW ’53, was a 21-year-old junior majoring in math at UCLA when he was drafted into the military. He was called up just six months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Sent to Fort MacArthur in San Pedro, California, Lumpkin remembers sitting in a room with hundreds of other draftees, taking a series of tests measuring aptitude and knowledge. Once testing was completed, the men were called out in groups and given their assignments.
“They kept calling out names and taking groups out of the room until there were just four of us left,” he said. All four were black, and they were told they would be sent to Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama for special U.S. Army Air Corps training.
Lumpkin’s father had moved to Los Angeles from Georgia in 1902, and when he heard that his eldest son would be shipped off to Alabama for training, he warned him to be careful. “Things are different in the South,” his father had told him.
The four men took the train from Southern California to Alabama. “We had a whole compartment to ourselves and the run of the train until we crossed the Mason-Dixon line,” Lumpkin said. Once in the segregated South, they were restricted to their private compartment except for taking meals in the dining car behind drapes set up to conceal them from white passengers.
Though Lumpkin had seen his share of racial discrimination in Los Angeles, he had not experienced the overt and aggressive racism that came with segregation until then. His father was right. It was different in the South and it felt terrible. Lumpkin prefers not to dwell too much on the experience, other than to describe it as a “real down time.”
After receiving basic and radar training, Lumpkin was selected for officer training at US Army Air Corps Candidate School in Miami Beach, Florida in October 1942. He graduated three months later as a 2nd lieutenant with the US Army Air Corps and was assigned to the 100th Fighter Squadron in Tuskegee, Alabama. He served as an air intelligence officer during his overseas combat tour to Italy in the Western Europe Theater from 1944–1945. During WWII, he was a member of the 332nd Fighter Group which consisted of the 99th, 100th, 301st and 302nd Fighter Squadrons.
The Tuskegee Airmen, as they were known, made the most of their training to become some of America’s most recognized and decorated pilots serving in WWII. Called the “Redtails” because of the red paint on their plane tails, they dispelled common perceptions that capabilities were tied to the color of one’s skin. In addition to pilots, the airmen were supported by mechanics, nurses, navigators, bombardiers, and others who kept the planes in the air.
For Lumpkin, his day-to-day work as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps was important work in defeating Hitler, and that was good enough. Yes, he knew that many white Americans, including the military top brass, did not think African Americans were as capable as their white counterparts. They believed that having black and white men working closely together would be disruptive. But if Lumpkin could prove otherwise through his performance, he thought, so much the better.
Bad Weather Leads to a Surprise Encounter
Combat is hard, and Lumpkin remembers good days when they knocked back the enemy and bad days when he lost friends. A particular day stands out from his service at Ramitelli Air Base in Italy in December 1944.
“It was the height of the war,” he said. His all-black fighter group supported B-17 and B-24 bomber squadrons based many miles away. The personnel had never met except at rendezvous points in the air during missions when the fighter planes escorted the bombers to the target.
This particular time, bad weather forced the bomber pilots to land their planes on the fighter base. Lumpkin remembers 17 bombers landing that day. The bomber crews, who were all white, met Lumpkin’s squadron for the first time.
“They were stunned,” Lumpkin said. The pilots of the Redtail fighter planes, who had earned a reputation for courage because they stuck with the bombers no matter what, were black.
Poor flying conditions kept the bomber crews with the Tuskegee Airmen for five days, Lumpkin said. Blacks and whites living together on a base was unheard of and against the military’s segregation policies, but no protests or tension arose. The airmen welcomed and made room for their white counterparts and they easily found common ground eating, sleeping, and talking together about their missions, aviation and their adventures in life.
Years later, at reunions of those who served, Lumpkin says he heard from men in the bomber crews. They were still reflecting on the significance of learning that the men they trusted with their lives were black and how it changed their views. Lumpkin had forgotten about the episode. After all, he said, “we knew who we were. It was just a surprise to the white bomber crews.”
Racism and racial segregation were a part of daily American life, but Lumpkin’s brave service and that of his fellow Tuskegee Airmen would help persuade President Harry S. Truman to desegregate the U.S. military in 1948. Some say that the airmen paved the way for the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
Careers in Social Work, Community Development and Real Estate
After his honorable separation from active duty service in January 1946 as a captain, Lumpkin used education funds from the GI Bill to earn his undergraduate degree in sociology at USC. He was hired on at the County of Los Angeles as a social worker in 1947, and furthered his education by earning his master’s degree in social work from USC in 1953. He worked for the county’s Bureau of Adoptions and several county departments including urban affairs, community development and model cities. He continued his military service with the inactive Air Force Reserves.
Lumpkin’s experience as a social worker taught him how to view people more objectively. Though he did not care much for the documentation and reporting required in the field, the people he met and assisted only reinforced lessons he had learned in the war.
“You have to give everyone a fair chance and judge them on what they do, not on who they are,” he said.
Lumpkin later shifted out of social work and into other county departments. He retired in 1979 and went on to launch a second career in real estate.
At 100 years young, he owns his own real estate company and is active with several realtor professional organizations. His is an active retirement—he just renewed his real estate broker license for four more years.
“The Tuskegee Airmen were not recognized after the war,” he said. “People didn’t believe us when we told them what we did, and our work wasn’t documented anywhere.”
Returning stateside, Lumpkin and his fellow airmen faced just as much discrimination as they had before the war. It was only through the diligent efforts of organizations such as the TAI that their stories became widely known. It took six decades before their valor was recognized in March 2007 with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor Congress can bestow on a civilian.
A statement by President Obama (then a U.S. Senator) issued in 2007 underscored the impact of the airmen. In part it read: “My career in public service was made possible by the path heroes like the Tuskegee Airmen trailblazed.”
Lumpkin was proud to have been among the Tuskegee Airmen invited to attend Barack Obama’s inaugural ceremony in 2009. He sat on the west front of the Capitol on that cold January morning, eager to see the first black man sworn in as U.S. President.
Optimism as a Guiding Principle
Reflecting on the characteristics that made him resilient against the many obstacles he faced, Lumpkin said that he has always been an optimist.
The time he served in Italy as part of an all-black unit made a deep and lasting impression on him as a young man that he still remembers with a smile.
“It was a good feeling to be judged by your ability, and not by the color of your skin,” he said.
Growing up in the post-revolutionary Iran of the early 1980s, Mandana Mellano wasn’t exposed to advertising, particularly Western advertising, until she and her family traveled outside their hometown of Tehran when she was six. Vacationing in Istanbul, she marveled at the “amazing world” of billboards and television spots. “I think the complexity of living in a society that is very much controlled had a lot to do with my wanting to study sociology and communication as a whole,” said Mellano, who graduated in 2001 with a master’s in communication management. “It created the spark.”
Mellano came to the United States with her family when she was a teen, and received her undergraduate degree from the University of California, Riverside in sociology. “I’ve always been interested in the people aspect of the world,” she said. Later, at USC Annenberg, she chose the advertising track of the communication master’s degree, drawn to the program’s blend of theory and practice. She recalls writing advertising briefs and developing campaigns as part of course assignments and getting a “glimpse into what real-world requirements would be.”
When Mellano graduated, she not only had a new set of skills but a housemate who would later become her husband. She met fellow Trojan Steve Mellano (MS, global media, ’02) when they were choosing their courses before their respective programs began. They connected again during a party for new graduate students and started dating the following year. They married in 2007 and have two children together.
Mellano’s advertising career began right after graduation when she was hired in media strategy and planning at the Los Angeles advertising agency Dailey. In 2005, she moved over to Kastner as their digital media director where she led media efforts for some of the world’s most iconic global brands such as Red Bull and Porsche. The next shop was Ogilvy & Mather in 2013 where, as partner and director, she managed media for a variety of technology clients, including Qualcomm and Cisco. She held C-level roles at Fallon and Thinknear before founding a talent recruitment company, Peony, in August 2019.
While Mellano’s background wasn’t in human resources, she wanted to take her strengths in advertising to create a “human-centered” approach to talent recruitment. “I’m really inspired by people, building teams, restructuring teams, assessing competencies, mentoring and understanding how roles and careers evolve,” she said.
When starting the agency, her main goal was to prioritize educating advertising and marketing organizations to focus on creating cross-functional roles for future employees. “Part of my strategy was rooted in the belief that modern talent is moving more seamlessly between media, technology, and entertainment companies,” she said. “Many of those organizations don’t have a reliable method on sourcing and assessing talent. I think everybody’s so obsessed with ‘digital transformation’ and finding where they can innovate, they don’t realize that it starts with your people.”
Mellano learned early on the advantage of being able to fill a number of roles in an organization. At Dailey, even though she was hired as a junior planner, her background in digital media-enabled her to “cross borders” that otherwise would have not been available. She was one of the first in her company with this competency, which allowed her to join senior meetings where she was able to lend her expertise to integrated media campaigns. “I think being able to be more strategic pushed me into a track where I wasn’t as specialized anymore and allowed me to find the best fit for myself and for the agency,” she said.
At Peony, Mellano is looking to connect the dots between strategy, critical thinking, and creativity. “I think it’s time to do something more meaningful for this very particular and evolving field,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for myself and my firm to be a critical partner in helping build the future of these companies. And I think that’s really exciting.”
Corinne Jones went back to school as a nontraditional student for a Master of Arts in Gerontology.
After retiring early from a career with AT&T, Corinne Jones went back to school to earn a bachelor’s degree in political science. She remembers it was a class on elder law where she got her first taste of gerontology.
It excited Jones so much that one of her undergraduate professors took notice and encouraged her to pursue a Master of Arts degree at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, the largest gerontology program in the nation.
She agreed and in 2016 became one of hundreds of thousands of Americans over age 50 going back to school—in her case, for a second time to study a fascinating field that she knew could take her in any number of directions. USC’s degree program in gerontology explores all aspects of human development and aging using a multidisciplinary approach and embracing students of all ages and backgrounds.
Jones was 66 years old when she earned her Master of Arts degree and was an honor student with recognition by Sigma Phi Omega, the gerontology honor society. She knows that students like her are changing the course of ageism, and USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology is the perfect place to do that.
“There’s a place for everyone,” Jones says, adding that it was the “perfect option” for her. “USC is the oldest school of gerontology in the United States. Why would I go anywhere else when I had the best school right here?”
Hands-on education with real-life impact
Jones, who graduated in May 2018, was not disappointed. During her studies, she says she was impressed by professors who are both skilled and engaging.
“They bring a world of experience, knowledge, and background that you can’t get out of a book,” she says. “It was an opportunity to sit with people who are right on the cutting-edge of what’s going on.”
One of her favorite professors was Instructional Associate Professor Caroline Cicero, Ph.D., MSW, MPL, whose research has covered age-friendly communities, visual gerontology, and attachment to place. In fact, Jones took a special class with Cicero that allowed her and her classmates to work with Los Angeles County municipalities to explore solutions for older adults who want to remain in their home and community of choice.
The class even created apps that identify locations with hazardous sidewalks and busy roads where traffic is a concern for older adults.
“The outcome of that semester class was that several of the cities, including Culver City, applied to AARP to be designated as an aging in place community,” Jones says. “It was rewarding and exciting because we were doing real work, even though we were students.”
Among other professors, she says UPS Foundation Professor of Gerontology, Policy, and Planning Jon Pynoos was “excellent.” She also valued Instructional Associate Professor of Gerontology Paul Nash for his advanced knowledge and coursework.
Jones has since put her learning into practice. As the Multipurpose Senior Services Program director for Community Care, which serves Lake and Mendocino Counties, she administers a program funded through the California Department of Aging. Clients are low income, frail, older adults 65 and over, who are certified as at risk for nursing home placement. The program offers services that allow them to remain in their homes. Jones’ site is one of 38 in place throughout the state.
The people who interviewed her for the job were “totally impressed” by her USC degree, she says. And she is thankful that the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, with its pioneering faculty and rigorous training, prepared her so well to do it.
“The program is current and relevant,” she says. “It had everything that I needed to walk away as a graduate and get a top job running one of California’s top programs for older adults.”
By 2030, all baby boomers will be older than age 65, making the need for people who understand aging (and its implications for society) all the greater. With that in mind, Jones says she knows that her USC gerontology degree has positioned her well for the future.
“Hitch yourself to something that will benefit older adults. If you do that, I guarantee you’ll be successful,” Jones says. “The field is growing, and it’s attached to everything we do.”
Ego Nwodim ’10, now in her second season as a cast member of Saturday Night Live, graduated from USC Dornsife with a degree in biological sciences — never doubting she would succeed as an actor.
Back when she was a student at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences majoring in biological sciences, Ego Nwodim wouldn’t be shy about having a little fun in her organic chemistry lab.
She often would break into song, startling her fellow pre-med students.
“Mainly Britney Spears,” she says with a laugh. “My go-to song was ‘I’m a Slave 4U.’” Her classroom cohorts didn’t know it at the time, but Nwodim (pronounced “Woh-dim”; her first name is pronounced “Aye-go”) was dead set on a career as an actor. But she had to make a deal with her mother, a doctor who raised her and her three siblings, and who insisted she go to college while pursuing her dream.
Always a good student growing up, Nwodim gave it a go — but knew acting was her destiny. Hence, her classroom song-and-dance escapades.
“I wasn’t taking that class too seriously, I think,” says Nwodim, who graduated from USC Dornsife in 2010. “I was doing well, but I was having fun with it at the same time.”
Nwodim recently reached a height to which all comedic performers aspire: becoming a cast member of Saturday Night Live, one of the most high-profile stages of all for working comedic actors.
Her booking as a featured player on the long-running NBC sketch-comedy show was announced Sept. 21, 2018.
Nwodim is the seventh African American woman to be hired as an SNL cast member.
Knew It as a Kid
Nwodim, who grew up in Baltimore, had known that being on stage was her calling since she was 12.
She felt it in her bones.
“I used to dance, and I loved performing; I started when I was 7,” she says. “Performing in front of an audience is something I really enjoyed. I also did a play when I was 12 and fell in love with (acting).
“I knew I wanted to perform. I found such joy in it. I knew I wanted to do it for the rest of my life.”
Being the daughter of a Nigerian immigrant and a first-generation United States citizen, Nwodim had some convincing to do.
“As an immigrant, my mother just wanted her children to be stable and successful,” she says. “And when you say you want to pursue a career in acting, nothing about that sounds stable, and the process of achieving success as an actor is incredibly unlikely.”
And yet, Nwodim’s mother was supportive.
“Go all out and don’t give up,” Nwodim recalls her mother telling her. “You’ve got this.”
Los Angeles Bound
Nwodim attended Eastern Technical High School in Essex, Maryland, near Baltimore. By the time she was a junior, she knew she had to get the best grades possible to make it into the university of her choice.
And she knew she had to live in or near Los Angeles to become a successful actor. She worked hard to boost her grades during her senior year in high school, which gave her a better shot at being accepted to an L.A. university.
And she was.
“I kind of made a deal with my family that if they let me go to college across the country, I would go to college and major in biology as a premed student,” Nwodim says. “I remember thinking I wanted to go to UCLA. I went to visit and thought, ‘This campus is huge!’”
A college guide noted that USC had out-of-state enrollment of 40 percent.
“That appealed to me,” Nwodim says. “Having to move across the country, I wanted to be part of that 40 percent so it would be easier to make friends.”
Moving far from home, Nwodim says, made her grow up quickly.
Path to Laughter
At USC, Nwodim minored in business and sociology, with an emphasis on social welfare.
“My interests are kind of all over the place,” she says. She started taking dramatic acting classes off campus when she was a senior. Over the course of a year or two, she got a commercial agent and a manager.
“To be able to make people laugh is such a gift.”
Comedy, at first, wasn’t on Nwodim’s radar.
“(My reps) told me, based on my energy, I should consider taking improv classes,” Nwodim says. “They were really popular at the time. But I didn’t really want to because I’m stubborn. I didn’t just want to do something because it was popular.
“In fact, I refused to do it for a year and a half. I finally caved and told them I would take Improv 101. But I fell in love with the class, and that’s how I discovered comedy as a viable path for me.”
Nwodim knew comedy was her destiny after she made a character reel — a short demo video of her portraying different characters — and showed it to her USC friends, who knew she had come out of the acting closet.
“They told me, ‘This is the most ‘you’ thing I’ve ever seen you do,’” Nwodim recalls. “And I thought, this is me. It’s kind of cool to do the thing that’s you.”
Deciding to pursue a career in comedy, Nwodim took more classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in L.A. She became a regular cast member and also performed her one-woman show, Great Black Women … and Then There’s Me.
Nwodim was named one of the New Faces at the 2016 Just for Laughs festival in Montreal. Supporting roles on television include Law & Order, True Crime: The Menendez Murders,2 Broke Girls and Living Biblically. She has also made several guest appearances on the podcast Comedy Bang! Bang!
And now, Nwodim’s on the big stage at SNL (her acclaimed skits include the racy “Thirsty Cops,” about two female cops hitting on a handsome man played by Seth Meyers.)
Comedy and Happiness
Nwodim recalls a professor at USC whose words stuck with her.
“She taught a communication class,” Nwodim says. “One day she told me, ‘You’re not cynical.’ And that’s really an important thing to carry through life.’”
It’s this positive, can’t-fail mindset that has taken Nwodim far in her successful career as a working actor. And she’s just getting started.
“You kind of have to know (you will succeed),” Nwodim says of professional acting. “Some of the people who don’t think they’ll make it do. But for me, I just kind of knew for sure that it was going to work out.
“That’s a big part of pursuing it. I just knew that, against all odds, things were going to work out. It was nice knowing I had a college degree, but I can’t imagine a world in which I would have actually gone to medical school.”
Nwodim finds a direct link between happiness and being a comedic performer.
“It’s really important for me to do work — whatever work I’m doing — that adds real value to society, or impacts people’s lives for the better,” she says. “What I really think is great about comedy, and why I’m so fulfilled by performing comedy, is that it certainly brings joy to people while at the same time illuminating social issues.
“And to be able to make people laugh is such a gift,” Nwodim adds. “Having purpose like that, in turn, impacts my happiness. There’s kind of a synergy going on there. I get to make people laugh, and that helps me feel fulfilled because I’m adding something to people’s lives that makes them feel joyful.
Artist Joshua Ramirez confronted his own mental illness; now he teaches educators about the issue
When Joshua Ramirez was in middle school, teachers didn’t understand his learning disabilities. An avid reader, he had trouble with other skills, such as counting money. Teachers made him sit by himself in the classroom and considered him a lost cause.
So how did this stigmatized boy turn into the accomplished artist who’s receiving a degree from the USC Roski School of Art and Design? And how did he become a nearly straight-A student who combined schoolwork with a remarkable record of volunteer service?
It was pure grit and a willingness to confront and acknowledge his mental illness.
Suffering in silence
At 18, Ramirez was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder and dyslexia. At the time, his parents did not believe in psychiatry or medication, so he suffered in silence until a major depression set in midway through his first semester at community college.
What followed was a decade-long effort to figure out what medications worked for him.
His journey to get a degree took nearly as long — eight years — primarily because money was scarce. This first-generation college student spent five years at Citrus College in Glendora, where he juggled classes with jobs — as many as three at a time. His tuition worries eased when he transferred to USC, where he received a full ride, courtesy of the McNair Scholars Program, the USC Latino Alumni Association and the Norman Topping Student Aid Fund.
“When I got in, I was super grateful. The teachers here are phenomenal,” he said, mentioning his sculpture teacher, Patrick Jackson, in particular.
Aptitude for art
At Citrus, he discovered an aptitude for art, received key encouragement from a history teacher and began volunteering with the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Michael Fay, the former president of the group’s Pomona Valley chapter, heard Ramirez speak at a Citrus event and recruited him on the spot to speak at teacher seminars Fay organizes throughout Los Angeles.
“He’s the best advocate we’ve ever come across,” Fay said. “He’s a man on a mission to educate teachers about how to deal with children with brain disorders. He speaks freely about his illness and he connects with people, who then ask sensitive questions.”
For the past five years, Fay estimates that Ramirez has volunteered to speak at several dozen of the two and four-hour seminars.
Lending a hand
But that’s just one of Ramirez’s selfless efforts. He has installed artwork at the USC Catholic Center, mentored at-risk youth through the Monrovia Unified School District and taught a painting class at Tri-City Mental Health Center in Pomona. He and friends have passed out sandwiches on L.A.’s Skid Row, and he’s photographed its residents. It’s not merely an art project, he explained.
“I like to take pictures of people who need a voice,” he said. “I feel photography has the ability to do that.”
That attitude is consistent with how USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences Professor Suzanne Hudson sees Ramirez. Hudson was his adviser on a project researching the history of art therapy for mental illness.
“He’s an optimist in the face of unfortunate circumstances,” she said, “and believes that art can make a difference in the world.
“He has an urgency to learn that’s very, very rare,” she continued. “He’s one of the most exceptional undergraduates I’ve encountered at USC.”
Where there’s a will …
Ramirez credits willpower and perseverance.
“I’d have panic attacks in class and just sit there and fight through it. I’ve had headaches, nosebleeds, anxiety attacks, insomnia, be really hungry and then not hungry at all. Sometimes you need to tell yourself you are doing a good job and just to hang in there.
“I know I can never cure what has been handed me,” he said, but I see my disabilities as blessings, as they allow me to understand life on a deeper level and gives me a purpose to help others.”
The grad-to-be hopes to find a job in the art field (he’s been interning at a West Hollywood gallery) and eventually earn an MFA in sculpture. A recent good omen was his success at an exhibition at dA Center for the Arts in Pomona. Within the first hour, he sold his first painting, for $695.
A high school education in Nigeria set the tone for a collegiate life devoted to service, medicine and engineering.
Biomedical engineering graduate Tilden Chima has always been curious about biology and medicine. But it was a Nigerian journey to Lagos and Abuja that changed his life.
“My Jesuit high school in Abuja, Loyola Jesuit College, was not what one would expect of a boarding school in Africa,” he said. “Preppy, polished and highly accomplished adolescents from a variety of backgrounds lay in stark contrast to the uninformed, uneducated kids often portrayed in Western media.”
Chima’s parents worked to ensure the cultivation of their son’s passions for science, even finding private tutors and resources that would boost his education.
“My mom had the habit of sitting my sister and I down and reading science tomes she had purchased from UK publishers … reading through them with us as if they were novels,” said Chima, who graduated from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering on May 11.
Making his mark at USC
After graduating in Abuja, Chima was offered admission to several top colleges, but what sold him on USC were the people and the flexibility of the biomedical engineering program — the only one in the country that offered four tracks: a general track, an electrical engineering track, a mechanical engineering track and a biochemical engineering track.
“Visiting the Facebook group of newly admitted students,” Chima said, “I could feel the eagerness and the excitement of people wanting to go here.”
His senior design project, a biofeedback device for the correction of improper posture, was honored at the Viterbi Undergraduate Awards, coming in third at the 2018 Senior Design Expo. As a freshman, he was a research fellow in the National Institutes of Health-funded Genomic Research Experience for Undergraduates, conducting addiction research at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.
He followed that with an interdisciplinary project to build a better diagnostic tool for diabetic retinopathy. And as an upperclassman, he served with the Trojan Consulting Group, USC Viterbi’s official undergraduate organization that offers business advice to corporate clients such as Chevron and Oakley.
A humanitarian in the making
But it was service of humanity that will be Chima’s major takeaway from his Trojan education.
“In all the leadership roles and extracurricular projects I took at USC, there was always this overarching question of how this will help or benefit society or the immediate community,” Chima said. “This was something my professors, the faculty I conducted research with, my mentors and even Dean [Yannis] Yortsos reinforced when they spoke to me.
“This particular way of viewing my actions as being part of a greater mission of service to humanity has colored my worldview since high school and much further in college. I would be taking that with me as I move on to the workplace.”
Chima will now put his network, education, and experiences to work in a position as a full-time associate solutions engineer at Oracle.
“I will be taking Oracle’s software products that have already been built, extend them with my coding skills and integrate them with other Oracle products, thereby building a ‘solution’ that is tailored to our client’s specific needs,” he said.
Chima sees it as a perfect fit, allowing him to blend his business consulting, sales and engineering skills into multinational projects.
And if he ever needs advanced coding help, he can turn to fellow Trojan and sister Kourtney Chima, a junior in computer science and computer engineering who organized this year’s Hack SC Jr’s Hackathon.
Looking back, Chima recalls an eventful childhood with his pharmacist parents.
“Our home in Maryland was like a 24-hour pharmacy consultation window for family and friends calling for medical advice,” Chima said. “My mom often joked that out of the three of us children, we needed to choose who would be the orthopedic surgeon to take care of her bones and who would be the cardiothoracic surgeon to take care of her heart in old age.”
USC Trustee William Schoen ’60, MBA ’63 receives Semper Fidelis Award from Marine Corps.
Veteran Marine, USC Marshall School of Business alumnus and USC Lifetime Trustee William “Bill” Schoen ’60, MBA ’63 was honored with the Semper Fidelis Award from the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation at the 33rd Annual National Capital Area Celebratory Gala in June.
According to the Foundation, “In the spirit of the award’s meaning, ‘always faithful,’ Schoen was commemorated for his many contributions to the Marine Corps community and Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation’s mission to empower Marine children in their pursuit for a higher education.”
“The goal is to empower recipients to thrive and encourage them to better their lives by succeeding in reaching their goals. Equally important is for each recipient to know that the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation is there to provide help with the resources they need. Once a Marine, always a Marine,” said Schoen, who served from 1953 to 1961. Schoen is also a member of the Founders’ Group of the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation and the Advisory Cabinet of the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation’s American Patriots Campaign.
“At USC, I discovered an adventure in learning. And the Marine Corps taught me the discipline to concentrate on my goals.”
Established in 1962, the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation is the nation’s oldest and largest provider of need-based scholarships for military children. Since its inception, the Foundation has provided more than 40,000 scholarships valued at nearly $125 million to the children of Marines and Navy Corpsmen.
Schoen’s lifelong commitment to veterans and to higher education is evident in the work of the Schoen Charitable Foundation. In addition to the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation, the Schoen Charitable Foundation supports several other organizations that support veterans, wounded warriors and children of those killed in action, as well as a variety of youth- and family-oriented initiatives, including the USC Neighborhood Academic Initiative.
The Schoen Family Scholarship Program for Veterans Endowment at USC is one of the endowments created by the Schoen Charitable Foundation specifically to help veterans pursue higher education. Established in 1986, the program aids Armed Forces veterans seeking undergraduate and graduate degrees at the USC Marshall School of Business, the Viterbi School of Engineering and the Keck School of Medicine.
In 2012, he committed an additional $10 million, to grow the Schoen Family Scholarship Fund to $16 million. To date, the endowment has provided financial support to more than 300 veterans.
The Value of an Education
Schoen knows first-hand the value of financial support for veterans’ education. He personally received a small scholarship, in addition to aid under the GI bill, to attend USC. The former Marine platoon sergeant also worked full-time to support a young family while studying at USC Marshall.
“For me, it was very important to establish this valuable program at USC,” Schoen said in a recent phone conversation. “I thought this was a good way to give back to veterans for all they gave up in protecting our country.”
Once a Marine and a Trojan…
The Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation gala brought together more than 300 guests, including senior leaders of the Marine Corps, Members of Congress, Washington Dignitaries and scholarship award recipients. At the podium, Schoen shared a life story that emphasized why he wanted to give back to veterans and their families and help them pursue higher education.
“I was the smart aleck who dropped out of school at 15—my parents went berserk! — but altering my birth certificate to become a Marine may be one of the best things that I’ve ever done in my life,” he said, explaining that at 17, he didn’t meet the minimum age of 18 to enroll.
“The Marine Corps opened my eyes to the endless possibilities available through hard work, dedication, sacrifice, honor. This is one of the reasons that supporting other Marines and the Marine Corps in such an integral way is part of my life,” Schoen said, adding that the Marine Corps developed his leadership skills, kindled a desire for education and sparked a goal to excel as a corporate leader.
His experience in higher education at USC was also an inspiration for his philanthropy. He was the first in his family to graduate high school and college. “[At USC, I] discovered an adventure in learning,” Schoen said, “and the Marine Corps taught [me] the discipline to concentrate on [my] goals.”
Indeed, Schoen achieved his goal of becoming a CEO when he founded Health Management Associates Inc. in 1985. During his 28-year tenure as chairman of the board and CEO of the Florida-based corporation, which owned, leased and managed a network of 73 acute care and psychiatric hospitals, Health Management Associates Inc. became a Fortune 500 company.
A proud supporter of his alma mater, Schoen has served on the USC Board of Trustees since 2005 and is a member of the USC Marshall Board of Leaders.
In 2016, in recognition of his leadership and philanthropy, the USC Alumni Association honored Schoen with the Asa V. Call Alumni Achievement Award, its highest honor for alumni.
At the award ceremony, Schoen shared his secret to success: “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”
An entrepreneur at age 12, she now looks back at her time at USC and a bright future ahead with her tote bag business.
It all started in sixth-grade math. Macki Alvarez-Mena would find herself doodling images of her friends, hanging them in their lockers as a surprise. They were cartoonlike and showed their personalities.
“One day I decided to paint [a character] on a canvas tote,” she said. “I brought it to school and everyone wanted it. … From there, it just exploded.”
Alvarez-Mena, who grew up in South Miami, became an entrepreneur almost overnight.
A mom she knew through school had a popular boutique and started selling the bags. They were the third-most-popular item behind Hello Kitty and Webkinz. Alvarez-Mena ended up at 30 stores across the U.S. and was the youngest artist at Downtown Disney’s Festival of the Masters at Walt Disney World in Florida.
Macki and Company was born.
“I also knew part of my appeal was being a 12-year-old doing it,” she said.
As a high schooler, she put that work on the back burner, focusing instead on enjoying school and taking advanced art courses. As her senior year rolled around and the idea of college loomed, she started to think of Macki and Co. again.
“At the end of high school, I was like, I feel passionate about this, but I don’t know how to do it,” she said.
With a sister already at USC, being a Trojan was at the front of her mind. Then she discovered the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy, dreamed up by music producer Iovine and musician Dr. Dre and inspired by the duo’s quest for three-dimensional thinkers while developing their headphone company Beats. They wanted folks who knew art, design, and engineering.
For Alvarez-Mena, who saw herself more as a creative entrepreneur than an artist, it seemed a perfect fit.
“I remember reading the website. … As I was scrolling down, I was losing my breath,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh my god. This is it.’”
Time at Iovine and Young Academy led to great internships
Graduating in May, Alvarez-Mena not only brought Macki and Co. back to life, but she’s soaked up the kids consumer products industry, interning in Los Angeles and New York with companies such as Dreamworks and Nickelodeon. She even took a character class with a former SpongeBob SquarePants character designer.
“They didn’t get me the internships — I did that by myself — but no way would I have got the internships without the academy,” she said.
She felt confident walking into interviews, thanks to the support of the academy. Small things made the difference — knowing how to communicate via email, how to work on a team or how to interview.
Industry is woven into the fabric of the academy. From the get-go, students are tackling practical problems.
During the students’ freshman year, different companies like Apple and Toms come in and pitch problems, with academy students returning with solutions. They also work in teams, the norm in startups and tech companies.
Alvarez-Mena, one of only 30 in her cohort, doesn’t like to think “what if” she didn’t get into the academy. But it’s safe to say juggling her own business with schooling might have been tougher in a traditional academic environment.
Industry experience for soon-to-be Iovine and Young Academy graduate
Faculty designed the USC Iovine and Young Academy curriculum so that the first couple years are focused on coursework but students’ junior and senior years offer the flexibility to get industry experience — whether launching their own startups, interning at Apple’s Silicon Valley headquarters or working on Capitol Hill.
For Alvarez-Mena, that meant spending senior year working diligently on her company, developing a prototype and a live demo with coding help from fellow academy senior Parker Malachowsky.
“Our viewpoint is we bring them here to precisely do this,” said Erica Muhl, academy dean. “Why wouldn’t we do anything to help them achieve their dreams — at any time, not just after they graduated?”
Macki and Co. is now much more than tote bags. It will be a virtual world, where girls can log on and create characters based on their own lives and insert them into storybooks that they write and illustrate. It’s a way to express themselves, even picking a vibe — such as girly, sporty or emotional and outdoorsy.
“This is a way to create a safe environment where everyone can fully express who they are without feeling vulnerable of judgment,” Alvarez-Mena said. “I don’t want anyone to pretend to be someone they’re not or describe themselves how they think others see them. I want them to build their character and profile by how they see themselves.”
Think: Lizzie McGuire
But, just like her totes, she wants the characters to exist IRL as well. There will be products like denim jackets that they can decorate with their character, name or other designs.
“I’m all about creating a tangible item,” she said. “It’s about making it your reality. You want something with you 24/7.”
And if you’re getting Lizzie McGuire vibes, you’re not off base.
“Lizzie McGuire was a god in our house when I was little,” she said with a laugh, citing the Disney TV show as an inspiration.
After Alvarez-Mena graduates, she wants to get a job in kids consumer products, so she can continue to research and learn from those in the industry while chipping away at Macki and Co. Still conceptual, she’s working on a business model, analyzing costs and resources needed and developing a website.
“Macki and Company is the end goal,” she said.
With the real world looming, Alvarez-Mena isn’t ready to say goodbye to her academy “family,” as she calls them.
“We feel strongly about each other,” she said. “It’s a special bond that no one gets in their lives, necessarily.”
Alyx Navarro developed a passion for human resources during her undergraduate education at USC, where she minored in Organizational Leadership and Management. In her classes, she studied organizations that faced challenges in managing people and teams. “This sparked my passion for HR, particularly a passion for helping people and identifying the key role they have in an organization’s success.”
A few years after graduation, Alyx had a desire to grow professionally. She sought out graduate programs in human resources because she felt that’s where she could have the greatest impact on her organization. Alyx explains, “I knew that USC was the right choice after I attended the information session and read up on the backgrounds of the professors. They come from a variety of industries and are all very knowledgeable about the HR field and where it’s heading.”
Today, Alyx is taking the knowledge and skills she learned from the MS in Human Resource Management program to develop stronger teams as the Operations Manager at UCLA UniCamp, a nonprofit dedicated to the development of underserved youth in Los Angeles. She looks forward to applying her education and continuing to grow as a professional, a community member, and as a leader.
Alyx served as the banner bearer for USC Bovard College for the 2019 Commencement Ceremony. She was nominated by faculty for her outstanding academic achievement, leadership, and commitment to her classes. She shares, “I am so honored to have the opportunity to represent Bovard College and my fellow peers at the commencement ceremony!”
In the interview below, Alyx reflects on her experience in the MSHRM program and how it has been pivotal to her career development.
How did you choose the MSHRM program at USC Bovard College?
Upon completing my undergrad, I transitioned into a full-time position at ULCA UniCamp. I wanted to take on a larger leadership role and join the HR department so that I could have input on organizational changes related to culture, recruitment, and retention processes. I knew that I needed to learn HR skills and I chose to apply to USC’s program because it met my educational goals and my vision to help my organization. The program appealed to me because it offered a very unique format, providing a platform for students to obtain professional mentors, work directly peer-to-peer, and in teams. I was excited by how student-centered the program was and I could see that it would provide access to a large network of likeminded professionals.
How would you describe the live sessions?
Engaging. The live sessions are all online, allowing every student the flexibility to attend from wherever they are located. The wide array of backgrounds and industries represented truly provide a unique learning experience. During group breakout sessions we are given the opportunity to address current HR challenges and ways to solve them. Professors encourage students to bring their unique experiences and knowledge to the lectures.
How has the curriculum prepared you for the professional challenges you face?
The curriculum was very practical and has prepared me to venture into any sphere of the human resources field that I choose. The courses provided lots of hands-on case analyses and taught me the techniques and best practices to solve current HR challenges. I have been able to implement concepts and strategies into my workplace on a daily basis.
What was your experience like with the faculty in your program?
The faculty in the MSHRM program has been an excellent resource in helping us achieve our goals. As professionals and leaders in the field, they provide a holistic view of HR topics and provide solutions to challenges that we experience in the real world. They’ve also prepared us to take on a strategic role in facing the critical trends impacting the future of HR.
The professors go beyond the weekly live sessions to provide a supportive and engaging experience for the students. Through office hours, team breakout sessions, and one-on-ones, professors give their undivided attention to help students succeed.
What was your overall experience like in the MSHRM program?
The MSHRM program has been a pivotal moment in my career development. It provided a strong foundation of HR concepts, skills, and strategies that apply directly towards my current career and beyond. The MS in Human Resource Management program has provided me with the knowledge and confidence to succeed.
Mounir Ghabrial turned down a lucrative offer from a major consulting firm to go into entrepreneurship and join a startup focused on improving access to healthy food in Los Angeles.
You finish business school and a global consulting firm offers you a high-paying job with great pay and benefits. Jackpot, right?
But then you spot another position. It’s at a new company, so there’s plenty of risk — and less pay. You’ll work long hours with no guarantees. Yet it’s a perfect fit for your values.
That’s the dilemma Mounir “Mo” Ghabrial faced this spring as he finished his undergraduate degree at the USC Marshall School of Business. It’s a challenge many students struggle with as graduation nears: finding a balance between their professional interests and their personal passions.
As Ghabrial grappled with the decision, he reflected on his favorite experiences as a Trojan. His mentors emphasized not just profits, but ethical leadership and leaving a positive mark on the community. He learned about social entrepreneurship and microfinancing programs that help lift people out of poverty. With fellow students, he traveled to Central America to boost small businesses in rural areas.
“I didn’t want to lose sight of what I’m so passionate about.”
Ultimately, Ghabrial found a way to blend his love of social good and business. He joined a social enterprise startup that helps people in Los Angeles find and afford healthy food, especially those in low-income and underserved areas.
Said Ghabrial: “I didn’t want to lose sight of what I’m so passionate about.”
A childhood dream inspires USC grad to focus on entrepreneurship
Ghabrial’s path to the business world started with a simple dream: owning his own Egyptian restaurant. Born in Dubai to Egyptian expats, he spent his childhood summers in Egypt cooking with his grandmother. His favorite dishes include stuffed grape leaves and molokhia, a rich stew made with braised greens and served with chicken and rice.
He envisioned going to business school, then training as a chef and launching his restaurant. Then his family moved to the United States when he was 12. Landing in the suburban California enclave of La Verne was initially difficult because few of his classmates knew anyone from the Middle East. But joining the high school marching band gave him a close-knit group of friends.
It also helped him transition to USC, where he was a member of the Trojan Marching Band as a freshman. Although he enjoyed playing in the drumline and made lots of friends, Ghabrial wanted to pursue his passion for entrepreneurship and gain skills and knowledge that could help him realize his restaurant dream.
“I wanted to give everything else a shot before committing to this one organization for all of college,” he said.
Graduating senior finds business doesn’t have to be all about profits
He joined an entrepreneurship society and checked out other student organizations, but nothing spoke to him as much as Global Brigades @ Marshall. As a sophomore, he traveled with the student-run business consulting group to Panama to provide advice and support to small businesses in rural communities. It opened Ghabrial’s eyes to the world of microfinance — including using small loans to help lift people out of poverty.
Global Brigades establishes community banks that lend out money at very low rates. These microloans help people build their business and pay back the bank, which then lends the proceeds to another deserving community member.
Ghabrial remembers working with a woman who ran an empanada stand. In addition to aspirations of growing her business, she was dealing with health issues and wanted to save up for an expensive CT scan.
“She didn’t track her profits, she just had cash coming in from her sales and would use that to buy more ingredients,” he said. “She had no idea how much cash she had saved at any given time.”
Ghabrial and his fellow brigade members gave her advice and helped her get a loan and business license to create what she called an empanada factory. She started selling to stores around her community of Zapallal. Her company grew so quickly, her kids and grandkids had to lend a hand.
During a return trip to Panama in December, Ghabrial was thrilled to hear the empanada business is still thriving.
“You start to hear these stories over and over about how people have been able to use that capital they got on a loan to generate revenue for their business and pay the loan back successfully,” he said. “The repayment rate is incredible.”
USC Marshall grad delves into social entrepreneurship
Inspired by what he saw in Panama, Ghabrial found a plethora of opportunities at USC Marshall to explore his newfound interest in social entrepreneurship.
“I was impressed by how he was ready to let go of the safety net and go out on his own to find more opportunities.”
Ghabrial also drew valuable lessons from a course with Jessica Jackley, whose micro-lending website Kiva supports low-income entrepreneurs around the world.
“I’ve always looked up to her, and the fact that I was able to take a class with her last semester brought my whole experience at USC full circle,” he said. “It inspired me to deviate from the more traditional path.”
By his senior year, Ghabrial had come to the realization that joining a big accounting or business firm might not be the right career choice for him. Then his convictions were put to the test when a major consulting company made him that tempting offer.
As tough choice loomed, USC student trusted his instincts
He agonized over the decision for many months, said Smrity Randhawa, assistant professor of clinical accounting at USC Marshall. The two have chatted regularly since Ghabrial took an introductory accounting class with her in 2016. She helped him talk through the decision, including weighing input from his other professors and family members.
“He had a guaranteed job lined up for this coming year, but he realized his heart didn’t lie in that industry,” Randhawa said. “Very few students take that kind of risk coming out of college. I was impressed by how he was ready to let go of the safety net and go out on his own to find more opportunities.”
Ghabrial found the right fit for his ambitions at Everytable. The L.A.-based company provides healthy grab-and-go meals throughout Southern California. Its prices are based on zip code, so a leafy kale Caesar salad might be $5 or $6 in communities with a median income of $30,000, compared to $8 or $9 in wealthier areas.
As operations coordinator, Ghabrial is helping the startup establish its systems and processes as it rapidly expands. That includes optimizing delivery routes and managing its inventory of fresh produce to reduce waste. He’s working part-time until graduation, about 16 to 20 hours a week, and he’s already confident he made the right call.
“There’s always a risk the company might fail, that we might not meet our growth targets or raise more capital, or there might not be the same demand we’re anticipating,” he said. “But as an aspiring entrepreneur, having this sort of operational experience with a company at this point in its life cycle is absolutely crucial for me.”
An aspiring restaurateur gains valuable knowledge
Ghabrial is also excited to be working in the same realm as his original dream of owning a restaurant. He’s learning many lessons about the food industry that will prove invaluable should he choose to launch his own venture — perhaps an Egyptian restaurant with a social mission like feeding the needy — later in his career.
His supporters are confident that no matter what path he takes, Ghabrial will find success.
“He’s never backed down from a challenge,” Randhawa said. “When I think about a student who would do really well in the future, it would be Mo. He’s going to make a difference in the world, I can tell you that much.”
Kristyl Felix graduated from the Primary Care Physician Assistant (PA) Program in May. Having grown up in a medically underserved area and seeing the language barriers firsthand, she is looking forward to fostering the importance of preventive care to build healthier communities and advancing patient health by providing competent, compassionate health care.
“I have always wanted to pursue a career in medicine where I could have the capability to give back to my community, as well as have the opportunity for lateral mobility,” Felix reflected. “Being a PA offers everything I desire in medicine: to see, treat, and educate patients; increase access to health care; as well as practice in a team to provide optimal patient care.”
“I was in need of a mentorship program where I could communicate with students who had experience being an NHSC scholar,” Felix shared.
“It turned out that several of my fellow classmates needed a similar program and therefore I decided to pioneer the USC PA and NHSC Awardees Association. Being the founder of this association has been a very rewarding experience.”
Felix created the association in February 2017 and it has successfully grown as the interest in serving the underserved by providing primary care fits with the mission of the PA Program at the Keck School. Events sponsored by the association bring in alumni who are NHSC members, so they can share their journey and provide insight to current students and prospective applicants about the programs for scholarship or loan repayment.
Felix has made every moment count while at USC. She has participated in Student-Run Clinic as the research chair, met with members of Congress as a student advocate during the annual Washington, D.C., Advocacy trip and mentored K-12 students in the USC PA Pipeline Program.
“I maintained contact with one of the students, I met in the USC PA Pipeline Program,” Felix said. “After she graduated high school, I have watched her go on to pursue her professional career. It has been one of the most fulfilling experiences to look back on.”
Now, she is ready to begin her career as a PA, where she can continue to learn and grow.
“I have been dreaming of being a PA for a long time and I am very fortunate to finally be living the dream,” Felix shared. “As for my advice to future PAs, build strong, long-lasting relationships with your patients and colleagues, and always remember how blessed and fortunate we are to have the opportunity to change lives.”
The historic moon landing the Armstrong was a part of recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. The USC Viterbi School of Engineering, where Armstrong received his master’s degree from, commemorated the historic event.
USC Commencement Address, delivered by Neil Armstrong on May 13, 2005
President Sample, Members of the Board of Trustees, Honorary Degree Recipients, Distinguished Guests, Members of the Faculty, USC Family and Friends, and, most importantly, Members of the Class of 2005: It is generally accepted that Heinrich Schliemann, in opposition to conventional wisdom, believed that the ancient city of Troy could be found by following the clues in Homer’s mythical Iliad. Herr Schliemann’s assumptions proved to be sufficiently factual and he discovered the ruins of Troy about the time of the American Civil War.
Subsequent archaeological expeditions revealed that, in fact, there were actually nine cities of Troy, each built atop the ruins of the previous community. Rejecting the precedent of building over old ruins, a 10th Troy was established at a new location overlooking the Pacific shores of the Southern California coast, where a new institution was created with the objective of providing the apex of scholarly inquiry and providing the ultimate opportunity for superior learning.
Today, we gather to honor Trojans who have participated in this learning process and have reached varying but defined achievement goals. They will become graduates. This is a joyous day for the graduating students, relieved faculty, thankful parents, and amazed siblings.
In remarks made seven score and more years ago, the speaker said: “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here…” The speaker was mistaken; the words were much noted and long remembered. I can, with substantially more conviction, repeat that phrase today. You will not long remember what we say here; I only hope that you will remember it as a day of joy.
A few words to the new graduates: for each of you, this is a very special day, a day for which you have labored for seemingly unending eons.
You will be the proud possessor of a diploma. It will affirm that you have demonstrated the ability to learn. You have learned the importance of fact and opinion, but, more importantly, you have learned the difference between them. I would hope that you have come to appreciate the elegance of simplicity. A simple explanation is often the best, but even more often the most difficult to recognize.
I hope you have become comfortable with the use of logic, without being deceived into concluding that logic will inevitably lead to the correct conclusion.
In essence, you have embraced thinking. Robert Frost famously remarked: “Thinking isn’t to agree or disagree, that’s voting”. Thinking and a willingness to learn have brought you to this day.
Some of you have come from other lands to study here in this Trojan place. You honor us by choosing this university in this country. We hope your investment here has been fruitful and that friendships nurtured here will endure.
Students of my vintage did not have calculators, cell phones, credit cards, personal computers, the Internet, or reality TV. Some might say they were very fortunate.
At the time of my college graduation, airliners were propelled by – propellers. A few military jets existed and rocket engines were primitive. Had a faculty member, at that time, suggested preparing for a career in spacecraft operations, he or she would have been ridiculed. The most serious proposals for space flight were found on a Sunday evening television program, The Wonderful World of Disney.
But within just three years, the Soviet Union launched the first earth satellite and the Space Age was born. Within a decade, satellites were being used for a variety of scientific and commercial purposes, probes had been sent to nearby planets and humans were frequently flying into space.
I suggest that you cannot imagine the change and related opportunity that will arise for you in the years ahead. Hopefully, the things you have learned will help you be ready for them. And you will not stop learning. Learning is a lifelong process, and you have a great start.
Custom dictates that the commencement speaker give a word of advice to the graduates. I feel a sense of discomfort in that responsibility as it requires more confidence than I possess to assume that my personal convictions deserve your attention.
The single observation I would offer for your consideration is that some things are beyond your control. You can lose your health to illness or accident, you can lose your wealth to all manner of unpredictable sources.
What is not easily stolen from you without your cooperation is your principles and your values. They are your most precious possessions and, if carefully selected and nurtured, will well serve you and your fellow man.
Society’s future will depend on a continuous improvement program on the human character. What will the future bring? I don’t know, but it will be exciting.
The author of “The Little Prince,” Antoine de St. Exupery, was a pilot in World War II which, unfortunately, he did not survive. Fortunately, his writings did survive and I will pass along his advice. In St. Exupery’s “Wisdom of the Sands”, he wrote: “As for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it.” And so it is.
Vanessa Pangbourne, a chemical engineering graduate and president of SHPE-USC, adapts to new challenges in leadership and in engineering.
When Vanessa Pangbourne joined SHPE-USC her freshman year, she never could have seen herself eventually taking leadership as president.
Pangbourne, who will graduate in May with a B.S. in chemical engineering, spent the majority of her life living in various Latin American countries. She moved to Vancouver, Canada, for the last two years of high school. By the time she came to USC, she missed the Spanish language and culture.
“Even though each of the countries I lived in was different, I missed the shared Latin American identity,” Pangbourne said. “When I came to USC, I was specifically looking for a group I could connect with in this way.”
SHPE, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, turned out to be the perfect fit. SHPE is a national organization that strives to uplift and empower the Hispanic community pursuing STEM-related careers by providing them with mentorship, support, and leadership.
“I remember walking into the first meeting and hearing people speaking in Spanglish. I remember immediately thinking ‘This is my place,’” Pangbourne said.
Pangbourne was born in Chile, but because of her father’s job in the mining industry, her family moved around often. She lived in many countries in Latin America, including Peru and Colombia.
Pangbourne attended various international schools, so she was constantly surrounded by diversity and change that left her open-minded and adaptable.
“I was always a pretty nerdy kid; I loved school and was always very curious,” Pangbourne said. Her father was very mathematical and analytical, while her mother was creative and artistic. She grew up talking about math and science with her father, but she also loved to paint, do crafts, and sew dolls with the help of her mother.
“My parents are very different, and I’m kind of a blend of the two,” she said. Later in high school, she became interested in engineering, which she saw as a way to apply math and science in a more creative, and problem-solving way.
“My house was always loud and full of laughter and love. My mother loved when the house was full, and my grandparents and family were always visiting,” Pangbourne recalled. “So even though I lived in many different places, I always felt like I had a strong place to call home.”
Pangbourne’s childhood has led her to value both family and Latin American culture, which, in many ways, was something that USC SHPE was able to fulfill. “SHPE is a familia- we all uplift, support and love each other,” Pangbourne said. “It’s really powerful.”
Becoming a Leader
Pangbourne joined SHPE early on, and throughout her freshman year, Pangbourne attended general body meetings and study nights. By the end of the year, she ran for a director position in the membership program.
“Before I became a director on the membership committee, I was definitely more shy,” Pangbourne said. “Serving in a leadership position my sophomore year deeply immersed me in SHPE and led to me making some really close friendships within the club.”
The next year, Pangbourne ran for the vice president of public relations because she felt that SHPE needed to do a better job with recruitment. “I joined because I was specifically looking for a group like SHPE, but it wasn’t super publicized. I felt that if more students were aware of SHPE, we would have more members.”
Throughout her junior year, Pangbourne focused on publicizing SHPE. She made T-shirts and hats to spread the word around campus, and she also redesigned the weekly newsletter and the website design to increase involvement, promote events and overall increase awareness about SHPE.
Other members of SHPE strongly encouraged her to run for chapter president after her work as VP. “That was definitely something I never envisioned myself doing,” Pangbourne said. But with the support of her peers, Pangbourne ran and was elected chapter president for the 2018-2019 school year.
“I did not feel prepared to be president. But because I was in such a supportive environment, where the stakes weren’t too high, I got a safe space to try things and as a result, my leadership skills really grew,” Pangbourne said.
Pangbourne’s main goal as president was to continue to increase recruitment by spreading awareness about SHPE’s mission. She was responsible for planning out the year to maximize their overall goals and for overseeing SHPE’s executive boards and conferences. She coordinated events at involvement fairs to make SHPE as welcoming as possible and continued to improve the club’s social media presence.
Her efforts were a huge success. When Pangbourne was a freshman, she was one of only two first-year students who joined that year. This past school year, over 20 freshmen joined SHPE. “There has 100 percent been a huge increase in recruitment, and I’m so happy about that,” Pangbourne said.
“Vanessa has been an incredible person to work with,” said Ana Rescala, the vice president of SHPE-USC for the 2018-2019 school year. “She is humble, supportive, and dedicated to the success of her community. She not only is a great leader but also one of my closest friends and her familia at SHPE will miss her!”
A Promising Future
It was the beautiful weather, the rich culture and the strong engineering program that brought Pangbourne to L.A. to attend USC.
“I found a lot of engineering schools to have a very competitive culture, which I find counterintuitive to how team-oriented engineering is,” Pangbourne said. “That’s why I loved the collaborative, supportive culture within USC Viterbi.”
A recipient of the prestigious, full-tuition Trustee Scholarship at USC, Pangbourne thrived academically throughout her undergraduate years. From her freshman to her junior year, she worked in the nanofabrication lab of Wei Wu, an associate professor of electrical engineering at USC Viterbi. In the lab, she got to witness some of the most innovative new chemical engineering technologies. Her work in the lab influenced her to announce nanotechnology as the emphasis of her major.
“Because I was always adapting to new situations growing up, I gained the skill to look at problems from different angles, which I think has served me well as an engineer,” Pangbourne said.
Pangbourne plans to apply to universities where she can pursue her master’s degree upon graduating, which she hopes will help her to narrow down the specific career path she wants to pursue. As of now, she already has a few ideas.
“One application of engineering that really interests me is the sustainability of consumer goods,” Pangbourne said. A lot of the materials used to package items like soaps, foods and makeups are poorly sourced and not environmentally friendly. Pangbourne is interested in engineering more sustainable options for the packaging and production of these goods.
At the same time, Pangbourne is also considering a career involving leadership, like management consulting, or even starting her own company. “There’s no way I ever would have considered pursuing leadership if it hadn’t been for my work in SHPE,” Pangbourne said.
Learning Mandarin while maintaining perfect grades in your business classes is hard. That’s exactly the way Jack Strauss likes it.
Jack Strauss ’19 remembers a bus ride down a dirt road in rural Southern China. He thought he was heading toward Longsheng for a quiet weekend exploring the county’s famed rice terraces, and it wasn’t until he’d traveled 10 miles in the opposite direction that he realized his mistake.
It was the summer before his freshman year at USC. The bus driver, shrugging off his dilemma, told him to either wait an hour until the next stop or get out then and there. So, in the dwindling daylight, Strauss disembarked and stuck out his thumb, hoping his basic Mandarin could get him a ride back into town—and on the cheap. He eventually made it and shared a meal with the one driver kind enough to give him a ride for free.
“I’m a big proponent of getting yourself into situations outside of your comfort zone—situations that scare you,” he says. “It’s one thing to make a mistake in your dorm room. But when you’re out in the real world in an environment completely foreign to you, speaking a language you barely understand, you’re forced to rise to the occasion. And you grow.”
“USC offers so many more untraditional opportunities for international travel in any capacity you could dream of.”
Indeed, his passion for learning Mandarin has been fueled by his love of the challenge. “China is the place that’s most different from what I’m used to,” he says. “And that’s extremely intriguing to me.”
After spending seven months during his junior year in Guilin and Shanghai, Strauss was eager to put his language skills to the test. In his final days in China, he took—and passed—the formidable HSK 5 fluency exam. “It was the hardest test I’ve ever taken,” he laughs. “But it was a great feeling to see that metric of how far my Mandarin ability has come.”
For context, those who pass the level 5 fluency test can “read Chinese newspapers, enjoy Chinese films, and give a full-length speech in Chinese” according to the organization that administers the exam.
Strauss took his first Chinese classes in high school, and he chose USC Marshall in large part because of the international opportunities he knew it would offer him.
“As a freshman, I was traveling through Shanghai and Beijing with my business classes, and interning in Taipei over the summer. Then as a sophomore, I spent three weeks in Ireland on a Maymester studying language revitalization. When I list out all of these experiences, it sounds unbelievable. Any university can offer you a semester abroad, but in addition to that, USC offers so many more untraditional opportunities for international travel in any capacity you could dream of.”
Strauss, who grew up in the Bay Area, is graduating with a double major—Business Administration and East Asian Language and Culture (his chosen emphasis in Chinese). He’s optimized every opportunity for keeping up his Mandarin on campus while still getting involved in the leadership of a handful of student organizations, chief among them the Trojan Consulting Group and the Marshall Student Ambassadors, both of which he led as president.
Bain & Company knows a good thing when it sees one. The consulting firm offered Strauss an internship last summer that he loved, working first in LA and then in Bain’s Shanghai office.
“That’s when you really learn how good—or how lacking—your language skills are,” he laughs. “In a professional setting.”
He will soon be starting full time in Bain’s Los Angeles office but hopes to transfer back to Asia sometime in his first few years. “Bain is already such an incredible place to work, and the global mobility options make it that much more exciting to me,” he said.
Advice for entering freshmen—get as far away from your comfort zone as possible. And maybe do it in Mandarin.
USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology alumna Laura Trejo reaches out and builds bridges.
After more than 30 years as a gerontologist, Laura Trejo has learned that making a difference in issues facing older adults is often about meeting people where they are, whether that means bridging cultural divides or working with people in vastly different disciplines.
Trejo, general manager for the City of Los Angeles Department of Aging, is a three-degree University of Southern California alumna, having earned her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology in 1982 and a Master of Science in Gerontology and a Master of Public Administration in 1986. Studying aging wasn’t part of her initial plan, she says; she originally wanted to be a child psychologist. However, encouragement from her friend Valentine Villa (who would graduate from the USC Leonard Davis School with the nation’s first PhD in Gerontology in 1993) led Trejo to take her first gerontology class as an elective during her senior undergraduate year.
“I totally fell in love with gerontology and the idea of making a difference in the lives of older people,” she says. “I’ve never regretted it for one minute; that was the best thing that ever happened to me. It’s been a wonderful journey of learning, of self-discovery, meeting amazing people, and hopefully along the way helping and supporting others.”
While the academic field of gerontology was new to Trejo at the time, it gave her the vocabulary for feelings and experiences she’d had for years as the grandchild of strong grandparents whom she adored. After one of her grandmothers suffered strokes and became unable to communicate, Trejo became very involved in caring and advocating for her as a teen. Supporting older family members in this manner may not be something that comes naturally to many adolescents, but for a bilingual teen helping older family members span cultural divides, it’s not unusual at all, she explains.
“Bilingual kids tend to be bridges in their families; I was that in my family and in my neighborhood,” she says.
“I was a bridge between my grandmother and the English-speaking world.”
Ever since stepping up to be an advocate for others and making connections with individuals have become hallmarks of Trejo’s career.
“My standard is, ‘I want proof of one.’ If I can find one person who tells me what I did help, then I’m in because you don’t need big numbers to know you matter,” Trejo says. “Throughout different parts of my career, when I set to looking for my ‘one,’ I can find it, and it’s extremely rewarding.”
She recounts with ease several instances from her career where the simple act of reaching out and listening effectively has made monumental differences in people’s lives. In one striking example from a visit to a memory care facility, Trejo taking the time to say “Buenos días, mi nombre es Laura” to a resident and ask her how she was revealed that the resident didn’t have dementia after all—instead, she could only speak Spanish and thus couldn’t communicate with staff. With that simple greeting, the resident was then transferred to a more appropriate facility, ending a needlessly confusing and frightening situation.
At the Department of Aging, Trejo’s team works with scores of departments throughout the City and County of Los Angeles to help better serve Angelenos of all ages. These partnerships have become especially important with the launch of the Purposeful Aging Los Angeles initiative in 2016, which aims to prepare the Los Angeles region for a rapidly aging population. The number of L.A. adults age 65 and over is expected to rise from 1.1 million to more than 2.2 million by 2030.
Some departments’ connections to aging issues don’t seem obvious at first, but earning trust and being respectful of others’ responsibilities has helped Trejo effectively highlight opportunities for cooperation between the Department of Aging and various groups. Trejo and her team have worked with dozens of city and county departments, including the Los Angeles Police Department, to provide training and tools to help the city better serve older adults.
For instance, rather than trying to add to the numerous responsibilities of law enforcement officers, Trejo says training is more about “making sure people have the tools to do the right thing. It has a multiplying effect that money can’t buy.” The training provided to police officers has helped first responders to better identify instances of elder abuse and other seniors in need of immediate help, she recalls.
“It’s an evolutionary process,” Trejo says.
“Some people didn’t know why we needed to work together, but once you work with an officer in a situation, they can’t understand how we weren’t always working attached at the waist with us as a primary resource.”
Trejo says this illustrates a unique quality about the field of gerontology—with aging as a truly universal truth, gerontologists can provide useful insights on better-serving people of all ages to people in disparate fields. It’s a skill that will only become more in demand as Los Angeles’ population continues to become both older and more diverse, and it highlights the need for today’s and tomorrow’s gerontologists to become more engaged with policy and public service.
“We walk into different rooms and we can talk to different disciplines with the goal of a shared view,” Trejo says. “We’re a team; together is the answer.”
Thanks to USC’s Master of Business for Veterans degree, former Marine Vincent Marsala is managing more than 100 people at the site of the future home of the L.A. Rams and Chargers.
While in ninth grade, Vincent Marsala attended a family funeral.
During the service, he saw a cousin wearing a dress blue uniform and asked his mother, “What is he wearing?” She informed her son that he was a Marine.
Then and there, Marsala said he had an epiphany: He, too, would be a Marine someday.
Three years later, after graduating high school, Marsala joined the Marines. In 2006, the then-19-year-old would find himself deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, military missions launched that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Marsala remembers the night his unit landed in Kuwait en route to Iraq.
“It was a heavy sandstorm,” he said. “Visibility was low and we all filed out of the C-17 aircraft with our gear.”
The massive sandstorm forced the Marines to take shelter in a hangar until it passed. They would be trapped for two long and harrowing weeks.
“I remember the feeling of uneasiness, not completely aware of where I was or what was around the area,” Marsala recalled.
He would eventually get to know the area well, as he and millions of troops endured the longest war in U.S. history, one that continues to this day. But as Marsala approached his 10th year of service, he made a life-changing decision.
“I decided to get out and go to college,” Marsala said. And he wasn’t alone.
According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, more than 200,000 U.S. service members return to civilian life each year.
“I knew that I wanted to be a builder, and construction was an interest to me,” he said. “Therefore, I chose an education in civil engineering with hopes of becoming a structural engineer.”
How USC’s Master of Business for Veterans program translates military success into business acumen
Four years later, the Marine was a college graduate with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Cal Poly Pomona. But as Marsala navigated the job market, he felt he was missing something.
“I’m an engineer, but building is a business,” he said.
Marsala decided that he needed a master’s degree in business, but he wasn’t certain what college he wanted to attend. Around this same time, he was invited to a football game at USC.Vincent Marsala
“I was blown away by the level of tradition, camaraderie and family atmosphere. I knew that I wanted to be a part of the Trojan Family.”
“I was blown away by the level of tradition, camaraderie and family atmosphere. I knew that I wanted to be a part of the Trojan Family,” he recounted.
That’s when Marsala discovered the USC Marshall School of Business Master of Business for Veterans program. The MBV degree is a fully accredited, one-year graduate degree that was created specifically for veterans, active duty and reserve personnel.
“I chose the MBV program because it is the only program of its kind, focused on the ideals of what it means to be a veteran, and at one of the most pristine universities in the country,” Marsala said.
This specialized degree fills any real or perceived skills gap for service members who are transitioning from the military to the business sector.
“The MBV program helps veterans translate their military experience into business and entrepreneurial success,” said James Bogle, director of the MBV program. “But there’s one thing that doesn’t need translating: their can-do attitude. Service members will always accomplish the mission at hand because failure is not an option. Imagine what that winning mindset could mean for business?”
Exemplifying USC Marshall values
Bogle recalls meeting Marsala for the first time. “There was something really special about him,” Bogle said.
In fact, Marsala was special enough to attract the attention of Turner Construction, the company on contract to build the Los Angeles Stadium and Entertainment District at Hollywood Park, which will be home to the Los Angeles Rams and Chargers. Once construction is complete, it will be the largest and most expensive venue in the NFL.
The $2.6 billion stadium is set to open in phases, beginning in the summer of 2020. Marsala, who has been employed by Turner Construction for almost two years, helps keep construction on schedule.
“Marsala exemplifies the academic values of the Marshall School of Business MBV.”
“Marsala exemplifies the academic values of the Marshall School of Business MBV,” said Mark Todd, vice provost of academic operations at USC. “USC’s commitment to educating veterans dates back over 100 years. We know that serving in the military develops unique competencies that are highly valuable, and businesses that hire veterans are often gaining a competitive edge in their workplace.”
Marsala has recently been promoted to site superintendent. He manages more than 100 people who are building out the Inglewood stadium site.
“What Vincent is doing — it shows you how the Master of Business for Veterans brings out a veteran’s expertise and leadership skills and boosts them with management, marketing and finance skills,” Bogle said. “The team is doing really well, meeting and exceeding construction deadlines. It’s a tribute to veteran leadership and the Trojan Family.”
Marsala’s team is made up of three other superintendents who are also veterans, a fact that is not surprising to this former service member.
“There is a great value to hiring veterans,” Marsala said. “Their maturity, presence, leadership and respect are rivaled by none. When you hire veterans the job gets done, and done right.”
When he was just 14 months old, Patrick Ivison was hit by a distracted driver who was arguing with his girlfriend as he backed up his car.
Patrick sustained a C4-C5 incomplete spinal cord injury. Today, the 24-year-old is an athlete, advocate, and successful producer’s assistant with a unique perspective on life after injury.
When I sustained a spinal cord injury, I was too young to remember anything. I think I remember standing on a skateboard before my injury, but that memory may come from a picture.
As I grew older, I watched kids playing on the playground, and I wanted to participate. The feeling was rarely negative. I just thought about it logistically: I wanted to play like the other kids, and I was going to figure out how, no matter what.
Physical therapy has been critical to my mobility journey—in fact, it’s the only reason why I have my current level of mobility. I started working out consistently at Project Walk when I was 10 years old. In the 14 years since, I’ve gained strength and independence that I had only dreamed about.
Transferring myself out of my chair is just one game-changing example of what has been made possible through greater mobility. On the hobby side, mobility allows me to play wheelchair rugby. I LOVE IT—practicing and then hanging out with friends around town are huge lifestyle boosts for me.
On the professional side, I work at a reality TV production company as an assistant. My workplace is far from where I live, so mobility is critical to my employment. I work long hours, and the drive makes them even longer, but I love my job and I’m discovering some pretty cool professional opportunities.
I have learned how to build up my own capabilities and ask for help. My girlfriend, Kimberlee, helps me whenever my caregiver isn’t available—I just have to provide a constant supply of peppermint patties! For the most part, I can be independent anywhere I go, but there is still a direct link between my level of mobility and my independence.
In all areas, cost is a huge barrier to mobility—if my van breaks down, I’m stranded. Los Angeles has yet to implement wheelchair-accessible ridesharing, and public transportation doesn’t cover every location. Unless the metro or bus stops right outside your destination, it isn’t practical or safe to travel without driving.
Last month, I found myself stuck without transportation, and the only reason I didn’t lose my job is because my girlfriend was able to drive me to work.
It’s important to celebrate why #MobilityMatters because for many people, including myself, unlocking greater mobility is one of our largest and proudest accomplishments. When I was injured, the doctors told my mom I would never be able to move any part of my body below my neck. I’ve worked my entire life to achieve the mobility I have today, and I continue to work hard to gain even more.
Having a spinal cord injury or disability affects every little part of your life and makes living more complicated and expensive. Whatever support you can offer to a person living with these challenges, whether it’s financial support or moral support, it makes a huge difference. You make this life less scary.
If I could tell someone with a spinal cord injury anything, I would tell them this: life is going to be hard, but it’s also going to be beautiful. It’s okay to be sad, frustrated, and depressed. You don’t have to fight those feelings, but you do have to be willing to adapt. If I dwelled on everything that was challenging for me, it would consume my entire life. That’s no way to live.
My mom always says, “We can either laugh about this, or we can cry.” I choose to laugh as much as possible.
From Ohio to Mississippi, Alabama to Los Angeles, social media personality to Sundance Fellow, Xavier Burgin’s filmmaking journey is full of twists and turns. “Growing up in the deep south,” he says, “you don’t really have anyone around you who knows or who will tell you writing and directing is a viable route in life.” For Burgin, it wasn’t until he was encouraged by professors while studying at the University of Alabama that he began to seriously pursue storytelling as a passion, as a lifestyle. It’s a route that he happily advocates for and discusses transparently both in person and online.
“Some people don’t want to only connect through films,” he says, about his social media endeavors, “they want to connect through creators.” Burgin’s commitment to some 70,000 Twitter followers reflects a similar strain in his films: community building and engagement, progressiveness and diverse storytelling. His stories aren’t bound to any one format –– his repertoire includes commercials, television, short films, and long-form twitter stories.
After directing short films Olde E, On Time, and Other, and directing episodes of the Emmy-nominated digital series Giants, Burgin recently helmed his first feature: a documentary that tackles the history of Hollywood horror and the racial rollercoaster within that history.
Horror Noire premiered on Shudder this past February to universal acclaim. Lauded for its deft navigation of film history, academic scholarship, and timely social analysis, Burgin’s first feature is an arrow in his ever-growing quiver of socially-aware, naturalistically presented films.
Horror Noire points toward Hollywood’s cyclical trajectory when it comes to representation ––a trend line of America’s social progressions and regressions when it comes to depictions of black people in the cinema. Burgin cites William Crain’s seminal black horror film, Blacula (1972) as an example of this tension. “With [Crain’s] story, you know, it’s another case of one step forward, two steps back,” says Burgin. One of Horror Noire’s many subplots belongs to Crain, who tells tales of showing up on the Blacula set and being the only person of color behind the camera. It was a groundbreaking moment to have a black director helming a black story during the Blaxploitation era, especially considering Crain’s age (23) and his status as a first-time director. Blacula was an exceptional film in the horror cannon. Unfortunately, Hollywood’s early 70’s racial dynamics resulted in an all-white crew, producers, and boardrooms stifling Crain’s vision. Even when afforded the opportunity to sit in the director’s chair, black directors historically have found executing their visions difficult.
“There’s a cyclical nature to these things because there aren’t diverse bodies in power,” says Burgin –– for every Blacula or Ganja & Hess, there’s a multitude of horror movies that are rife with black horror tropes: “the sacrificial negro”, black people dying first, or the “mystical voodoo priestess.”
As Burgin says: one step forward, two back. Horror Noire, despite its explications of Hollywood’s numerous horror missteps, ends on a somewhat hopeful note: Jordan Peele’s revolutionary and genre-subverting phenomena, Get Out.
Burgin’s own story underscores the hope for the future of both the genre and people of color working within it. “Shudder,” he says, referring to the streaming service that produced his film, “could have easily hired a white guy for this. In Hollywood, that’s par for the course. But they chose to uplift a black director.” Right now, given Hollywood’s structural omissions of people of color, this kind of uplift seems more necessary than ever. Burgin’s story, like Crain’s, promises change.
However, this strategy of “uplifting” previously repressed voices isn’t without its doubters. At a USC screening for Horror Noire, one woman raised the oft-asked question of whether or not quality is sacrificed in hiring and staffing film crews and casts with people of color. In conversations around diversity and inclusion, the quality question abounds. “That’s a question that shouldn’t be asked anymore,” says Burgin, “that’s a racist question.”On his crews, both at SCA and since, he’s surrounded himself with people of color, and his work has benefited, not diminished because of it. This facet has contributed to the accolades his projects have won. “You could argue it’s because I’m a great filmmaker –– that’s what made these movies succeed,” muses Burgin, “but everything I’ve done that’s received accolades or praised has been cast and crewed primarily by people of color.”
urgin has continued to work with people he met at SCA and is still building his relationships with these trusted collaborators. “When I was picking my crew, I went with people like Mario Rodriguez and Angelique Molina who I trust and have worked well with” stressing that no one should ever question choosing black and brown filmmakers simply because they’re black or brown. Burgin believes adopting a mentality of diversity and inclusion upfront is the path towards better filmmaking – a belief he continues to champion in his work.
Listening to Burgin, his dedication, devotion, and gratefulness to the communities that have nurtured him, radiates. In discussing his decision to choose USC over other programs, he cites not only the opportunity to hone his craft but also the community afforded to him by not only the school but also his family.
“I’m lucky I have family in LA that have allowed me to rent out space at a reasonable price. It’s given me the freedom to take gigs and projects that other people can’t due to overwhelming financial and housing inequality in our city.”
Social structures and conditions are a very real impediment for aspiring filmmakers, but it doesn’t mean you should give up. This industry needs diverse voices who are pushing to get their stories made.
“Come out of that school with feature scripts and with films,” he advises current SCA students. “You’ve got to hit the ground running. No one’s going to want it more than you.”
For Burgin, after delving into the history of horror and tracking its gradual rise (a rise that seemingly parallels that of Hollywood representation), he sees it as a genre that, perhaps, offers an entry into a difficult industry: “I’ll say this: I firmly believe that if you’re an SC student with a killer Horror script, and maybe a decent short…that’s the quickest way to kick start your career right now.”
Burgin is currently enjoying his work on Giants, the digital series he’s been helping craft, nabbing Emmy and ISA nominations as well as being picked up for television by TV One. He’s expanding his proof-of-concept short On Time (developed at SCA) –– about a mother who struggles to regain custody of her daughter after being arrested for leaving her in a car during a job interview –– into the feature film he intended it to be. He’s been working on the script for four years; 42 drafts and countless notes later, Burgin is hopeful he’s finally on course to get it made. If his previous work is any metric, On Time is not to be missed.
The School of Dramatic Arts briefly caught up with alum Roland Buck III (BA ’15) for our Q&A series highlighting the accomplishments of the alumni of the USC School of Dramatic Arts.
Roland Buck III is best known for his recurring role as Dr. Noah Sexton on NBC’s Chicago Med. Named in 2017 as one of People Magazine‘s “Ones to Watch,” Buck recently starred alongside Adam Sandler and Chris Rock for the Netflix comedy The Week Of, in National Geographic’s award nominated mini series The Long Road Home and the film Sleight — which featured at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
What was your best USC experience?
I’d have to say the shows that I was in. I feel like I really fell in love with acting, like the entire process, while doing Arabian Nights my junior year. With all the rehearsal and prep then tech, the cast really bonded with each other. I felt like a little family, like playing a sport. They were my team.
Was there a class or professor that was particularly meaningful or influential during your time at the School?
Yes, I remember sitting down with Tony Abatemarco for my midterm interview in intermediate acting. During that interview, I told him I was thinking about grad school after USC and wanted to audition for Yale or Juilliard. He asked me something that really stuck with me. He said, “Do you want to go to these schools because of the name or because you feel like you need it?” I said, “Well, I want to be the best and they have great programs.” He replied, “Yes, they do have great programs but by the time you graduate in a year, do you feel like you’ll benefit from staying in school another three to four years or will you be ready to work? Because there is only so much you can learn in a classroom. The rest you learn by doing.” He was so right!
What do you miss about college, SDA specifically?
Honestly, nothing really. Not that there was anything wrong, but I enjoy working. If anything, it would be the students, friends I made that I would spend so much time with.
What productions did you work on?
I was lucky enough to work onArabianNights, GettingMarried, IntheBlood & Senior Showcase. I also did 3 student films, 1 grad thesis: KarMa, Vicious and Stuck.
Do you remember the moment you found out you got into USC?
Oh yea I do! I was a transfer student so I found out a little later in because they wanted to see my spring semester grades first. But when I hadn’t heard anything back by June I started to get restless and just need to know yes or no. So, I went to the office of admissions and asked. I was so nervous while they were looking up my name but the lady told me right there that I got in! And asked if I had received anything in the mail? I said no, and when we looked at the address, they had the wrong one on file! They mailed out my admittance packet a month prior! She asked if I wanted to wait while she put a new packet together for me, I was like “Oh yea baby!” lol.
What is your advice for current SDA students?
Enjoy your time at school, be vulnerable and fearless in class so you can fall and grow everyday and HUSTLE. Build those hustling habits now so that it will be second nature for you to go get it when you’re out in the world on your own.
What are you working on professionally?
Currently, we are in the fourth season of ChicagoMed in NBC. I also have a pilot executive produced by Channing Tatum called College that we are waiting to see if Amazon will order to series.
What lessons have you been able to apply from your SDA training to your professional life?
That preparation equals separation. I never had a professor that took it easy on me if I wasn’t prepared and I’m glad because that set a foundation for me on all of my work. Prep eases my nerves and builds confidence for me. Casting directors and producers can tell you mean business when you show up like you’ve already won the job and it’s your first day on set.
Meet Vlada Manzur, PharmD ’13, who helped establish a first-of-its-kind community-based pain medication management clinic during her residency at the USC Medical Plaza Pharmacy. As someone who took a nontraditional career path — after four years of community pharmacy practice, she returned to USC for a residency focusing on pain management and opioid medication safety — she shares why she believes “it’s an exciting time to be a pharmacist.”
Please describe your current work and career highlights.
Currently I work as a clinical pharmacist at the Kaiser Woodland Hills Pain Management Clinic. Upon graduating from USC School of Pharmacy in 2013, I worked as a community pharmacist with CVS for four years. As a community pharmacist, I had the unique experience of observing how changes in healthcare affect our communities in real time. Whether it was legislative movements or health epidemics like the flu and opioid crisis, I would see the needs of my patients regularly changing and evolving. I wanted my expertise to evolve alongside the needs of my patients, so I turned to my mentors at the School and eventually secured a community-based pharmacy practice residency focusing on pain management and opioid medication safety.
How did the resources and faculty members at USC help prepare you for what you are doing now?
When I reached out to my mentors at USC, I was introduced to a unique opportunity to join the team of community-based pharmacy practice residents in 2017. My residency program focused on pain management and opioid medication safety and I helped Dr. Melissa Durhamdevelop and implement a community-based pain medication management program at the USC Medical Plaza Pharmacy — the first of its kind.
Returning to USC and working with Dr. Durham showed me that pharmacists are more than just the middlemen between the provider and the patient. Medicine is shifting from traditional interventions in patient care to motivational interviewing and shared decision-making, and USC is training future pharmacists to be on the front line of this change. Working with patients directly, I saw how I was a more effective clinician when I was able to help patients make better clinical decisions for themselves and not just telling them what I know. Everyone has different driving forces and taking the time to figure out what motivates your patients can make the difference in clinical outcomes. This new perspective on patient care has helped me see my patients in a new light, made me a better clinician and prepared me for my current position with Kaiser.
What attracted you to the field of pharmacy? Any particular moment(s) that made you stop and think, “This is the path I want to take?”
Even as a small child, I always knew I wanted to be in healthcare. I was attracted to the field of pharmacy because it felt big to me. Growing up, I had a family member who was ill and there was a period of time in my life where I was no stranger to frequent visits to hospitals and pharmacies. During this time, I learned a lot about the roles of different health care professions and felt as though pharmacy was the most all-encompassing. The pharmacists I encountered along this journey always remembered to look at the patient (my family member included) as a whole instead of narrowing focus to the disease state they were actively treating. As I continued down my professional path, I learned that not only were pharmacists clinically all-encompassing, but that the profession itself was boundless.
What advice do you have for students who may be interested in following a similar path to yours?
Most students follow the traditional path of applying to residency in their fourth year of pharmacy school and transitioning straight into a residency program. I, however, returned to USC to complete my residency after four years of community pharmacy practice. Whether you take the traditional path or pave your own, having the support of the Trojan Family, co-residents, mentors and like-minded passionate pharmacists really helped me develop as a person and as a pharmacy professional. They can do the same for you.
In general, how do you feel about the outlook for the pharmacy profession?
Our profession is changing and evolving. Although opportunities in traditional pharmacy roles may not be as robust as they once were, I truly believe it’s an exciting time to be a pharmacist. Pharmacists have so many more opportunities to directly impact patient care than ever before and as our healthcare industry advances, I can see the next generation of pharmacists as active members of the interdisciplinary healthcare team, directing its course.
Dad’s mysterious past inspires his daughter’s future — in engineering and beyond
While trying to figure out her late father’s “dangerous secrets,” new graduate Betty Stearns discovered a world of endless possibilities
On the morning of June 1, 2012, Betty Stearns awoke to her 17th birthday.
She tiptoed to her father’s room to get him out of bed for a birthday breakfast. The engineer and entrepreneur was always traveling to some mysterious, far-off location, but he never missed a birthday, a parent-teacher conference or a tennis match. He was her lone parent: Her mother passed away when Betty was 5.
But as she knocked on his door that morning, no one answered. She opened it to find him lying still, not breathing. Ronald Stearns had died in his sleep from natural causes.
His death would leave an immeasurable loss — and a mystery about his life, and her own, that she would spend the next five years trying to unravel. Her pursuit led Betty to trace her father’s footsteps to his alma mater, USC; to the halls of the CIA; and on a lifelong journey into engineering.
“Dad, why are you pulling over? We’re on the PCH! This isn’t safe!”
Betty recalled yelling as her father stopped the car and jumped out, camera in hand. A military T-6 trainer aircraft flew across the sky, and her father’s eyes lit up.
He had a 51-year relationship with the Civil Air Patrol, USAF Auxiliary where he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He was the commander of San Fernando’s Senior Squadron 35 and California Wing Sector Echo.
“If I tell you, I’d have to kill you,” he replied, laughing.
It was a phrase she had heard so many times that it had become an inside joke. When asked where in the world he was flying to for yet another two-week business trip, he’d kiss her forehead gently before dashing out the door: “If I tell you, I’d have to kill you.”
In his absence, Betty’s mind raced. “I drove my nanny up the wall with constant questions which were never answered,” she said. “I gave myself the position of ‘official investigator.’ I investigated my dad’s papers on his desk when he was gone and through this, I slowly grew a fascination for aeronautics.”
She read articles he cut out and printed for leisure, which Betty thought were part of his secret operation in the Eastern Hemisphere. She devoured Boeing articles, defense speeches and Popular Mechanics magazines. She thumbed through his passport, snapping mental pictures of all the visas from countries she’d read about in her history books.
And at 17, she found herself facing some of life’s most critical decisions alone. Her three brothers and sisters from her father’s previous marriage were in their 40s and 50s with families of their own.
“I think the show Modern Family stole my family dynamic because I have this older dad with kids much older than me,” she said. “We’re still not getting royalties from that.”
Her older brother, Ron Stearns II, saw her penchant for playing detective and encouraged her to pursue engineering. And now, after her father’s death, Betty would follow directly into his footsteps at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.
In high school, Betty got a kick out of motivating students who were falling behind. She joined Key Club and set up her school’s first after-hours tutoring program, where she helped students whose parents worked late and couldn’t afford private tutors. She still keeps in touch with the teachers who helped her run the program.
Wanting to grow in that role, she became a Viterbi Student Ambassador, representing the school by supporting outreach efforts to prospective applicants and newly admitted students. Off campus, she coupled several jobs, including babysitting, with a Town and Gown scholarship to pay her way through college.
On campus, she was a Freshman Academy Coach, the editor of Illumin Magazine and the chair of the Klein Institute for Engineering Life. She even took a summer trip to London through the Viterbi Overseas Program and conducted research in Germany with the Hodge Nanomaterials Lab.
“I loved being constantly surrounded by people who care about solving the world’s problems,” she said. “I feel I’m part of a family. I know most of the people I’m graduating with.”
Things were going well, but something still bothered her. A mystery she hadn’t solved yet.
“I dreamed of him telling me these ‘deadly secrets,’ but even when that dream came to an end, my investigation didn’t. I plan to investigate until my life will lead me to places where I will need to replace filled passports, I will understand the secrets of the pilots, and I will share a passion for the T-6 with my father. College will give me the tools to be able to propel my desire to reach my future goals. I plan to one day be the person who honors their country by saying, with a smile, ‘If I tell you, I would have to kill you.’”
Mystery comes calling
During her freshman year at USC, she had applied to the CIA, but because of the classified nature of the work, the application process is lengthy. Still, by her junior year, they got in touch.
She flew to Washington, D.C., and underwent a thorough background investigation. She wanted an internship. The agency offered her a job instead.
But attaining what she felt was a life dream gave her pause. Suddenly, she could no longer see herself living a life hidden from her loved ones. She set out to emulate her father’s story, but found her own unique story instead. Perhaps, she thought, that was his plan all along.
“I’d be a completely different person if I hadn’t lost my dad,” she said. “I had to fight for everything and that has made me a lot stronger.”
On May 12, 2017 at USC, Betty Stearns emulated the steps of that young, daring engineer back in 1966. She climbed the podium to take her engineering diploma, to throw her tassel to the other side, to cross the finish line into a whole uncharted chapter of her life.
Her passport is also getting stamped full of visas. Following her graduation and before she begins work for IBM, she will take the same flight route Ronald Stearns took to Thailand, where on another business trip he met her mother, Ueamporn “Nong” Stearns, then a young flight attendant.
It will be exactly 17 years since she made the journey with her mother before her death from breast cancer. They rode motorcycles, went on food escapades on the streets of Bangkok and got spoiled by her mom’s relatives.
“I can’t wait to see them again … to show them the person I’ve become,” she said.
Few, besides music and film nerds, knew the name Ludwig Göransson until last Sunday, when the Swedish producer began trending after the Grammys.
Göransson took home three awards, his first. He won both Record of the Year and Song of the Year for producing Childish Gambino’s disruptive hit “This Is America” (the first rap Song of the Year) and Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media for creating the Black Panther soundtrack along with Kendrick Lamar. With Donald Glover and Lamar absent from the ceremony, along with most of hip-hop’s upper echelon, Göransson spent more time on-stage than most A-listers. With his long, Woodstock-esque brown hair and huge smile, he cut a memorable and endearing figure.
Göransson came looking for inspiration, and (Ryan) Coogler and (Donald) Glover were who he found. He met Coogler at the University of Southern California shortly after he arrived in America, and got his first break scoring Glover’s Community shortly after.
In addition to our collective realization on Sunday that this unlikely figure was integral to two of the cultural moments that defined 2018, Göransson was knighted as a kind of hip-hop folk hero after he was the only person to speak on-stage about 21 Savage’s absence at the ceremony due to his detention by ICE. While accepting Record of the Year for “This Is America,” which 21 Savage contributed a freestyle to, Göransson thanked him: “We want to thank all the rappers who were featured on this track: 21 Savage, who should be here tonight.”
The producer had no intention of stepping into the role of activist or hero with his simple comment, but he was quickly recognized for highlighting the Grammys’ silence about 21 Savage, seen by many as evidence of the gap between the Academy’s progressive rhetoric, and the reality of who is truly included and valued by the music establishment. Göransson — particularly moved by the rapper’s plight because of his own experiences with the U.S. Immigration system — simply felt wanted to give credit to his collaborator.
He didn’t immigrate from Sweden in his early twenties with the goal of infiltrating the hip-hop world. “My dream was to move over here and collaborate with brilliant artists,” he says, when asked how a white, Swedish immigrant ended up with a resumé full of luminary projects which explicitly explore Black experiences, and to of America’s most renowned Black creatives — Donald Glover and Black Panther director Ryan Coogler — as his closest collaborators.
Göransson came looking for inspiration, and Coogler and Glover were who he found. He met Coogler at the University of Southern California shortly after he arrived in America, and got his first break scoring Glover’s Community shortly after. He’d go on to score Coogler’s Fruitvale Station (a biographical account of Oscar Grant’s murder at the hands of two police officers at an Oakland BART station), Creed I and Creed II, before working on Black Panther score with Kendrick Lamar. Göransson produced all three Childish Gambino albums, receiving a Grammy nomination for 2016’s Awaken My Love!.
He traveled extensively in West Africa, studying and touring with African musicians like Senagal’s Baaba Maal, to help answer the question of what the uncolonized, Afro-futurist techno-paradise of Wakanda would sound like. Fruitvale Station‘s score is laced with sounds of Oakland’s public transit system that Göransson gathered from BART stations and trains.
For Creed, Göransson harvested his beats from fighters pounding speedbags at a local boxing gym. Before he glued together gospel and trap to bring to life “This Is America’s” chilling scenes, his and Glover’s jam sessions inspired Awaken My Love!‘s funky, majestic universe. Next, he’ll live every movie music creator’s dream and give his take on Star Wars for Jon Favreau’s forthcoming space opera TV series The Mandalorian.
Leading up to the Oscars where he’s nominated for Best Original Music Score, PAPER sat down with Göransson to talk industry politics, bridging gaps of experience, and how creating the Black Panthersoundtrack changed his life.
Today, as I put on my cap and gown and receive my diploma from USC, I’ve been thinking a lot about where I came from and where I’m going.
I was born in Los Angeles to a single mother from Guatemala. Six months after my birth, my mom’s visa expired and with no work, we returned to her homeland.
In Guatemala, as the daughter of a single mother, I quickly learned to appreciate anything she was able to give me. She found a way to finish college while raising me and her dedication helped me realize the importance of drive and hard work in achieving your goals.
When I was 5, my grandmother passed away from a heart attack. I was really impacted by her death and decided then that I wanted to help save people’s lives one day. I thought the best way to do this would be as a doctor but as I got older, I realized medicine was not my passion and I came to love computers and technology.
When I was 16, I was part of a program in Guatemala that exposed students more deeply to computers and software. From then on, I knew that developing new technologies was what I wanted to do – I decided I wanted to be an engineer.
I chose electrical engineering because I still wanted to help save people’s lives and I saw this field as a way to design devices that would do just that.
“When I first walked onto USC, I fell in love with it. I knew that this was the place where I was supposed to be.”
As my love of engineering grew, I wanted to attend university in America. But I had no friends or family in that country, and my dream seemed impossible. I put my dream aside and enrolled in school in Guatemala. After my first semester, a family friend took a trip to the U.S. and invited me to go along.
Knowing this might be my only chance, I took the flight with the hope of finding a way to enroll in a school (any school!) in the United States.
But as the end of my trip neared, I had no luck. I was prepared to go back home, disappointed again. Just a few days before I was set to leave, I met a retired doctor from Cuba who I made an instant connection with.
She let me stay with her, and I worked for her cleaning her home. She motivated me to stay in the U.S. and stay focused. I didn’t have the money to afford school, so I kept working and saving money. I enrolled in Crafton Hills Junior College in Yucaipa with the goal of transferring to a 4-year university. My dream was hanging on by a thread, but it was still alive!
The transition from the Guatemalan educational system to American one was not easy, but with the help of counselors and staff (and more than a little hard work) I was accepted to three universities.
The acceptance letter from USC was the last one I received, and I had already committed somewhere else. I was still really interested in USC’s engineering program and the different opportunities for research and involvement that students had there, so I decided to visit the campus.
When I first walked onto USC, I fell in love with it. I knew that this was the place where I was supposed to be. After this visit, I cancelled my attendance to the other university and transferred to USC to pursue a degree in Electrical Engineering. I never looked back.
When I started my first semester, a feeling of gratefulness and accomplishment overwhelmed me. The dream that started as a 5-year-old girl in Guatemala was now a reality.
But, I soon learned that the real work was just beginning. My first semester at USC was not easy.
I was academically and emotionally challenged like never before. I failed my first set of midterms, and I even thought about dropping out or changing my major.
By the end of the semester, I achieved grades in the A and B range in all of my classes. I could not have succeeded without so many people to lean on for support.
After years of struggling, things started to fall into place, one after another. I kept my involvement with SHPE, and I also joined the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) design team. This team works on designing and building a robot submarine which goes to the RoboSub competitionevery July. Then, in the summer of 2016, I had my first internship with Visa, working as a Systems Engineer. The following semester, I became the Electrical Team Lead for the AUV team. During the summer of 2017, I interned with Microsoft in the Hardware Division as a Manufacturing Engineer. After graduation, I am going to be joining Microsoft as a Validation Engineer.
Each and every one of my experiences at USC has helped me become the person I am today. I am so proud to call myself a graduate of USC and yet, it is a bittersweet experience.
This has been my goal for so many years. Now that it is actually in front of me, I feel the excitement of a new chapter, but struggle with the realization that I will not be on campus anymore.
I won’t be surrounded by my friends. I am going to miss not being in the lab building our little submarine, and going to the Catholic Center to de-stress.
In Guatemala, most students don’t have the modern equipment and resources that we enjoy here. When I came to America, it made me appreciate my position even more. That’s why I want to develop programs that give children in developing countries access to technology and to STEM education. There are great minds all over the world and, with a little support, kids in these countries can do amazing things too.
“Don’t forget where you came from, but never lose sight of where you are going. I know I won’t.”
Life is a journey, and in the journey that I am living right now, I have learned that hard work, sacrifice, and the support of friends and family will take me where I want to go. Now that I am graduating, I want to tell future generations to never stop believing in yourself, even when you fail.
You might not believe it, but there is kind of a beauty about failing. After you fail, there is only one way you can go – up! Never let anyone put your dreams down because it doesn’t matter how impossible a dream may seem, all that matters is how badly you want it. Lastly, don’t forget where you came from, but never lose sight of where you are going. I know I won’t.
Jennifer Tróchez MacLean had never imagined becoming a teacher at all
Surrounded by beaming family and colleagues, 22 teachers came to Town & Gown to be honored as Teachers of the Year for Los Angeles Unified School District.
Speaking to them, Karen Symms Gallagher, the Emery Stoops and Joyce King Stoops Dean of the USC Rossier School of Education, congratulated the teachers on their great teaching—a feat for which there is no formula.
“While many of us have felt the impact of exceptional teachers, we as a society still have trouble articulating the qualities that translate good teaching into success,” Gallagher said. As board chair for the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, working on making uniform standards for good teacher preparation, she would know.
Yet just as ambiguous is the route that great teachers take into their profession. As a child, Jennifer Tróchez MacLean, one of those honored as a Teacher of the Year, had planned on being a scientist.
“I was always curious about the things around me,” MacLean said. She didn’t expect to end up graduating from USC Rossier in 2001 with a master’s in science education. “I was pre-med, but life throws little curveballs at you and I ended up working at the California Science Center and the Natural History Museum. And I realized my love of science and my love of working with kids. Teaching is where I had to be.”
MacLean got an emergency teaching credential and started at Foshay Learning Center, one of the schools now in USC’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative.
That was 21 years ago. Now she’s a 5th grade teacher at Gates Street Elementary and a National Board Certified Teacher invested in teaching her students about the power of science.
There are more than 26,000 teachers in Los Angeles; about a thousand of them received nominations for this year’s Teachers of the Year awards, according to George McKenna, the board of education member representing District 1. MacLean is one of two Trojans who received the prize this year, along with Susan Kacvinsky MSW ’11.
“It’s definitely an honor, and definitely a privilege,” MacLean said. “I’m not only representing what I’ve done, but representing all the principals who have supported me and my colleagues who have been there with me as we do different things to advance instruction in our classrooms, and I think of all the children—that’s what makes it overwhelming.”
USC Viterbi alumna Linnie Haynesworth pens a letter to her younger Trojan self.
Linnie Haynesworth first joined Northrop Grumman as an intern from USC and today is sector vice president and general manager of the Cyber and Intelligence Mission Solutions division. Because of her, it is no longer unusual to see a woman or person of color responsible for billions of dollars and thousands of employees at one of the largest aerospace and defense companies in the world. But in 1977, Linnie was just a young, slightly shy undergraduate from Detroit who came to USC to study electrical engineering.
As you begin life at USC Viterbi, you should be proud of how hard you’ve worked to get here. You’re a young woman with a lot of confidence. You’ve had a job since you were 14 years old, which has taught you how to balance time and meet responsibilities. You stay positive and focused on your goals no matter what you face. But there are new challenges ahead: difficult coursework, jam-packed schedules, and initially, isolation.
Pursuing a degree in electrical engineering in 1980, will be far from easy, but I’m happy to report that you will find the path rewarding and joyful! Here’s some advice to get you on your way:
Doing the hard stuff is hard! Cass Technical High School in Detroit taught you to look for new ways to challenge yourself academically, and you’ve chosen electrical engineering, one of the most difficult paths for any student. Continue to embrace hard work and don’t waste time on self-doubt.
You are not here by accident. You have proven yourself worthy to be a student at USC Viterbi. You can do this, right now, with more intention and at a higher level than you may realize.
You will fail. Learn from it.
Reject the fear of failure. Everybody fails, and everybody is afraid to fail. It might seem like you’re the only one feeling this way, but you’re not. Remember that perfection is not required – persistence is! As women, sometimes our greatest barrier is the pressure we put on ourselves to be perfect. Get that line of thinking out of your head now! Perfection is not in any job description that I’ve ever seen. If you see something you want, go after it. Don’t wait until you or the situation meets the definition of perfection.
Don’t Isolate Yourself
An engineering path can be isolating, especially when you’re the only woman and person of color in many of your classes. Lean on friends and family. Not to spoil the surprise, but soon, the only other African-American woman in your chemistry class, Monique Hunter, will take time to introduce herself to you and expose you to campus life beyond the classroom. The lifelong friendship that will come from this single gesture will prove that one person’s kindness can have a profound and lasting impact on the life of another. Pay attention to those around you and take time to connect.
Realize the value of developing your engineering network. Seek out mentors. Connect with as many people as you can – those who think like you, those who think differently from you and those who do not look like you. Leveraging diversity of thought will be critical to your success and the success of the teams you lead.
Get Comfortable With Discomfort
Every accomplishment comes with some discomfort. And there will be things in life that will be uncomfortable but MUST BE DONE. Get used to that feeling and establish mechanisms to work through it. Remember: the more you do something uncomfortable, the more comfortable you will be doing it.
Lead From Where You Sit
I know you just arrived on campus and how shy you are. But understand that even now, there are ways to provide leadership at USC. All you have to do is speak up and engage. I learned to do this after college, while working at Northrop Grumman. You don’t have to wait as long as I did. Believe me when I tell you that you have the ability right now to lead and help others do their best. Your voice matters. Use it.
Get Your Head In The Clouds
Deep focus is important. But so is broad perspective. Knowing what’s going on in the vast space beyond your books will make you a better engineer. Remember to overtly and purposefully connect with diverse thinkers. If that makes you uncomfortable, well…just remember what I said about discomfort!
Linnie, you’re on a challenging but wildly satisfying course. Be confident and bold during your time at USC. You will be honing your skills in critical thinking, ability to focus, and leading teams, but you will also learn how to make a positive difference in the world around you and beyond.
USC Marshall alumna Deborah Rutter takes the stage as one of the most prominent and powerful advocates for the arts.
“A life-changing experience.”
That’s how Deborah Rutter describes the first time she heard—and played—Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony” from the middle of the violin section as a young orchestra member.
Today, Rutter has long since swapped her seat in the orchestra for one behind the scenes. She serves as the third president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, where she ensures that life-changing performances happen nightly at one of the world’s famed performing arts centers.
She joined the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in 2014 after 11 years as president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In Chicago, she established the Institute for Learning, Access and Training (now called the Negaunee Music Institute at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) with Yo-Yo Ma as creative consultant and landed Italian conductor Riccardo Muti as music director.
“I was sort of a curiosity in that crowd,” she recalls about her classes, where she was among the few women.
Raised in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Encino, Rutter headed to Stanford University for her undergraduate degree largely because of its music program and the richness of the Bay Area’s musical offerings.
She speaks fondly of “the physical joy, the personal sense of reward” of playing in an orchestra, though becoming a professional musician was never her plan.
She got her break from Ernest Fleischmann, late head of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who hired her. She eventually rose to orchestra manager, but she “didn’t know how to do the business part of it” and enrolled in USC’s part-time MBA program.
Rutter went on to lead the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, then the Seattle Symphony. In Seattle, she oversaw the construction of Benaroya Hall, a performing arts space in a struggling downtown area. She calls it “the right building in the right place,” and today the hall and its neighborhood thrive.
Similar instincts lie behind the Kennedy Center’s current expansion, which involves new pavilions and a pedestrian bridge over the Potomac River.
The center’s programming is ambitious too. Events next season range from a celebration of skateboarding’s connection to art, movement, music and improvisation to Wagner’s epic “Ring Cycle.”
Diverse events are key to keeping performing arts relevant as society changes, says Rutter, who is committed to reflecting the interests of audiences of the future. At the same time, she’s rooted in tradition. She’ll never stop striving for those magic moments central to performing arts for centuries—when each audience member “either participates in or observes the art as it’s being created”—to inspire life-changing experiences for a new generation.
Jake Davidson likes smart, hardworking women. And he can thank his grandmother for that.
His enduring memory of Selma Davidson is walking into his father’s CPA firm in Sherman Oaks to be greeted by his grandmother, with her oxygen tank and magnifying glass, sitting behind a desk doing the books. It was Saturday.
“She worked until she was 90,” he said. “She couldn’t even walk at that point, but she was a hard worker.”
When she passed away in February 2018, Davidson wanted to honor her memory in some way. And having been the beneficiary of a full-tuition Mork Family Scholarship, Davidson knew he wanted to give back to USC. The ideas coalesced, and in September, he donated $100,000 to the Leventhal School of Accounting for a scholarship in his grandmother’s name.
“I think that is something that would have tremendously benefited my grandma when she was younger.” – Jake Davidson ’17, on the accounting scholarship he endowed in his grandmother’s name.
“One of the things I learned from the Mork Family Scholarship is how giving to the school can be life-changing, making college affordable and possible, so I wanted to start giving back,” Davidson said. “I’ve been lucky to have some small level of business success, so I wanted to set something up to honor my grandma as soon as possible.”
He also wanted to give a boost to women accounting students in need. “I think that is something that would have tremendously benefited my grandma when she was younger,” he said.
His Inspiration: Grandma
Selma Davidson was a single mom who raised three kids—who went on to become a CPA, a doctor, and a teacher, respectively.
“She didn’t come from anything and could not afford college,” Davidson said. “She was one of four sisters, and her parents didn’t encourage education…but she was really smart.”
It was his grandmother who helped nurture his entrepreneurial streak, driving him around at 15 to collect old electronic materials, which he then sold in China. As his company grew into Davidson Global Inc., he set up an office in his father’s firm, Davidson Accountancy Corporation, where Selma worked as office manager and bookkeeper.
“With this scholarship, my grandma’s name will live on forever,” he said.
‘A Massive USC Fan’
Davidson knew he wanted to attend USC when he was 5. “My dad is a huge USC football fan, and I grew up as a massive USC fan,” he said.
When he got here, USC was everything he had hoped. As the undergraduate speaker at his commencement ceremony, Davidson talked about what made his Leventhal experience special: the close friends he made, the “tremendous professors” (including Dean William W. Holder and Professor Rose Layton) and his “incredibly helpful” advisor Milli Penner.
“Pretty much everything I’ve been able to do is related to USC —a lot of my connections, the people I work with. The USC network has been unbelievable,” he said. “Everything I learned in terms of personal investments, looking at and analyzing the statement of cash flows and the income statement, and understanding how to work through a business, all have been extremely helpful.”
After starting a digital media business, Davidson said he managed social media accounts for athletes and celebrities. One of those clients knew he was an accounting major and asked his advice. From there, he got the idea for doing business management for athletes, “mostly former USC football players,” he said.
When he took a class with Annenberg professor Gabriel Kahn during his junior year, he learned that his professor’s father was the author and investor, Judd Kahn. He had read Judd Kahn’s book on value investing with the Value Investing Group at USC when he was a freshman.
“I asked my professor if he could connect us, and I flew out to New York to meet him the last semester of my senior year when I was looking at law schools. [Judd Kahn] was retired from the hedge fund business, but he was willing to mentor me and partner in a new business with me.” Rule 2 Investments now provides broad-based asset management services as well as running a proprietary value-based strategy focused on public equities.
Now a second-year law student, Davidson is working at his father’s firm to get his hours for the CPA exam. Then, as a CPA with a law degree and an entrepreneurial spirit, he has big dreams. “My goal is to continue to try to build DGI and Rule 2 Investments—this sounds audacious—but I’d like to build a portfolio of cash flow-producing companies and real estate investments, a smaller version of what Warren Buffet has created at Berkshire Hathaway.”
It’s a big goal, but one Selma Davidson would surely have encouraged.
He also aims to build his initial scholarship into a full-tuition ride for one very smart female accounting student. “I just would not have been able to do any of this without USC,” he said.
The inaugural class of 72 girls graduated in 2011, and have since gone on to achieve great things, like furthering their studies at such top universities as Harvard and Oxford. One of those graduates, Thando Dlomo, ended up getting a master’s degree at the University of Southern California, and now works at Entertainment Tonight as a digital associate at ET Live.
“I dreamt a lot of things. I couldn’t imagine what they looked like, but in my dreams, I have seen this room before,” she told ET’s Kevin Frazier on Wednesday. “Literally, [Winfrey] turned my whole life around.”
Dlomo is featured alongside Winfrey in Oprah’s Daughters, which is streaming now on the People TV app. “They are my greatest, deepest joy,” Winfrey, who was raised by her grandmother in rural poverty, told People of her OWLAG students. “They’re the daughters I did not have. I never thought that that mothering instinct was something for me.”
Dlomo, now 25, recalled “idolizing” Winfrey before being accepted to OWLAG — telling ET that she “flipped” out when she met the media mogul for the first time.
Now, however, they’re like family.
“In South Africa, if you are older and a woman, you are going to be [called] ‘Mom,’ ‘Auntie,’ ‘Mama’ … because that is how we show respect to our elders, so it was really funny seeing her get comfortable with that,” she said of Winfrey. “[But] ‘Mom O’ does have a ring to it.”
“Mom, that is a big thing to place on somebody, but you have so much respect for her and love for her like a mom. It’s the least I can [do to] show you that kind of respect for everything you have done,” she added.
Dlomo called Winfrey her “comfort through everything,” including the death of her mother.
“I go to OWLAG and she is there, I lose my mom, she sits there, literally holds me like a kid in her arms and tells me it is going to be OK. I go to the U.S., and she is like, ‘You are far from home now, but I’m here, and you are going to be OK,'” she shared. “She walked me at my high school graduation, my undergrad graduation, and my master’s graduation, so she literally is always there.”
“How do I even say thank you to this woman?” she asked during her sit-down with Frazier.
“It is so hard to figure out how to thank her and figure out what will suffice because thank you just doesn’t feel like it is enough.” The pair decided to start with a phone call.
“Hi, darling! How are you doing?” the TV icon asked when Dlomo put her on speaker phone, before praising her journey to Frazier.
“The greatest reward anybody can have is giving your presence, your time, your energy, your love to somebody else and then seeing that help somebody flower into who they were supposed to be,” Winfrey said.
“So watching Thando become all that I knew she could [be] when she first walked into our little meeting room with her uniform on so many years ago, it’s been one of life’s great rewards, to see that happen and to see her blossom into this incredible woman that she is still becoming.”
“It’s not over, she’s just getting started,” she continued of Dlomo. “It’s a hell of a start, and she is representative of all these other girls… She’s just representative of what we’ve tried to do at the academy and what giving a person the opportunity to have an education and see the best of themselves can do for everybody.”
“She teaches me a lot, she teaches me, No. 1, authenticity is key and that people feel your energy and if it is not real and true to who you are, people will reject it,” Dlomo revealed. “[She tells me to] embrace that, even in moments where I’m like ‘Whoa, is this happening?’ To embrace it, it’s meant for me.”
Black Airmen turn racism, bigotry into opportunity
During World War II, “Tuskegee Airmen” were denied to become pilots and fly because of the color of their skin. These war heroes went on to become some of America’s most recognized and decorated pilots during the war. Two Tuskegee Airmen, Lieutenant Colonel Ted Lumpkin Jr. and 2nd Lieutenant Jerry Hodges, went on to attend the University of Southern California. Lumpkin completed his undergraduate training at USC and graduated in 1947, eventually earning a master’s degree in 1953. Hodges graduated from USC in 1950 with a bachelor’s degree in accounting.
As the 13 young African-American men stepped off the train in this small central Alabama town on a July day in 1941, their first impression was the oppressive heat that immediately hit them in the face. With no breeze, the stifling hot air could be practically cut with a knife.
When they stepped off the bus at the nearby airfield, their first collective thoughts were – where’s the airfield? In front of the young men, who were there to learn to fly, was an open field that over the next several years would become a bustling training base. They would take an experiment by senior Army leadership to see if blacks were “teachable” to fly airplanes and turn it into the ultimate experience for African-Americans to do something that until then was strictly off limits.
Eventually, Moton Field, named for the former Tuskegee Institute president Robert Moton, would consist of two aircraft hangars, wooden offices, storage buildings, a locker building, clubhouse, vehicle maintenance area, and a control tower. However, in the first few years of the war, riggers hung parachutes from the hangar trusses to dry because the field’s tower wasn’t built until 1943.
“There was no real recognition that we had been overseas, other than our immediate family and friends. It eventually got to the point where most of us just did not talk about the experience at all, because no one really believed you, and it became a secret.”
Cadets first completed their primary flight training there before they advanced to basic and advanced training at Tuskegee Army Air Field.
Some Army leaders considered training in Tuskegee during World War II “an experiment.” But African American pilots saw it as an opportunity, with one surviving Tuskegee Airman calling it the “Tuskegee Experience.”
Surviving Tuskegee Airmen say the standard was higher for them than it was for white pilots, and that the training was “an experiment designed to fail,” with many qualified African American pilots washing out during basic and advanced training. Of the 3,000 who trained to fly at Tuskegee, only 1,000 graduated. About 650 were single-engine pilots, with the remainder qualified as bomber pilots who never saw combat. Cadets faced racism and segregation at Tuskegee and other training bases such as Selfridge Field, Mich., and Walterboro Army Air Field, S.C.
“We just loved the airplane, but we knew segregation at that time was the rule of the world,” said Dr. Roscoe C. Brown Jr., a Tuskegee Airmen who graduated on March 12, 1944, and later became commander of the 100th Fighter Squadron and one of three Tuskegee Airmen who shot down German Me-262 jets from the P-51 Mustang.
“People who never grew up during segregation can’t realize how rigid it was”
“People who never grew up during segregation can’t realize how rigid it was,” said Brown. “You could go as high as you could in the black community, but you couldn’t go nearly as high in the white community. Opportunities were denied to you, and you had no recourse. That was why the NAACP and the civil rights movement got started back in the 1920s and ‘30s. That was the struggle the people of my generation went through.”
But, according to Brown, “excellence is the antidote to prejudice.”
Only six of those original 13 cadets survived all four phases of training to earn their wings on March 7, 1942. That initial class included Capt. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., who would go on to become the Air Force’s first African American general.
Because construction on Moton Field was delayed by rain, the class started training at Kennedy Field, where chief flight instructor Charles A. (“Chief”) Anderson took first lady Eleanor Roosevelt on her heavily publicized flight on March 29, 1941.
According to historical documents, if many military leaders had their way, the effort to train African American pilots for combat would have been a failed experiment. As late as 1925, an Army War College study referred to African-Americans as “mentally inferior subspecies of the human race,” with “smaller brains that weighed 10 ounces less than whites.”
Much of the leadership believed blacks lacked the intelligence, leadership or coordination to be pilots, much less fighter pilots. “Experiments within the Army in the solution of social problems are fraught with danger to efficiency, discipline, or morale,” wore Gen. George C. Marshall, Army chief of staff, in a letter in 1941. Just a year earlier, he had also written that the military wasn’t the proper place to change the segregation policy prevalent in American society.
Fortunately, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was concerned about the black vote in the 1940 presidential election, and announced after the Civil Pilot Training Act passed in 1939 that African Americans would be trained as military pilots in the Army Air Corps.
The Tuskegee Institute was already training African American civilian pilots, and in 1939, the Civil Aeronautics Administration approved the school as a civilian pilot training institution. The Army Air Forces allowed the 99th Fighter Squadron to become the first African American flying unit to deploy to North Africa in the spring of 1943. Tuskegee pilots were initially limited to flying patrols along the coast and on shipping targets, but would go on to become one of the most successful escort groups within the Army Air Corps.
But by the end of the war, Tuskegee Airmen had flown about 1,500 missions, destroyed 260 enemy planes
But by the end of the war, Tuskegee Airmen in the 99th Fighter Squadron, part of the 332nd Fighter Group, had flown about 1,500 missions, destroyed 260 enemy planes, and were instrumental in the destruction of many enemy targets.
Not too long ago, many Americans were unaware of the role African Americans and their training in Tuskegee played during World War II. Most of the Tuskegee Airmen, like intelligence officer Lt. Co. Ted Lumpkin, kept their experiences to themselves.
“There was no real recognition that we had been overseas, other than our immediate family and friends,” Lumpkin said. “It eventually got to the point where most of us just did not talk about the experience at all, because no one really believed you, and it became a secret.”
Dr. Daniel C. Haulman is the organizational histories branch chief at the Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxell Air Force Base, Ala. and co-authored the book “The Tuskegee Airmen: An Illustrated History: 1939 – 1949.” He explained that for about two decades after the war, important documents, histories and mission reports on the Tuskegee Airmen remained classified. But beginning in the late 1950s, several important steps led to the Tuskegee Airmen finally being recognized for their service, struggles and accomplishments.
“It was not until the documents were de-classified and people could read them that the Tuskegee Airmen slowly came to the attention of the public,” said Haulman, “The first step was the one that gave them their name, Charles Francis’ book, ‘The Tuskegee Airmen,’ first came out in 1955. The second step was the formation of Tuskegee Airmen Inc., which formed to publicize what they accomplished during World War II. The third step was the HBO movie (also called ‘The Tuskegee Airmen’) in the 1990s that helped increase the publicity the Tuskegee Airmen got.”
The Tuskegee-trained pilots went on to earn their place in U.S. military history, but some historians are skeptical of the role they played in President Harry S. Truman’s decision to desegregate the military on Feb. 2, 1948. Haulman has a much different view.
“Not everyone agrees with me, but I believe they did have an influence on Truman’s decision,” Haulman said. “The Air Force was already moving toward desegregation even before Truman issued Executive Order 99801. The first secretary of the Air Force, Stuart Symington, was well aware of the Tuskegee Airmen record, and he was long an advocate of desegregation of the Air Force.
“There are those who believe Symington helped Truman draft the executive order because the Air Force was already moving toward desegregation. (Col.) Noel Parrish wrote a thesis advocating the desegregation of the Air Force right around the time the Air Force was born. I think Parrish influenced Symington, and Symington influenced Truman.”
Lumpkin, now 94, sometimes uses his lessons from overcoming prejudice to serve his country during World War II to help prepare young people for their “own Tuskegee experience.”
“I think one of the things the Tuskegee experience can do for youngsters is to help them to realize that, because the Tuskegee Airmen were able to do their best on a day-to-day basis, these kinds of actions accumulate,” Lumpkin said. “And as they do, they build a strength which connects with other people and also strengthens the person going through this experience.
“Tuskegee was a challenge for the Tuskegee Airmen. I think this is important for youngsters to know that they are going to have their own Tuskegee experiences because those things come up in life. But if they do their best, each and every day, the accumulation of that effort will show itself in a positive way in their lives and help them to be better citizens and be more comfortable in their life activity.”
Viet Luong ’87 was only 9 years old when his family barely escaped war-torn Vietnam.
Along with hundreds of other Vietnamese fleeing Communist reprisal, Luong, his parents and seven sisters found refuge aboard an American aircraft carrier. “My sisters and I were scared to death,” Luong recalls. “When we landed on the USS Hancock, it was so big… We asked our father, ‘Dad, where are we?’ He said, ‘We’re on a U.S. carrier.’ We said, ‘What does that mean?’ And he replied, ‘It means nothing in the world can harm you now.’”
The following day, Saigon fell.
Life in America
Luong still gets choked up thinking about his family’s harrowing experience, but he has come a long way from that fateful day: In 2014, Luong became the first Vietnamese-born officer in the U.S. military to achieve the rank of brigadier general.
Today, Luong is the 1st Cavalry Division’s deputy commanding general for maneuver and most recently was in Afghanistan. The infantry officer commanded a battalion of 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers in Iraq in 2007–08, and led the 101st Airborne Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team, the storied Rakkasans, into combat in Afghanistan in 2010–11. He has also served in Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo.
He credits his fellow Army officers for helping him get his first brigadier general’s star. “I just try to do the best I can in every job given,” Luong says. “I would not be where I am today without all the help I have received from my subordinates and superiors.”
His hardscrabble upbringing also played a role. After their escape, the Luongs relocated to Los Angeles and started from nothing to build a life. His father, who had majored in English literature and served as a senior officer in the South Vietnamese infantry, found work as an armed security guard, while Luong’s mother worked in a fast food restaurant. Luong’s older sisters worked too, but when one was robbed at gunpoint during a shift at a Hollywood gas station, Luong’s father decided all his children were going to college.
Luong applied to USC thinking he’d never be able to attend, and set his hopes on state universities. A chance encounter with a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) instructor at USC opened his eyes to new possibilities.
The instructor had served in Vietnam and was a paratrooper—exactly what Luong hoped to one day become. In 1983, Luong was accepted at USC with a full ROTC scholarship. “It was a bold move to go to USC,” Luong says. “I chose USC not only for its legacy of academic excellence, but also because of how its alumni have fared in Southern California.”
Luong majored in biological sciences at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “Being a science major taught me to think critically,” he says. “I can cut through a lot of fluff and get to the root of the problem, and that has been one of my greatest strengths in my career.”
He feels tremendous patriotism for the country that not only saved his life but also gave his family a chance to fulfill their aspirations through education.
His career is a thank-you from that 9-year-old boy on the USS Hancock. “At the end of the day,” Luong says, “you have to ask yourself: What are you doing to contribute to our nation?”
California State Senator Considers Himself a Pharmacist First
Even after 26 years as a politician, Jeff Stone considers himself a pharmacist first. The California state senator, who earned his PharmD from the USC School of Pharmacy in 1981, represents the 28th district while championing healthcare issues as one of only five medical professionals — and the only pharmacist — in the legislature.
He got interested in the business of healing at a young age — influenced in part by his uncle, a physician revered in the family, but also by a memorable early experience. Stone’s grandfather owned a shoe store in Santa Monica and used to take him along on Saturdays. One weekend, when Stone was 5 or 6, he saw a boy about his age with leg braces. His grandfather explained that the boy had polio and would never again walk unaided.
“I asked, ‘Why can’t they just give him a pill and make him better?’” Stone remembers. “My grandfather said: ‘Well, they don’t make that pill yet. Maybe you’ll have the opportunity I didn’t have to get an education and one day help discover a cure.’”
Spurred on at that early age, Stone says, “I knew I was going into the healthcare field in some way.” Meanwhile, watching his grandfather run a successful business gave greater specificity to Stone’s youthful plans.
Two years after earning his PharmD, Stone opened his first small business, Temecula Pharmacy. “I moved here because I wanted to have a Cheers kind of relationship with my customers, where people walked in and you knew their name,” he says, referencing the then-popular television series set in a Boston bar. “I wanted to be part of a community — to be the community pharmacist.”
He later owned a total of six pharmacies, five in Riverside County and one in Orange County. He still maintains one, Innovative Compounding Pharmacy in Murrieta.
“Establishing a compounding-only pharmacy allowed me to use the general chemistry, biochemistry, microbiology and other pharmacy classes as tools to prepare and make drugs,” Stone says. “It reinforced for me that this was just a great profession to pick.”
The pharmacy profession also proved invaluable when he entered politics.
After attending a city council meeting to urge action against rampant graffiti, Stone decided to run for a seat in 1992. “According to the Gallup poll, pharmacists are the most respected profession out there, year after year,” Stone notes.
He defeated the city’s mayor pro tem and ended up serving 12 years on the city council. Then he ran for the Board of Supervisors for Riverside County. “I was the board appointee to the county hospital, which was struggling,” he says, recalling one of his proudest accomplishments. “With my leadership, I was able to help turn that hospital around into a profit-making entity that expanded clinical pharmacy programming and saw pharmacists doing rotations with physicians.”
In 2014, he won office in newly redrawn state senate district 28. (The only election he has lost to date was a bid for California’s 36th congressional district in 2016.) The 28th district extends from southwest Riverside County to the Arizona border, including Temecula, Murrieta, Lake Elsinore and Palm Springs.
He prides himself on bipartisan efforts to benefit patients. He teamed with a Democrat, Hannah-Beth Jackson of Santa Barbara, to co-author a drug takeback bill that went into effect in 2016. The legislation allows people to drop off unused pharmaceuticals in specially designed storage containers. He also has co-authored laws that make it tougher for juveniles to buy tobacco products.
Over the long term, Stone expects a “monumental shift” in pharmacists’ ability to bill for clinical care services. But just as politicians must work across the aisle to be truly effective, he knows that expanding pharmacists’ range will support fellow healthcare providers rather than usurp anyone’s role.
“In no way has this ever been about thinking we’re the super- heroes of the medical profession who can solve everything by ourselves,” he says. “But we bring a certain expertise to the table that complements that of other healthcare professionals. The goal for all of us is to work collaboratively in the best interest of the patient and to deliver better healthcare.”
As Stone continues working on legislation promoting healthcare and other priorities, he remains true to his roots. “I’m a pharmacist first, politician second,” he says. “If I had a choice of being one or the other, I would have stayed a pharmacist.”
I founded SoGal, now a global community influencing 50,000 diverse entrepreneurs and investors with a dozen of city chapters worldwide. When I realized that funding was often the largest hurdle for female founders, I jumped into venture capital and cofounded SoGal Ventures, the first millennial venture capital firm led by women. Last February, at 24 years old, I became one of the youngest persons to ever be on the cover of Forbes Asia Magazine, as a 30 Under 30 in the VC category.
If you told me a year ago that I would be on the cover of Forbes as a female venture capitalist, I would think you were out of your mind. But here I am, the only woman standing alongside four men on the cover highlighting “the first Asian regional roster of Millennials making good,” smiling in a red dress. Under my name, it says, “gathers entrepreneurial women.” Holding the magazine in my hands and looking at my face on the cover feels unreal.
I never thought I had any entrepreneurial passion within me. For twenty-three years, it never crossed my mind that I would become an entrepreneur at this age, and I felt a little strange getting accepted into a master’s program called Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Even my application essay (only one-page long, thank god) was sort of made up. I mentioned that my uncle is a successful entrepreneur and that I admired his success. My previous employer was a technology corporation and my boss brought up the word “entrepreneurial” several times. But that’s about it! Isn’t entrepreneurship something you might do after you are at least thirty years old?
Looking back, it’s almost cute how wrong I was.
I spent six and a half years in the US and kept moving west. I first came to the East Coast, then went to the Midwest, and finally ended up in California. My college friends used to say I was F.O.B. (Fresh Off the Boat), and I don’t deny it. I didn’t know what jalapeño, mustard, root beer, or mozzarella was, and I had never heard of St. Patrick’s Day, Scavenger Hunts, or the Super Bowl. You bet I was laughed at a lot.
For a long time, I was intimidated by searching for a job. I never heard back from companies that I wanted to work for, and sometimes I got rejections within fifteen minutes after I checked a box that says, “I will require visa sponsorship now or in the future to work in the US.” Life is tough when you are an international student trying to get a qualitative marketing job in the US.
Why would a company spend upward of $40,000 to hire a foreign person to do marketing, when there are tons of college graduates who speak English as their mother tongue? Several times I wanted to give up.
But I didn’t. Instead, I went to every interview I could get, even for some sketchy sales jobs and marketing positions that would only pay $25,000 a year. After dozens of interviews, I stopped worrying about my imperfect English and started enjoying my conversations with potential employers. I learned to network, build connections, and talk about myself with confidence.
When I finally landed a marketing job, I absolutely loved it. The team was diverse; the corporate environment was friendly; the work-life balance was great; the work I was doing had a purpose. The catch? Sadly, being an international student means I was not guaranteed a work visa. The system is unfair — I was a skilled worker with a great education contributing to the economy, but all of a sudden I was not allowed to continue working in the US because my visa application didn’t pass the computer-generated lottery. I was devastated and wanted to leave the country.
But I didn’t. Instead, I quit my job, took the GMAT, and applied for graduate schools at the end of May, the time of year when top schools had already finalized their roster for the fall. Even though the timing was against me, I scored 750 in GMAT (top 2 percent), and got into five schools. I ended up at University of Southern California (USC) studying Entrepreneurship and Innovation, not because I was into the subject, but because they offered a half scholarship. I couldn’t even pronounce or spell the word “entrepreneurship” properly! My plan was simple: to graduate in a year and get another corporate job.
That didn’t happen. After listening to tons of founders telling their fascinating stories, I quickly came to the realization that entrepreneurship is the only way if you want to make a real impact on the world. Being in a corporate job is a safe path, but you often need to “fit in” and climb the already-designed ladder. When you want to shake things up, a corporation is like the Titanic — too heavy to steer. Corporations do have brand equity (that does not belong to you), but they also have inefficiency. A meaningful change often takes too long to happen. Being an entrepreneur is totally different. You will have full autonomy because everything is on you. Without a corporate name behind you, you start to learn how people really think of you. Scary, right?
The entrepreneur’s mindset, on the other hand, boils down to three sentences: I know I have to solve this pain. How? I don’t know yet, but I’ll figure it out.
If you are bothered by something, don’t complain. Be the change, because you are just as ready and equipped as anyone else.
I realized that I could not wait for the perfect time to start. I used to think, “Of course people who are older are wiser and more experienced.” Now I have learned that years of experience means nothing unless you are constantly challenging yourself to learn something new. Being young is an advantage because people want to see you succeed. You have little to lose and much to gain. Entrepreneurship is a fast track self-discovery journey because your role goes beyond the standard scope of any position. As a founder, I have become a strategist, brand specialist, social media influencer, web developer, graphic designer, public relations expert, event coordinator, content creator, business development professional, financial planner, community builder, public speaker, and even a model! If I could go back in time, I would tell my college self to become a serial entrepreneur before I graduate.
I ditched my plan to go back to the corporate world and decided to immerse myself into the startup world. However, I was always one of the only women in the room at technology and entrepreneurship events. My entrepreneurship classes had very few female guest speakers. Technology is our future, and we can’t afford to leave half the world’s population behind and not put their talent to use.
Knowing how much the founders’ stories made an influence on me, I thought, wouldn’t it be powerful to bring the same access to other young women before they make their first career decisions in life? It never hurts to have an entrepreneurial mindset, and at least they will know that entrepreneurship is an option!
On a sunny afternoon in a classroom, I hosted the first High Tea Party for young female entrepreneurs. With no funds to purchase food or beverages, I reached out to my classmates and got connected to entrepreneurs who owned a cupcake store, a cookie brand, a juicery, and a tea brand. They became my first set of speakers, and I made sure they brought in their products for a tasting.
Within the first month, I hosted three additional events, and the positive feedback made me want to do something bigger. I thought about creating a full-day summit for hundreds of female entrepreneurs to get together, share stories, and help each other. When I told my entrepreneurship professors about my idea, they thought I was crazy. They said it was too little time for too big of an undertaking. I almost broke into tears after a short and discouraging conversation with one professor, and seriously doubted myself. But you know something is worth doing when people don’t think it’s doable. It’s fun to prove them wrong.
A hustler at heart, in less than two and a half months, I was able to secure sixty top-notch speakers, mentors, and judges to join our inaugural SoGal Summit, while selling over 400 tickets. After the event, many people told me about the amazing opportunities they were introduced to there, how inspired they were by the speakers, and why it was the best conference they had ever attended. It was beyond rewarding.
I learned one of the most important lessons in life: if people say you can’t do it, it’s only because they can’t.
I learned one of the most important lessons in life: if people say you can’t do it, it’s only because they can’t. They don’t know what you are capable of, and they may not understand why you want to take on such a challenge. I made things happen because my intention was pure and because I worked my butt off to execute. To secure sixty speakers, I probably sent out 600 emails and begged everyone to introduce me to more people who may be interested. It’s the massive actions I took that led to results.
As SoGal grew, I often met with fantastic women entrepreneurs and would always ask how I could help them. Almost all of my conversations led to the same conclusion: women have a hard time finding investors for their startups. Since most investors are male, women sometimes feel unwelcome, not taken seriously, or discriminated against. During pitch meetings, they are asked things along the lines of, “When are you planning on having kids? I don’t want to invest if you’re just going to get pregnant in a year or two.” Often, if women bring their male cofounder or employee to the meeting, the male investors completely ignore them and go straight to talk to the man.
Through researching the statistics of what women entrepreneurs are facing, I quickly discovered the gender disparity in venture capital. Only 6 percent of partners at VC firms are women, and 77 percent of VC firms have never hired a woman into an investing role. Furthermore, female CEOs are not getting much VC money either (only 2.7 percent did in 2011–2013). In my venture capital class, we had one guest speaker each week for the entire semester, but not a single speaker was female.
Changing the ratio of women in technology and entrepreneurship, as well as leveling the playing field, is one of many problems in the world. Instead of saying, “Someone should do something about it,” I asked myself, “What can I do about it?” The answer was clear but intimidating. I had to become a venture capitalist. I had no idea how to break into venture capital. Take a look at the 2016 Forbes Midas List of Top 100 Tech Investors, and you will find ninety-five men and only five women.
One day, I came across a training program for venture capital investors. The application clearly indicated that it was for experienced investors, but I applied anyway. During my interview, I was honest about having zero experience as a VC and told them my goal was to change the investment landscape for the many women entrepreneurs that I worked with. To my surprise, I was accepted to join a class of thirty-five investors from around the world! There, I met my business partner, Elizabeth Galbut, an impressive young woman who at the time was building the first-ever VC fund powered by Johns Hopkins University students. During the program, we had close discussions with top investors in Silicon Valley, including Dave McClure and Jason Calacanis, who encouraged us to lead by example to improve the status quo, instead of sitting around and waiting for others to create the change we want to see. Elizabeth and I decided that it was time to start our own VC firm. We bought the domain name www.sogalventures.com and got to work!
It took me months to believe in the idea that I, a twenty-four-year-old woman, could start a VC firm. Getting an entry-level VC job already seemed impossible, let alone starting one! It took a LOT of self-convincing to set foot on this journey to build my SoGal “AdVentures.”
For a while, I did not dare to call myself a VC. I did not want to tell people about SoGal Ventures because it would just cause a storm of questions about my qualifications and credentials, which I barely had. What I could do, though, was turn off the noise. I soaked up all the information out there, took classes to study everything about it, learned from with every VC that I could reach out to, and I even wrote about it on our new blog. I focused on collecting proof points to make my case, not getting discouraged by different opinions. I started to look into investment and advisory opportunities so that I could build a portfolio and track record with very small checks.
It worked. Fast forward twelve months, Elizabeth and I have invested in twenty-two early stage startups in the US and Asia, and these companies have collectively raised $50 million dollars. We’ve been featured on the cover of Forbes, BBC World News, China’s largest TV network CCTV, and countless digital and print media. Our blog was ranked in the “Top 10 Voices” on LinkedIn. We are speaking all over the world at tech, startup, and venture capital conferences. And this is just the beginning!
My entrepreneurial story is “accidental.” None of the steps were planned; they just happened. The best thing? When you are committed to a mission, you will inspire others to create changes too. Many young women have told me that they’re inspired by what we do and that they are starting their own projects and companies to teach girls and moms to code, to create funds for college entrepreneurs, to educate the mass public, or to amplify the voices of minorities. How awesome is that?
Start by taking baby steps — write a blog, organize a meetup, reach out to someone who is into similar things, and tell people why you care. Never did I imagine a classroom event could grow into an impactful global community and a VC fund all within two years. I saw a problem, experimented with solutions, and kept growing. When entrepreneurship becomes a way of life, you will be on a rocket ship. Remember, only the people crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.
Cancer researcher and alumna Sophie Wix will pursue medical breakthroughs this fall as USC’s first Fulbright scholar to the University of Cambridge and the United Kingdom.
Cancer cells are like marauders, storming through the human body and devastating healthy organs and tissue.
But to find a new place to settle and grow, they have to break away from a tumor and circulate in the bloodstream. That’s a weakness graduating senior Sophie Wix has been exploiting as part of a team of USC researchers advancing an exciting new way to identify and treat cancer.
Called “liquid biopsy” by scientists in USC’s Convergent Science Initiative in Cancer, the strategy involves catching and analyzing cancer cells as they enter the blood. In addition to avoiding invasive biopsy procedures, the revolutionary approach could help doctors detect new tumors or the recurrence of cancer sooner, improving the likelihood of successful treatment and recovery.
“I want to develop cancer diagnostics and treatments that can be used around the world,” she said. “I want to use what I’m passionate about and the research I’m pursuing here to make a difference.”
It also allows scientists to study the DNA of the cancer cells and understand how they use certain proteins to replicate and spread. That information could prove invaluable, Wix said, ensuring that patients are matched with the most promising treatments for their particular form of cancer.
“It’s precision medicine in action,” she said. “We are taking these hard problems, these wicked diseases, and making sense of them in a molecular way.”
It’s also the type of pioneering research that inspired Wix to enroll at USC as a health and human sciences major at the USC Dornsife. Set to graduate May 11, she heads to the University of Cambridge this fall to work in the lab of a top cancer researcher as USC’s first Fulbright scholarship recipient to the United Kingdom.
Sophie Wix conducted research in Peter Kuhn‘s lab. Photo by Mira Zimet.
Wix envisions ultimately using breakthroughs in the lab to solve global health problems, especially in underserved communities with limited access to trained doctors.
“I want to develop cancer diagnostics and treatments that can be used around the world,” she said. “I want to use what I’m passionate about and the research I’m pursuing here to make a difference.”
Early experiences in cancer research
Wix was only 16 years old when she sat her parents down at the family dining table and told them she had something important to talk about.
“Mom, Dad, I want to be a physician,” she said. “It is the most rewarding profession. It would be a privilege to go into work every day and potentially save or change someone’s life.”
Her parents, both doctors, had often warned Wix and her siblings that medicine is a difficult field that requires tremendous self-sacrifice. Don’t get into it for the money or prestige, they would say.
But after volunteering at a local wildlife conservation center in her hometown of Phoenix, Wix fell in love with biology. Then during a high school internship at the nearby Translational Genomics Research Institute, she worked alongside DNA scientists who were developing a drug to fight an aggressive brain tumor known as glioblastoma.
“My friend’s younger brother had passed away of that same tumor when he was 13,” Wix said. “Working there really made me realize the power of science. We can use science to change the world.”
A thirst for science, and much more
By the time Wix started applying to colleges, she knew she wanted to attend a top research university. But that wasn’t her only priority. She also wanted an opportunity to pursue other interests, like music and camaraderie with other students.
She stumbled across a video for USC’s Renaissance Scholars program, which encourages undergrads to pursue studies in unrelated disciplines. It inspired her to visit campus, and Wix was immediately charmed — from the professionalism of the admissions team to her enthusiastic tour guide to the overall vibe.
“The way people just buzzed and lit up, it was such a happy place to be,” she said. “I love this school so much. I hope my kids go here.”
Alongside her academic pursuits, Wix found balance by taking songwriting and entrepreneurship classes. She became the chaplain at her sorority, Alpha Delta Pi, and joined The Sirens, USC’s all-female a cappella group. A yoga and meditation enthusiast, she reveled in the university’s emphasis on student well-being and mindfulness.
Seeking connections with other passionate members of the Trojan Family as a freshman, she attended a student-alumni networking event and hit it off with USC Trustee Amy Ross, an alumna and biomedical researcher specializing in cancer diagnostics. When Wix mentioned she was looking for research opportunities in translational medicine, Ross had an immediate recommendation.
“She said, ‘Don’t look any further, Peter Kuhn is your guy,’” Wix said.
“She came to us saying, ‘I want to do something impactful, I want to make the world a better place, and I think I can do that in your lab,’” said Kuhn, Dean’s Professor of Biological Sciences and professor of medicine, biomedical engineering, and aerospace and mechanical engineering. “I love that about students at that stage in their education — they are utterly fearless.”
For every semester that followed, Wix worked alongside Kuhn and his close collaborator James Hicks, professor (research professor) of biological sciences, to push the boundaries of liquid biopsy. A major highlight was testing a promising new device, known as a proteomic imaging machine, that arrived in the lab when she was a freshman.
One of only three prototypes in the world at the time, the instrument holds promise for helping researchers analyze how cancer cells spread through the body. It offers researchers hope that physicians can precisely customize treatment to each patient’s specific cancer. Kuhn likened it to previously painting with only a few colors, then suddenly having access to many different hues.
“We start seeing aspects of the disease nobody has ever seen before,” he said. “To go from four-color biology to the full spectrum of color changes the way you understand this disease.”
As one of the first researchers in the lab to try out the imaging machine, Wix has since trained other scientists to use the tool and even gave feedback to the device’s manufacturer to improve its design. She described the experience as a great example of USC’s growing emphasis on collaboration among diverse disciplines like engineering, math, physics and biology.
“It’s the convergence of all these fields,” she said. “That’s the buzz word, but for good reason. Biology and tech are becoming one before my eyes.”
A future in research and clinical care
After graduating from USC as a Discovery Scholar and Global Scholar this week, Wix will join the lab of another renowned cancer researcher Carlos Caldas at Cambridge University to earn a master’s degree in medical science. She expects to work on proteomic imaging of breast cancer cells and start to build the first 3-D model of a breast tumor, which will allow scientists and surgeons to analyze biological aspects of cancer in a virtual reality environment.
“I want to create my own scholarship to empower other students in STEM fields, to help them come to USC and pursue their dreams.”
Her goal is to complete an M.D/Ph.D. program, bridging her love for research and clinical care. Wix hopes to eventually use her knowledge to improve access to medical care and treatment in underserved communities, a passion inspired by trips to Central America as a teenager. During one visit to a rural area of Nicaragua, she became sick and had to travel many miles to receive care.
“Our privilege of health care in the United States is incredible,” she said. “There are so many people who don’t have the same access, who could die from the common cold.”
She plans to stay involved at USC, including advising the new leaders of Innovation Week, a collaborative event she co-founded to showcase research projects and businesses led by USC students. The first gathering raised $1,500 in seed funding for student research initiatives, and the next event is planned for this November. Wix also will be checking in on scholars who enroll in the new health innovations track at the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy; she helped design its curriculum alongside Kuhn and others.
With his award-winning startup, Ryan Alshak seeks to transform the way lawyers work
What is the bane of every lawyer’s existence? Certainly one of them is keeping track of billable hours.
Lawyer-turned-entrepreneur Ryan Alshak JD ’13 saw this problem as a business opportunity — and a way to make a difference. He quit a BigLaw job two years ago to launch Ping and transform how lawyers track their time.
“Our purpose is really to change the way that people think about working,” says Alshak, Ping founder and CEO. “It’s to first rid lawyers of the things they hate to do most, such as timekeeping, but the ultimate goal is to allow professionals to understand where their time is being spent and how to optimize that time.”
Instead of giving law firms a data dump, listing the time and duration of every email and phone call on a given date, Ping curates that timesheet. Ping’s AI is able to determine if a given activity is billable, which client matter it relates to and what the legal code is — across all apps, programs and devices. “That’s really what differentiates us from any other player on the market,” Alshak says.
“It’s something that gets me up in the morning and makes me smile when I’m burning the midnight oil. If I can help someone get out of the office one minute earlier to see their wife or kids or mom, that would be everything. This is very personal to me and the team.”
In 2017, Ping was named Legal Tech Startup of the Year at the American Bar Association’s first pitch competition. Since then, the company has seen many developments. “We ran a two-week pilot with the product, and it resulted in a 13 percent revenue lift across pilot users,” Alshak says. “We’re talking about massive economics by changing the way a firm operates.”
Now, Ping is targeting and rolling out the product to their next three or four firms. They also received significant funding and are aggressively growing out the team (from their current team of five software engineers, a designer, a businessperson and AI engineers with PhDs in particle physics).
And a milestone is just on the horizon. “We are in the process of closing our U.S. partner firm, which I can’t go public about yet, but it’s one of the largest firms in the world,” Alshak adds.
As a USC Gould student, Alshak was hyper-focused. “I loved law school, I loved the people, I loved learning,” he says. “I also knew my goal was to be a lawyer for the Los Angeles Clippers.”
He achieved his dream as an associate at Manatt, Phelps and Phillips. But “when I was in litigation, there was one thing that always gnawed at me,” he says. “I loved my job, but I didn’t feel like I was creating value.”
Alshak, who graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in political science in 2009, admired what some of his fellow graduates had done when they built and sold their own companies. “It wasn’t that I was jealous of the financial windfall, although that’s a great byproduct, but it was the notion that they had created value at such a young age,” he says.
He remembers that entrepreneurial spirit at USC. “USC inculcates the entrepreneurial mindset of ‘you are unique and you have the ability to change the world,’ and I believe that my Gould education will pay off many times over.”
As for Ping, Alshak feels good knowing that his invention can help people to “spend every minute with intention.”
“It’s something that gets me up in the morning and makes me smile when I’m burning the midnight oil,” he says. “If I can help someone get out of the office one minute earlier to see their wife or kids or mom, that would be everything. This is very personal to me and the team.”
Unexpected financial hardship forced Ann Marie Manahan to leave USC midway through her studies. Decades later, she created a scholarship to help USC students struggling to afford school.
Ann Marie Manahan feels like she was meant to be a Trojan.
The New Jersey native thrived as a USC student in the late 1980s, quickly bonding with professors and making close friends in her sorority and as a member of the USC Helenes, the university’s all-woman service organization.
“I loved every second of it,” she said. “I loved my classes, I loved the quality of the teachers, I loved the architecture. I always felt I was in the most beautiful place in the world.”
That made it all the more painful when Manahan had to withdraw after her sophomore year. An economic downturn hit her family’s finances hard, forcing her to finish her degree at a small university closer to home.
But she never forgot her two years in cardinal and gold. So when Manahan and her husband began supporting causes they cared about through their family foundation, she thought about USC.
Her husband had an idea: Why not create a scholarship for students who needed financial help to stay in school? Thus was born the Ann Marie DeFazio Manahan Scholarship at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
“I burst into tears when I saw my name on the website,” Manahan said. “It is so special to feel that I have this lasting connection with the school.”
“We wanted there to be a safety net for students who find themselves in similar circumstances as I had,” she said. “At the end of the day, it’s about helping ease that burden and anxiety. I’m so honored and humbled to do that.”
The funding supports students who face financial obstacles that threaten their dreams of earning a USC degree.
Scholarship from former USC student eases strain on current Trojans
To be eligible, USC Dornsife students facing financial hardship must maintain a 3.0 GPA, and preference is given to students from the East Coast and members of the USC Helenes. The scholarship of several thousand dollars goes to one student each year.
The support has already made a difference to junior Mana Afsari, who is from Virginia. The 20-year-old had spent many restless nights worrying about her finances until she received the scholarship last year as part of a broad financial aid package that includes a USC need-based grant, a Pell Grant and outside scholarships.
“The scholarship represents a lot more than money,” she said. “It’s peace of mind. It’s well-being. I’m incredibly grateful for that.”
Financial anxiety can be overwhelming for college students
When she’s not studying for her major in classics and minors in musical theater and Iranian studies, Afsari works as a resident assistant. She plans to take a work-study job on campus next year to help pay rent, buy groceries and lessen the cost burden on her family — especially because her older sister is also in college.
“It’s really meaningful to get this funding support, because if you nurture a mind at the right time, the dividends pay off forever,” she said. “But if you cut someone off from their educational experience, the damage might be irreparable.”
Sophomore Tucker Matus has a similar story. He grew up in a middle-class family near Philadelphia, where his dad runs an auto body shop. He has an older brother in college and two younger sisters in private school, which has understandably put a strain on the family’s pocketbook.
He had initially felt wary about traveling far from his family to enroll at USC last fall. He took this fall semester off to figure a few things out, including whether he wanted to transfer to a different university, partly to save money. Learning that he would receive Manahan’s scholarship encouraged him to return this spring.
“Just the fact that I would get a scholarship and it was specific to a student like me gave me another push to keep trying at USC,” he said. “Now I’m really excited to come back. I look forward to seeing what’s in store for me in the next few years.”
Matus is still sorting out his long-term plans, but he envisions a career that involves writing, and he is also mulling the possibility of law school. He is pursuing a degree in philosophy, politics and law with a minor in screenwriting.
The USC Dornsife scholarship is part of a larger package of support he has received from USC, including other need-based scholarships. He worked as a research assistant last year and plans to find a similar work-study position in the spring. He is grateful for financial support like Manahan’s scholarship because it means less student loan debt.
“Everybody always talks about the Trojan Family, but it didn’t really hit me until I got this scholarship,” Matus said. “The fact that she wanted to give someone the opportunity to have what she couldn’t have means a lot to me. It makes me proud to go to USC. Hopefully I can graduate and contribute in a similar way.”
A bond to USC shared across generations
Afsari is also inspired by Manahan’s story, especially because she similarly feels like she belongs at USC. She decided to enroll after a visit to campus gave her the sense that she could challenge herself and develop close relationships with professors.
That hunch has proven accurate, Afsari said. She recounts how professors at the USC Price School of Public Policy helped her when she was struggling to decide how to vote during the 2016 election. She was a freshman with no connection to the school, but they gladly walked her through state-level initiatives involving complex issues like property taxes, helping her figure out positions that fit her values.
“It feels like they are genuinely invested in my life,” she said. “It’s those excellent one-on-one, mentorship-based relationships that I find incredibly valuable.”
Those themes echo Manahan’s experiences as a student. Manahan remembers falling so madly in love with USC during a campus visit in high school that she canceled her plans to check out several other nearby universities. When the acceptance letter came, there was no question she would enroll.
She quickly established strong ties with her professors and found gratifying volunteer opportunities with the USC Helenes, through her sorority, Alpha Delta Pi, and during a fundraiser for the nonprofit initiative Swim With Mike.
But her father was a self-employed homebuilder, and the family business took a hit during the economic recession of the early 1990s. Manahan remembers her dad pulling her aside to explain the situation.
“It was tough. I thought I was starting my junior year at USC, but I found out I was transferring,” she said. “I understand now you have to roll with the punches in life. It’s going to throw you a curveball, and it’s all about how you respond.”
Reconnecting with USC brings flood of fond memories
Manahan rebounded quickly, finishing her degree in communications and pursuing a successful career in the telecommunications industry. She later earned her executive MBA, then shifted into nonprofit fundraising and development while starting a family in Morristown, New Jersey, where she grew up.
She maintained ties to her USC friends and her renewed relationship with the university bloomed during a trip to the University Park Campus several years ago with her husband, Marc; daughter, Madeleine, now 17; and son, Jack, 14.
“They’d heard me rave about USC my whole life, but they never got to visit,” Manahan said. “We weren’t on campus five minutes before my daughter said, ‘Now I understand why you love it so much.’”
The family returned again during the recent Thanksgiving holiday to tour the campus and catch the USC-Notre Dame football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. At one point during the long weekend, her kids grew tired and wanted to relax at their hotel room, so Manahan had her husband drop her off at her former apartment on Ellendale Place.
She spent the next few hours exploring the neighborhood she once called home, visiting her old church, St. Vincent de Paul of Los Angeles, and marveling at Our Savior Parish & USC Caruso Catholic Center and the dramatic changes at USC Village.
Manahan then caught the strains of the Trojan Marching Band playing in the distance and followed the sound to watch them practice. “It was a sight to behold,” she said. “Nothing can come close to our marching band, and hearing them in person always brings tears to my eyes.”
The experience has only reinforced her bond with USC.
“That adage is so true — you’re a Trojan for life,” she said. “It has stayed with me for all these years, and I’m so happy to reconnect with the university and help build something for the future.”
A public policy expert gives people—and digital debris—a second chance at life.
Kabira Stokes once aspired to become a fashion designer. But today, instead of creating clothes, she helps rebuild lives. Stokes runs Isidore Electronics Recycling, which trains and employs former prison inmates. She’s on a mission to ensure that the world’s resources—both human and environmental—aren’t wasted.
When I started this business four years ago, there was no national discussion about criminal justice reform. Amazingly, it’s come forward as one of the only bipartisan issues in this country
It all started when the Vassar graduate moved to Los Angeles. A costume designer by day, she spent her free time on political activism, co-founding a nonprofit group for young progressives. That’s how she met then-LA City Council President (now mayor) Eric Garcetti.
In 2005, when a position opened in Garcetti’s office, Stokes applied. She had no experience in local government, but “Garcetti took a chance on a very angry activist,” she remembers. There the young field deputy learned lessons that would shape her future.
When the city set up a summer after-hours recreation program in South LA to give youth an alternative to gangs, the neighborhood saw homicides drop to zero. So Stokes helped the council member’s office structure a similar program in the Glassell Park neighborhood. The Summer Night Lights program has since spread to 32 recreation centers in LA. “It was amazing to see how such a small program could be successful and then replicated,” she says.
Stokes was inspired, but she needed tools to make a bigger difference in neighborhoods where crime and imprisonment were all too common. She turned to the USC Price School of Public Policy to study environmental issues and policy for re-entry into society after prison. “Being able to put numbers, research and reality behind issues I was passionate about made my arguments less emotional. Instead, they came from a place of, ‘I know I’m right about this solution, and here’s proof,’” she says.
As it turns out, a paper she wrote at USC Price became her springboard. In it, she proposed combining environmental sustainability with job training for the formerly incarcerated.
She did her research on similar efforts, and others jumped in to help. A USC Marshall School of Business grad formed a business plan and raised funds. American Apparel provided warehouse space. She connected with programs offering re-entry services, including Homeboy Industries and Chrysalis. Isidore would serve as a next step—a bridge for parolees ready for long-term jobs.
Four years after its launch, the for-profit Isidore employs 15 workers who dismantle, repair and refurbish old computers and electronic gadgets, including preparing materials for extraction. Isidore also destroys data, using a crowd-funded truck with a portable hard-drive shredder. Stokes hopes to have 80 employees within five years.
For the fashionista-turned-activist-turned-business owner, it’s been thrilling to see the rewards of resourcefulness and second chances. Best of all, Stokes has seen increased awareness of environmental sustainability and re-entry programs. “When I started this business four years ago, there was no national discussion about criminal justice reform. Amazingly, it’s come forward as one of the only bipartisan issues in this country,” she says.
Not that she’s relaxing. Stokes recently co-founded Impact Recyclers, an electronic waste recycler network that hires workers who have employment barriers, such as being formerly incarcerated or physically disabled.
As Lizette Salas stood on the tee to start her week at this year’s ANA Invitational, she looked down the fairway and saw dozens of faces along the ropes who looked just like her.
And for the next several hours and next several days, the pride of Azusa, California, was followed around Mission Hills Country Club step by step and shot by shot by women from the Latina Golfers Association (LGA).
Most were commuting from greater Los Angeles each day to support their homegrown star. All were there to cheer for the woman who caused them to care about a game few of them had grown up playing but had since come to love.
“Sometimes we all wear T-shirts and buttons with her name on it, and we’ll walk with her and clap and cheer,” said Azucena Maldonado, LGA founder.
“She knows who we are, plus there are plenty of Azusa friends, family and kids from the San Gabriel junior program following her,” Maldonado added. “We’re all so proud.”
Salas has become the centerpiece for American golfers of Hispanic descent, especially in her East L.A. hometown of Azusa, which has a 68 percent Latin population.
Excerpted from LPGA star Lizette Salas’ unique bond with her Latin community by Lisa D. Mickey.
USC alumna Hattie Mitchell opened a charter school in September 2017, mere months after completing her Doctor of Education degree in educational leadership at the USC Rossier School of Education. Her goal was to meet the needs of children from families who have experienced homelessness or extreme poverty.
Behind the gates of Crete Academy, children play on a slide and swing set throughout the day. Each class takes its turn getting a half-hour of physical activity in the small playground, including a pair of sisters, one in the third grade, the other in transitional kindergarten.
When they started school in September, they kept quietly to the side at recess. Now they’re in the middle of the action, running around happily and shouting with their classmates. But like nearly 17 percent of the students at Crete, the girls are homeless.
USC alumna Hattie Mitchell opened the South Los Angeles charter school in September 2017, mere months after completing her Doctor of Education degree in educational leadership at the USC Rossier School of Education. Her goal was to meet the needs of children from families who have experienced homelessness or extreme poverty.
The school now has 132 students from transitional kindergarten through sixth grade. Many are currently homeless. Many more were recently homeless.
And 97 percent receive free or reduced-price lunch. When the girls’ mother, Joel, first brought them to Crete, the family had nowhere to live. While typical school administrators might be unprepared to handle Joel’s situation, Mitchell’s team swung into action. The top priority was finding the family a place to stay for the night. The only space available was on Skid Row, so the after-school program director volunteered to take them in until they found transitional housing in Koreatown.
“I may be homeless, but I love my kids,” Joel said. “If Crete never opened its doors to me and my kids, I would never be in the situation I am now. Crete took me from being a homeless mom to a shelter mom in a position to get permanent housing.”
According to Mitchell: “Our model addresses the basic needs — food, shelter, belonging. When a child comes to us, she might be hungry or need a place to stay, the parents might not be around or there might be a single mom. The social workers in our wellness program work directly with the families to stabilize them.
“This could mean getting them into housing, getting the parents a better education or helping with their career paths.”
A sense of belonging at Crete Academy
It’s this whole-of-family approach that differentiates Crete from other elementary schools. The school’s wellness program team helps families obtain government aid and assists parents in exploring potential education and work opportunities. They not only got Joel transitional housing, but also helped her to enroll in classes to get her GED.
Emotional support is a priority as well. Behavioral issues are common in children coming from families with unstable living situations. So each student is assigned a staff member who spends time getting to know the child for 10 days.
“The goal at the end of the 10 days is for every kid to feel like they have a place and they belong here,” Mitchell said.
And belonging there means they have to be able to get there, so Crete sends vans to pick up students who are scattered throughout the city.
Nearly half rely on the service. “We knew if we were truly going to serve this population,” said Mitchell, “we had to provide transportation.”
Built for successful students
Once at Crete, students walk into classrooms purposefully designed to help them learn.
Aromatherapy diffusers spray a lavender mist to help calm students who struggle to sit still; the children practice mindfulness and deep breathing and take multivitamins with fish oil to promote brain activity and focus.
It was also essential to Mitchell that Crete offer a college preparatory program that supports future degree attainment as a key tool for breaking the cycle of poverty.
“I wanted to build a school that provides extra support to the most at-risk students while also giving them a challenging and quality education,” Mitchell said.
Above all, Crete works to cultivate a sense of family. Many of the staff members have enrolled their children at the school, including Mitchell, whose son Brett is in first grade.
More than half of the students stay for the free after-school programs, where they play sports and participate in music, dance, cooking and gardening and get tutoring help. Parents and caregivers are also welcome at the school for free yoga classes, workshops in résumé writing and interview preparation, and classes in parenting and financial literacy.
“When they show up at district schools with all those needs, they may meet one counselor who may be able to help if not too busy,” Mitchell said. “Everybody here has a heart for these kids. This isn’t just a job for me or anyone we hire. We make sure students and families know that they belong, that they have a purpose, and that — regardless of their circumstances — they can create the future they want. We’ll provide the resources for them to do that.”
Making her vision a reality
Mitchell came to USC Rossier to learn how to become a great leader and inspire people to share her vision.
That vision was forged earlier in her life by three experiences. Growing up, Mitchell and her family didn’t always have enough money to cover basic necessities, so she understands the effect poverty can have on success in school.
“I know what some of these kids are going through,” she said. “I have taken cold showers, opened up rotten milk cartons and had my power shut off.
“There were times when I could see the anguish in my father’s face — part disappointment and part sadness. However, he instilled in me an incredible work ethic, and from a young age, I took hold of the belief that I would do and be whatever I wanted if I worked hard.”
As a high school junior in a rural part of California’s Central Valley, Mitchell sat down with a counselor and expressed her desire to go to college. The reply? “You’re not college material.”
That could have been the end of Mitchell’s hopes, but her mother was assertive in figuring out what her daughter needed to do to get on the college track. By taking extra classes during her senior year, Mitchell earned admission to California State University, Los Angeles.
As a freshman, she volunteered on Skid Row and was shocked to see a 6-month-old baby crawling on the street. That was the moment she vowed to start a school that supported homeless children.
She credits Adjunct Professor Mark Johnson, superintendent of the Fountain Valley Unified School District, with helping her make that vision a reality.
“When Hattie first shared her vision with me, I remember thinking how incredible it was to meet someone who was so committed to serving students with such extreme challenges,” Johnson said. “And while there are a number of educators who have a dream or vision for serving students who need us the most, there was a quiet confidence in Hattie that made me believe she was actually capable of accomplishing such a thing.”
Johnson encouraged Mitchell to get started on forming the school right away, rather than waiting until after she completed her degree. She ended up working on the 228-page charter petition simultaneously with her dissertation.
“Were it not for the discipline and structured writing a dissertation requires, I wouldn’t have been able to produce my charter petition,” Mitchell said. “I believe Rossier gave me the tools, resources and wherewithal to produce a petition that was approved unanimously by the Los Angeles Unified School District.”
The academy’s core values
CRETE is an acronym for the school’s core values — character, responsibility, equality, teachability, excellence.
With the resources the school provides, families and children are creating their own future regardless of their background.
Joel, for example, is working toward becoming a phlebotomy technician.
“She didn’t have many options before, but now she really has an opportunity to make something of her life and show her kids that, even if you fall on hard times, you can pick up and continue to move forward,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell shares that message with all of Crete’s students and their families.
“We want to end the cycle of poverty with the 132 kids we have,” she said. “I believe the work we do is not only for today but for 20 years from now when the kids we graduated can make a difference in their communities in positive ways.”
Mr. Abdur-Rahim is a former NBA athlete and U.S. Olympian. He graduated from the University of Southern California in 2016.
My NBA career was infused with countless interactions that led to my pursuit of an MBA, after I had earned an undergraduate degree in sociology at Cal-Berkeley in 2012, post-NBA. For instance, my MBA pursuit was sparked by the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement between its players and owners, which was an introduction to negotiations, strategy and finance; partnerships with major brands such as Nike, demonstrating how marketing and branding establishes customer loyalty; and the conversations with NBA owners, who control some of the biggest companies in the world, sharing their stories and offering valuable advice. Even if I was not aware at the time, these experiences led to me applying and being accepted to the University of Southern California (USC), Marshall School of Business.
As I reflect on the last two years, it was the search for a unique experience, the challenge of building new relationships and the opportunity to be a resource to a completely new network that led me to USC’s Marshall School of Business. The easier, more comfortable path would have been to consider attending my alma mater, but I wanted to challenge myself, at this stage in my life, to embrace a different experience. I am thankful for all the experiences USC’s Marshall School of Business afforded me from the anxiety of a different environment, the challenge of mastering new information and the expanded capacity to manage multiple projects, but most importantly I am thankful for the people. The amazing faculty, other students with diverse backgrounds and the network of alumni known as the “Trojan Network” made for an incomparable two years.
Excerpted from The Journey from NBA to MBA by Shareef Abdur-Rahim.
Zamperini and Naber met when they took part in the Olympic torch relay for the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. After Zamperini’s children grew up and moved away, and then his wife, Cynthia, died in 2001, Naber sensed that his friend might need some help.
John Naber and Louis Zamperini, 40 years apart in age, are USC alumni, Olympians and as close as family.
John Naber is 55 and Louis Zamperini will be 95 in January, but they have two significant things in common: Both were Olympians and both were USC Trojans.
And that is enough.
Naber, who lives in Pasadena, was a USC swimming star who won five medals — four of them gold — at the Montreal Olympics in 1976.
Zamperini, who lives in the Hollywood Hills, was a track phenom at USC. And though he didn’t win an Olympic medal, folded on a table in his living room is a swastika flag he tore from a wall and took home as a souvenir from the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
Most of Zamperini’s story is well-known, chronicled in the bestselling book “Unbroken,” which was published a year ago.
Written by Laura Hillenbrand, the book offers an account of Zamperini’s sports exploits as well as how he was captured and imprisoned after spending 47 days adrift in the Pacific Ocean when his fighter plane was shot down by the Japanese in World War II.
Since then, Zamperini has lived a life of both sorrow and triumph. He suffered from alcoholism when he came home from the war and fought despair when he realized he could never be a world-class track athlete again.
He found love, married, had children. He worked in the movie industry and became a Christian after meeting Billy Graham.
Zamperini and Naber met when they took part in the Olympic torch relay for the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. After Zamperini’s children grew up and moved away, and then his wife, Cynthia, died in 2001, Naber sensed that his friend might need some help.
“It was the idea of one Olympian helping another,” Naber said, “one USC Trojan helping another, one Christian helping another.”
Naber drives to Zamperini’s home three or four times a week. He helps Zamperini keep track of his medications, makes sure Zamperini takes a nap and also handles all the requests for autographs and interviews that come Zamperini’s way.
Naber said it is an honor to spend so much time with a fellow Olympian.
“It sounds a little corny,” Naber said, “but there is a bond.”
Excerpted from There for his Trojan brother by Diane Pucin.
“I found out I got into USC about two weeks before I was going to get married. I was so stunned and I was talking to my wife and was like ‘So I’m not going to go.’ And she’s like ‘No, no, no…you have to go.'”
In this Film Courage video interview, Arkansas native Justin Warren [Then There Was Joe] shares how he applied to USC Film School (USC School of Cinematic Arts) on a whim (never expecting to get in), received an acceptance letter but was in the midst of planning a wedding. His wife’s encouragement to attend the school prompted him to go (where she joined him in Los Angeles after finishing college for pharmaceutical studies) and how it feels to come from a small, supportive college for the encouraging but brutally honest feedback of a larger institution.
USC Gould School of Law alumnus, E. Randol Schoenberg ’91 shares his experience representing, Maria Altmann in the quest to retrieve Gustav Klimt paintings owned by her family which was looted by Nazis during World War II.
Transcript is from a 2016 interview with USC alumnus and faculty member, E. Randol Schoenberg. Watch the full interview on YouTube.
I went to law school right out of college, mainly as a default. I couldn’t really do anything else. I had majored in math, but I really wasn’t good enough to go on to graduate school, and my father was a judge, and I thought okay, law, might be a good good thing to try out, so that’s why I came to USC.
It was fun for me also because at that time my grandfather’s archives were here at USC, the Arnold Schoenberg Institute was here. My grandfather Arnold Schoenberg fled the Nazis in 1933, and he spent one winter in Boston and froze to death and decided to come out to California. So in 1934, he came out here, and his first job was teaching at USC.
I was working in a firm downtown doing securities litigation, and I got a call from my grandmother’s closest friend, Maria Altmann. And I knew Maria she had been a very good family friend you know she knew my mom since my mom was born, and she was always around, and so she called me up and said, “Could you help me? I got a call from Austria, and there’s some new law and my family had these paintings, and I think there’s something going on.”
And she told me this story about how the Nazis had taken these paintings from her uncle, and that the family had never recovered them. So immediately I was hooked, and we went together on a long 8-year journey.
When I was in the Supreme Court with Maria actually in 2004, that that day she was on the cover of the USA Today, and I said to Maria I said, “You know win or lose (everybody thought we were going to lose), but I said win or lose no matter what your story is being told. Right? It’s on the cover of the newspaper. There’s going to be a Supreme Court decision that lasts forever. Everybody’s going to know what happened to you.” And for me and for Maria, that was our motivation – telling the story.
And so now to have it as a major motion picture with Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds and Katie Holmes and have millions of people hear her story it really is it’s the icing on the cake. It’s a great fulfillment of a dream that Maria had which was to let people know about what happened to her family; what happened to families like mine also victims of the Nazis and these amazing paintings.
Everything worked out, miraculously. But I all I can say is you have to follow your own instincts. You have to do what you think is right, and you have to be prepared to be able to do that. So I was very fortunate to have a great background that I got at USC Law School and also as an associate of the firms I had worked at so that when Maria Altmann came to me, and I had this great opportunity, I was ready to take it and I took it.
After the case ended, there were actually a group of students here at USC Law School who went to the deans and said, “Why don’t you ask Randy Schoenberg to come and teach an art law course?” So I was asked to come back to my alma mater and teach and you know there’s no greater honor than that. It’s been a lot of work, for me, to come back and teach but it’s been very rewarding.
Heather Needham will work at USC Student Health and teach at the Keck School of Medicine of USC
Heather Needham, USC Student Health’s newest primary care physician, has begun practicing on the University Park Campus. The Keck School of Medicine of USC alumna returns to Los Angeles after practicing adolescent and young adult medicine at Texas Children’s Hospital and serving as assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine.
“I definitely enjoyed my clinical experience at USC,” Needham said. “I thought I’d go into OB, but I really loved my pediatric rotation.”
Needham, who is board certified in both pediatrics and adolescent medicine, has a faculty appointment as clinical assistant professor at the Keck School of Medicine in addition to her duties at USC Student Health.
She is one of two primary care doctors to join USC this month; the other is Vladimir Ayvazyan. Their arrival boosts the number of primary care staff physicians to 20 and comes on the heels of two new OB-GYN doctors and 10 additional mental health counselors to start at USC Student Health this semester.
Heather Needham always saw her path in medicine
Raised in Oakland, Needham said she wanted to be a doctor since age 9, when her grandfather suffered from a serious fall. She earned her undergraduate degree in psychology at UCLA before coming to USC for her medical degree.
Adolescent medicine has allowed her to do a lot of what she loved about medical gynecology — from contraceptive management to treating menstrual disorders, she said. But it also gave her an opportunity to help young people manage health and life issues as they transition into adulthood.
“Part of adolescent health care is letting the patient know they can speak to you confidentially,” she said. “I have a really great rapport with my patients, and it helps them to have a safe space to say what’s on their minds and not be judged.”
Needham, who earned her Master of Public Health with a focus on health education and health promotion, sees patients dealing with a variety issues. They could be grappling with eating disorders, anxiety and depression or feeling under stress from relationships and being away from home.
A holistic approach to student health
“One piece of advice I give is to remember to take time to do things you enjoy, rather than focusing entirely on schoolwork,” said Needham, who snowboards, runs and spins to manage her own stress. “Having an activity or hobby helps to reduce your stress, which is important for your overall health.”
With her entire family residing in California and her fiancé living in Los Angeles, Needham said she’s happy about her return to the West Coast and eager to begin a new adventure caring for USC students.
“I love working with a young population,” she said. “Every day when I leave work, I know I did something good for somebody — whether it’s mediating with a patient’s parents or addressing an eating disorder — it makes me happy to know I can help.”
USC alumni are woven throughout the fabric of Southern California civic life.
Growing up in the Highland Park community of Los Angeles in the 1950s, Art Leahy MPA ’82 recalls only one tall building around, about 40 blocks away from his house: City Hall. Today, of course, skyscrapers pepper L.A.’s downtown. Leahy has seen a lot change over the last 60 years, especially from where he sits as CEO of Metrolink, Southern California’s regional rail system.
A transit guru for 45 years, Leahy has shepherded railway, bus and freeway projects in the L.A. area during the last half-century of explosive public transportation growth. Just as transit has grown, so have major challenges in housing, the environment, the economy, the justice system and—seemingly everyone’s gripe — traffic.
These are problems that Leahy faces every day, but he’s not alone in trying to do something about them. Across the region, one of the world’s largest metropolises, Trojans are working to improve life. Threaded throughout the fabric of the government, a legion of USC alumni — especially those from the USC Price School of Public Policy— tackle some of society’s thorniest issues, from housing affordability to health care, from sustainability to social justice.
It seems fitting that the same building Leahy used to gaze at as a kid is where USC Price got its humble start 89 years ago: City Hall.
Laying the Groundwork
In 1929, the founding scholars of what was then the USC School of Citizenship and Public Administration studied ways the city could operate more efficiently and also raise government and civic engagement within the community.
The mission to boost the quality of life for people and their communities, here and abroad, continues today at USC Price.
“We’re a professional school interested in making a difference in society,” says Jack Knott, dean of USC Price, “and that’s what we’ve been about since the beginning.”
Today, about 16,000 USC Price alumni across the globe work to strengthen democratic governance, urban development and social and health policy—the interdisciplinary themes of the school’s academic programs and its 13 research centers and institutes.
Well-known local alumni include former U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis MPA ’81, now an L.A. County supervisor, and two prominent members of law enforcement: L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell MPA ’89 and Bernard Melekian DPA ’12, former police chief of Pasadena and former director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services in the U.S. Department of Justice.
Look at communities around the county, though, and you’re likely to find USC Price alumni operating behind the scenes at different levels of government and public service. According to Knott, the single largest group of city managers in the region are graduates of USC Price.
The school now has about 1,850 students, about 30 percent more than it had when Knott became dean in 2005. In 2016, U.S. News & World Report ranked the school No. 4 in the nation among graduate schools for public affairs.
One engine behind USC Price’s growth has been the nearly $135 million the school has raised in the last five years. Some of these funds have been used to support investment in the development of new degree programs and the hiring of new faculty.
The gifts also have helped raise the profile of the school, thus attracting more applicants. And a portion of the gifts has gone to scholarships, which have helped attract a more diverse student body.
In short, the money has, indirectly, readied a healthy pipeline of talented civic leaders.
Here are just a few who are making a difference across the county.
Angelenos live in a city that’s one of the world’s most notorious seismic hotspots. For city planners, thinking (maybe even obsessing) about an earthquake’s potentially devastating impact is imperative to save lives.
Just ask Ashley Atkinson MPA ’07, MPL ’07. Until recently, she had no clue what terms like “soft-story building” and “non-ductile concrete” meant.
Atkinson, a planning specialist in L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Office of Economic Development, now tosses these and other terms around with casual confidence, the result of her working on a seismic retrofit ordinance that went into effect nearly a year ago.
“Ultimately, this ordinance will result in a much safer and more resilient L.A.,” says Atkinson. An East Coast transplant, she moved to L.A. in 2004 and didn’t expect to stay after graduate school. But when she discovered L.A.’s compelling array of planning and development challenges she could work on, she stayed, and even bought a home.
The seismic retrofit ordinance affects some 14,000 buildings throughout the city, most of them residential, which will be upgraded structurally over the next two decades.
Atkinson also helped Garcetti establish a goal of permitting 100,000 new housing units through 2021 to address L.A.’s chronic housing shortage, one of the culprits that has made the area the least affordable place in the country to buy a home, according to an August 2015 study.
Of these 100,000 new units, 15,000 will be set aside as affordable housing, Atkinson says.
With nearly 4 million people in the city, or more than 1.3 million households, making a difference can feel overwhelming, but the key is to look at the big picture.
“As a generalist, I have to draw on bits and pieces of real estate, policy and public administration,” Atkinson says. “We look at what is realistic, what we can accomplish, and how we can make sure the resources are there to make these goals a reality.”
Being realistic is an attitude echoed by many of her fellow USC Price alumni. They seem to adopt it as a mantra, a lesson learned in their real-world-focused classrooms.
“I never felt like what I was learning was just theoretical, philosophical gobbledygook,” transit guru Leahy says. “What I learned in the classroom was directly applicable to how a large operation is managed, from budgeting to administration and operations analysis.”
Before Leahy became CEO of Metrolink in 2015, he ran the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) for six years and, before that, the agency’s counterpart in Orange County. Under his watch, the 22 and 5 freeways were widened and the 91 Freeway toll lanes were purchased and converted into a profitable publicly managed system.
Leahy recalls that in 1990, L.A. didn’t have a single inch of rail in operation. Now, L.A.’s Metro is about to pass San Francisco’s BART for ridership on its rail lines, Leahy says. Metro’s Blue Line, which connects Long Beach to downtown L.A., was established when he was chief operating officer, and the Red Line, which connects North Hollywood to downtown L.A., launched in 1993 when he was CEO.
“You can do things today that would have been inconceivable 26 years ago,” Leahy says proudly. Today, L.A.’s Metro trains average about 9.5 million boardings per month.
Giving Angelenos options to get from point A to point B is a big step in improving livability, but for Nat Gale MPL ’11, MPA ’11, transportation goes hand in hand with investing in neighborhoods themselves. Gale is a key member of the Great Streets Initiative, a community development program housed in Garcetti’s Office of Transportation. The initiative aims to improve sections of 15 L.A. streets by encouraging local businesses to develop investments that make the corridors more pedestrian-friendly and safe. Recent projects have included everything from street festivals to painting murals along Western Avenue.
Meanwhile, in Long Beach, Mayor Robert Garcia MA ’05 (a graduate of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism) has garnered attention for improving sidewalks, crosswalks, beach paths and traffic signals and adding bike lanes and more public transportation routes to make it easier to get around town. The improvements have earned national interest and Long Beach was recently named one of the 10 Most Walkable Cities in the U.S. by real estate website Redfin.
Scott Ochoa MPA ’06, Glendale’s city manager, has focused on a “smart growth” approach to revitalize his city’s downtown with a balanced mix of office, retail and residential projects.
A city manager for more than a dozen years, Ochoa—who first got a taste of city management while serving as an intern for the city of Monrovia while studying at USC—envisions an “18-hour business day” where workers, residents and visitors linger in the evening to shop, eat and enjoy downtown Glendale’s growing list of businesses.
Ochoa, whose office employs four USC Price students and alumni, says the city’s diverse investments in infrastructure, parks and economic development yield major benefits, from advancing sustainability goals to improving quality of life to attracting new tenants to town.
“We’ve come a long way in performance management and how we achieve measurable results to make a positive difference for our residents and businesses,” Ochoa says.
Growing up near USC’s University Park Campus, Dalila Corral Lyons ’81 thought that attending the university was a distant dream. The first in her family to attend college, she had a passion for social justice, but didn’t discover her career path until her time at USC Price.
Now a judge for the Superior Court of L.A. County, she rules on civil cases that range from employment matters to business and contract disputes. As a voting member of the Judicial Council of California, Corral Lyons makes policy decisions that affect all 58 county courts in California.
The council has approved funding to courts to modernize how traffic tickets are paid and how people report to jury duty, eliminating the need for many to have to drive to court.
“It’s very rewarding to make decisions that will positively impact the judicial system and hopefully make it more efficient and responsive to court users,” Corral Lyons says.
Her work isn’t easy, and she knows people have many gripes about the judicial system.
“It’s gratifying to be in a position to solve some of those complaints and improve the administration of justice,” Corral Lyons says. “Unfortunately, we are dealing with significant budget reductions. But despite the severe budget cuts, we do our best to ensure an impartial and accessible administration of justice.”
Seeking justice has long been a passion for Miguel Espinoza MPP ’07, JD ’07, who as a prosecutor for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office works with victims of the worst crimes imaginable: rape, child molestation, domestic violence, human trafficking, homicide.
To say public service is in Espinoza’s blood is an understatement.
His grandmother was a bilingual public school teacher, his mother is a public school teacher, his father was a deputy public defender and judge, his grandfather was a Spanish-language court interpreter, his brother is a deputy county counsel and his sister is currently studying at USC to be a social worker.
Oh, and Espinoza’s wife is a deputy city attorney in L.A.
“I decided to leverage my law degree to seek justice for the people living and working in Los Angeles County,” says Espinoza, a former political strategist. “Working as a special victims prosecutor has allowed me to do this on a daily basis.
“I never wonder why I wake up every day and go to work. This job is totally fulfilling. When I walk into work each morning, I know exactly why I’m there: to fight for safer and healthier communities.”
USC Price, Espinoza says, expanded his policy and analytical skills beyond his law degree.
“It emphasized group work and people thinking collectively about ways to move communities forward,” Espinoza says. Such an approach is needed, he says, to reform the overtaxed criminal justice system, whose complex challenges include overcrowding and a high recidivism rate among offenders.
A Cleaner City
As Southern California heads into its sixth year of crippling drought, tapping into a sustainable water supply strategy is no longer a choice. Enter Thomas Wong MPA ’13, who doesn’t mind shaking up Division 3 of the San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District.
“As a young person, I saw a lot of long-term issues that weren’t being discussed,” says Wong, who was 25 when he was elected to the board in 2012. Chief among the long-term issues was ensuring a clean and affordable water supply for the region and determining whether the cities in his district—Monterey Park, Alhambra, Azusa and Sierra Madre—were prioritizing water sustainability.
Wong believes the water district could and should be doing more to engage the community about water supply issues, and also ask bigger questions: “How do we build a stronger environmental ethic and robust community conversation around what our streets, our neighborhoods, our businesses will look like in 10, 20, 50 years? How do we build the future we want to live in?”
Environmental issues and sustainability have been a passion of Wong’s since he took a high school environmental science class. He served as a member and chair of the Monterey Park Environmental Commissionand handled environmental and water issues while working for former California Assemblyman Mike Eng. He was named president of the board in late 2015 and has made community engagement one of his priorities, especially as California grapples with an ongoing drought.
For Wong, the issue is educating the public on collective action. “So it’s even more important that we engage them so that they know what issues are coming up, why we have to pay for these investments, and what these investments are going to do to make our communities more sustainable.”
Across the county in Hermosa Beach, Tom Bakaly MPA ’89 has focused on air quality. The city’s former city manager pushed efforts to clean the air and expanded the city’s 2011 smoking ban to downtown, the beach and all public spaces. In November, he joined the Beach Cities Health District, which supports health programs in Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach. The agency offers residents free community programs ranging from consultations to supporting seniors living independently at home to “walking school buses” to escort children to school safely on foot.
Prior to becoming city manager of Hermosa Beach, Bakaly was city manager of Park City, Utah at the relatively young age of 39.
“I don’t think that happens,” Bakaly says, “without having that practical application, that skill set, that I got from USC.”
“I think if we were writing the story in 1999 or 2000, that would be a better premise,” he says. “Since then, there’s been a resurgence and reinvestment in arts education across L.A. County.”
Slavkin should know. After graduating from USC with a master’s degree in political science and then serving in government, he sat on the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education for eight years. He also worked at the Getty Education Institute for the Arts and as vice president of education at The Music Center. In other words, he has watched the rise of arts education—and advocated for it—from the front row.
For a long time, funding and resources for the arts in California public schools languished, he acknowledges, especially after the 1978 passage of Proposition 13, which limited increases in property taxes. “Lots of things suffered,” Slavkin says. Schools ended up with “large class size, no counselors, no librarians, too few nurses, etc. The arts have been caught up in that inadequate funding challenge along with everything else.”
But overall, he says, “we’ve been in a pretty consistent upswing since early 2000, when Los Angeles Unified School District adopted an arts plan.”
Nationally, much attention has focused on boosting children’s math and science skills. But some say creativity and innovation are getting lost in the emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), so they advocate putting an A—for arts—into the mix: Teach STEAM, not just STEM.
Today Slavkin is part of a county-wide initiative working with almost 70 other school districts that have recommitted to investing in the arts and are taking steps—each in its own way—to expand arts programming.
But is it sufficient? “I think the point that there’s not enough will always be true,” he says. “There will always be a need for more, and more opportunities for kids.”
That’s where many of USC’s alumni and faculty have answered the call, bringing their distinct skill sets and personal passions to underserved communities—changing lives with art.
Vince Womack MMED ’97 and Bobbie Rich ’02 both were surrounded by the arts since they were children. But they’ve seen that many kids don’t have that chance—neither at home nor in school. Womack is music director at James A. Foshay Learning Center, a K-12 school in south L.A. (and part of the USC Family of Schools). His musical confidence was buoyed by a mother and older brothers who played, and he strives to give that confidence to his students.
“A lot of students, when they get into a music program, don’t have a parent or a brother or an uncle, someone who did anything in music,” he says. “So the whole ‘I believe I can’ isn’t there. They may have a lot of ‘I’d like to,’ but I think it’s the self-belief that really drives one through the difficult times.”
His approach includes being honest with students that their relationship with an instrument can be moody: It feels good today, but tomorrow it can feel like pulling teeth. “I try and surround them with different kinds of music experiences—because it’s easy to be a pop music aficionado, but that doesn’t necessarily feed into you nurturing that individual thing that you are,” he says.
Lack of funding can kill an arts program, Womack says, which is why he seeks sponsors and partnerships, including the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation, the Harmony Project, Exploring the Arts and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Based in Santa Monica, Bobbie Rich uses the painting mastery she developed at the USC Roski School of Art and Design to stoke the creativity of kids across Los Angeles, from low-income housing developments and Boys & Girls Clubs to high-end bedroom communities.
“I work to create opportunities to connect my students to each other and to different nonprofit events, so that they have the benefit of escaping their bubble while doing good works, like painting murals or putting together care packages for less-fortunate people,” Rich says.
Rich minored in communication and graphic arts at USC and landed a job in the field through a school internship. That experience taught her that she couldn’t work in an office, she laughs. So she set out as a freelance artist. “I was able to utilize tools that I learned at Roski in graphic design, and also in advertising and business, to advertise myself. I’m a one-person shop.”
As a child who moved around the country every few years, Rich says she always had access to arts education in public schools. But she knows that’s not the case for a lot of kids today.
“Most of the kids have very limited art,” she says. “Even in high-end private schools, many only have art once a week. For other kids, sometimes once a month or every two months, parents will come in and teach an art project.” Parents often reach out to her for help. Even if finances are tight, arts remain a priority for many parents and their children, she says.
Durden grew up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and in the early 2000s he taught and choreographed at The Village of Arts and Humanities in north Philadelphia. The program focused on the needs and interests of the community, including teaching children.
“They had African dance class, and they brought me in as a hip-hop instructor,” he says. “That got me interested in using dance to connect particularly with African-American kids, getting them to understand the richness of their cultural heritage, but also understanding life practice through the lens of dance.”
Durden’s love for music began as an infant, when his dad installed speakers over his crib and piped in jazz and classical music, and he’s poured himself into studying dance through the prisms of neuropsychology, anthropology, linguistics and ethnomusicology.
“For me, teaching dance has never really been about dance,” he says. “If I’m teaching movement, forms and such to a community that creates those, it is getting them to investigate deeper into where they come from, why they come from. My focus is knowing your why from your what.”
In 2010, Durden founded Intangible Roots, a dance group “created to look at the intangible identities of movement, the things that you can’t quite put your finger on,” he says. He’s working on a documentary, Everything Remains Raw, and a certification program for a new teaching method he calls BEATS (short for body, emotion, attitude, time and space) designed to help people learn how to teach social dances.
Fellow USC Kaufman dance lecturer Bong has an out-reach organization of her own: UniverSOUL Hip-Hop. Today it’s in 50 elementary schools, but the idea for it began back when she was 10 and living in San Francisco.
“I went to a more traditional Irish Catholic private school, and there wasn’t really much arts at all,” she says. “When I was in the sixth grade, there was a performance that came to our school, and it was like a timeline of dance. The last 10 minutes was the first time I ever heard hip-hop music and saw hip-hop dance, and that moment literally changed my life. I was sitting in the second-to-last row, no idea what was going on up until the moment [when] I saw the entire school just come to life through the music and the dance. And it just activated me.”
When she got to high school, there was no hip-hop program—so this shy, introverted 16-year-old built her own. After majoring in dance and psychology at Santa Clara University, she joined the nonprofit organization Culture Shock Los Angeles and developed its education and outreach programs.
“I started to realize that I had a deep love for teaching and education,” she says, “and that’s when I built my own company, UniverSOUL Hip-Hop. We actually gear most of our programs to sixth-grade level. It’s a great age for students to really explore identity, culture, heritage—and a sense of body awareness and respect for themselves and each other, and all the social elements that you really see come to life in hip-hop.
“I’m pretty much that dancer that I saw when I was in the sixth grade.”
Building a Pipeline
At the USC Thornton School of Music, Peter Webster is envisioning the future of music education. USC Thornton Dean Robert Cutietta invited the veteran teacher and administrator from Northwestern University to be a scholar-in-residence, teaching part time and applying his life’s research to redesigning the school’s music education program.
Traditionally, conservatory-level music schools attract students who aspire to be the first-chair trumpet player for the LA Philharmonic rather than those who would make excellent music teachers, Webster says. The term “music educator,” too, often comes with the connotation of someone only interested in teaching K–12 in public schools. He wants to change all of that, and it started with a name change: USC’s graduate music education program is now called “Music Teaching & Learning.”
“We’ll be graduating people who will have an extraordinary impact in California,” he says. “They will be going out equipped to not only maintain the long tradition of Western art music, with bands or Western choirs, but they also will be schooled in popular music, jazz, folk and music of world cultures, and equipped with composition and improvisation skills, as well as the ability to involve kids in music technology labs, songwriting and stuff like that. This is a different kind of music educator that we imagine.”
A new master’s degree, Community Music, aims to prepare graduates to teach in settings such as outreach programs and neighborhood centers instead of elementary, middle and high schools. “They will be entering the community and working with adults and senior citizens and young children to carry the message of music forward,” Webster says.
“These new degrees are so important for helping to improve what we hope to be the cultural climate of music in the schools, by basically changing the paradigm,” he adds. “I also think that the climate for economics is changing for the better. Schools are finding ways of opening up the coffers a little bit to support music programs. We hope we can add to that and be part of that conversation as the world changes.”
Which brings us back to Mark Slavkin, the bringer of good news about the future of arts education. For his part, Slavkin and the Wallis have developed several ways of supplementing arts opportunities for schoolchildren, including hosting matinee performances of their regular programming.
“A lot of the kids are from much more underserved areas,” he says, but “even schools with the greatest arts program in the world can’t provide that same experience, of seeing professional artists in a professional setting.”
The Wallis’ other main effort is working one on one with K-12 schools throughout L.A., consulting with teachers and administrators and developing arts programs tailored to each school’s needs. “We want to be that spark or catalyst that helps them move forward,” he says.
That’s a hope shared by other Trojans across Los Angeles and around the world.
“All I needed to do was experience [dance] one time,” Bong says, “and it really ignited the leader in me. I learned all of my life skills and leadership skills through dance.”
Ms. Heelan was nominated by fellow Trojan and former classmate Anna Koroliak. When asked about why she nominated Briga Heelan to be a part of MyUSCStory.org, Ms. Koroliak wrote:
“I turned down Cornell and Georgetown and Tufts to go to USC and work towards my life-long goal of pursuing acting. But I didn’t really believe it was possible for someone like me. Not really. No one I knew in Missouri could imagine success. Even among many USC classmates, even among USC cinema students, many didn’t believe it was possible. And because of all those naysayers, I made many choices to hesitate and felt a lot of self-doubt for a long time. But Briga Heelan was in my USC acting classes — and seeing her success now makes me proud and thrilled. She was already brilliant and exceptional even in college. I would have loved to see that success is possible as an actor, and that Trojans like Briga Heelan are doing it and excelling at it.”
‘Great News’ star Briga Heelan finds her ‘light’ in comedy
NBC sitcom star learned to express herself through acting.
When actress Briga Heelan was growing up, she was too shy to express herself.
The star of NBC’s “Great News” said she thinks acting helped her overcome that reticence. “I’ve always had a hard time just being angry or just being really sad — the bigger emotions,” she said.
“I’ve had a harder time expressing them in real life until my adulthood, surely — so I think the thing that attracted me [to acting] as a kid was that not only was I allowed to do that, it was necessary,” said Heelan, who appeared in the sitcoms “Ground Floor,” “Cougar Town” and “Undateable.”
She grew up in Andover, Mass., where her mother was an actress and her father a writer. She said she didn’t consider becoming an actress, she just assumed it.
“It was never ‘I like doing this.’ It felt like I needed to do it. Watching my mom in musicals and singing with her in musicals, and reading my dad’s stuff, and I’d go watch stuff that my dad directed. It was all kind of in the mix from when I was born.”
Although she transferred in her junior year to a performing arts high school, it still wasn’t easy for her to make the transition to professional acting after college.
“I was in New York and was pursuing musical theater, and it didn’t feel right. I felt I was forcing myself to do things and be things that I wasn’t, all the time. I wasn’t listening to what I wanted to do. I was listening to what I thought I should do. So the switch was about putting that stuff down and stop trying to reach for identity and just ask myself, ‘What do you really want? What feels good to you when you’re doing it? And what feels bad to you when you’re doing it? And go where the light is.’ ”
Excerpted from “‘Great News’ star Briga Heelan finds her ‘light’ in comedy” by Luaine Lee.
A Trojan inspires his patients with stroke and brain injuries through occupational therapy.
John Lien Margetis ’11, MA ’12, OTD ’13 was born without hands and only partial feet, but sometimes having “limb differences” is an asset. As a Los Angeles occupational therapist who helps people hospitalized after stroke and other serious brain and spinal cord injuries, Margetis embodies resilience for his patients.
Margetis doesn’t need arm prostheses to move around the intensive care unit—or anywhere else. He enjoys skydiving, snowboarding and road biking. He touch-types on his keyboard and dabbles in art photography.
Yet his life could have turned out much differently.
Margetis’ story begins in an orphanage in Taiwan, where his birth parents reluctantly placed him because they couldn’t give him the tools he’d need to lead a full life. Enter Monique Margetis of Pasadena, California, who saw his baby photo in an adoption newsletter and fell in love.
“He was sitting in an infant seat with a huge smile on his face and his hair standing up about 6 inches on his head,” she remembers. An assistant professor of pediatrics at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and pediatric pulmonologist at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA), Monique Margetis already had an 11-year-old biological son and a 4-year-old adopted daughter from Brazil. But the single mom comes from a large family and already knew a lot about prostheses from her father, who developed artificial limbs for combat veterans.
In her mind, there was nothing her son couldn’t accomplish with the help of artificial limbs. She was half right.
In what he laughingly describes as “a burst of preadolescent rebellion,” John Margetis rejected his prostheses in 8th grade. As a teen he was mostly interested in using computers, skateboarding and biking, and over the years, occupational therapists had taught him to do these and hundreds of other tasks with and without artificial limbs. He realized he could manage just as well without prostheses.
He competed in soccer and track in high school and at USC earned two bachelor’s degrees before going on to complete master’s and doctoral programs in occupational therapy—all without special accommodations. As a master’s student, he did an elective rotation at CHLA’s hand clinic. The surgeons were so impressed they tapped him to be the speaker at their annual family day for children with hand deficiencies.
Today, he works as a rehab specialist in the neuroscience ICU at Keck Medical Center of USC and clinical assistant professor in the USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy. Patients recovering from stroke who are learning to regain the use of their paralyzed limbs often stare when they first meet Margetis, dumbfounded by his obvious physical differences.
“There will be times when you feel confused,” he tells patients, “but your OT is going to be that lighthouse cutting through the fog.”
Many patients later confide that hearing that message from a therapist with no hands feels “incredibly motivating.” It turns out that heart, not hands, makes all the difference.
Demontea Thompson uses his USC master’s degree in education to advocate for children who face similar struggles in the foster care system
At age 26, Demontea Thompson looks back and knows he beat the odds.
Thompson was taken from his parents and placed in foster care as a child in Compton. While others around him chose gangs and drugs, he chose education. But he didn’t do it alone. Through it all, he relied on the support and guidance of a few key people.
People like his twin brother, Demontray, a constant companion from the moment they entered the world together. His great-uncle Lorenzo and great-aunt Verna Mae, who took in the two boys when their parents couldn’t care for them. The mentors in college who encouraged him to keep pushing forward even when it felt like he didn’t belong, helping him earn a degree from California State University, Northridge, and then another from USC.
These people played pivotal roles, inspiring Thompson to give back by advocating for others in foster care — a drive that turned into his career.
Now as a resident director of housing at California State University, Los Angeles, Thompson creates services for former foster youth and oversees other peer support initiatives. He volunteers with Echoes of Hope, a nonprofit that supports foster children and other vulnerable young people.
He and his twin brother are also developing their own nonprofit called TwInspire to advocate for and educate young adults through workshops on financial literacy, academic success and other life skills. And Thompson envisions earning a PhD in a subject like higher education or social work to help him continue tackling issues facing foster youth.
It’s his way of honoring the sacrifices and support of those who helped him overcome countless hardships on his path to success.
“I really found my family. They’ve given me the best example of who I need to be and how I can serve others,” Thompson said. “I want to connect people to resources just like they did for me. And if I don’t feel like I’m heading in that direction, I check myself. I’m always reflecting on my purpose and my journey.”
A new family emerges after a tough start
Thompson was born into difficult circumstances. His parents struggled with substance abuse and poverty. As an infant, he was placed into foster care. So were his five brothers and six sisters.
He was fortunate to remain with his twin brother. They got another break when their great-uncle and great-aunt took on the responsibility of raising them. Their great-uncle worked in construction, and he emphasized the value of education and hard work.
“Sometimes the streets would tell us something different, you know — take what you need or do what you gotta do,” Thompson said. “But our uncle helped us develop certain life skills. He taught us how to build homes, install floors and windows, instead of running around in the streets.”
Their great-aunt died when Thompson and his brother were 12, adding another complication. Now they had to grow up without a maternal figure during their difficult teen years.
“That was hard because we didn’t have anyone to talk to about things like, hey, I’m in love,” he said. “Instead, it was, ‘This is how you use a sledgehammer.’”
School becomes a sanctuary for future Trojan
Education became their main source of stability, along with the strict guidelines of their great-uncle. He wanted them home right away after school to do their homework and help him with one project or another.
That formula kept them on the right track throughout high school, but as they approached graduation, the next step was fuzzy. Then a visitor came to their school. Sean James, who now runs a college access program at California State University, Dominguez Hills, told them about his experiences at a four-year university and encouraged them to apply.
“I was thinking, this guy is cool — a black dude who kind of looks like someone I would know, and he’s in college?” Thompson said. “That’s dope!”
Higher education hadn’t felt like an option for the twins. They had no college fund. Nobody from their family had completed a university degree. But they decided to take a shot and enrolled together at California State University, Northridge, with support from a program for low-income and educationally disadvantaged students and another initiative for former foster youth.
They struggled to adjust to the rigor of college classes. But the twins slowly figured out the right study habits and began to excel in the classroom.
Then came another setback: Their great-uncle died.
They had been pushing themselves to succeed for him, Thompson said. Now they had to succeed for themselves. So they pressed onward, graduating at the top of their class. Thompson earned his degree in management; his brother majored in finance.
Although he had initially planned on a career in business, Thompson took another path thanks to two staff members at the university’s student union: Debra Hammond and Sharon Kinard. They had become mentors and mother figures to the twins during their undergraduate years, inspiring Thompson to pursue a graduate degree in education so he could find a similar role helping students.
USC scholarships pave the way for foster youth advocate
The master’s program in postsecondary administration and student affairs at the USC Rossier School of Education was a natural choice, but Thompson had used up all the state and federal funding for college he could receive as a former foster youth. He applied to USC anyway, expecting to have to take out substantial loans.
Then after his first year, he learned about Town & Gown of USC, the university’s oldest women’s organization. He promptly applied for and received one of the 150 merit-based scholarships it awards each year. More importantly, leaders at the nonprofit began connecting Thompson with people who shared his goal of supporting foster youth in higher education.
“The doors were just opening left and right,” he said. “All of my interests in finding family, in finding that social capital to tap into had just been opened to me with the Town & Gown scholarship.”
He felt privileged but also conflicted, knowing that others were facing similar struggles and didn’t know about scholarships and other resources at USC. So when he shared the news on Facebook that he had received financial support, he also offered to help others apply to the Town & Gown program. A friend he knew from high school ended up winning a scholarship after asking him for advice.
“This scholarship is a possibility for those who otherwise would take another route that is unaligned with their purpose,” he said. “Financial burdens can make it hard to see the future, to have hope. Having the support of Town & Gown and the ladies there, who are so nice and connect you with so many resources, is amazing.”
USC alumnus finds his calling in advocating for foster youth
Thompson finished his USC master’s degree in 2017, writing his thesis on challenges and achievements of foster youth in graduate school. He was invited to present his findings at a conference in Bermuda and led a roundtable discussion on related topics in Ireland this year.
He still sees his brother regularly, and Thompson returns to USC often to meet with Town & Gown scholarship recipients and share his story.
He also envisions updating a book he wrote at age 19 on his path out of foster care, titled Raised from Scratch. The original version ends when he makes it to college, and he has plenty of advice to share from his journey since then.
He hopes it will inspire other foster youth to follow in his footsteps. They can be confident he’ll be waiting with a helping hand to guide them along the way.
“We need to make sure that people understand the phenomenal things that are happening on this campus.”
What was your reaction when they asked you to become interim president?
Wanda Austin: First, honored, and then, “Oh my God.” (laughs) Obviously I’ve been on the Board of Trustees for a while, and we have been addressing the issues that you would expect in an enterprise of this size: strategically where we are going, what do we need to achieve and what’s important in terms of the investments we need to be making going forward. So, I thought to myself, “If there’s something I can do to help, I’m glad to do it.”
This is obviously a critical time for the university. During your time leading USC, what are your thoughts about how best to move the university forward?
One of the things that I mentioned [at new student convocation] is to make sure we are living our values. We have our values on Tommy Trojan, but how often do we think — as we make decisions, is this decision consistent with the values that we have? My focus really is about making sure that we’re doing our job and that we’re taking action doing that is consistent with our values.
What are some of the opportunities that USC faces in the months ahead?
I think that USC has the opportunity to continue to lead in transformative research. We need to make sure that we are talking about those successes and encouraging additional investment in those areas going forward. Biomedical is an area that is really blooming. Cyber is another one. The digital arts is another. There’s lots of innovation that’s already ongoing. I’d like to see us make sure that we’re talking about it, that people know that it’s going on, because that draws additional talent.
As interim president, what does “interim” mean to you?
I know that I’m not here for a long period of time, and that I will have to make decisions until the new president arrives about things that really need to be addressed.
It means that I need to think about our students who are coming to campus, making sure that we are fully prepared to embrace them in the way that gives them the confidence that they are going to have the academic experience that they expected; and to be able to reassure parents that this is a great decision for their student, one that really ensures that they’re going to have a bright and promising future.
I need to engage with our faculty and remind them about the wonderful opportunity that they have to shape the minds and direction that our future leaders are going to go.
And I need to embrace our staff and tell them that we appreciate all the hard work they do to make everything else possible.
It’s also very important to have open communication across all of our stakeholders: alumni, students, faculty, everyone who is impacted by what’s going on here — and that includes the local community.
On a national level, we need to make sure that people understand the phenomenal things that are happening on this campus.
How will the university go about making sure that students are confident that they are getting the top-tier academic experience that they expected at USC?
By making sure that they have an opportunity to explore things that they don’t even know about. They have to take advantage of the rich experiences that are here — not only the science-engineering-technology work, but the arts, Visions and Voices, the fact that you’re situated in the greater Los Angeles area, which is the focal point to most anything you can think of. We have to make sure that the students understand that that’s all part of their academic experience, that we want them to be well-rounded, well-informed global citizens by the time they leave.
Where would you like to see the university at the end of your service as interim president?
I’d like to see the university take the wonderful things that are already happening and make them better. I want us to have that culture of: Yes, we did a good job, but if we work on it — if we try something a little different, if we bring in some other people — we can add another dimension to what we’ve already achieved.
Let’s talk about the situation involving the former staff gynecologist at the student health center. What are your thoughts on what happened, and what USC should do structurally and philosophically to make sure it doesn’t happen again?
That’s a fair question. At no time does anyone here expect that a student who comes to this campus and uses a service on this campus doesn’t get the very best of care, or feel secure and supported. We have failed if we find circumstances where we have allowed that to be the case.
The first thing we have to do is come together as a community and realize that we are all in this together. Everyone who has any association with USC has the opportunity to say, “Hey, I see an area where we could be better.” And that voice needs to be heard, that voice needs to be encouraged.
I really want to stress that in my short time, however long it is, that one of the things we can do is to make sure that we have a culture where people know that it’s OK to say, “I think we have an opportunity to make an improvement.”
It’s also important for us to do proactive education so that people know what’s right, and what’s appropriate, and what’s ethical, and as you step on this campus, have it be reinforced to you that this is a place where we have zero tolerance for inappropriate behavior, we have zero tolerance for people not being safe and secure, and that you can turn to multiple places for help — whatever is required for you to feel comfortable.
This has to be one of the things that we talk about and focus on, because if you don’t focus on it and pay attention to it, it’s not going to change — and we have to change.
You and your husband, Wade (MS ’84), are both active Trojans, right?
He’s an enthusiastic alum and so we always attend events. We go to the basketball games. We go to the football games. We come to the inspiring events here, whether it’s a dance program or a vocal program. We really enjoy being on campus.
Tell us about your own academic experiences, starting at Franklin & Marshall College and then graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh.
The first time I saw the Franklin & Marshall campus was when my parents pulled up in a little Ryder van, and pushed me off the back and said, “Good luck, we gotta get the van back.” So, now you have a young, African-American girl who grew up in the inner city out in the middle of Amish Country on a campus of 2,000 students, 20 of whom are black — a very different experience.
What made the difference was faculty members who said to me, “You’ve got talent. You’ve got capability. If you apply yourself, you’re going to do well.” It was an environment that really fully embraced you.
Then I go to graduate school, and I’m tutoring engineering students in math, because I’m still paying for myself to get through school. I went to the career center and it turned out that the engineering students that I’m tutoring would make a lot more money than I would after graduation. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out, “Hmm, I need to go find out more about engineering.”
So I marched over to the engineering school and talked to a professor who said, “Come on in. Your math background is exactly what you need to come in here and really have a wonderful experience.”
What are your own memories of USC? You were here as a graduate student.
I had a wonderful experience in the ISE department [the Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial & Systems Engineering] because I was surrounded by faculty who were open to being innovative, to different ideas. What I wanted to do in systems engineering didn’t exist. But that didn’t stop my thesis adviser, Behrokh Khoshnevis, from saying, “Well, let’s talk about what we could do and how we could achieve your objectives.”
I think that was what attracted me to USC: I felt that I was only limited by my own imagination on how to engage, how to define a program that would be very challenging but very stimulating and would help me in my career.
When you started at The Aerospace Corp., you were one of just a handful of women, and you became the company’s first female and African-American CEO. Now you’re the first woman and African American to lead USC. Do you see yourself as a pioneer?
No, because pioneers are bigger than life. But I do see myself as having an opportunity to be encouraging to others. When you look at my life, at key times someone said to me, “Of course you can do that.”
I feel like I have the opportunity to be able to do that for others, to say, “Of course you can achieve your dreams; of course you can achieve your goals.”
My husband always reminds me, “Not everybody does what you do,” and I recognize the uniqueness of it. I also recognize that, with a little encouragement, we can all be pioneers in some way. It’s really important to make sure that we don’t miss the opportunity to develop many pioneers.
How did your time as a CEO prepare you for this role?
It’s not just my time as a CEO. It’s my time as an inner-city child who was afforded the opportunity to get a great education by being bused to a different neighborhood, and having the experience of learning that was privilege. It’s my time of going to a first-class high school that focused on math and science that enabled me to be able to believe that I could be whatever I wanted to be in the world.
By the time I joined The Aerospace Corp., I didn’t know I was going to be a CEO. But each one of the projects that I worked on, I learned something new. I learned about teams. I learned about working with people. I learned about making decisions when there are some unknowns, and how you work your way through that.
In my time since being CEO, working on the board of Chevron and going through a CEO transition there, you see the process: What are the things that you need to consider? How do you conduct a national search? How do you focus on succession planning long before you have an opportunity or a need to fill a position?
I think all of my experiences have really culminated in giving me a very rich toolbox that I can draw on for the things that I need to address here at USC.
Do you see your current job here as being the CEO of the university?
It is CEO. You have a board, and you have lots of outside stakeholders who are vested in your organization. They get a voice, and certainly they will react to decisions you make and whether they think you are going in the right direction.
Then you have a team that’s inside, that you need to help with guidance and direction but also to help them figure out how to remove the obstacles that they see.
It’s about giving people the resources they need and get out of their way. I am OK with getting out of the way and just sort of watching the magic happen and seeing where it goes. I take tremendous pride in that.
Your fellow USC Trustee, Jane Harman, has called you a rock star.
(laughs) I think that I have led a very blessed life. And I don’t take it for granted, and so I take every chance I can to give back and make the world a little bit better. I’m happy to do that, and really look forward to doing that here as well.
[But] I’ve been telling people it’s not about me. It’s about making sure that the team has a clear plan on what we’re trying to do and doing it.
And by “the team” you mean …
Everybody — the Trojan Family, and the entire family is involved.
Ryan Coogler MFA ’11 has always been searching for superheroes who look like him.
While Ryan Coogler has had several critically acclaimed movies before Black Panther (Fruitvale Station, Creed), but the Marvel Studio produced movie was his directorial debut in the superhero film genre. And what a debut it was. Black Panther not only became the fastest film to cross the $1 billion mark, but it also became a cultural phenomenon unlike Hollywood has ever seen, sparking critical conversations about diversity and representation in the film and entertainment industry.
When Ryan Coogler was a kid in Oakland, Calif., an older cousin got him hooked on comic books. X-Men. Spider-Man. He liked all of them, but he was looking for more.
“I went to the comic book shop that was by my school and asked if they had any black characters,” Coogler recalled.
That was the moment Coogler discovered the Black Panther.
While in film school at University of Southern California, where he graduated in 2011, that love of comics remained — and after Marvel Studios started its connected cinematic universe with 2008’s box office hit “Iron Man,” Coogler began imagining that one day he might direct a superhero movie.
“Music is the universal language — you hear that a lot,” Lee said. “I believed in it, but I don’t think I had ever truly experienced it until then. It was life changing for me.”
Standing at her keyboard with 50 little faces looking up at her, USC Thornton DMA candidate Grace Lee (MM ’12) talked about the song she was going to play next. “Take My Hand,” written years ago, had ended a long songwriting hiatus and brought comfort to her during a rough patch in her life. Lee wanted it to bring similar solace and hope to these kids. The children, who had arrived by bus that morning from an IDP (internally displaced person) settlement, were Yazidis, a Kurdish religious minority who experienced persecution and genocide at the hands of ISIS in Iraq.
After the translator repeated her story in Kurmanji, Lee began to play. As she made eye contact with the children, she began to cry. “Part of me was sad for what they had gone through — some of them had shared stories about running away to the mountains. I mean my heart aches for them,” she said. “But another part of me was incredibly humbled and so grateful for that opportunity to share my music and love with the kids.”
Lee wasn’t the only one in tears. One of the kids was crying too.
“Music is the universal language — you hear that a lot,” Lee said. “I believed in it, but I don’t think I had ever truly experienced it until then. It was life changing for me.”
It isn’t always easy balancing your personal interests with your career, but Trojans have a way of blazing their own trails. “In many ways, USC provides an education into what will become your personal passions,” says Katelynn Whitaker ’12, who graduated from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. She and fellow young alumni have carved non-traditional paths after graduation, applying plenty of initiative and determination to make their mark. Here are three who have done just that.
Katelynn Whitaker ’12
A love for USC was instilled early on for this third-generation Trojan, whose family includes grandfather John O. Whitaker DDS ’48 and father John F. Whitaker DDS ’77. At her grandfather’s funeral, loved ones donned cardinal and gold, and his casket was emblazoned with an image of Tommy Trojan and the words “Fight On, John!”
The Manhattan Beach, California, native chose USC Annenberg, pursuing a journalism major and marketing minor. Though the media industry was undergoing a transition, Whitaker says, “I believed there was a future for journalism, whether in print or online, and felt a call to tell great stories.”
After an internship at the Movember Foundation, she became the organization’s head of marketing. Whitaker describes this turn of events as serendipitous. “The Movember job came during this great turning point when companies were realizing storytelling mattered for their brands,” she says. “As with a lot of millennials, I’ve grown to realize basing my career on a personal passion makes work easier and life more fulfilling.” Movember Foundation, a global men’s health charity, has raised more than $750 million for prostate and testicular cancer research, mental health programs and suicide prevention. Its signature event each November challenges men to grow a mustache to raise awareness and funds for men’s health. “The health and well-being lens shines a light on how important it is to have hands-on partners and strong family connections,” she says.
Fostering connections is something Whitaker knows well. As a student, she was a member of Delta Gamma, worked at the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities and was a sports photographer for the Daily Trojan. Today, she’s strengthening ties as president-elect of USC’s Young Alumni Council, where she hopes to continue supporting a shared quality with other Trojans: the desire to do good and help others.
Edouard Chaltiel MBA ’14
Born in Los Angeles and raised in Las Vegas, Edouard Chaltiel had an unusual job trajectory. “My career path has been non-traditional, having worked on projects that involve wide ranging industries such as tech, real estate and health care,” he says. Of course, business risk-taking also runs in his family. In 1997, Chaltiel’s father launched Redhills Ventures, a seed capital company that primarily invested in health care. Chaltiel worked at Redhills Ventures for five years before leaving to study entrepreneurship and pursue his MBA at the USC Marshall School of Business.
As a student, Chaltiel was president of USC Marshall’s Hospitality and Gaming Club, where he helped organize the club’s annual Vegas Trek, which takes students on hotel tours and networking events in Las Vegas. He and Will Van Noll ’06, MBA ’14 also launched the MBA Hoops Summit, a two-day tournament and networking event for MBA programs across the country.
Chaltiel’s time at USC also inspired Blingware, a business featuring commemorative tumblers. The first license to come onboard was USC. “While we’ve now grown our total licenses to six, it was pretty special having USC support us from the beginning to help grow the brand,” he says.
Recently Chaltiel founded a new venture capital business, Victoire Ventures. But for him, family comes first. “While I’d love for one of my projects to take off and be super successful, it won’t mean anything to me if I don’t maintain a strong family bond,” he says. Through Victoire Ventures, as well as a USC scholarship fund, Chaltiel pays homage to his late father. “I’m very bullish on the school’s future and proud that USC will carry my father’s legacy for many years to come.”
Thuy Truong ’09
Thuy Truong has always believed in the importance of making the world better for people. Her activities in pursuit of that goal earned her the moniker “Startup Queen” in her native Vietnam.
Truong moved with her family to California at age 17. After two years at Pasadena City College, she transferred to USC and found the campus captivating. “I could envision spending time, studying and growing here,” she remembers thinking. With encouragement from Michael Crowley, a USC Viterbi School of Engineering professor, and Mark Sargeant ’06, MS ’06 a USC Viterbi teaching assistant, Truong majored in computer science. She also held part-time jobs and joined the Society of Women Engineers and the Association for Computing Machinery, where she garnered prizes in three hackathons.
After graduation, Truong returned to Vietnam. There, she achieved a series of “firsts,” including co-founding Parallel, Vietnam’s first frozen yogurt chain, initiating the country’s first mobile development hackathons, and co-founding the country’s first USC alumni club.
Seeing technology’s potential to impact lives, Truong then launched GreenGar, a mobile app development company. The first Vietnamese woman to have a company accepted into the Silicon Valley accelerator 500 Startups, she was listed in Forbes Vietnam’s Top 50 Most Influential Women in 2017 and named a “Human of the Year” by VICE News.
Truong turned to a new chapter in 2016, when she was diagnosed with lung cancer. Undaunted, she founded the nonprofit Salt Cancer Initiative, which gives cancer patients in Vietnam access to information about treatment and, with that, hope. “We’re helping people living with cancer to connect and share their journeys, rather than face the challenge alone,” she says.
“This is a fairy tale that can inspire a lot of young people and tell them we are on the same level, and that we could have been in all of those classic movies, we just weren’t given the opportunity,” he tells The Daily Beast.
It is to Asians what Black Panther is to the black community: a beacon of representation, as well as a big, shiny middle finger to all those in Hollywood who say it can’t—or shouldn’t— be done. And Chu, the child of two Chinese immigrants, didn’t buckle under the considerable pressure, delivering a wonderfully entertaining romantic comedy with broad appeal.
Based on the bestselling 2013 novel by Kevin Kwan, Crazy Rich Asians tells the story of Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), an NYU economics professor from a working-class Chinese-American family who’s faced with the daunting task of meeting her boyfriend Nick Young’s (newcomer Henry Golding) in-laws in Singapore. Little does she know that the Young family is filthy rich, and its matriarch, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), will do everything in her power to protect its legacy.
The Daily Beast spoke with director Jon M. Chu about his groundbreaking film and so much more.
Excerpted from ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ Director Jon M. Chu Is Out to Change Hollywood: ‘Our Time Is Now’ by Marlow Stern
Michael Blanton will oversee a new office dedicated to handling complaints and sensitive investigations across the university
As head of the soon-to-be unveiled Office of Professionalism and Ethics at USC, Michael Blanton will be responsible for managing all complaint monitoring and investigation throughout the university.
The new office will streamline and update the university’s processes for registering and dealing with complaints at all levels on both campuses. By introducing a centralized tracking system, USC administrators can spot trends and respond swiftly when necessary. Blanton, USC’s vice president for professionalism and ethics, expects the office to be formally announced and operational in the next two to three weeks.
The Southern California native earned his law degree at the USC Gould School of Law in 1997 and worked as an attorney before returning to USC in January 2017 as vice president for athletic compliance. He spoke with USC News about his plans to ensure accountability and transparency at all levels of the university.
What are your guiding principles as you take on this critical new role?
I love this university — it’s done wonderful things for me and I always feel an obligation to give back. What I tell those who work for me is that USC has been here long before you and will be here long after you and I are gone. As an employee, you have a duty to the university and not to your friends or any one individual. When problems arise, what I try to do is take a step back before making major decisions to ensure that we are doing the right thing and considering all the relevant interests in the university. And I do feel a deep personal obligation to do what is right. I’m motivated to come to the right outcome with honesty, fairness and integrity.
What is the genesis of this new office?
The goal is to address our organization’s previous gaps regarding how information was siloed in various places around the university. Different departments had bits of information, but no centralized office knew all the facts about certain incidents of misconduct or other issues. This effort grew out of recent crises at USC. The idea is to bring information that comes in from both campuses together in a centralized office to help prevent any issue from slipping through the cracks.
How will that improve accountability?
We want to be consistent in our outcomes. Part of my job is not only to track investigations, but also to ensure that discipline is carried out following an investigation. We don’t want situations where one school or department has the same conduct issue as another, yet they have vastly different punishments or outcomes. Although we won’t involve ourselves in those disciplinary procedures, we will track that process to ensure it happens with consistency and integrity.
You previously oversaw athletic compliance at USC. How has that prepared you to launch this new office?
Athletic compliance does a lot of things. Most of it is education and working with all the teams and departments to make sure we are complying with all the Pac-12 and NCAA rules. However, at times, we do investigations of varying size and degree. That was a great training ground for this new position on a smaller scale. The things we’ve done internally here at athletic compliance are similar to the things that will be done on a larger scale in this new office.
Can you describe your background and previous connections to USC?
I grew up in Thousand Oaks and went to high school there. I did my undergrad at Cal State Long Beach and then went to law school at USC. I was ecstatic to come here — I have always been a big Trojan fan. My dad was a big fan, too. He was happy to see me go to law school here. He unfortunately passed away in 2004. He would have loved to see me working here now. My kids are diehard Trojan fans as well, even before I started at USC. I have a 13-year-old and a 17-year-old, both daughters. My 17-year-old is a senior in high school and would love nothing more than to come here.
Do you have any memories that stand out from your time in college?
I grew up in a middle-class family and my parents helped as much as they possibly could, but I was working full-time as a college student. I took jobs every summer. As an undergrad at Long Beach State, I worked graveyard shifts [in hotel security] and went to class during the day. Grad school is obviously different than undergrad. By the time you’re in law school, you’re just buried in the books. My law school days were spent working very hard, trying to get by on as little in student loans as I could. I had summer internships here and in Chicago, which was nice because it put a little change in my pocket. Then it was back to the grind. But it helped me learn the art of hard work.
Where did you work after finishing up your law degree at USC?
I went to work for a big firm right out of law school. From there, I went to a smaller, boutique firm with about 15 attorneys at the time. We did all manner of civil litigation. One of our clients at that point, around mid-2000, was USC. So I began working as outside counsel for USC. Then we closed up that shop at the end of 2011, and from 2012 until I started here in 2017, I was with Hill, Farrer & Burrill. Throughout all that time, I would say USC was my biggest volume client. I always had matters of all types involving the university, whether I was litigating in court or I was brought in to solve problems before they became lawsuits, which is always ideal. I like to think I provided good results at a good value and that’s why they kept coming back. Thanks to that work, I became familiar with almost every department and how the university worked. That helped a lot when I landed here in 2017.
How were you recruited to oversee the USC Office of Athletic Compliance?
Because I was a regular outside counsel for USC, when [former vice president for athletic compliance] Dave Roberts announced he was retiring, they reached out to me to see if I was interested in interviewing to be his successor. I thought about it overnight, called them back and said yes. I came in for what seemed like six hours of interviews, and about a month after that I was offered the job. My first day of work was on the sidelines at the Rose Bowl when we beat Penn State. I defy anybody out there to have a better first day of work. That was such an epic game, and to be on the sidelines for that experience — where do you go from there? You’ve peaked on day one.
Before coming to USC, you also worked occasionally as a temporary superior court judge. What was that experience like?
I would volunteer about one day a month over a five-year term up in Ventura County and would typically hear small claims cases. The folks I would see in there came from all walks of life. I loved that work. It puts you in a different role — it takes you out of being an advocate like when you are an attorney and forces you to be as objective as possible. You have to use all that experience you’ve gained to read people. In Los Angeles County, I primarily served as a traffic court judge. In an afternoon, you might have over 100 cases you have to get through, so it’s really rock and roll. That experience was also great, and I got to meet and deal with so many different people.
Did that influence your approach to working in compliance and now overseeing this new office at USC?
From my standpoint, you don’t want to draw premature conclusions on any investigation. An investigation is only as good as the objectivity of those who are analyzing or looking into the issues. Like a judge, you have to take in all the relevant evidence and make an objective decision. And you make hundreds of those decisions in the course of an investigation. It dictates who you talk to next, what weight you give to evidence, how you take into consideration credibility issues. All of those should be objective decisions as you move through the process to arrive at the right outcome.
How do you measure success in this new role?
My goal is to help the university be better and continue to be a great place for people to work and go to school. And it’s really about the culture. I think the culture will change once everybody feels more comfortable with the process and knows issues will be acted on and they won’t be retaliated against for coming forward with their concerns. After this new office has been in operation for a year or two and we can take a sample of students, faculty and staff and ask them, “Do you feel more confident about how complaints about misconduct are handled at this university?” and the answer is “Yes,” then I’ll know we’re on the right track. At the end of the day, we’re really aiming to set a national standard for how higher education handles these kinds of issues. We have done this with athletic compliance, and my message for the team is that we should aim for nothing less with this new Office of Professionalism and Ethics.
Deirdre Logan, a board certified obstetrician-gynecologist and alumna, will join USC Student Health in October as the second full-time physician devoted to the care of female students at USC.
Logan returns to her alma mater after 14 years at Watts Healthcare, a community clinic providing health care and services for patients with little to no insurance. She served there as chief physician of the OB/GYN department and founded and directed the teen clinic.
For Logan, health care and education go hand-in-hand.
“I feel that, as a physician, you’re also a teacher. We’re kind of health care consultants and have to be partners with our patients,” she said. “If you prescribe a medication or [give a medical recommendation], and the patient doesn’t understand why or how it well help them, often they won’t do it. Education is important in order for patients to make the best decisions for themselves.”
Second OB-GYN an advocate for USC Student Health services
Logan, who earned her medical degree from the Keck School of Medicine of USC and her master’s in medical management from the USC Marshall School of Business, has also been an advocate for equity in women’s health care.
She serves on committees for the March of Dimes and the California and Los Angeles County departments of Public Health to reduce African-American infant mortality rates. She has also collaborated with the Maternal Mental Health Now organization to improve mental health screening and care in the medical realm.
Logan, who was born on a military base in Tokyo and raised in Las Vegas until college, said she knew she’d be in a helping profession very early on.
“I was interested in both ballet and medicine since age 6, so family friends joked I was going to be a dancing doctor,” she recalled with a laugh. “In elementary school, I was part of the safety patrol and volunteered to wear an orange hat and vest and monitor the playground to ensure people were running safely. I always wanted to help people and was thinking about how to change situations for the better for people.”
‘Young women are at a critical point’
Those inclinations found their focus in health by college, when she moved to Los Angeles to study biology as an undergraduate at Loyola Marymount University and then medical school at the Keck School. Logan said she looks forward to helping the young women of USC this fall.
“Young women are at a critical point where the decisions they make can have a lasting effect on their lives,” she said. “This is a perfect age group to educate and empower, and it’s also a population that is receptive to learning how to better their health.”
Logan hopes to educate women in all aspects of health.
“College can be a stressful time, for example, and stress has an effect on your reproductive and overall general health,” said Logan, who meditates regularly and has taken up jewelry-making as a stress reliever. “I want to educate them about how to cope with stress in a way they can carry for a lifetime.”
Logan said she remembers positive encounters as a student on the Health Sciences Campus.
“During my first year of medical school, I had the flu and felt awful,” she said. “The doctor I saw was so warm and so kind, I felt like I was talking to my mom. I had such a great experience, and I just want to give that back to someone.”
“We have to get back to the basics. If we don’t pay attention to the basics, we are going to be built on a shaky foundation.” – Dr. Laura Mosqueda
Laura Mosqueda wants the Keck School of Medicine of USC to get back to basics.
As the medical school’s new dean, she is emphatically calling on physicians, researchers, staff members and students to re-embrace the values and purpose in research, education and delivery of health and health care.
“The bottom line that I tell everyone is we’re all here to make the world a better place,” said Mosqueda, an authority on geriatrics and family medicine. “That’s what we need to focus on.”
She assumed the school’s top position earlier this year, after serving as interim dean since late 2017. That means overseeing more than 4,150 full-time and voluntary faculty members, nearly 2,000 staff members and 1,200 students.
In addition to training more than 900 medical residents in an array of specialties, the school also boasts a major basic and clinical research enterprise. It ranks among the top 30 medical schools in the U.S. in research funding from the National Institutes of Health, garnering more than $150 million in 2017. Its faculty physicians see more than 1.5 million patients a year across Keck Medicine of USC facilities.
And as the nation increasingly emphasizes integrated and coordinated medical care and the importance of primary care and prevention, Mosqueda’s background and holistic focus come at the right time for the Keck School of Medicine.
When it comes to educating future doctors, “we have to get back to the basics,” Mosqueda said. “If we don’t pay attention to the basics, we are going to be built on a shaky foundation.”
For Mosqueda, that in part means promoting what she calls “social justice” throughout the school’s education, research and clinical care programs. It’s a broader idea than simply helping vulnerable populations, such as older adults (her own specialty) or people experiencing homelessness. It’s about ensuring equity and equality across the profession of medicine.
That message resonates with many of the school’s faculty members, students and staff members, she said, because they served as its inspiration.
“The idea of social justice is something I’ve put into words, but it didn’t really come from me,” Mosqueda said. “It came from listening to everybody here. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to become dean because I kept hearing that message.”
In practice, a social justice approach might involve combating the damaging effects of unequal access to health care, improving societal attitudes toward aging or embracing a culturally competent approach when working with diverse members of the community.
It feels like a natural fit with Mosqueda’s personal values, which stress the inherent worth of all people, regardless of their circumstances. It’s a lesson she draws from her past, growing up in a USC family with strong roots in compassionate care.
Early experiences instill value of service to others
As a child raised in the Fairfax area of Los Angeles, Mosqueda gained insight into the medical profession thanks to her parents. Both earned undergraduate degrees at USC and completed their training in medicine at the university’s medical school.
Her mother, Gloria Frankl, specialized in radiology and became a pioneer in the field of mammography. Her father, Harold “Hal” Frankl, focused on gastroenterology and was the chief of his division. Although both worked for Kaiser Permanente throughout their careers, the Frankls regularly volunteered at the Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center.
“When people find out my maiden name, they’ll say, ‘Oh, your father is the best teacher I’ve ever had,’ or tell me about some way that my mother influenced their lives,” Mosqueda said.
They didn’t push their children to pursue a similar career. But Mosqueda and her brother, now a pulmonary and critical care specialist in Alaska, embraced medicine anyway. Mosqueda’s early interest in marine biology gave way to veterinary medicine. By college, she had moved to human medicine. She earned her undergrad degree in biology at Occidental College, then her medical degree with a specialization in family practice from USC in 1987.
She liked the philosophy behind family medicine, including its acknowledgement of the psychosocial and spiritual aspects of care. In her first week of medical school, Mosqueda connected with Ken Brummel-Smith, a family physician and geriatrician who became a lifelong friend and mentor. He encouraged her to take fellowship in geriatrics, and she was hooked.
“I’ve always had a real affinity for older adults, even as a little kid,” Mosqueda said. “Part of it, I’m sure, is because I had wonderful grandparents.”
New dean brings attention and resources to hidden populations
Although she was inspired by her relationship with her grandparents, Mosqueda has built her career around a darker side of aging: elder abuse. Older adults often develop chronic conditions, dementia and related illnesses that place them at high risk of mistreatment.
About half of seniors with dementia experience some form of abuse, she said. Sometimes a caretaker yells at them. Others are physically assaulted or become victims of theft or financial mismanagement. Mosqueda has led landmark studies on markers of abuse and neglect and established the first forensics center on elder abuse, a model since replicated across the country.
She is continuing her research with a major new grant from the National Institute on Aging to explore factors that lead to elder abuse, in part by understanding the relationship dynamics between caregivers and people with dementia. She is hopeful the collaborative effort with colleagues in gerontology and social work will yield valuable information to inform prevention and early intervention efforts.
Mosqueda also directs the National Center on Elder Abuse, a federally funded initiative that provides information to guide policy, research, training and resources. Her expertise has earned invitations to testify before Congress and visit the White House to discuss elder justice issues.
Bringing USC’s resources to bear on wicked problems
In addition to promoting well-being among older adults, Mosqueda is focused on another underserved population with serious health challenges: homeless people. In her previous role as associate dean of primary care and chair of family medicine, she helped launch a street medicine program with colleagues like Kevin Lohenry, director of USC’s physician assistant program.
The initiative brings multidisciplinary teams of health providers to the streets to provide direct patient care and social services to unsheltered and hard-to-reach homeless populations. As critical as those efforts are, Mosqueda sees opportunities to extend the program beyond offering medical services and referrals.
She envisions medical students specializing in care for homeless people. Researchers might use neuroimaging to study whether differences in brain structure might influence risk of homelessness. Scholars could compile nationwide data to reveal socioeconomic and community factors that might guide prevention and mitigation strategies.
“We are an academic medical center, so we want to go beyond starting a street medicine program,” she said. “How do we layer research and education onto that?”
Med school dean leads drive for equality, community service
Mosqueda also wants to turn this focus on social justice inward, continuing to push the Keck School of Medicine to diversify its ranks. Although the school is close to achieving gender parity among its students, she sees a need to advance that goal among residents and faculty physicians, to ensure USC’s medical enterprise reflects the diverse communities it serves.
Although it’s not something she dwells on, Mosqueda broke a major barrier when she became the first female dean in the medical school’s 133-year history. She had many strong female role models growing up, including her mother, so it didn’t feel unusual for her to assume a top leadership position.
“I think I’m just starting to realize that now I am one of those role models,” she said.
As part of her push for social justice, Mosqueda wants to promote community projects and volunteer opportunities for the school’s students, staff members and physicians. She encourages collaborations across the medical campus and university as a whole, inspired by the interdisciplinary efforts at a student-run clinic that she helps oversee at a local homeless shelter.
She also continues to make house calls, providing care for patients with degenerative illnesses. A 20-minute house call can eliminate the lengthy ordeal of visiting a medical facility for someone in their 90s with Alzheimer’s disease.
“Having an MD after your name — you’ve worked hard for it, but it’s also a privilege that opens doors in your community,” Mosqueda said. “We all carry a responsibility to do something good with that.”
USC Viterbi alumna Anita Sengupta works on a high-speed transportation system that’s like “a spacecraft flying on the ground.”
How fast would your commute be if you could travel at 700 miles per hour?
It’s a pace once only imaginable aboard a plane, but USC alumna Anita Sengupta is helping to take train travel to nearly supersonic speed.
“A new form of transportation hasn’t been developed in more than 100 years,” says Sengupta MS ’00, PhD ’05, senior vice president of systems engineering at Virgin Hyperloop One. The company’s game-changing idea for a more energy-efficient high-speed transportation system? Eliminate aerodynamic drag with an electromagnetically levitating vehicle inside a vacuum tube. “The best analogue is like a spacecraft flying on the ground,” she says.
Sengupta is uniquely poised to help bring aerospace technology down to earth. The USC Viterbi School of Engineering adjunct research associate professor of astronautical engineering is an expert in electromagnetic propulsion. She was also mission manager of NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory, a three-year project to cool atoms down to nearly absolute zero. The Cold Atom Laboratory’s findings will provide a deeper understanding of matter and how complexity arises in the universe starting at the subatomic scales.
“As an engineer and a woman leader in tech, having a job that helps people and the planet is the most fulfilling job I could ever hope for,” Sengupta says.
Virgin Hyperloop One’s “terrestrial spacecraft” isn’t just a buzzworthy pipe dream; a fully operational version exists at the company’s Las Vegas test site. Plus, it can operate with a zero-carbon footprint. It has the potential to transform daily commutes, cargo and shipping, passenger travel and infrastructure, all while solving congestion problems, eliminating carbon dioxide emissions and creating a new economy, Sengupta says.
To put myself out there as a woman of color enables me to show people from underrepresented groups they can do this, too.
The company has set an ambitious goal to be production-ready by 2023. There have been numerous test runs on its Nevada desert track, and last December researchers set a new record, achieving 240 miles per hour within seconds.
It’s an exciting time for Sengupta, but she still makes room in her schedule for a few personal passions: flying single-engine airplanes, teaching fellow Trojans how to design spacecraft and promoting STEM professions to middle school students. “In our society, children don’t get enough exposure to people working in these professions who look like them,” she says. “To put myself out there as a woman of color enables me to show people from underrepresented groups they can do this, too.”
She wants to not only encourage minorities to pursue STEM careers, but also push them into higher ranks to ensure a steady pipeline of future talent. “That’s only going to happen if more women are in positions of leadership so we can ensure organizations embrace diversity,” she says.
Through engineering, more women could play a part in changing the world, even if it’s not at 700 miles per hour. Says Sengupta: “I want them to be in charge of their own destiny.”
CBS News Correspondent Manuel Bojorquez travels the world finding the stories that matter.
Manuel Bojorquez ’00 is a CBS News national correspondent based in Miami, covering a huge region that includes Central America. That means he is on an airplane — a lot. But that’s OK with him. “I love the travel,” he says, “although there is wear and tear.”
Bojorquez’s work has taken him a long way from South L.A., where he grew up. Born in El Salvador, Bojorquez can still remember how he and his family had to flee that country’s civil war. They migrated to Los Angeles, settling near USC, and it wasn’t long before he was recruited to Foshay Learning Center.
Bojorquez soon joined a new academic prep program that was just beginning to recruit local students: USC’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative (NAI). He is proud of being part of NAI’s first graduating class of and winning full tuition to the university after graduating from high school. By then, he already knew what he wanted to do: After witnessing the 1992 L.A. riots, he was determined to be a TV news reporter.
He will never forget the story he wrote and produced while at USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism that made people take notice of his storytelling ability.
“I saw this old man selling oranges on the freeway off-ramp near USC. He was there every day. I decided he might be a good story,” Bojorquez recalls.
“He was making $25 a day, enough to send some money home, and he was living with five guys in an apartment. But he was thinking about returning home because it was so hard to make a living here. He said if you’re so poor that you have to eat dirt, I’d rather have to eat dirt where my family is.”
Bojorquez remains a gifted storyteller. Last year, over a five-week period, he reported on three disasters: Hurricane Harvey in Texas, Hurricane Irma in Florida and the 7.1 magnitude earthquake in central Mexico.
Over one week this past August, he covered the mass shooting at the Madden gaming convention in Jacksonville, before moving on to the Florida gubernatorial primary election.
Looking back, Bojorquez credits much of his success to USC, beginning in middle school with NAI. Like so many students who came after him, the program helped prepare him for success in college. NAI has since graduated more than 1,000 students, with 83 percent of them enrolling in four-year universities. And this is why he is an active member of the Trojan Family.
“From my first job to my current job, there has been a USC connection,” he says. “They’re the family you choose.”