Playing music with a green sensibility makes sense for Audras. He double-majored in viola at the USC Thornton School of Music and environmental studies at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. But there was a time when his passions for music and sustainability remained distinct, unrelated pursuits.
His view shifted when he learned about Climarte, an alliance of Australian organizations that seek art-based solutions to climate change. “It blew my mind,” he says. “I learned how art makes us feel impact more than data sets from scientists. Nature and art are not separate. They’re one and the same.”
Inspired, Audras launched a performance art series that draws on his artistic and scientific sides to engage others in the climate crisis. And he’s not the only Trojan who believes in the role of art in climate change awareness. Across the university, USC students are using self-expression and art to draw attention to the environment. They’re collaborating across disciplines and innovating their way to a better world, one community at a time.
Dance for the Planet
Audras returned to the U.S. from a study-abroad trip in Australia with a newfound appreciation for how art can share a powerful message. Then he heard about the USC Arts and Climate Collective. This new program offers USC students up to $1,000 to support arts and media projects that encourage a more sustainable future.
Boosted by funding, Audras joined up with student cellist and composer Quenton Blache, violinist and dance minor Elise Haukenes, and spoken word artist and communication major Charli Morachnick ’20 to launch The Resilience Project.
Imagine a blend of dance, music, poetry and climate action: They all meld together in nine performance pieces that address a different aspect of the climate crisis. The first piece, about electricity, features Morachnick’s spoken word poetry accompanied by original music and choreography. “Aside from the performance aspect, we will have an activist perspective, too,” says Audras, who plans an action campaign for people to post climate commitments, pledges and resources. The group also hopes to roll out eight more pieces in the coming months.
As an environmental studies student, Audras knows that systemic change must accompany individual change. But he believes in the power of community and connection to amplify The Resilience Project’s message. “All it takes is one person to be impacted. You don’t know what can grow from that,” he says. Watch the students’ first performance piece on Instagram here.
An Ocean in Danger
Gwenan Walker loves the ocean. The biology major also fears for its future. In the coming decades, she knows its levels will rise and underwater denizens will have to adapt to warmer, more acidic seas — or face extinction. To raise awareness about these changes, she’s using her skills and knowledge outside biology. A visual artist, Walker is making an animated film about the oceans with support from the Arts and Climate Collective.
Walker’s film, The Voyager, takes place 100 years in the future and explores the troubling effects of climate change on marine ecosystems. When it’s done, she plans to address melting glaciers, rising sea levels, ocean acidification and shifting flood zones. “I feel like when you’re talking about issues like climate change, art is so important because it makes it accessible,” says the junior, who is completing a minor in animation.
For neighborhoods like Boyle Heights in Los Angeles, local histories are global histories. That’s why Arabella Delgado and Cassandra Flores-Montaño, doctoral candidates in USC Dornsife’s Department of American Studies and Ethnicity, decided to focus on the largely immigrant neighborhood to explore the impact of climate change. With a deep history of grassroots environmental activism, Boyle Heights can illuminate a global crisis.
Delgado and Flores-Montaño were inspired by Mothers of East Los Angeles/Madres del Este de Los Ángeles, a women’s organization dedicated to protecting their community from environmental danger. With funding from the Arts and Climate Collective, they launched Environmental (In)Justice and Climate Crisis in Boyle Heights, a research project to blend archival and current perspectives on activism. It will feature work from a local youth photographer capturing environmental change in her neighborhood. The creative vision of a young photographer will enrich community history and stories, placing historical and contemporary voices in conversation with one another, Delgado and Flores-Montaño say.
The project will be shown at Casa 0101 Theater in Boyle Heights and as an online exhibition through the Boyle Heights Museum in fall 2022.
The group supports all manner of initiatives that improve life on campus and off, but its members also benefit, often establishing lifelong friendships that continue long after they have graduated.
AS STORIED HISTORIES go, USC’s Helenes have a 100-year legacy of Trojan pride to draw on. The group was formed by Arabella De Oliviera Conger with her classmates, and they started as the Amazons. Inspired by Helen of Troy, they switched to their current name in 1969 and remain one of the oldest service organizations on campus.
As the official hostesses of the university, Helenes honor USC’s traditions through three pillars: service to the community, school spirit and sisterhood. To celebrate the group’s century of service, former members share how the Helenes changed their student life—and beyond.
When Kathryn Dullerud arrived at USC as a freshman from Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, she found college life in a big city a bit overwhelming. Remembering her service-oriented high school years, Dullerud’s sister, a fellow Trojan, thought joining the Helenes might help her find her footing. Soon, Dullerud was waking at sunrise to volunteer with the Helenes at the Los Angeles Food Bank.
Now a senior, Dullerud served a term as president and continues to dive into the organization’s volunteer activities at Community Services Unlimited/Expo Urban Mini Farm, 32nd Street School and Downtown Women’s Center.
“Not only do I have a deep love for USC, I wanted to continue the tradition of service I’d established in my youth.”
It was the Helenes’ volunteering opportunities like these that spoke to Alyson Kil ’10, MD ’14 too. “Not only do I have a deep love for USC, I wanted to continue the tradition of service I’d established in my youth,” Kil says. “Learning that the Helenes represent USC in greater Los Angeles and throughout the state was huge for me.”
L’Cena Brunskill Rice ’53, MA ’59 still has fond memories of the group’s service projects including organizing orientation programs. “To welcome international female students to the university, we’d take them to iconic Los Angeles sites—Griffith Park, the Natural History Museum and dinner at El Cholo, Los Angeles’ first Mexican restaurant.”
For Stephanie Paggi ’74, MS ’77, EdD ’90, joining the Helenes was a way of saying thank you to the university. “I was fortunate to have full tuition with an academic merit scholarship to USC,” she says. “Becoming involved in Helenes and participating in the volunteerism was my way of giving back.”
Before they were the Helenes, they were the Amazons. But no matter the year or the era, they are united by their pride in USC and the bonds they form. (Photo Courtesy of USC University Archives)
Attend a Trojan athletics event and cheers from the Helenes ring through the crowd. A huge sports fan, Kil signed up for every Gate Call, a lottery system for front row tickets. “My name was chosen for the Washington State game,” she remembers. “Not only did I have the privilege of sitting on the sidelines, but the Helenes helped the Trojan Knights guard the Victory Bell.” A bonus: “We crushed Washington State.”
One of Rice’s favorite activities was joining the Trojan Knights at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. “We’d arrive before the gates opened to set up card stunts at the 50-yard-line,” she remembers. “We didn’t win often during my first three years, so it was important to root the team on. It all paid off—we beat Wisconsin at the 1953 Rose Bowl.”
Since 2017, the Helenes have instituted a new tradition for UCLA football games: Hecuba Watch. “While the Trojan Knights are guarding the Tommy Trojan statue during Rivalry Week, we camp out in front of the Hecuba statue at USC Village and protect her 24/7 leading up to game day,” Dullerud says.
While attending a women’s awards program at school, Rice heard her name called. She’d been chosen to join the Amazons. “Someone nominated me,” she says of the surprise. Little did she know that she’d meet some of her lifelong friends through the group. Sixty-nine years after her introduction to the Helenes, Rice says, “There are at least 10 of us who continue to volunteer together at USC.” She counts this as one of the reasons she recommends joining the organization: “You’ll have friends for life.”
“I knew being a Helene would be life-changing. As a sisterhood with a strong pride for USC and an interest in service and leadership, the Helenes embodied my core values.”
Kil remembers facing stiff competition to become a Helene: Only one out of every four applicants is accepted. Passing a test about USC traditions and history with at least a 90% score is required. So is an interview with the executive board. It wasn’t until she walked into her dorm room and was greeted by a welcome poster that she learned she’d made the cut. “I knew being a Helene would be life-changing,” Kil says. “As a sisterhood with a strong pride for USC and an interest in service and leadership, the Helenes embodied my core values.”
Paggi’s fondest memory isn’t of a specific event, it’s about people. “The Helenes became my Trojan family,” she says. She connected with even more Trojans during alumni events where members helped host campus guests. “Being a Helene gives you unique and beneficial opportunities that form you as a person as you go forth into the future.”
Dullerud couldn’t agree more. “I found my USC family through the Helenes,” she says. “It’s a wonderful feeling to give back to an organization that has shaped and given so much to me. Especially in this year, our 100th, which is so important in the Helenes’ history.”
When then-USC senior Natalie Fung went on a trip with her friends to Las Vegas in Fall of 2013 to commemorate their last year of college, she had the next few months of her life all planned out. Slated to graduate early with a public relations degree, she had lined up a paid PR internship at Nickelodeon.
A car accident involving a drunk driver in Las Vegas changed not only her immediate plans, but the shape of the rest of her life. The crash left the Pasadena native a C5 quadriplegic: She was capable of some arm movement but was mostly paralyzed from the neck down.
“After my injury, I was kind of thrown backwards,” Fung said. “I had to move back home with my family, leave school, leave my job. There was a lot of learning how to take a step back and realize that even though everyone else might seem to be on this path, it’s okay I’m not on the same one.”
The next steps of her journey began immediately after the accident with months of intense physical therapy — and time coming to terms with her new way of living. Fung returned to USC Annenberg the following Spring, attending classes remotely with the help of Skype. She took one or two courses per semester over the next year and a half to complete her degree.
After officially graduating in Spring 2015, Fung knew that she wanted to eventually get her master’s degree. But first, she had to confront her own misconceptions about people with disabilities.
“When I was first injured, I really struggled with identifying as someone with a disability,” Fung said. “But then I started joining support groups and attended events for people in wheelchairs. I met a lot of amazing people who really helped me through learning this new life. I learned about the importance of having to advocate for yourself.”
In the world of public relations, Fung initially planned to focus on corporate social responsibility, but while working in PR for a spinal cord injury nonprofit following graduation, she knew she wanted to do more. She was hired part-time as a marketing contractor at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and joined the Rollettes, a wheelchair dance team based in Los Angeles. It was here that she reimagined her plans. Six years after earning her bachelor’s degree, Fung wanted to truly advocate for, and give back to, the disabled community.
With her background in PR, she decided to look for a secondary degree that was more technical. After learning about the master’s degree in communication data science, a joint program through USC Annenberg and USC Viterbi, she enrolled and started in Fall 2021. She found its interdisciplinary approach to be a perfect continuation of her education.
“There’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in most places now, but there’s still so many people with disabilities that are only included on the surface level,” she said. “So many companies say, ‘We want to invest in disability, but there’s no data.’ There’s that large disconnect, so hopefully I can help bridge that gap.”
Fung said that the program has not only shown her how great that disconnect is, but also how vital her focus of work will be.
Although she used to feel uncomfortable sharing her personal experiences with her own disabilities, Fung said she recognizes that her unique perspective can prompt important conversations, humanizing the statistics in an increasingly data-driven world.
“When there’s outliers in data, we’re taught to remove those or write something off as an anomaly,” Fung said. “But in reality, that just might be a single person doing things differently. People with disabilities — we don’t do things the same as the rest of the population, and it’s really important for companies to realize that the disabled population can’t be forgotten.”
Computer science major, Youngju Shin, a member of the executive board for SC Esports, believes video games can bring people together.
Youngju Shin is passionate about esports, organized competitions where individual players or teams of players compete against one another in video games ranging from multiplayer battle arena games to reconstructions of physical sports.
“I love how inclusive the gaming community is. It’s a space where everyone is welcome and where there are so many ways to get involved,” said Shin, who’s a senior at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering majoring in computer science. “You can play casually with friends, you can watch gamer streams and competitions, or you can strive to compete at a really high level in esports tournaments.”
Shin serves as treasurer on the executive board of SC Esports, a recreational gaming organization on campus where both casual and competitive gamers can connect, socialize, and compete.
“I joined SC Esports my sophomore year, and I instantly loved it,” Shin said. “When you are new to campus, gaming and meeting people who game is a great way to find community and feel included.”
SC Esports was founded in 2009, and the club currently has around 35 members. For the casual gamer, SC Esports hosts weekly events where members can socialize and play their favorite multiplayer video games together. Students who want to compete more seriously can join one of the various esports teams within the club, which allow members to practice together and compete against other collegiate teams in video games like “League of Legends,” “Hearthstone,” and “Rocket League.”
As treasurer of SC Esports, Shin manages the club’s income and expenses, coordinates the collection of event payments and reimbursements, contributes to creating funding applications, and maintains communications with USC Viterbi.
On the executive board, she’s focused on coordinating weekly events and social mixers to help students get through online school and Zoom fatigue.
“Youngju’s welcoming aura and kind personality have made her an amazing fit for SC Esports,” said SC Esports president Ashley Kim. “Community is our organization’s most important key value, and she demonstrates this weekly within our events and on our Discord by socializing with members, new and old.” Discord is a group-chatting platform that allows the entire SC Esports community to connect.
Shin was introduced to video games by her two older brothers, Brian and Andrew, whom she admired throughout her childhood. Growing up in Georgia, Shin and her twin sister, Youngeun, loved to watch their brothers play games like “World of Warcraft” and “League of Legends.” Gaming quickly became a mutual interest that gave the siblings a way to relate, despite their significant age gap — Brian is 31 and Andrew 28, while Youngju and her sister are 21.
“Gaming has always been something that’s brought my siblings and me closer together. I was always pretty reserved and shy growing up, but gaming gave me an outlet where I could express myself, have fun, and meet new friends,” Shin said.
More than a decade later, gaming continues to a be passion for Shin. She’s never competed in any esports tournaments herself, but she loves to game more casually with friends. She especially enjoys “League of Legends,” a multiplayer online battle arena game played on a computer. In the game, two teams of five players each face off and engage in combat in an attempt to destroy the opposing team’s base while defending their own. Shin plays as the character Morgana, a powerful enchantress with glowing eyes and dark angel wings. Clad in deep purple, Morgana is a master of the dark arts, with the ability to cast cursed shadows and chains of dark, celestial fire upon her enemies, draining their health.
“I enjoy playing as Morgana because she aligns well with my playing style,” Shin said. “I like to play more aggressively, and I like how Morgana lets me poke down the health of enemy champions using her abilities. Predicting the other team’s moves is important as a Morgana player since she has the ability to shield and protect her teammates, which is another aspect of her character that I enjoy.”
Shin’s technological competence goes beyond just gaming. She’s currently working on building her own PC and mechanical keyboard from scratch. Shin also enjoys creating and experimenting with different programming projects in her free time. As a freshman, she competed in a 24-hour hackathon called Trojan Hacks, and her team received the award for “Best Freshman Hack.”
In the future, Shin says she’d love to work in software development for a gaming company, which she hopes could give her the chance to help others find comfort, fun, and community in the world of gaming, just as she has.
Creative writing PhD candidate Jean Chen Ho talks to Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen about her acclaimed first book, “Fiona and Jane,” and how her research into a violent event in Los Angeles history illuminates today’s spike in anti-Asian racism.
Jean Chen Ho, a student in the PhD in Creative Writing and Literature program at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, published her first novel, Fiona and Jane (Viking) in January to widespread critical acclaim.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: A lot of the hype we see is either about very famous older authors or soon-to-be famous younger authors, and you fall in between. Why did it take you so long?
Jean Chen Ho: I think it took me so long to actually start writing fiction because, honestly, I didn’t have very much to say. When I was in my 20s, I was too busy living my life. I didn’t have the wherewithal or the discipline at that point in my life to write a novel. I started my MFA in creative writing in my 30s. I wanted a way to continue my scholarly research, so I entered the PhD program in creative writing at USC Dornsife at age 35. The last six years have been a wonderful education and a really wonderful way to support my writing. I couldn’t have done it without USC Dornsife.
VTN: There are literally hundreds of master’s of fine arts in creative writing programs throughout the country, where you spend one to three years writing a creative thesis. But at USC Dornsife, we have a PhD program. Part of what’s unique about it is that you have to write a creative thesis and a critical thesis. The creative thesis is this book that’s just come out, Fiona and Jane.
JCH: This collection of 10 linked stories is about a span of 20 years in the friendship of two Taiwanese American women growing up in Southern California, how they grew apart and then, how in their 30s, come back together and have to figure out how to be friends again. Through this long friendship, the book explores identity, heartbreak, romance and sexuality.
VTN: The book is set in Southern California, so if you’ve lived or grown up here, you’ll recognize a lot of the landmarks.
JCH: I love L.A. I grew up in the suburbs of L.A. and I wanted to write about some of those places that I’ve seen and that I feel perhaps haven’t been represented in literary fiction.
VTN: You were one of the cool kids in high school, am I guessing right?
JCH: I went to an academically rigorous high school, touted as one of the top five public schools in California, and to be considered cool in that context was to be a very good student. I just wanted to hang out with my friends, that was what was cool to me. But I also took books very seriously from a young age. So, in some ways, I was also a big nerd.
VTN: There’s a wonderful way in which the stories you’ve woven out of your imagination are both very specific to a place and a people, but also resonate greatly beyond that. Here at USC Dornsife’s creative writing PhD program, you also have to write a critical thesis.
JCH: I have this wonderful opportunity here to do archival research in and around L.A. because the next book that I want to write is going to take place in the 19th century and is about the first Asian American pioneers to settle in Southern California. I’m writing about the formation of L.A.’s [original] Chinatown, where Union Station is today. Part of what I’m interested in is where history meets fiction and memoir — how what’s written by somebody of that time trickles down into what we take as historical record.
In October 1871, during a shootout between two Chinatown gangs over a woman, an errant bullet struck a white rancher. Because of fomenting anti-Asian sentiment, news spread that a Chinese gunslinger had shot a white rancher. An angry mob formed and 20 Chinese men and boys were lynched that night and dragged through the streets. There were convictions, but because of a clerical error, the men were released.
I’m researching how that story came to be told and asking questions about what can we take as truth. And what can we take as perhaps more of a poetic kind of truth when it comes to stories like these.
VTN: What we’re dealing with today is nothing like what they were dealing with in 1871. Look at L.A — L.A. would be gutted without its Asian American population. So, things have changed for the better, at least from an Asian American perspective. Yet we still see a persistence of anti-Asian violence throughout this country. What do you make of that?
JCH: We’ve been living through this pandemic era for the last two years. I think in moments of crisis like this, it’s easy to find a scapegoat. It’s disheartening. But I think that if we can look at it in the long-term historical context, it’s not new. This is part of the narrative of this country that needs a villain. Who that villain is often shifts at different times. Perhaps this is very optimistic or even naïve, but I think writing fiction about ordinary Asian American people and presenting them as fully human can perhaps shift some of that. By Susan Bell
Madina Zermeño draws from her experiences growing up in San Diego as a Muslim child and later volunteering abroad as she aims for a career improving life in underrepresented communities.
rowing up as a Muslim, Latina, Filipina woman of color, Madina Zermeño draws on her multifaceted identity to promote societal change.
Zermeño, a senior majoring in political science at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, grew up in San Diego, a diverse city bordering Tijuana, Mexico.
“There are so many minority intersectionalities that make up my identity, which has sparked my interest in social justice. Growing up in such a multicultural city, I was encouraged to advocate for the communities I come from,” she said.
Zermeño is passionate about carceral justice, including mass incarceration and juvenile justice. Several members of her family have been incarcerated, which has given her insight into similarities among minority neighborhoods and communities that struggle with poverty, gang violence and incarceration.
This personal experience sparked her interest in protecting communities from the pattern of repeated incarceration from one generation to the next that her family has struggled with — a personal battle Zermeño has channeled into a passion for societal change.
Zermeño has also focused on education, equity and access. Both of her parents work in education, so she has been able to identify ways American youth can use education as a tool to break societal patterns that have affected minority groups.
“It made me value education and want to advocate for quality education and access for the most deserving, underserved, and underrepresented youth,” she explained.
She finds herself tying together the issues of carceral justice and education, equity and access, with the issue of wealth inequality.
“I never grew up with a ton of money,” she said. “This taught me the importance of education because, without it, people can get stuck in the cycle of violence, drug abuse, and incarceration, which is all rooted in poverty. I’m passionate about ending this cycle by advocating for generational wealth in minority groups.”
Empowering her peers and gaining broad experience
Zermeño started a youth empowerment club at her high school during her sophomore year. Founded and run by her and her fellow students, “Ignite” (short for “Individual Goal-setters Nourishing Inspiration Through Empowerment”) was designed to empower high school students to become future leaders.
“Especially for people of color, our mission was to empower ourselves to be the leaders we want to see,” explained Zermeño. “Our motto was ‘I Give Up Nothing, I Transform Everything.’” Ignite opened up several opportunities for Zermeño, including creating an undergraduate course based on Ignite at the University of San Diego called the Social Fabric Initiative.
Zermeño has also volunteered abroad. Her sophomore year, during the 2019–20 winter break, she participated in a program in Rajasthan, India, where she tutored children in the Dalit community. She says her experience revealed many similarities between the historical factors preventing the Dalit community from emerging from poverty and the systems and institutions keeping underrepresented communities in the United State from climbing the social ladder.
Three days after completing her work in India, Zermeño traveled to Morocco, where she spent January to April 2020 interning for the nonprofit Jossour Forum des Femmes Marocaines, a female-founded and led organization impacting women and youth across the Middle East Northern Africa region.
“Being fully immersed in another culture was so life-changing and unforgettable,” she said. “I’m so grateful to have been given the opportunity by USC and that I took the leap of faith to volunteer in both countries.”
Internships with high-profile political figures
In the summer of 2020, Zermeño took on three different internships, including one for the Borgen Project that focused on wealth equity and global poverty. Here, she was able to learn the roles and power of U.S. government officials and understand better the different ways that the government works.
This past summer, she was able to take this knowledge and apply it to her internship position with San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria’s office. “The whole office is representative of San Diego’s diverse communities, so it was nice to see that our mayor values that,” Zermeño said.
Zermeño also undertook a second internship, this one with U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar in Washington. She met and networked with a wide variety of young congresswomen of color, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Cori Bush and Ayanna Pressley.
Last semester, she interned for the L.A. County Public Defender’s Office, and this semester, she is interning for The Refugee Legal and Advocacy Centre based in Cape Town, South Africa, through the U.S. Department of State’s International Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship.
Zermeño hopes to one day attend law school and later become either a civil rights attorney or a criminal defense lawyer.
“It comes from a love and a passion for societal change,” she explains, “and if not us, if not me or others from the communities I come from, then who? It’s not that I love politics. These are things that directly impact me and my family, so I have to advocate for them.
“Just coming into the room with confidence and letting people know that, while people may underestimate me because I’m a woman, a person of color, or someone from a different religion than they are, I am just as knowledgeable, just as skilled, and I deserve a seat at the table.”
From gymnastics to the U.S. Air Force ROTC, USC Viterbi senior Natalie Smith built her life on asking ‘Why not?’
Of the likely careers Natalie Smith considered, pilot was not one of them. Perhaps a spy for the CIA or a broadcast journalist, she thought, growing up in a small suburb in Colorado. But then again, Smith, a senior in the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, has never been able to predict her next move, other than that she wants it to be a challenge.
As a child, she immersed herself in competitive sports like gymnastics and track. She was skilled at math and science, sure, but when she applied to USC Viterbi, it was almost a dare to herself. Freshman year proved humbling, and she toyed with switching majors until she homed in on airplanes.
“The rigor and challenge brought me in, and my fascination with airplanes and rockets kept me going,” she said.
Smith, who is an aerospace engineering major, has defined her life by chasing experiences she wasn’t sure she could tackle, with the mantra of ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’ and the steadfast belief she had a good shot at success.
Smith said a turning point for her was when she received an Air Force-sponsored scholarship to start flying lessons her freshman year summer. “I got to solo—fly by myself—in a Cessna 172 with the stunning backdrop of the Rocky Mountains.” The Cessna 172 Skyhawk is a popular single-engine, high-wing aircraft used widely in training student pilots. From that thrill, Smith found a new dedication to her coursework. “Going back to school, I had so much more motivation for what I was doing in the classroom. It was such an inspiring moment,” she said.
One course that particularly proved pivotal was AME 261: Basic Flight Mechanics, taught by Associate Professor Charles Radovich, where she was able to design an airplane from scratch with a team of peers. “I had so much more intuition about how to approach that after my flying experience,” she said. “And from that I thought ‘I can do this; this is actually kind of interesting and fun,’ and it kept me on the path that I am on now.”
The longer Smith spent in the classroom, the more she discovered how the lessons she learned from her professors could translate practically to the broader world she inhabited. Her senior project (for AME 441) is an example of such a practical application.
“It’s based in renewable energy and basically harnesses the vibrational power from a street pole. As the wind makes it shake, we hope to capture that energy and use it to power everyday electric appliances,” Smith said.
While it’s not a new idea, Smith said she and her peers want to see if they can demonstrate, on a smaller, cheaper scale, how such energy can be used long-term to add a little extra charge to a phone or flicker of voltage to a porch light. “It may not replace turbines,” she said, “But it could still help out. Aerospace, specifically, is a huge polluter. But there are ways to mitigate that.”
Beyond her love of design, Smith said that the project has also helped her better understand the role of wind in flight. “Any pilot can benefit from understanding fluid dynamics and how air flows over a surface,” she said. “It can bolster your intuition for when you’re in a cockpit.”
Piloting the Next Chapter
A love of flying and of aerodynamics not only kept Smith from switching majors, but it also introduced her to the U.S. Air Force ROTC, which she joined freshman year on a 4 year scholarship—another ‘why not?’. In keeping with a childlike fascination with flying—humans cannot fly, but we’ve built objects that can!—Smith decided that if she was going to try out the Air Force, she’d go big for the role of pilot.
“I thought it would be a good challenge,” she said. “This is not something I grew up thinking I was going to be doing, and now four years later, I almost have my private pilot’s license, I’m the Cadet Wing Commander, and I’m in the running for a slot to USAF Undergraduate Pilot Training.”
All of Smith’s experiences wouldn’t be complete in Los Angeles without a Hollywood moment. In early 2020, she answered a student film casting call for someone who looked similar to the main actress, Lily Oliver. Smith’s piloting experience helped land her the role, which she filmed in two locations. The film, Hurricane, is now doing the festival rounds, hoping to pick up some buzz along the way.
Of course, Smith is not ready to stop there. In her last few months at USC, she’s taken on a new challenge: gymnastics. A fan of the floor exercise, she’s decided to rekindle her love for the sport and joined the USC club team recently, with which she will be competing in the spring. “It’s my last year at USC,” she said. “I want to see what else I can do.” What she can do, apparently, is anything she sets her mind to and as a result, Smith continues to diversify her friendships and perspectives. She acknowledges her various interests have allowed her to meet people outside of just engineering or just military experiences, a part of attending USC she treasures.
Long term, Smith wants to be a test pilot for Boeing—where she will be working upon graduation, after which she plans to attend an Air Force pilot training program. She sees such a position as a great combination of potential previous military flying experience with her engineering background.
“I have a dream of flying a plane in 15 years and being like, ‘wow, I had a part in designing this,’” she said.
But she also sees it from a female perspective. “As a female engineer who has no family background in this, I want to be a part of building an airplane from the design stage, and maybe help form all these systems better for female pilots down the line,” she said. “That, frankly, will improve aviation safety, so creating a more inclusive design is incredibly important.”
Smith said after all this, she’d love to someday go back to Highlands Ranch, where she grew up, and visit her old high school. “I’d love to share my story—not to recruit anyone, but to show them there is a path they didn’t initially see for themselves. My school didn’t have junior ROTC or STEM programs, but I think it’s important to show what options are out there even if you don’t know what you want to do yet as a 17-year-old!”
Smith said: “You can be an outstanding engineer, even if you’re a struggling first year engineering student. It takes time, especially when it’s all new. I want to share that you can learn anything if you have the drive or support to pursue these things. I encourage people to try new things that will expose them to opportunities they never knew existed.”
She added: “And if whatever you choose doesn’t work out, try something else. The possibilities are endless.”
Storm Reid maybe a first year at USC but she is already leading young women to success!
Research shows youth are 130% more likely to be interested in leadership roles, 55% less likely to skip school and 78% more likely to volunteer when they have a mentor.
Unfortunately, many children don’t have access to mentoring figures, but Dark & Lovely is aiming to change that.
The beauty staple recently announced that in time for National Mentoring Month this January, they launched Building Beautiful Futures: Closing the Opportunity Gap, a multi-year commitment that will help bring educational and career equity to Black, female college students and young professionals.
In partnership with the NAACP Youth & College Division, they will provide scholarships, mentorship and career coaching opportunities to recent graduates and those pursuing four-year degrees. Helping to spread the word about this initiative is actress and activist Storm Reid.
“As a working actress, college student and Black woman, I know first-hand how important it is to have access to resources and mentors to help you achieve your goals. You can’t do it alone,” said Storm Reid. “That’s why I am excited to partner with Dark & Lovely to help impact the lives of so many young women like myself, who hope to break barriers and shatter glass ceilings.”
Per a news release, Dark & Lovely and the NAACP said they will provide 1-on-1 mentorship, $10,000 scholarships to selected Black female students per year, L’Oreal USA internship opportunities and college and early career care packages among other commitments.
“Now more than ever, young Black women are in need of actionable support that can propel them forward,” said Erica Culpepper, General Manager, Dark & Lovely. “Through this program, we hope to help close the educational and career equity gap by providing tangible resources that help young Black women embrace their limitless potential and shape their legacy.”
Growing up the multicultural child of immigrants — her mother is from Mexico, her father from Jamaica — Chelsea Hylton identifies as both Black and Latina. While she celebrates her multifaceted identity, she finds that others struggle with it.
“Los Angeles is a very diverse city, but I went to predominantly white schools here and faced a fair share of discrimination and microaggressions,” said Hylton, a native of Inglewood. “I would always hear, ‘You’re not fully Black or fully Latina.’ I never got that at home, of course, but other people made me feel like I had to choose.”
She remembers reading local papers and listening to news radio with her father on the way to school — and being struck by how much of the coverage of marginalized communities focused on negative subjects, like crime.
“I felt driven to express myself through stories of people who had experienced discrimination or just other social justice issues that had had an impact on me,” she said. “By the time I was in high school, I knew that journalism was what I wanted to focus on when I went to college.”
Earning a scholarship from the Posse Foundation, Hylton enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, Madison — where she had to deal with not only her first “real winter,” but the fact that she didn’t get into the journalism program as a freshman.
“That really took a toll on me,” she said. “It stunted my confidence. But that summer, I got an internship with a Los Angeles women’s magazine, published some stories, and realized that I could do this. With a better resume, I applied again to the journalism program and was ultimately admitted.”
Hylton became the editor of the Black Voice, the student-led publication for the university’s Black community. Given the small size of that community at the predominantly white institution, she felt a strong sense of responsibility. “We were always under the microscope,” she noted. “People were always looking at what we were doing and how we were doing it. My role was to make sure that we were holding university administration accountable.”
As Hylton began looking ahead past graduation, she ultimately decided that graduate school would be the best choice for her. Noting that most of her experience had been with writing for print and online media, she saw that USC Annenberg’s Master of Science in Journalism program would allow her to build a broader skill set, one that would include audio and video. “If I could hone those other skills, that would make me a stronger job candidate,” she said.
For Hylton, attending USC also allowed her to continue a family tradition. Her father has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from USC Marshall, and in May, her older sister earned her a doctorate in occupational therapy from USC Chan.
“When I got my acceptance letter, that was the best day ever, honestly,” she said.
Being admitted to USC Annenberg also came with much-needed financial support as Hylton was named the inaugural recipient of the school’s Iger-Bay Scholarship. Established by USC Annenberg Dean Willow Bay and her husband, Disney Chairman Robert A. Iger, the scholarship uses proceeds from the sale of Iger’s memoir, TheRide of a Lifetime, to provide funding for journalism students from underrepresented backgrounds at several institutions, including USC Annenberg.
“I know it’s a cliché, but this scholarship definitely allowed me to turn my dreams into reality,” she said. “I’m motivated to make the most of the Iger-Bay Scholarship by being really involved with Annenberg Media and the media center. I’m investing myself in my craft and in my work and focusing on becoming a well-rounded multimedia journalist.”
One recent story Hylton has written for Annenberg Media she has found particularly meaningful has focused on healthcare disparities faced by women of color.
“The new abortion bans that being passed across the country just perpetuate these disparities,” she said. “I’ve been interviewing advocates and activists from different abortion access groups around the country. Being able to connect with people and have them tell their stories and experiences is the best part of this job. It makes it all worth it.”
Looking ahead, Hylton says that, even for all her expanded multimedia skills, she remains a writer at heart, and hopes to work at a major outlet like the Los Angeles Times or The New Yorker. “With everything I’ve learned and all the support I’ve had, a position like that would be a culmination of all the hard work that I’ve put in.”
Laila Ward, a freshman studying human biology at USC Dornsife, recently took home the crown at the Miss Black Pasadena pageant, which honors local talented teens.
Laila Ward graduated from the Pasadena Rosebud Academy, a charter school for kindergarten through eighth grade in Pasadena, California, at the top of her class, earning a near full scholarship to Pasadena’s prestigious Polytechnic High School.
She was in for a bit of culture shock, however: While her middle school had been majority Black, there were only three other Black students in Ward’s entire grade at Polytechnic.
Laila Ward hopes to win another crown at the upcoming Pasadena Tournament of Roses Royal Court pageant.
Finding peers that shared her cultural values became a key part of Ward’s high school experience, capped off with her win in the local Miss Black Pasadena contest. Although snagging the crown was a thrill, meeting kindred spirits was the most valuable part for Ward.
“I loved the empowerment aspect of it. I think all Black girls need to feel empowered and to be around other girls who are just like them,” says Ward. “I got a crown and the sash but, to me, we were all queens and we all won.”
Her decision to attend the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences continues her journey to find community. Although she’d also gotten into University of California, Berkeley, her father’s alma mater, she opted for USC due to its more diverse student body.
Ward was born and raised in Pasadena and became an active member of the Los Angeles suburb that hugs the San Gabriel Mountains.
She was a member of the Pasadena Youth Council and served as a Youth Ambassador for the City of Pasadena, providing hot meals to the homeless. As part of her work on the council, she’s helped provide advice on where to place benches or improve lighting around town. She also worked on a project aimed at reducing teen vaping.
“I think, a lot of times, kids are just bored. If they have activities to attend and more access to opportunities, they’re less likely to vape or drink,” says Ward.
It’s unlikely Ward has suffered from boredom much herself. In addition to her community service, Ward played volleyball, ran track and led her school’s Black Student Union. Ward also participated in Polytechnic’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council, which advocated for more diverse representation in school curriculum.
It wasn’t always easy being one of the only Black students on campus.
“I often felt alone and it wasn’t a good feeling. Socially, economically, there’s just so many different things that divide me from my classmates,” says Ward. “However, I always tried to find something in common with them because I know I have something in common with everyone.”
Voice of a generation
Like lots of girls growing up in Pasadena, Ward was enthralled by the annual Rose Parade’s Rose Court Pageant. She planned to enter herself once she became eligible, but her aspirations were delayed when COVID-19 canceled the parade during her senior year of high school. Luckily, Ward discovered that the Miss Black Pasadena pageant was continuing on virtually.
Tamieko Foster launched Miss Black Pasadena in 2018 to help teen girls who felt overlooked or pigeonholed by mainstream pageants and media. “The media will often portray only one type of Black girl. We are here to shed light on the many faces of Black and all of the magic that we encompass,” says Foster.
Ward and seven other competitors participated in weeks of workshops that focused on public speaking skills, career building and healthy relationships. At the end of the competition, the group gathered at a local restaurant for the crowning of the winner.
Ward stood out from day one, says Foster. “Laila is well-spoken, sincere, and has such a powerful perspective. She is definitely a change agent in the community and a voice that can advocate for her generation.”
Once and future queen
Now as a freshman human biology major at USC Dornsife, Ward has her eye on becoming a dermatologist. She’s struggled with several skin conditions, including eczema, which makes the field of particular interest to her.
Ward also plans to study Spanish and international relations. “I’m passionate about law and I’ve always been into social justice causes. I really like to travel. Learning about international relations combines all of that for me,” says Ward. “I’m excited to explore, learn and just grow and be on my own.”
Her pageant ambitions continue, as well. She’s finally getting a chance at entering the Rose Court this year. She already has a leg up over most of her competitors — she’s now an expert at wearing a crown.
Inspired by a USC Dornsife international relations course — and her brother’s tendency to tap into her personal hair care supply — international relations and global business major Shamillah Iga looks to meet a demand among men looking to sport longer hairstyles.
When Shamillah Iga’s brother decided to forego his traditional fade haircut in favor of a more natural look, she was all for it — until he started swiping her hair care products to treat his textured hair.
“Like my brother, a lot of black men are now opting for longer hairstyles, but a lot of products for their hair type are marketed towards women or aren’t formulated for their curls,” explains Iga, a senior majoring in international relationsand global business, at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
So, in 2019, after returning home from a trip to Uganda to find her own style products depleted, Iga decided to create a product to fill her brother’s needs: Nile Hair, a hair care line especially for Black men.
Iga, who is originally from Uganda, says she chose the name not only to honor her connection to the continent, but also to evoke the purity and cleanness of water.
“More people are leaning towards products that are full of clean, natural ingredients and ingredients that are sourced from various parts of the world,” she says. “And especially for me, because of my origin, I really try to incorporate ingredients that are native to Africa into my products.”
Iga says the components of her products are organic, vegan and gluten-free, and free of harsh chemicals, such as phthalates and parabens.
Across two continents
Iga was born in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, but her family emigrated to Louisiana when she was two, later settling in the Dallas-Forth Worth area. Her childhood trips back to Uganda, however, gave her insight into some contemporary issues in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as a sense of how interconnected different parts of the globe can be.
Wanting to explore that interrelationship, Iga says, is why she decided to pursue an international relations major rather than one simply focused on business. She cites one of her courses, “The Political Economy of Africa” (IR 317), as being particularly integral to her decision to create Nile Hair.
“We learned a lot about how development works there, what has stunted Africa’s development, how to move forward, issues of neopatrimonialism, and things like that,” she says. She adds that as someone looking to create a global brand, an understanding of these topics will be crucial.
The business end of Nile Hair was developed through several courses Iga took at the USC Marshall School of Business, where she is pursuing a minor in entrepreneurship. Originally, the company was just part of an in-class project. It wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic sent her home that she decided to develop it into something more concrete. She found a manufacturing partner and a cosmetic scientist and quickly got to work.
Even in the planning stages, Iga knew she wanted social responsibility to be a large part of her business’ mission. Right now, she is fulfilling that component by creating a product with natural ingredients.
“For a long time, a lot of products directed toward Black consumers had harsh chemicals. Historically, the narrative was that taming or controlling our curly hair warranted these harsher chemicals, but that isn’t even true,” she says. Iga adds that in the long run she hopes to be able to source ingredients from Africa.
Currently Iga has only created one product for Nile Hair, a dual-use hair and beard oil, which she sells through the Nile Hair website. But she is looking to further develop the company this fall through the USC Marshall/Greif Incubator, where she will get to meet with faculty, lawyers, marketing professionals and others to help grow her enterprise.
My name is Jevon Torres, and I am a sophomore Computer Science/Business Administration major from Mount Laurel, NJ. Outside of classes, I am most involved in our school’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers, as well as our Black Student Assembly. Both of these organizations, alongside my academic interests aid my pursuit of furthering diversity efforts in fields where students like me have frequently been neglected and underrepresented.
I remember having just started 7th grade when I took a science test that I would never forget. After just a few weeks into the class, just getting settled in and beginning to learn lab procedures and other basic information, we were given an assessment to measure our memory and comprehension of the materials presented. It began smoothly, asking about some safety protocols but also starting to dive into the responsibilities of a scientist. Towards the end of the exam, I would have never expected to read the true/false statement: “Most scientists are male and white,” nor the baffling “correct” answer of “true”.
I was not nearly as offended or taken aback by the question and its inclusion as I should have been, or am now, but something about that sentence stuck with me from that day. Technology had always been a big part of my life even up to that early point, and my engineering interests had been spawned as well through those interests and some extracurriculars that I had explored. But, this day was what sealed the deal. I have always been extremely competitive and at times a contrarian, and naturally saw this as somewhat of a challenge: there might be a mold for what a scientist “looks like” now, but I am going to defy that standard.
Moving into high school, I started to fully realize these future interests. I immediately dove into the computer science courses that my school offered, as well as taking the most challenging math and science courses that I could stack on my plate. At the same time, I became involved with coding ventures in and outside school, such as client web development and a few personal exploration projects. I thought that I was beginning to find my niche, until part of the way through my freshman year. At our high school we were required to take a business class prior to graduation, and I figured that I would knock that requirement off very early. Thus, I took Accounting 1 and soon into the course, I could feel myself gaining interest in the business world as well. Going through high school, 1 year of Accounting became 2, which became 3, which became 4. I had completed the track, while continuing all of my engineering commitments and even picking up some business ones as well.
This left me with an interesting predicament come time for college applications. I knew that I could not go without engineering, in this case the major of Computer Science, but I also could not bear to leave behind my acquired interests in business. Looking from school to school, I came to the conclusion that something would have to go, unless I truly felt like immediately taking on the workload of them both. In came USC, the only program I found that would let me do exactly what I wanted to do, in a program designed to craft expertise in both engineering and business all in 4 years. Seeing that option already began to make me feel like USC was the place for me, and I hadn’t even applied yet.
Now that I have made my way from New Jersey to California, and completed my first year, I couldn’t be more confident in my decision to have applied and accepted a spot at USC. I have found my family, in classmates and alumni, who seem to always be offering to help out inside and out of the classroom. I am happy to say that I have put that true/false test question behind me: those at USC, in NSBE, in my courses, as my professors, have shown that while there is no perfect image of an engineer, I am well on my way to fitting in to the ever expansive fields of STEM.
My name is Princess, and I am a sophomore studying biomedical engineering. For high school, I went to King Drew Magnet High School of Medical and Science. My high school was in Compton, which I had never been to, but only heard stories about. My mom and some other Nigerian moms had the same idea to send their kids to that school because it had a reputation for being rigorous and producing intelligent children. I went into high school with the hope of joining the medical program only offered junior year. This program allowed students to shadow doctors, volunteer at Veterans Affairs, or do research at Charles Drew Medical University right next door.
The school took some time to get used to. Not because I found it very challenging or hard to navigate, but because I came from a very diverse middle school to a school with a majority of two populations; more than fifty percent Hispanic, and the rest of the population is African American. I did not learn until I joined the medical career program and went on a tour of the Compton neighborhood, that the neighborhood around the school was built intentionally to support low-income and under-represented youth. The plan was to create an area for those of us that wanted to be doctors and give that experience and access to the tools we needed to be a successful medical professional and give back to our community. I spent most of the time in the neighborhood around my school, and it was not until I left that I appreciated how much care went into making a safe space for students to guide us toward our journey to medical school.
As I went into my senior year, it was time to start applying to colleges. I went into high school thinking I wanted to be a doctor but later I realized I had more interests. I spent all four years only focused solely on medicine, so the summer after my junior year, I decided to try engineering, and participated in the Johns Hopkins Engineering innovation summer program. I learned from that experience that I wanted to be a biomedical engineer. I was able to mix health and engineering. During this program, I could not help but notice that I was the only African American there. During my four years of high school, it was always a shock to see people that were not Hispanic or African American in an academic setting. I suppose that it was my first taste of the real world in a long time.
I knew I wanted to go with a biomedical engineering route, but I still had to decide where to apply. I applied through Questbridge, and when given the option to pick twelve schools for the free application, I put USC as my last choice. USC did not feel like a serious choice for me until I went to campus for Explore USC. Thankfully I was able to go right before the pandemic closed everything. If I had not come to Explore USC and experienced the campus, all the wonderful people, and learned about all the opportunities the school has for interdisciplinary studies in person; I likely would be here. After I chose USC, I was happy with my decision. Still, I was told by the only staff member at my high school that went to USC that it was a good school with a low African American population, but they make up for it with the many organizations to include African American students. I did not understand what that meant until I started coming to in-person classes.
Living in USC housing and going to classes as a sophomore, I cannot help but notice the lack of African American students. I might be the only one or one of three. I sometimes take note of an African American student passing by me when walking on campus or when there is a group of students because it does not happen very often. This does not bother me, but I take note of it, and it reminds me a lot of the summer I was in the Engineering innovation program. Now that we are back in-person, I can become part of NSBE (National Society of Black Engineers), and join other organizations with others like me. As I continue my time at USC, I will keep taking note of the people that look like me.
U.S. Air Force officer and astronautical engineering graduate student, Edward Proulx, prepares to fly into space at USC.
Edward Proulx, a master’s student in the Department of Astronautical Engineering at USC Viterbi, always knew that he wanted to fly airplanes. After running into a Marine Officer recruiter at the University of Connecticut as an undergrad, he decided to join. “I figured why not and went to officer training over the summer of my junior year,” Proulx said.
After graduating from initial officer training, Proulx trained as an assault support/MV-22 pilot. He has served in the Marine Corps for nearly a decade, been deployed twice overseas with VMM-365 (REIN) and the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), before accepting his final assignment in the Marine Corps as an operational test pilot at VMX-1. Proulx recently transferred to the Air Force and now serves part time as a captain in the Wyoming Air National Guard as a mobility/C-130H pilot. He additionally works as missions assurance manager at Ball Aerospace in Westminster, Colorado .
Proulx has always dreamed of becoming an astronaut and going to space but lacked the requisite master’s degree to become a candidate. That’s why he decided to come to USC Viterbi.
Today, Proulx balances his engineering studies with two demanding careers and continues to dream of getting to work and live in space. He recently spoke to USC Viterbi.
What was life like in the Marine Corps? Perhaps walk us through a daily routine?
As an assault support pilot, our primary mission was to provide air support to our brother-and-sister Marines on the ground. This meant flying Marines and cargo wherever they needed to go. A typical day, when not on deployment, would involve a training flight where we would go out and practice the basics of providing this support. We might do landings into a confined area, landings to a ship off the coast, practice aerial refueling or just work on flying in a formation at night. The flying, which was definitely the best part, was only a small portion of a typical day. The rest of the time was doing the planning to go flying or taking care of the administrative responsibilities that go along with running any organization.
What is one of your fondest memories of your time in the Marine Corps?
There are too many memories. But definitely the people and the trust we placed in our fellow service members are what stick out the most. Marine aviation, and the Marines in general, are filled with incredible people who you can count on no matter what. I remember one instance when we were going to take off to fly over water a very long distance with no opportunity to divert our plane if the tanker support plane did not show up. We were counting on that tanker crew to be there, and they were. We would routinely make agreements with other units to show up exactly at a specific time, with incredible consequences if they or we didn’t show up. It’s rare to be part of an organization where you can put your life into someone else’s hands solely on the basis of them saying, “I will be there,” and trust that they will show up, but we did it all the time.
What made you want to return to school and want to be part of the Trojan family?
It took me a long time to decide to go back to school because I wanted to be sure that I was really doing something that I loved. It’s all too easy to spend a significant portion of your life doing something you only sort-of like, but don’t truly don’t enjoy. I always knew I was interested in space but never decided to act on my interest. One day while on a ship during my second deployment I had a realization that “I really would love to be in space.” As a kid I would watch shuttle launches and read science fiction books including “The Right Stuff” by Tom Wolfe, and I realized I wanted to go back to school to pursue my dreams of becoming an astronaut.
When I did, I looked around and realized that USC is one of the very few schools in the country with a pure astronautical engineering department, which was a huge determining factor. On top of that, the DEN (USC Viterbi’s Distance Education Network) program allows students like me to either stay in service or continue full time employment.
Why did you decide to pursue Engineering?
I have always had a fundamental curiosity about understanding how and why things work. An engineering education gives us the capability to begin to understand the world around us. But by being able to pursue engineering, it brings me one step closer to my dream.
What do you enjoy the most at USC Viterbi?
So far, I have most enjoyed the quality of the education and the dedication of my teachers, TA’s and classmates. Thanks Thomas and Paige! Everyone at USC has been extremely supportive. This is especially true at times when being a DEN student can make it hard to interact with people at USC compared to traditional on-campus students. It is also fun to get exposed to a lot of different people and different viewpoints. One professor actually, Mike Gruntman, (professor of astronautics and aerospace and mechanical engineering), especially encouraged and motivated me by connecting me with another Marine aviator who similarly completed the M.S program. This may sound weird, but I actually enjoy getting to work on math homework problems, which you don’t get to do too much of as a pilot or manager.
What’s next for you? What does your future look like?
I recently did an inter-service transfer from the Marine Corps to the Air Force to a unit in Wyoming. That unit, the 187th A/S, is going to send me back to flight school soon to learn how to fly the C-130H, so I am looking forward to that.
Thinking about the long term and my future, l am aiming to finish my masters and to ultimately work for NASA, hopefully as a research test pilot, or even better, an astronaut. At the end of the day, I just want to be as close to space exploration as I possibly can and to support all of our space efforts to the best of my ability.
What does Veterans Day mean to you?
Veterans Day is a day to remember the sacrifices that we have asked our service members to make. But more importantly, it is a day for us to think about our involvement in the process that determines what sacrifices our service members are asked to make on our behalf. Do you say thanks for your service but forget to vote? Do you put a yellow ribbon bumper sticker on your car but don’t follow the news? Service members need the engagement, participation and ultimately the judgement of the citizens that they serve in order to ensure that the reasons that we are employed are the right ones. We simply cannot and should not make these determinations without the input of our citizens to determine the lives of service members. The stuff that really matters is paying attention, educating yourself on the facts and making the hard decisions. So, if you haven’t done it already, please make sure to always stay informed and vote! Your participation can have a positive impact.
Thanks to his alumnus father, Garrett Wagner was very familiar with the Trojan Family. After suffering a torn ACL on duty, he decided to help others the way his surgeon helped him — starting at USC.
Garrett Wagner can still describe the pain he felt six years ago when a sudden injury sent him toward where he is today. During a 2015 weapons retention drill — a physical conflict simulation exercise — at a base in Bahrain, the Navy master-at-arms went down hard.
“The guy I was going up against was in a big padded suit,” he remembers. “He was a really big guy anyway. He went for the gun, I spun the elbow, he picked me up by the waist. As we were falling, I felt my knee dislocate. They rushed me to the hospital. They went in with a little camera and told me, ‘Your anterior cruciate ligament is completely torn.’”
Just 21 at the time, Wagner had never suffered a serious injury.
“I’d heard horror stories, but the surgeon — a captain who’d been performing surgeries for 26 years — instilled a lot of confidence in me, told me not to worry. Nine months later, after surgery and physical therapy, I was cleared to start exercising. The surgeon who fixed me up did such a stellar job, I wanted to do that for other people.”
A little tough love from a Trojan dad
Wagner is a dual citizen of Panama and the United States. He was born at Gorgas Army Hospital in Panama City in 1994.
“That’s what happens when your dad works for the Navy,” said Garrett’s father, John Wagner, a retired NCIS agent who graduated from USC in 1988. “We lived all over the world, then settled back in San Diego. I was able to take Garrett to a few games and introduce him to the Trojan Family, so it became his dream just like it was mine.”
After high school, Garrett wasn’t sure what direction to take. His dad gave him a gentle push.
“I told him: ‘You gotta do something, not just play video games,” John Wagner said. “Get a job, find your education or join the military. He took the third option.”
John Wagner said his son was a good writer but not an advanced student when it came to math and science.
“He’s a biochemistry major — an accidental arrival at his destination,” John Wagner said. “He’s thrown himself into it. The kid who was scared of math and science is now running toward it.”
From the O.C. to USC and beyond
After healing, Wagner started studying at Saddleback College. He volunteered at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach and took guidance from a faculty member who — like Wagner’s father — is a USC alum.
This fall, Wagner joined about 1,500 other transfer students at USC. Like Wagner, half transferred from California community colleges.
“You’re in the eye of the storm, and that’s where I want to be.”
“The veterans’ community at Saddleback is strong,” he said. “The transition felt right, and I joined the Veterans Association here at USC right off the bat.”
Now aiming for medical school while he earns his biochemistry degree, Wagner’s path is not an easy one.
“I’m not naturally a math or science person, and I had to start at the bottom. I love the material, so that keeps me going,” the Navy veteran said.
The experience that led Wagner to USC will eventually take him to the emergency room.
“I’m looking at becoming an ER doc,” he said. “In the ER, just about anything can go wrong, and I saw that when I was volunteering at the hospital. Gunshot wounds, knife wounds, poison, cardiac arrest — you never know what’s coming through the door. You’re in the eye of the storm, and that’s where I want to be.”
Athena Fleming, a veteran and student in the online Master of Communication Management program, dreamed of attending USC after attending basketball camps taught by alumna Cheryl Miller.
By now, it’s clear that life is full of curves — but those pursing graduate degrees may understand the adage better than anyone else. For many students, graduate school represents the possibility to pursue a new career or transfer their talents to a different industry.
Fleming currently works as an information officer at the California Department of Veteran’s Affairs (CalVet), and she is pursuing her master’s degree in hopes of one day running her own business. This was not the path that she set foot on, however, during her undergraduate studies.
Fleming initially attended Biola University in La Mirada, California, where she obtained a bachelor’s degree in journalism with an emphasis on public relations. But upon graduating in 2009, she was greeted by a nationwide economic crisis.
“The year I graduated from college was the year that every single newspaper was shutting down. It was a horrible time to be a journalist,” Fleming told USC Online.
With national instability, she needed a new opportunity with job security, and that’s exactly what the Coast Guard brought her. Although both of Fleming’s parents were in the Air Force, she laughed off the idea that they inspired her to join the military.
“I had no plans to enlist, definitely not. I was in boot camp and I was like, ‘What am I doing here? What did I sign up for?’” she recalled.
That’s not to say Fleming didn’t end up appreciating her time with the Coast Guard as a third class petty officer.
“They actually gave me the adventure of a lifetime. So, I’m really grateful and thankful that’s how everything worked out,” she emphasized.
Recently, Fleming has even devoted herself to veterans affairs. On the CalVet communications team, she supports the Veterans Homes program, which offers long-term care to elderly or disabled veterans. There are eight locations across the state, and Fleming works at the second largest Home, West Los Angeles, serving approximately 300 veterans.
“I think it goes without saying that the veterans are the best part of this job. We work with senior veterans, and it’s three levels of care in this facility … It’s nice to kind of provide them that final thank you. That final place to hang their hat because for most of them, this is the last place that they live. There’s a lot of joy that can be found here,” she said.
Inspired by Basketball Idols
Fleming, who describes herself as “a worker bee,” said she has no plans to leave the department anytime soon, and that the reason she decided to look into graduate school was to advance her career in communications.
“I knew I wanted that kind of confidence boost, and of course the degree, too. I always dreamt of going to USC,” she said.
Fleming’s passion for the university started as a toddler when she was introduced to basketball through her mother, who played the sport in the Air Force.
“I grew up going to basketball camps that were taught by Cheryl Miller, an amazing USC alumna … I also grew up idolizing Lisa Leslie, [another USC graduate],” she said.
Although Fleming did not continue playing basketball past high school, she still idolized USC as the “go-to” university and knew she wanted to be part of the Trojan Family. Today, Fleming visibly demonstrates her school pride any chance she gets.
“Every time I’m in class, I’m the one with the sweaters and gear on. I’ve got my lanyard at work, and everyone is like, ‘All right, we get it, you go to USC!’” she laughed. “I’m so happy I enrolled.”
That sentiment is underscored by the fact that she’s already feeling the benefits of USC Annenberg’s online program, which she began just last year: “During class, I’m like, ‘OK, I’ve experienced that in my career.’ Then, I’m learning how I could have approached it differently or how I can approach it in the future,” she said.
By taking classes in subjects such as global communications and audience analysis, Fleming has also been able to better understand the specific needs and backgrounds of the Veterans Home residents and their families.
Finding a Community with USC Veterans
While working full-time and juggling her course load has not been easy, Fleming says she’s been able to achieve a personal and professional balance, dedicating her weekends to school and reserving Fridays as her “self-care day.”
Fleming admitted her social life has taken a bit of hit with her new schedule, but her days are far from lonely, thanks to the USC community. Even with the COVID-19 pandemic shaking up her visions of football games and Trojan comradery, Fleming says the USC veterans network has been a bright spot.
“There is a really nice veterans community at USC, and they’re really pushing hard for us to grow and connect … The VRC [USC Veterans Resource Center] does a lot of Zoom meetings,” she said.
There are even a few residents at the Veterans Home who like to join Fleming in her weekly video conferences, during which they all “sit around and just talk about life.”
“It’s nice because we have that community together as veterans, and so we don’t have to explain the quirky things that we do or certain things we say — we all get it. For me, I think that’s definitely one of my favorite things about attending USC, the real community you build,” she explained.
When asked how others can support veterans like the ones she works with, Fleming highlighted Operation Gratitude, a nonprofit that sends care packages to active duty first responders, police, firefighters, veterans and more.
The package, which can include donations like a knitted scarf, snacks and other essential items, even comes with a handwritten letter. Fleming received a care package herself one Thanksgiving when she was serving and unable to spend the holiday with her family. She still recalls how much it meant to her.
Fleming also personally works with the organization Dress for Success, which provides professional attire, career workshops and leadership development tools to women in the greater Los Angeles area to help them gain economic independence.
“I started to think about this year and COVID and what that means. Obviously, I’m in this program because I want to advance in my career, but there are so many people who are redirecting their careers, possibly without jobs because of the pandemic … It’s all about being able to connect women to these important resources,” she said.
Fleming encourages anyone feeling generally discouraged by 2020 to consider their options, whether it be graduate school, a new career path or a volunteer opportunity.
“I think that with the pandemic, you have a choice: to be upset and stuck at home or make something out of it. There are just so many great resources for people who do want to level up. So, 2021 could be another bad year, or it could be an amazing year filled with transitions. I just encourage everyone to make sure it’s the latter,” she concluded.
Many people fear the places Hector Jimenez needs to be. He relies on his battlefield experience — and his studies at USC, where he’s earned two graduate degrees — almost every day.
In environments where gang violence stalks communities, Army veteran Hector Jimenez is unafraid. He served eight years during the 1990s, then followed a meandering path to a military social work degree at USC.
“I grew up around USC, but I took the long, scenic route to get an education here,” he said. “I ended up where I needed to be.”
Jimenez needs to be in Los Angeles neighborhoods designated as Gang Reduction and Youth Development zones, where gang-related crime is four times higher compared to other parts of the city. Young people in these zones are hounded by the potential for violence, a situation not unlike combat.
“These are the kids we’re trying to reach,” Jimenez said. “There’s peer pressure, and sometimes they don’t really have a choice. They need protection, and they can’t see any other way. If you can put yourself out there, you can understand that.”
Hector Jimenez relies on street smarts, two USC graduate degrees to make an impact
Jimenez, 50, admits struggling to find his way when he returned from active duty. He worked a series of jobs, including a stint leading USC’s Campus Cruisers — a program that provides safe rides after dark.
“Hector’s got a lot of life experience, and he doesn’t blink.”
Jimenez followed the military social work track, then chose to direct his career toward gang diversion and prevention at Soledad Enrichment Action.
“Hector’s got a lot of life experience, and he doesn’t blink,” said Mirna Romero, director of operations at Soledad Enrichment Action. She met Hector when they were both studying at USC. “He won’t back down, but he’s a peacemaker. He’s got this empathetic side, which is a combination you need for this work.”
That work includes developing the talents of at-risk youth and guiding those who’ve been given a second chance by the criminal justice system.
“People are surprised sometimes when they find out what I do,” Jimenez said. “They might say, ‘That’s a really dangerous job.’ My military background says it may be dangerous, but you’re there for a reason.”
Construction engineering senior Mayra Rodriguez is determined to lead construction teams to build cleaner and better by investing in the future.
When Mayra Rodriguez was growing up, her family and teachers could tell early on she’d be defined by her persistence. The oldest of two siblings and the daughter of first-generation immigrants from Argentina, she was always good at setting goals and exceeding them. For example, when Rodriquez was enrolled in ESL (English as a Second Language) classes when she began school in Miami, she stubbornly committed to speaking only English to communicate clearly to her teachers that she was fluent enough to move on.
This determination carried her through high school, where she excelled at math and science, and catapulted her past a major milestone: becoming first in her family to go to college. Applying through Questbridge, a national nonprofit that connects the nation’s youth with leading colleges, she was a finalist for University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering and committed to a big move across the country to continue her studies.
Though she hadn’t formally experimented with engineering as a kid, it was her father’s experiences, first as a mechanic and later as a home renovator, that guided her interest in civil engineering—specifically building sciences, which is her emphasis at the Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
“So my whole childhood, my father would always take things apart and put them back together, or build an engine from scratch so seeing him do that fascinated me,” Rodriguez said.
Growing up in Miami, her fascination with buildings fell upon those her father worked on. “My parents would get a property in really poor condition and renovate it,” she said. “My dad did the actual renovation work himself, which is what got me into the construction aspect of things.”
But it was in Los Angeles that Rodriguez discovered her favorite buildings. As an intern at a general contractor in downtown Los Angeles this past summer, she passes breathtaking relics like the Eastern Building constantly and always takes pause to admire them.
“It’s a big blue, old building—one of a bunch of historic landmark buildings along Broadway. It’s the art deco style for me—the attention to detail that they put into things and how it was built so long ago but has even better structure than buildings built now, which are put together cheaply and quickly,” she said. “They don’t have that long-term quality anymore and that kind of fascinates me.”
At internships at DPR Construction and Turner Construction, Rodriguez served essentially as a construction manager, overseeing the day-to-day of all the different components that go into creating a building. “We oversee all these different trades—the electrician, plumber, mechanical engineers, dry waller. Meeting with everyone, it combines everything I’ve learned and ties it all together,” she said.
Rodriguez likes being the one to make sure that the building is put together according to plan. This requires more than engineering skill, of course, but an ability to work with many different types of people. “You have to be able to understand what’s going on and be a mass communicator,” she said. At times, she noted, this also means proving herself as a woman in a male-dominated field.
“The most challenging part is trying to know everything about all the different aspects of constructing a building,” she said. “While people are often more than willing to explain it to you if you ask, especially being a woman, you don’t really get treated with the same respect. You have to earn that respect and once you do, they’re like ‘She actually knows what she’s talking about, I’m going to start listening.”
Ultimately, Rodriguez sees her passion for construction as a way to make an impact. As of 2019, the global construction industry accounts for 38% of carbon emissions—an increase to its highest level yet—according to the United Nations Environment Programme.
“The construction sector is the number one contributor to carbon emissions,” she said, “I want to reach a level where I can decide which projects to chase after, choosing ones that are more sustainable—those that are “net zero” or produce the same amount of energy they consume.
Rodriguez’ recently awarded academic scholarship from National Academy of Construction is helping her pursue her passions by allowing her to focus on these goals.
“When my parents first came to the U.S., they didn’t speak any English and we were low income. Even though we’re doing much better now, paying rent and affording textbooks is always going to be a concern in the back of my mind. This $2,500 scholarship relieves the stress a bit, so I can focus on what I care about.”
As for what she’s looking forward to this fall, Rodriguez continues to appreciate campus life and eagerly anticipates its return. “I just want to see my classmates in person and actually interact with my professors, forming those relationships that last a lifetime.”
Betty Thai earned a fellowship that could lead to a job as a U.S. diplomat, an ideal fit for the first-generation college student who wants to help solve global challenges.
Like many children of immigrant parents, Betty Thai grew up in the role of cultural navigator.
When it came time to enroll her in elementary school, her parents turned to her to do research and figure out which school to attend. At parent-teacher conferences, she translated between the authority figures in her life, from Chinese to English and back again. When important government documents arrived in the mail, a young Betty pored over the complicated language to figure out what her parents needed to do.
The family had to scrimp and save money when she was little, and she often had to look through the household bills. She would point out expensive charges to her mom, only to be told not to worry about it. “But now I knew this information,” Thai remembers, “and sometimes it would stress me out.”
That responsibility at a young age — as a crucial bridge between two worlds — made Thai deeply passionate about understanding cultural differences. It led her to USC, where she pursues undergraduate degrees in political science and East Asian languages and cultures at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. At the same time, she is working toward a master’s in law studies at the USC Gould School of Law.
The senior envisions a career devoted to exploring other cultures and advocating for vulnerable groups around the world. Others recognize her potential and passion, too. She studied abroad in China on a Gilman Scholarship in 2019 and recently received the prestigious Pickering Fellowship, which covers a two-year master’s degree followed by an overseas posting in the U.S. Foreign Service.
“I realized there are a lot of deep-rooted issues, especially facing underserved communities and minorities,” Thai said. “I want to get involved in politics to help solve those issues and address those structural barriers that people like my parents have to face.”
A child of immigrants finds her passion for cross-cultural exchange
Thai’s parents are both from Southern China and speak little English. Throughout her childhood in California’s San Fernando Valley — in places like Northridge, Van Nuys and Granada Hills — her mom was the family’s sole breadwinner.
In China, Thai’s mother had performed with well-known orchestras as a first-chair violinist. When she immigrated, however, she came up against culture and language barriers in the music world. So, she put herself through school and got an associate degree, Thai says. Now she works night shifts at a diagnostic testing company.
Although her mother pushes her intensely to excel, Thai said it makes sense: “She’s the hardest worker I know, sacrificing so much to create a better life for my brother and me. If she’s working this hard, I can do it, too.”
That work ethic started early. Instead of watching cartoons like many kids her age, Thai spent Saturday mornings at Chinese language school, studying Mandarin.
“But it got me fluent in reading, writing and speaking,” she says. “I want to continue that because I want to help the Chinese immigrant community. This is a skill I have, so why not use it?”
Those weekend studies have already paid off. While studying in China through her Gilman Scholarship, Thai became the de facto translator and navigator for her American classmates. In Chinese language class, she was the only student from the United States, and her peers would ask her about life and politics in America. She’d question them back about their own upbringing and culture.
“I realized there is so much more to this world that I want to see and learn about,” Thai said. “And I loved living internationally. What career would help me advocate for others and continue learning about new cultures and lifestyles?”
The answer came when she learned about the Pickering Fellowship.
Prestigious fellowship sets USC senior on track to U.S. Foreign Service
When Thai realized she wanted to pursue a career in international affairs, the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship Program became her top goal. The competitive fellowship encourages applications from women, people with financial needs and minority groups that have been historically underrepresented in the U.S. Department of State.
If she earned a coveted spot, her tuition and fees at a two-year master’s program in international affairs or a similar topic would be covered. She would also receive a stipend to cover living expenses and would complete two summer internships — first at the U.S. Department of State, then overseas at a U.S. embassy or consulate. In exchange, Thai would agree to spend at least five years as a foreign service officer after completing her degree.
“We need to have these international exchanges to broaden everyone’s horizons.”
She sent off her application but viewed it as a long shot. She didn’t even tell her mom she applied until the acceptance letter arrived in her email inbox.
“I told her: ‘Mom, by the way, I think I’m going to accept this to become a diplomat,’” Thai said. “She was so excited. She was a little upset because it means I won’t live near her anymore, but my whole family is very excited.”
Aspiring diplomat Betty Thai wants to help vulnerable groups around the world
After her master’s program, Thai will go abroad for five years, likely in two or three locations. If she still likes the international lifestyle after that, she envisions a career of service in the State Department. Other jobs appeal, too, like working for a think tank focused on international affairs. And she is especially interested in the relationship between China and the United States.
“From what I understand, the U.S.-China political circle is kind of a boys’ club,” she said. “I’m breaking into that boys’ club.”
Thai has been dismayed by certain hardline policies against China in recent years. In a research project she is now turning into a thesis, she examined the importance of cultural exchanges through study abroad programs. Many students who complete those programs go into diplomacy or international politics, she said.
“When they pulled the Fulbright [student exchange program] from Hong Kong, that was the opposite of what my research was telling me,” she said. “We need to have these international exchanges to broaden everyone’s horizons and really understand the other side of the story.”
Thai’s current goal is to become a political officer in the U.S. Foreign Service. She would analyze politics in her host country and send notes and recommendations back to leaders in Washington, D.C.
It would be an opportunity she’s dreamed about for years: “I could influence policies that can help underserved communities on an international scale.”
USC Dornsife junior Danika Banh created the Music Inspiring Community club to bring regular music lessons to underserved elementary school classrooms.
Once a week, kindergarteners at Los Angeles’ Dr. Theodore T. Alexander Jr. Science Center School log in to their computers for a music lesson. Through interactive games like Bingo and “hot and cold,” the children get introduced to music theory, music history and a variety of orchestral instruments.
Normally, these students would only receive one music lesson a month. Limited funding made weekly classes impossible for this school. Then, along came Danika Banh, a biological sciences major at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and a piano minor at the USC Thornton School of Music.
In 2019, Banh formed the club Music Inspiring Community, which matches USC student volunteers with elementary school classes to give a weekly lesson.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, they taught the music lesson in person, but the club has since switched their classes to Zoom. Banh concedes the new format isn’t always ideal, but it’s allowed her volunteers to continue an initiative she believes is a powerful boon to early education.
“With music, you’re learning another language, basically, because you have to learn how to read notes,” she explains. “It gives students patience and teaches them to cooperate with one another. They learn to listen, and then analyze and respond.”
Once in-person classes can resume, Banh hopes to expand the music lesson program to even more local elementary schools who are struggling to provide regular music classes.
Passing her good fortune on to others
Banh’s inspiration for the club was partly her parents. They’d both fled war-torn Vietnam as children, spent time in Malaysian refugee camps and eventually joined family in Southern California, where Banh was later born. Neither had ever had the opportunity to learn to play an instrument themselves, so they made sure Banh had lessons as a child.
She studied piano and played marimba in her high school marching band. “I really love the camaraderie of the large group and playing with everyone else. It gives you that feeling of teamwork and helps you build your skills in leadership and confidence,” says Banh.
As a freshman at USC, she taught science lessons to elementary students through USC Dornsife’s Joint Educational Project. “I was talking with the teacher and she told me they had a music teacher who came in only once a month. I thought, ’How can they really learn anything in the span of an hour a month and retain it?’” says Banh.
She thought about her own parents, who had never been offered the chance to learn to play and how fortunate she was to get an opportunity herself. “I was very privileged to have music as a fundamental part of my life since I was very young,” she says.
Banh talked with friends who also had a musical background but who, like Banh, felt too committed to studies to dedicate themselves to a musical group. They decided to pitch to the university the idea of a club that would match USC students to local classrooms for music education. Music Inspiring Community began. The group now teaches hour long lessons to kindergarten and first-grade classes at the science center school.
The switch-up during the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t the first time the group has made adaptations to their teaching format. They initially offered lessons on the USC campus, but with parking and accessibility a challenge, they switched to teaching in the classroom. The school is within walking distance of campus, which makes for an easy commute.
Zoom lessons do have advantages. Banh says it’s allowed her volunteers to bring in more guest performers, often fellow USC music students, to showcase their instrument — which sometimes produces moments of hilarity.
“One of my session members plays the clarinet and when all the kids see it they’re like, ‘Squidward, he’s just like Squidward!’” says Banh, referencing the clarinet-playing character of the SpongeBob SquarePants cartoon.
It’s a testament to the joy of teaching that her volunteers, despite Zoom fatigue from their own classes, expressed disappointment when they learned their semester was coming to an end. At a recent online meeting, when Banh told them the next week was their last, all of the volunteers collectively unmuted and shouted, “No!”
Once coronavirus restrictions ease, the volunteers will head back into the classroom, where they can resume popular activities like building pan pipes out of paper. Banh is also raising funds to purchase instruments, perhaps clappers or shakers, that will let students keep rhythm and play as a group, just the sort of experience Banh benefited from during her own childhood.
As the child of refugees from Vietnam, Vanessa “Vanni” Le held two very important jobs for most of her youth: interpreter and advocate for her parents. “There are people out there who would judge my parents’ intelligence based on the way they speak English,” said Le, who was born in Orange County, California and moved to Tampa, Florida when she was 7. “It was really frustrating to see them have to work 10 times harder to make up for such an arbitrary skill and have to prove themselves.”
Le came to USC excited to return to her native West Coast and driven to continue to advocate for people — “without having a comprehensive understanding of who exactly I was advocating for,” she said.
She arrived on campus in 2015 as a public relations major on a pre-law track, with the hope of emulating the crisis communication skills of Olivia Pope from the ABC hit television drama Scandal. Within her second semester, she realized that law wasn’t for her, but stayed focused on PR. “I wanted to learn more about advocacy communication, and how to communicate, not just on the page, but verbally and through other mediums as well,” she said. “I really want to create social impact in some way.”
One of her defining experiences while at USC Annenberg was the research work she did with Stacy Smith, the founder and director of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative (AII). As part of her internship with AII, Le watched movies — frame by frame — to determine a character’s race, gender, sexual orientation, as well as other factors including disability. “I seemed to be constantly checking the box, ‘No, there is no diversity,’” she said. “It was really disappointing, but also made me think how important it is to see yourself represented in the media, not just in front of the camera, but behind it as well.”
During her four years at USC Annenberg, Le worked with her academic advisor to make sure that the many AP and IB credits she took in high school counted towards her college credits and then planned a schedule that “really, really fit.” She earned a bachelor’s degree in 2018 after three years and added on a master’s degree in digital social media.
In her graduate work, Le was looking to expand her understanding of how communication in society was rapidly changing. “I remember real-life examples coming up in my classes,” she said. “We talked about the legalities of Peloton classes. Is it live streaming? Is there copyright infringement of the song, and if so, what does that mean? As well as all these really relevant problems today. Too be able to discuss that in an academic setting with other people who care and are as interested in that as I am, was really, really great.”
While at USC, Le also took advantage of a variety of internships, including two in the entertainment field. She was a franchise management intern for Disney during her junior year and then moved on to intern at Sony when she entered the master’s program in 2018. There, she worked as a strategic alliances graduate intern.
All of these seemingly “random skills” Le said she acquired from USC Annenberg, went “toward being who I am as a person and also helped make me a competitive employee.” Upon graduation in 2019, Le worked at A+E Networks as a consumer enterprises coordinator and then in late 2020 was hired at RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to advance opportunities for, and fight stigmas against, people with disabilities. As their entertainment outreach program manager in their entertainment media department, Le is tasked with consulting with the networks and major studios on projects that feature people with disabilities.
Le went on to say that she doesn’t think she would have been hired if not for the skills she gained at USC Annenberg through her coursework, AII, and the many internships she chose. “Annenberg really taught me how to do essentially everything related to coordination, project management, communication — and how to be incredibly adaptable,” she said. “I was also able to get certified in Photoshop and InDesign through the Digital Lounge, which was a requirement for this position.”
As far as her new job at RespectAbility, Le said it was a “dream come true. While we have a long, long way to go as far as diversity is concerned, I think it’s really great that strides are already being made. And that I also get to be part of the fight too.”
Industrial and systems engineering student Carlos Acosta is active in a range of student organizations, as well as much-needed volunteer relief efforts for his homeland of Venezuela.
Venezuela is presently in the grip of a heartbreaking humanitarian crisis amid the political turmoil that has gripped the country for over a decade. Severe shortages of food, medication, fuel and other essential items, on top of widespread unemployment have forced over five million Venezuelans to leave the country since 2015 to escape ongoing starvation and unrest. The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 has only amplified the crisis for a country in which there has been an 85% shortage of all medicines.
Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering undergraduate student Carlos Acosta immigrated to the USA with his family when he was just nine. Seeing his home country continue to go through so much devastation in recent years spurred him into action.
Since 2015, Acosta has been an active volunteer for All for Venezuela, a Southern California-based organization that offers support to alleviate the humanitarian crisis and raise awareness about the plight of Venezuelans.
“As a Venezuelan, I have always felt a sense of responsibility to give back to my community given the current political circumstances,” Acosta said. “Being in a position of privilege having moved to the United States at a young age, I try to do my best to support the Venezuelan people because we have all had to sacrifice our family, our home, our health, to some extent our traditions, and much more.”
Acosta said that he and his All for Venezuela colleagues gather a range of goods including food, medical supplies, clothing, and monetary donations, which go directly to Venezuelans in need. The teams then sort the donations, pack them for shipment and arrange them in their designated warehouse to be sent.
“Personally, I focus on the collection of donations at the end of a school year as people move out of their apartments,” Acosta said. “Currently, during the pandemic, we have been receiving donations, sorting them, and preparing them in boxes so they can be shipped. Additionally, in moments of crises, we also send donations to other places in grave need such as Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.”
Acosta is also the first member of his family to study for a bachelor’s degree, which has made him acutely aware of the needs of first-generation students, and all the more determined to support them. He works as a student leader within the First-Generation Student Leadership Program (FGSLP) at USC, where he mentors students and supports them on their academic journey.
“Alongside the other phenomenal first-gen student leaders, I act as an aid during orientation,” Acosta said. “We provide insight to the first-generation student experience at USC through panelist events, guide students through difficult times, provide resources, and host events for students to earn skills and meet other first-gens.”
Acosta is also Social Media and Communications Co-lead within the program, responsible for outreach to the community via social channels such as their @USC FirstGen Instagram.
“We make videos teaching students how to access USC resources, scholarship application deadlines and information, mentoring services, and we host takeovers to showcase our first-generation community, and much more,” Acosta said.
For Acosta, one of the most satisfying aspects of his involvement as a first generation mentor is the chance to support people in the same position he once was in–unable to turn to parents for support because they hadn’t gone through the college experience.
“As first-generation students, we have to walk the extra mile to just have access to resources,” Acosta said. “I feel proud to be part of a group that supports one another and that we help each other up to be as successful as possible.”
After Acosta’s first semester at USC, he was awarded a Norman Topping Student Aid Fund Scholarship, which he described as one of the biggest blessings of his academic career. This also prompted him to act as a mentor to new scholarship students, offering advice and support and information about accessing resources.
Acosta also participates in other student organizations, including QuEST, which supports LGBTQ+ engineers and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), which advances Latinx participation in the industry. Acosta said a key highlight for him has been the opportunity to attend the SHPE National Convention where he took part in workshops and talks and networked with fellow students and companies. He also takes part in classes and community events as a Latino Alumni Association scholar.
“I have received the guidance of some of the most amazing mentors within the Latino Alumni Association that have supported me during my academic journey leading me to the position I am in today,” Acosta said.
In high school, I developed a strong affinity and passion for physics. I saw physics as this incredible-looking glass that allowed me to deeply understand the inner mechanics of the world. My interests in physics, mathematics, and design drew me to Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE). After learning about USC Viterbi’s uniquely flexible and multidisciplinary engineering programs, I knew that it was the school for me.
And yet, as I began my sophomore year at USC, I started to feel a bit lost in ECE. This major is exceptionally broad and although that’s one of the best things about it, it can be hard to find your place in such a program. At that moment I was fearing that I lacked direction. I just wasn’t connecting deeply with anything yet.
Less than a year later, however, my connection to ECE was flourishing. I was presenting my summer research project PyREM at the national Sigma Xi student research conference, and then winning the Top Undergraduate Poster Award in Engineering. My project PyREM implements a computational model for the airborne respiratory droplet-based virus transmission of COVID-19 in python. It seems almost unreal that within a year, I went from being this aimlessly wandering student to presenting novel research at a national conference. In fact, it was all thanks to one course and the brilliant and compassionate professor who taught it.
“To aspiring engineers, your world doesn’t end where engineering ends. Research is what makes engineering boundless. It is a completely challenging, inspiring, and fulfilling experience.”
You may be wondering what was this course that completely changed my perspective of Electrical Engineering and opened up the entire major to me in new and exciting ways. The course was EE 250, Distributed Systems for the Internet of Things. Through this class, I began to see all the pieces of the puzzle coming together to form this immensely diverse major. We touched upon IoT devices, Wireless Networking, Signal Processing, AI and machine learning, analog, and digital circuits, control systems, and cybersecurity.
Because of EE 250, I no longer feel intimidated or lost by the vastness of ECE. Now, the comprehensive nature of electrical engineering only brings me excitement and clarity. The new perspective I have acquired is not only refreshing but is crucial in showing me what I will do o
However, the real highlight of this course was our teacher. Professor Bhaskar Krishnamachari was so much more than an instructor. He was more like a curator who helped me see the true value and depth of electrical engineering and education. On the first day of class, he shared a quote with us by Mark Twain: “Don’t let schooling get in the way of your education.” I deeply resonated with this philosophy: it is not only important to learn the course material but to adopt the right mindset and attitude when we approach something new. After all, our mindset carries over into anything that we do in life and it is something very important to cultivate at an early stage.
Thinking about education and learning through these lenses led me to this question: why was I limiting myself to only the things I learned in class when I could go beyond course content and explore things that piqued my curiosity? There was an ocean of knowledge just waiting to be explored. And research was one kind of vessel to navigate these uncharted waters.
As a freshman, I didn’t even know what research truly was. For some reason, I associated it with my dreaded Chemistry labs from freshman year that entailed hours of tedious tasks to try to observe some physical phenomenon I wasn’t particularly excited about. However, this is no longer the case at all. On the contrary, becoming involved in undergraduate research in ECE has been the best choice I’ve made in my educational career so far.
It’s amazing how things work out sometimes. Just as I was opening up to the idea of research, EE 250 was coming to an end. At the same time, a summer internship I had secured was canceled due to COVID-19. I worked up the courage to ask Professor Krishnamachari if he had any openings for undergrads to conduct research in his lab.
Even today, though Krishnamachari Professor isn’t formally teaching any of my classes, I continue to learn so many new things from him. It is truly a privilege to have him as my research advisor and to conduct research in his Autonomous Networks Research Group (ANRG).
Researching with Professor Krishnamachari has been an even more incredible journey and experience. He has been instrumental in opening the doors of academic research to me while providing the right combination of mentoring, challenge, and encouragement.
I began my research last Summer with ANRG completely remotely, working on the Python Respiratory Exchange Model (PyREM). PyREM aims to quantify an individual’s accumulated exposure to respiratory droplets containing SARS-CoV-2 viral RNA over a given period of time in Python. The project involved mathematical modeling, physics, and programming to visually simulate the effects of temperature, humidity, proximity, and droplet size, on the total viral concentration of droplets present in the air after a particular duration of time.
Through PyREM I’ve recognized that I enjoy research in ECE because it facilitates my genuine love for self-driven learning. It’s exciting to think creatively while venturing into uncharted waters. Every approach failed or successful, is an opportunity to discover the intricacies of the open-ended problem. To continue my journey in research, I plan on applying to Ph.D. programs in Electrical Engineering.
Today I continue to research with Professor Krishnamachari. In our current project, we are looking to explore the benefit of evolving communication in engineered systems. The amazing part of this project is how multidisciplinary it is. Through the research process, I’ve gotten to read different types of literature about Darwinism, communication in nature, Game theory, the Prisoner’s dilemma, and evolutionarily stable strategies. Communication, whether in nature or between artificial agents, can be broken down into a pair of behaviors, namely, a signal and response. This is what enables us to explore behaviors we observe in the natural world into a simulation involving artificial agents.
To aspiring engineers, your world doesn’t end where engineering ends. Research is what allows engineering to not have any boundaries. It is a completely challenging, inspiring, and fulfilling experience.
A diving accident in high school left Zachary Pickett paralyzed just as he reached his prime. But that didn’t stop the Swim With Mike scholarship recipient from pursuing his athletic passions
Swim With Mike recipient Zachary Pickett conquered every sport he tried as a kid.
The youngster began swimming competitively at age 5. A string of other athletic pursuits soon followed — baseball, basketball, volleyball, track and soccer. By high school, the lanky teen was a rising star on the water polo team. Murmurs of athletic scholarships started by his sophomore year. Then everything changed.
It was a blisteringly hot day in August. Pickett was working his summer job as a lifeguard at a lake in his hometown of Cameron Park, a suburb east of Sacramento. He decided to take a quick dip with a few of his friends.
When he dove into the water, his head struck a hidden sandbar just under the surface. He knew right away something was wrong. He couldn’t feel anything below his waist. He called out for help.
“One of my lifeguard friends came over and I said, ‘I can’t move my legs. Can you touch my legs?’” Pickett said. “He told me, ‘I’ve been grabbing your legs for like 10 seconds.’ I thought, oh man, I didn’t feel any of that.”
Doctors at UC Davis Medical Center confirmed his fears. Pickett had crushed his C-7 vertebrae, damaging his spinal cord near his neck. His carefree summer had turned deadly serious in an instant.
A competitive spirit pays off
After surgery to stabilize his spine and 10 days in the intensive care unit, Pickett moved into recovery mode. For the next two and a half months, he dedicated himself to regaining strength and mobility.
“It’s weird trying to learn how to get around again,” he said. “You kind of feel like a kid. You have no idea how to do anything. You basically have to learn how to live again.”
He embraced intense sessions of occupational and physical therapy. He turned every task into a competition, pushing himself to eke out one more exercise. It paid off.
A month and a half into his recovery, he noticed tiny flickers of movement in his toes. His spinal cord had not been fully severed. Soon he regained some strength and mobility in his right leg. He could now cover short distances with the help of a cane or walker.
Adjusting to a new life with some familiar pursuits
Four months after his injury, Pickett was back home. He had already returned to school a month earlier, so he barely missed a beat. He maintained stellar grades, served as junior class president and completed his Eagle Scout rank in the Boy Scouts.
And he was back in the pool. By April 2013, nine months after that fateful dive into the lake, he was competing at the Paralympic National Championships. He won the 50-meter backstroke in his division.
Then came the big surprise. He rejoined the water polo team, even though the sport emphasizes leg strength.
“At first, I just started going to practice because that’s what all my friends were doing,” Pickett said. “But then I gradually learned how to play without using my legs. You kind of have to be like a shark. You just can’t stop moving.”
He would often slip into the pool for warmups before anyone on the opposing team noticed, and just looked like one of the guys. That led to looks of shock as he lined up in his wheelchair to shake hands after the game.
“People were definitely confused at first,” he said. “All my friends saw my progression from day one, so I don’t think they were fazed at all.”
Swim With Mike program provides more than money
As his senior year began and Pickett started planning for college applications, one university stood out above the rest thanks to a special program. Pickett had heard about Swim With Mike, the USC initiative that supports physically challenged athletes, within days of his injury. His aunt had competed in synchronized swimming with the sister of Mike Nyeholt, the USC alumnus who inspired the organization. She told Pickett about the program, and USC shot to the top of his list of dream schools.
Not only did was he accepted, but he also received a Swim With Mike scholarship. It provided $50,000 a year, covering much of his tuition. And it gave him an instant network of friends and supporters.
Pickett embraced the program, becoming the Swim With Mike chair of the Trojan Knights, the USC service and spirit organization. He works alongside Ron Orr, founder of Swim With Mike, in the university’s athletics fundraising office. He also kept up his passion for sports, competing in the group’s wheelchair basketball tournament.
“For the first two tournaments, I was the captain of the winning team,” he said. “I went abroad last semester, so I couldn’t get the three-peat, but I’m hoping to defend my title this year.”
He will get his chance in a few days. The tournament takes place Friday, April 6, in advance of the organization’s annual fundraiser this Saturday at the USC Uytengsu Aquatics Center. It will be Pickett’s last Swim With Mike fundraiser as an undergrad. He graduates in May with a degree from the USC Marshall School of Business and a minor in sports media studies. He envisions working in operations or management with a professional sports team.
But he plans to stay involved with the Trojan Family, returning for Swim With Mike fundraisers and encouraging others to support the campaign.
“I just want to try to give back to the scholarship,” he said. “It allowed me to come here and get an education. I made great friends, great connections — it’s just a great path USC leads you on to help you succeed. I’m more than happy to do my part to help the next person.”
It was an ordinary trash can. Other people crossing campus didn’t give it a second glance. But to Lopez, it was a symbol of how far he had come.
“I was collecting cans and bottles out of that trash can when I was 7 years old to help support my family,” he said. “To now have the privilege to be doing exciting research and about to graduate is such an overwhelming and humbling experience that I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Lopez earns his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences this week. For the first-generation college student who grew up in South Los Angeles, it’s the culmination of many years of hard work and determination.
But even as the 22-year-old celebrates his graduation, he is already looking ahead. He plans to complete his PhD in chemistry and someday return to his childhood neighborhood, or one like it, to help children and teens find their calling.
“Ultimately, I see myself giving back to my community,” he said. “I can show these kids that, hey, someone who has your background and went through your struggles was able to overcome that to get a doctorate.”
An aspirational presence throughout childhood
Lopez likes to joke that he might have traveled the shortest distance to become a Trojan. His family lives only three blocks south of the University Park Campus, and he attended Weemes Elementary School, a stroll across Vermont Avenue from USC.
“South L.A. in the ’90s was a lot different than it is now,” he said. “It was definitely a little rougher than it is today.”
On his walk to school, he would pass gang members and graffiti. But he also passed a collection of brick buildings that often drew his attention. When someone told him it was a university, he was intrigued by the idea of being able to study whatever interested him.
USC quickly became a mainstay in his day-to-day existence. He recalls students from the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC visiting his elementary school to provide free oral health screenings and dental hygiene tips. When he entered high school, Lopez would cut through the USC campus and hear the USC Trojan Marching Band practicing on Cromwell Field.
“USC has always had a special place in my life,” he said. “This is the place that put college on the map for me.”
One of his most influential experiences came in the USC Department of Public Safety Cadet Program. He signed up as a teen and went on patrol with public safety officers, flew in a Los Angeles Police Department helicopter and assisted with security and first aid during the 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games. He also received help with his schoolwork from USC students who volunteered as tutors.
Lopez eventually rose to the rank of cadet lieutenant, overseeing the program’s 50 participants. When he became the first graduate of the program to enroll at USC, he returned as a volunteer tutor. At least two other cadets are now pursuing their degrees at USC.
“I wanted to be a role model for these kids,” he said, “to show them that they can be successful.”
Humble origins inspire hunger to succeed
Lopez’s parents always stressed education. His mother had worked in a school in her home country of Mexico. His father was studying to be a lawyer in El Salvador when a brutal civil war in the 1980s forced him to flee as a refugee.
As a child, Lopez saw his father take on multiple jobs to sustain the family — parking attendant, car salesman and bus driver. His parents divorced when Lopez was a teenager, and his father has continued to work diligently to earn a living, driving buses for Montebello Bus Lines for nearly 17 years.
Lopez’s grandmother and aunt also sought refuge in the United States from the Salvadoran civil conflict. He said the challenges they faced are a big part of why he is so driven to succeed.
“My family didn’t escape from their country, fleeing from war, for me to be a nobody,” he said. “They did what they had to do to survive. The best way for me to honor that sacrifice is to be someone they can be proud of.”
In many ways, he views those early struggles as a strength. He learned to be resilient and roll with the punches. Lopez sees those same traits among many of his peers who, like him, received a scholarship through the Norman Topping Student Aid Fund. The program supports students with high financial need, with special consideration of applicants from communities around USC who are the first in their family to attend college.
“They’ve crossed borders, overcome adverse household environments — they’ve defied all the odds,” Lopez said. “You learn how to deal with whatever life throws your way.”
Natural curiosity inspires passion for science
As a boy, Lopez buried his head in books. He would visit the neighborhood library, grab a random title off the shelves and start flipping through the pages, absorbing as much as he could on any subject.
He had always been fascinated by how things work, and the nearby California Science Center quickly became his favorite museum. He devoured his high school chemistry book from cover to cover, then moved on to college science textbooks. By the time he enrolled at USC, Lopez knew he wanted to study chemistry.
He soon narrowed his focus to chemical nanoscience, which involves creating and testing materials that are incredibly tiny — roughly 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. The field has countless applications, he said, such as creating nanoparticles called “quantum dots” that can bind to cancer cells and glow, helping doctors pinpoint tumors.
Lopez has worked on projects involving electrochemistry in the Narayan Laboratory at USC, exploring the use of transition metal oxides to generate oxygen and energy. He won a student award at the American Chemical Society’s annual meeting this spring after presenting his work on potential uses of oxygen created as a byproduct of certain electrochemical reactions.
Giving back to the next generation
He envisions one day working for NASA, designing chemistry experiments in space. Some people have encouraged him to run for political office, a possibility he isn’t ruling out. But he ultimately plans to teach high school chemistry in an underserved community.
“I would love the next generation of scientists to be a more accurate representation of our country,” he said. “I don’t just mean that along racial lines, but socioeconomic, gender and disability lines as well.”
Another long-term goal is more personal: to provide a better life for his family. Lopez said his grandmother, who is 72, still rides the bus several hours each day to get to her job as a housekeeper.
“It’s a dream of mine to buy my family a house — to say, abuelita, you don’t have to worry about the mortgage or the rent,” he said. “You can enjoy your golden years.”
As he reflected on the path that brought him to this moment, about to receive his degree at USC’s 135th commencement ceremony, Lopez described a tradition in the university’s Department of Chemistry.
Established researchers and graduate students wear blue lab coats. Undergraduate students wear white lab coats. Before he walked out of the chemistry lab and spotted that trash can, Lopez was wearing a blue lab coat — a recognition of the advanced work he was doing.
“When I was little, could I ever have imagined everything I’ve gone through and how far I’ve come?” he said. “I’m very thankful for the journey and all the people who have brought me here, because it does take a village to raise a child. I hope the village that raised me is proud to see that kid who was collecting cans and bottles is now about to graduate in a cap and gown.”
Ivan Garcia is among the first graduates of USC’s expanded college-prep program, and now he’s a first-year Trojan. But he almost missed his chance
NAI scholar Ivan Garcia held court whenever his family visited Chinese Friends, their favorite restaurant in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. Garcia’s mother, Laura, remembers how the little boy brought smiles to everyone’s faces in the restaurant when he spoke and sang songs in Mandarin with the staff.
“He spoke it without an accent,” she says, thanks to a Mandarin-language immersion program that he had attended since kindergarten.
Though the 18-year-old Garcia no longer remembers these encounters, his knack for language and communicating across cultures has stayed with him. He studied Mandarin until he was a high school sophomore and also took American Sign Language as a freshman. As he begins his first semester at USC, furthering his study of languages is in the college game plan, as are classes in anthropology, history and philosophy. On the horizon, perhaps, lies a career in immigration law.
Yet the talented young scholar might never have made it to USC — or any college at all — if he had not made a pivotal decision some seven years ago.
He took a chance he nearly passed up, and it changed his life.
In that first year on the Eastside, NAI began recruiting schoolkids around the USC Health Sciences Campus. Garcia’s family lived nearby in the predominantly working-class Latino neighborhood of El Sereno. His parents thought joining NAI would be a good idea, but Garcia had little interest. College was a speck far off his radar. Neither of his parents had attended, and he was admittedly “not the biggest fan of school … like most sixth graders,” he says.
He also balked at the USC college-prep program’s requirements. NAI participants sign on for a seven-year commitment that includes Saturday Academy classes along with weekday morning classes at USC and after-school tutoring. The time investment pays off for their college prospects: 99% of the 1,237 NAI scholars have gone on to two- or four-year institutions, significantly higher than the state average of 64%.
Garcia loved spending weekends outside in neighborhood parks, especially playing baseball. “I wasn’t really excited about having Saturday school,” he says. The seven-year commitment also spooked him. His parents made the expectations clear: “If we’re going in this, we’re going all the way in, and you can’t back out.”
Ultimately, the deciding factor that swayed Garcia to enroll in NAI was something familiar to any sixth-grader: peer pressure. When his friends joined, he couldn’t say no. He had little idea what that choice would mean in the coming years. As he adjusted to the rigorous coursework, he grew to not only enjoy it but also excel.
This past June, Garcia graduated in the top 10% of his high school class. He also became one of the first 41 graduates of NAI’s Eastside program.
Most importantly, in August, he became the first in his family to attend college.
Higher Education Within Reach through USC College-Prep Initiative
In recent years, El Sereno has grappled with the contrasting forces of gang violence and gentrification. Garcia describes his hometown as a quiet enclave where his favorite spots include outdoor spaces like the El Sereno Recreation Center and local Mexican eateries like Cheo’s Tacos (which, to his surprise, has become an Instagram sensation with outsiders).
Garcia’s father, David, who is Guatemalan American, was born in the U.S., moved to El Sereno as a young child and stayed. His mother, Laura, immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico with her parents when she was 3 years old. Both of Garcia’s parents have, until recently, worked full time to support the family — David as a freelance graphic designer and Laura as an L.A. Unified School District special education assistant. The COVID-19 pandemic has made their livelihoods more precarious.
His mother and father value education above all else, and Garcia knows it. They hope to see his two younger siblings attend college, too. As parents, says Laura, “you want better for them.” But until NAI emerged as an option, paying for college loomed as a daunting prospect.
The Garcias knew that NAI could offer critical help in paying for college — students who remain in the program until high school graduation are eligible for a fully funded financial aid package to USC, provided they meet admission requirements. The possibility of earning full college tuition “played a huge role in the effort I put into school,” Garcia says.
In high school, balancing six days of school each week with his other activities was tough. He was also an outfielder on the baseball team, served as a juror for Teen Court — a program for teens to hear real juvenile cases and learn about the judicial system — and helped plan school fundraisers and events. But Garcia credits NAI with motivating him to challenge himself, not to mention instilling discipline and time management. The curriculum in the USC college-prep program helped him reach high-level courses, including AP biology and AP calculus, in his senior year.
He found the NAI tutors — many of whom are alumni from both NAI and USC — to be particularly helpful. They served as role models. “Some tutors were even there from sixth grade up until 12th grade,” Garcia says. “They’ve seen us grow, and it’s amazing having a bond with some tutors who’ve known us that long.”
Garcia ultimately gained admission to his two top-choice colleges: USC and the University of California, Berkeley. He knew that no matter which school he chose, NAI would be there to support him throughout his college years. NAI’s retention efforts help ensure that participants’ hard work getting into USC or any other institution pays off. Support counselors make sure scholars transition successfully to college life and complete a degree.
In the end, USC’s full-tuition grant and his NAI experience influenced him to stay in L.A. and become a Trojan. “I’ve been helped by USC all this time,” Garcia says. “It just felt like the better option for me.”
The first-Year Student from NAI Builds a Trojan Family
Garcia is keenly aware that many of his classmates outside NAI face a tougher road to college than he did. Some of his friends are undocumented young people commonly known as “Dreamers” — named after 2011 Congressional legislation that would have provided protection to youthful immigrants. The legislation was never passed, and these students do not qualify for federal loans or grants to finance their education.
Witnessing their plight has deepened Garcia’s longstanding interest in law, which he traces to his love of watching the show Law & Order since he was a kid. He also credits his aunt Jacqueline Guevara, a paralegal in Los Angeles, for spurring his enthusiasm. Garcia dreams of specializing in immigration law as a way to assist undocumented members of his community. “Hopefully, they’ll be able to receive aid, attend better schools or even receive their citizenship,” he says.
This fall, his interest in immigration politics prompted him to enroll in Laura Isabel Serna’s history course “The Latin American Experience,” in which the USC associate professor of cinema and media studies explores the impact of Latin America on the world. At the same time, he wants to learn about people from cultures far different from his own, especially within USC’s diverse community.
As he makes new friends at USC, he still has his old friends, too. Of 94 students in NAI’s 2020 graduating class, 39 were accepted to USC and 36 enrolled. Many of the same buddies who persuaded Garcia to join NAI back in sixth grade have become Trojans. “I’ve known some of them since kindergarten and elementary school,” he says.
Garcia is also lighting the way for his sister, Dianna, 15, and brother, Ismael, 12, both of whom are in NAI and want to attend USC as well. “He’s helping us set the bar, and that’s their example,” their mother says.
Reflecting on the rewards that have stemmed from his participation in NAI, Garcia is glad that he didn’t pass up the chance to join as a skeptical 12-year-old.
“Looking back on it,” he says, “Saturday school is not that bad.”
Jackie Schiffner is a senior BFA student at the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance. In her last year at the school, she is looking to bring dance to those who might not have access to it.
Each senior at USC Kaufman was tasked with creating a final project that combined three areas that interest them. For Schiffner, combining her passions for dance, education and psychology to create a dance outreach program for elementary schoolers was an easy choice.
The Dance Outreach Goals
Schiffner decided to partner with Sequoia Elementary School in Westminster, Calif., for the year. She now focuses on bringing a range of dance styles, as well as her mentorship, to 40 students in the dance outreach program.
“That was something that was really important to me—not doing what has typically been done in schools before where you just kind of learn ‘step-together-step,’” said Schiffner. “I really wanted to put a focus on different styles of dance and differentiating between them, and also having a focus of choreography. I wanted to have them be able to create something and use that problem solving to figure out, ‘Okay, this doesn’t work here. How do I fix this?’”
Dance outreach and a STEAM Education
Her idea for this project initially came from a psychology course she took at USC. In the class, she examined research that proved how dance education can lead to better results in math and science. For this reason, she wanted to work specifically with a school that had a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) focus, as Sequoia Elementary does.
She also wanted to partner with a school that did not already have a fully developed arts program. At Sequoia Elementary, Schiffner’s mother, who is a teacher there, was previously tasked with leading the students’ dance lessons.
“You have to have a credentialed teacher to teach science and English and math and history,” Schiffner said. “My mom, she’s amazing, but she’s not qualified to teach a dance class.”
Along with bringing quality dance education to the students, Schiffner looks to be an academic and professional mentor for them in her dance outreach program.
“I think sometimes when kids don’t have an example of somebody who is making a career in the arts or is going to college in the arts, they don’t know that it’s a possibility and so many kids can lose out on that opportunity,” she said.
She hopes to expand on the mentorship aspects of the program by bringing in some of her fellow USC Kaufman students to talk on different topics.
“Especially when I get into my more ballet-focused lessons, I’m going to bring Joseph Hetzer who is one of my main partners here. I’ve found that a lot of boys are turned off of ballet, and I really want to make that a focus as well,” Schiffner said.
She is also organizing a campus visit for her students, where they will tour USC and watch USC Kaufman rehearsals. In addition, she is hoping to have them participate in a panel with representatives from USC’s other arts schools.
A Change in Perspective
Currently, though, Schiffner’s program is focused on introducing the fundamentals of dance. With mentorship from USC Kaufman faculty member Jackie Kopcsak and Vice Dean & Artistic Director Jodie Gates, Schiffner is learning to shape lessons for students with little-to-no dance experience.
“It is a very different construction of a class. You have to keep them interested the whole time,” she said. “It’s constantly moving on from one thing to another thing. You have to explain it for people that don’t know how to move their bodies. It’s a very different thing when they can’t figure out how to move their right hand to their right knee.”
While Schiffner is changing her approach to dance in this sense, she is impressed by the ways her students are looking at it for the first time.
“I think the coolest thing for me is just seeing kids have confidence,” she said. “Often-time when you don’t know how to do something, especially as you get older, you shy away from that thing. But kids are so open and you just see them going for things that I would never see my other students. I also teach ballet and contemporary at studios, and they’re often late middle-school and high schoolers. You don’t see them going for things as much as you do with kids.”
“It’s really neat when you tell a child, ‘Good job’ and they start to think ‘Oh I can do this.’ I think if somebody tells them now ‘you can do this’ then that will make a difference in their lives.”
Looking Towards the Future
Students will be putting the dance knowledge they’ve learned from Schiffner towards their upcoming school production of “The Jungle Book.” In the future, Schiffner is looking to arrange a separate dance show for them where they can showcase their new moves.
And once she graduates, Schiffner hopes that her involvement in these types of projects continues.
“I want to be a contemporary ballet dancer. But I’m definitely looking at companies that do some sort of outreach,” she said. “That’s something important to me. To be involved somewhere that does have that aspect within the company.”
USC Viterbi freshman Jovani Esparza, a first-generation scholarship student, has worked since age 10 to support his family
When Jovani Esparza was 10 years old, he was already working 10-hour shifts transporting gravel in the passenger seat of his father’s truck. As an elementary schooler, he could already change oil and help fix and maintain trucks. Over the next eight years, he worked everywhere from a bakery to Walgreens, all while maintaining excellent grades and playing sports.
A Dean’s Scholarship recipient and a new freshman at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering majoring in mechanical engineering, Esparza is a first-generation college student who plans to use his strong work ethic and independence to take advantage of the opportunities at Troy.
“My parents have always pushed me to strive for the best,” he said. “Their story and their work ethic inspire me, and I hope I can make them proud.”
Esparza grew up in Crowley, Texas, a suburb outside of Dallas. Balancing work with excellent grades required Esparza to endure late nights and to study and do homework whenever he could during his shifts.
“Helping provide for my family at such a young age was difficult because I missed out on a lot of my childhood,” Esparza said. “But I always wanted to be able to work to help support my role in the family. I knew we wouldn’t be able to afford SAT books or tutors, so I wanted to be able to help provide those myself.”
Esparza’s pursuit of higher education follows in the footsteps of his brother, Carlos Esparza, who graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington in 2013 with a degree in civil engineering. “My brother was a huge role model for me. If it wasn’t for him, I don’t think I’d be at USC right now,” he said. “Watching him go to college and study engineering was what made me so determined to follow in his path.”
In high school, Esparza played baseball all four years and was also a part of the powerlifting team. Inspired by a love of sports and the outdoors instilled in him by his older brother, Esparza has already joined the USC intramural frisbee team, as well as SC Outfitters, a student-run club that organizes hikes, camping trips, and other adventurous outdoor activities and trips throughout the Southwest.
“Being outdoors is something I’m really passionate about, so the weather in LA was something that definitely drew me to USC,” Esparza said. “Besides that, it was the environment and culture here, which I found to be very supportive and uplifting, especially compared to a lot of the other universities I was considering.”
Esparza’s parents, Jesus and Rosa Esparza, come from a small village in Mexico. Neither advanced beyond the fourth grade, Esparza said. They both came to the U.S. as teenagers to look for work.
“They came to America to provide a better opportunity for my siblings and me,” he said. “I always wanted to make them proud and take advantage of any opportunity that I could.”
Jesus Esparza would leave for work at 3 a.m. and would not arrive home until 8 p.m. He drove trucks to deliver gravel to construction companies, while his wife, Rosa, watched the neighbor’s children, as well as cooked, cleaned and cared for her own three kids. “My parents are the most hard-working people I know,” Esparza said.
“Even though it was hard to balance constantly working with school and sports, it made me independent and dedicated to continue my own education,” Esparza added. When things got tough, it was his family that kept him going.
When Esparza thinks about what he hopes to do in the future, he thinks first of where his parents came from.
“My parents grew up in a village that had less than a thousand people and very poor water systems,” he said. “To get clean water, they would have to walk to nearby rivers.”
His dream: use his degree to work in engineering infrastructure to bring clean water to people in countries that lack access to it.
As a teenager, Jasmin Sanchez suffered a painful medical emergency that taught her to stand up for herself. Now the first-generation college student is a USC Dornsife undergrad determined to advocate for others.
Future occupational therapist, Sophomore Jasmin Sanchez, knows about pain. She also knows what it takes to have to fight to be believed.
When she was 14-years-old, she suffered a year of untreated chronic pain caused by an undiagnosed ovarian torsion triggered by a cyst.
“There were days where the pain wouldn’t let me move,” Sanchez recalls. The physical pain was compounded by the emotional and psychological distress she suffered because her doctor and her family didn’t believe her.
“It was very difficult,” Sanchez says. “I had been going to my general doctor for about a year because of the pain I felt in my body. But every single time I went, she referred me to a psychologist. She thought it was all in my head.”
Sanchez’ mother tended to put her faith in the doctor’s diagnosis, as well.
“My mother always said, ‘You have to listen to the doctor. If she’s telling you that, then it’s true.’”
But then the day came when Sanchez woke up and could not feel her right leg.
“It was just numb and cold. I remember limping and not being able to move it,” she says.
Her mother took her to the hospital, but Sanchez says she was told she was probably just suffering from a urinary tract infection and to come back in two days if she saw no improvement with the medication she was prescribed. Two days later, Sanchez was crying with pain.
Returning to the hospital, she says she had to wait seven hours to see a doctor, who tried to persuade her to go back to her general practitioner to ask for an ultrasound. In severe pain and determined to be heard, Sanchez demanded that an ultrasound be performed immediately in the hospital.
“I felt very alone. I didn’t feel like the health-care system was on my side, nor did I feel I had support from my mom,” she says.
The medical staff finally acquiesced, and when they saw the ultrasound results, their attitude immediately changed, Sanchez says. She underwent emergency surgery and has since made a full recovery. However, she has not forgotten the experience of fighting to be heard and to be believed. Remarkably, she isn’t bitter.
“Instead, I am grateful for that experience because it helped me understand what I wanted to do with my life,” she says.
“What attracted me to the health and human sciences major at USC Dornsife was that it didn’t focus only on anatomy, but also incorporated thinking about society, thinking about the individual. I think health care is in need of people who treat others as human rather than a checklist of symptoms.”
To pursue her career goals, Sanchez is planning to follow her undergraduate degree with a master’s degree and a Ph.D. from USC Chan, currently ranked third in the nation for .
Acting as her own best advocate
Born within two miles of USC to a stay-at-home mom and a father who is a driver for the disabled, Sanchez is the youngest of three siblings and a first-generation college student. Both her parents are Salvadoran and came to the United States in their 20s. Neither received any formal education, either in El Salvador or in the U.S.
While her family background made her path to college more challenging, Sanchez was also fortunate. Her parents bought a house near James A. Foshay Learning Center, part of the USC Family of Schools, which Sanchez attended from 6th to 12th grade. There she applied to join the Leslie and William McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative at USC, a rigorous, seven-year, pre-college enrichment program designed to prepare students from South Los Angeles and East Los Angeles for admission to a college or university.
Although the idea that she might one day go to college was difficult for her parents to grasp, they did support her, attending all the required NAI meetings, Sanchez says.
“I don’t think it was a realistic dream for my parents, since they thought that once I finished high school I should automatically start working. College was not something they really had in mind for me.”
But just as she had done to get the medical care she needed when she was 14, Sanchez now became her own advocate to get accepted to USC.
“I remember that process was very difficult for me,” she says. “Because my parents don’t speak English, I remember filling out the applications myself and having to go to my NAI advisor and school counselor to ask for clarification on certain questions.”
While her mother believed her daughter would make it to college, she didn’t think she would get into USC. Sanchez’ elder brother, Carlos, was more supportive.
“He said ‘I told you since the first day you were accepted into the [NAI] program in sixth grade that you were going to make it. That you were going to get there and you were going to do amazing things,’” Sanchez says.
Diversity was a new experience
Sanchez grew up roller-skating on the streets close to USC’s University Park campus. Now she is buying her first pair of roller blades to ensure she gets to class on time.
But the sophomore still remembers her first day setting foot on the USC campus to go to Saturday tutoring classes as an NAI student.
“It was very intimidating. I had never really experienced diversity. I live in a predominantly minority community. Coming to USC and being able to see people from different backgrounds was a culture shock, even though I was just in sixth grade.”
Sanchez is honest about other challenges she faced as an NAI participant. In addition to the rigorous nature of the program, she had to endure taunts from other students at her high school who were not in the program and who treated those who were as outsiders.
While it was hard at the time, Sanchez says, “Now I realize it was very helpful to be in a group of students who were eager to learn and focused on attaining higher education.”
Sanchez says she also feels gratitude for all the opportunities she received through the NAI program.
“Once I got to USC, I realized my peers had very productive summers. They paid high amounts to take extra classes or participate in activities. NAI provided us with many of these expensive resources for free, such as tutoring and fun, extracurricular activities during the summer. Not only could I learn from those activities, but I could also put them on my resume, as well as my college application.”
Two classes she has taken while at USC Dornsife made a particularly deep impression upon her: A General Education Seminar that focused on Latinos in the United States and an occupational therapist course to help people understand how children succeed, especially those from low-income backgrounds.
“Both of these classes made me grateful to have been selected by the NAI program as one of their scholars. The program is truly beautiful and life changing. It gives opportunities to minority students who are struggling to reach higher education and it gives them the resources they need to get there.”
What goes around comes around
Sanchez is determined to give back, and to become an occupational therapist. Since turning 16, she has volunteered at the hospital where she was treated for her ovarian cyst. There, she will give a presentation to doctors and hospital staff about how to improve customer service, particularly in terms of respectful communication with patients from different cultural backgrounds — a subject that’s understandably close to her heart.
Sanchez works with many different programs, including the Young Scientists Program, an experiential learning initiative of USC Dornsife’s Joint Educational Project, where she teaches third-grade science. She also volunteers with NAI, providing academic and personal mentoring as well as helping participants stay focused on the college application process.
Volunteering at NAI, Sanchez says, enabled her to see that others are facing similar difficulties.
“I am in a position where I can be there to help them, and make them feel heard. I will always want to give back to a program that gave so much to me.”
E-Coliseum co-founder Rustin Sotoodeh didn’t even see games as a career option until he crossed paths with a USC Marshall entrepreneurship expert
About 40 people are packed in what looks like an old warehouse space in Downtown Los Angeles.
Beams and insulation are exposed overhead. Everything is white, from the sofas to the brick walls. The room goes from pink to purple thanks to color-changing lights, in step with the hip-hop playing.
This isn’t a nightclub or bar. This is E-Coliseum, what its owners call “the world’s first esports gym.”
The South Park spot has only been open about a month, but Trojan co-founder Rustin Sotoodeh expects about 70 gamers to come out tonight for the “Fortnite Friday” tournament. The video game recently got mainstream notoriety when rapper Drake was seen playing it, with hundreds of folks streaming in to watch.
“Last week, when we did [Fortnite Friday], there was a line around the block,” Sotoodeh said, a graduate of the USC Marshall School of Business who started the business with his friend Kha Lu.
How the pair ended up founding E-Coliseum is surprising, since Sotoodeh didn’t even consider games as a career option until he crossed paths with a USC Marshall entrepreneurship expert.
E-Coliseum: at the center of esports in Los Angeles
At E-Coliseum, gamers can either drop in or become members for a $40 monthly fee that gets access to top-of-the-line gaming equipment, such as Dell’s Alienware.
“Alienware is like the Nike of gaming,” said Sotoodeh, 22. All the equipment — from the fancy Vertagear gaming chairs and Cooler Master surround sound headsets to ViewSonic monitors — is sponsored.
The players line up in rows and enter the game at the same time, 8 p.m., competing for $100 in cash. There’s a Nike Air Force 1 giveaway, an artist customizing them at a table nearby. A pro gamer plays live from the lounge, streaming to folks around the world.
“Everyone thinks gaming is a hobby that people play at home in a basement,” he said. “We’re providing this social experience … and showing gaming is a lifestyle in the same way basketball is a lifestyle.”
Sotoodeh pointed at a gamer near him: “Look, this guy is wearing Yeezys and playing Fortnite.” Sotoodeh himself was wearing the pricy Adidas sneakers that run for up to $800 a pair.
A decade or so ago, you might have gone to an internet cafe to play Call of Duty alongside friends. Sotoodeh said E-Coliseum is doing something different.
“Internet cafes are like let’s cram as many people as possible into one room and just give them computers,” he said. “Whereas us, we’re trying to foster a community. … You’re being part of a movement of people.”
Participants can enter tournaments, hire trainers and even meet esports influencers like social media star Rachell “Valkyrae” Hofstetter, who recently did a meet and greet at the space and played Fortnite live, streaming it out.
Staples Center and USC’s Galen Center have hosted esports events, with thousands buying tickets to see gamers play live. Actor Joel McHale is playing in a celebrity tournament this month. The University of California, Irvine and the University of Utah have esports teams, the latter declaring it part of the school’s athletic program — with scholarships available.
“It just legitimizes it even more,” said USC Associate Professor of Professional Practice Jeff Fellenzer, who teaches classes on sports, media and technology. “This is a revolution — something you’ll talk about years from now and say ‘I remember when esports was just starting.’”
In high school, Sotoodeh, who grew up in Tustin, played Super Smash Bros. competitively, hosting mini tournaments with friends.
“Then I went away to college,” he said. “I would come home on winter breaks and over summer and they would be 20 times better. I was like, ‘Crap, how do I get back into this?’”
Unexpected career path
Sotoodeh didn’t even know esports was a career path until he met Anthony Borquez, a USC Marshall adjunct professor of entrepreneurship. And interestingly enough, it started with a pair of Yeezys.
Sotoodeh, who sells high-end sneakers, was taking one of Borquez’s entrepreneurship classes and noticed the professor had nice sneakers. He started selling him shoes and asking him about his gaming company. Eventually, he got the chance to work at Borquez’s AR/VR company Grab Games and learn about the industry.
It brought Sotoodeh back to that question — about having a community for gaming.
Sotoodeh got the initial money to start E-Coliseum in 2017, winning $10,000 at USC’s New Venture Seed Competition, hosted by the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies.
“My mom jokes … I was destined to open a place like this,” Sotoodeh said. “In elementary school, I would bring my Nintendo GameCube and I would charge people to play Super Smash Bros. at school.
By day, Lauana Rodrigues Pereira Herbert helps her medical team respond to a global pandemic. At night, she studies for her MBA in USC Marshall’s International Business Education and Research program.
Leading a COVID-19 medical team aboard a cruise ship by day and studying for her MBA degree by night, physician Lauana Rodrigues Pereira Herbert is placing the health and welfare of others first.
Herbert has spent a decade working on cruise lines as a ship’s physician. Over the course of her career, she’s implemented numerous procedures and protocols that have improved patient health and also reduced the cost of medical supplies and equipment.
Last July she enrolled in the International Business Education and Research (IBEAR) program at the USC Marshall School of Business, a one-year, accelerated general management MBA program for mid-career professionals. Her goal: to gain the additional skills needed to transition to a career in health care consulting. While Herbert said she enjoys being a doctor, there are changes in medicine she wants to see happen and feels they are far more achievable with a business degree.
She was two-thirds through her in-person studies when the coronavirus broke out. “It made me anxious. I wanted to help, but legally I can’t work here,” said Herbert, who is from Brazil.
When COVID-19 was discovered on a cruise ship operated by her former employer, everything changed.
“I got a call that conditions were extremely bad aboard a ship in San Diego,” she said. “They needed a doctor who could lead internal and external teams and liaise with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and a number of government and non-government entities.”
Former cruise ship doctor gets clearance to ‘sail’ again
So why approach Herbert? Given the current crisis and its resulting circumstances, reaching out to her was a logical and expedient decision.
First, working aboard a commercial ship requires a seafaring safety certification, which can take a week or more to earn. On top of that, a combination of industry travel bans, closed consulate offices and a CDC no-sail order had made it virtually impossible for cruise operators to relocate personnel.
Those barriers notwithstanding, the decision also had a lot to do with Herbert earning her MBA. Beyond clinical expertise, her former employer needed other essential skills she’d been honing — operations and supply chain management, communications, mediation — all critical for coordinating with diverse stakeholders like the CDC, the Coast Guard, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the city of San Diego and local hospitals.
One big problem remained: how to get Herbert clearance to work in the United States. USC Marshall staff scrambled to find work/study options and reached across the university for ideas and assistance. In the end, the lawyers at her former employer negotiated an agreement with the CDC that has allowed her to volunteer until the end of May.
The complications of responding to COVID-19
Her exact “job”: to stabilize the current situation and comply with the CDC’s industrywide no-sail order. The order — announced mid-March and extended in April — shut down passenger operations and also implemented strict measures for cruise ships with crews still on board.
Ships are required to develop and administer comprehensive plans for preventing, detecting, responding to and containing COVID-19. They must also ensure they have enough medical staff, equipment, supplies and other resources to provide care and, if needed, be able to transfer the sick to an onshore hospital.
When Herbert reported for duty on April 4, she joined a crew of 800 from 72 countries. “Although some of them were infected with the coronavirus, the good news is that several have recovered and we have enough medical supplies and personal protective equipment on hand,” she said.
While she said things were “as good as they could be,” she noted that it’s been mentally and emotionally hard for the crew.
“Their mood fluctuates,” she said. “They’re concerned about their own health, far from home. And with the CDC’s measures on repatriation, they’re in limbo too. They can’t disembark through commercial transportation means, so they’re dependent on the cruise lines providing private-chartered transportation or the CDC lifting its restrictions.”
A day in the life of a cruise ship doctor during COVID-19
Herbert has learned there’s no off-the-shelf job description for what she’s been asked to perform.
“This isn’t a role that existed before,” she said. “While it does rely on my clinical expertise and understanding of diseases and outcomes, it’s much more than that. It’s truly a very specific set of knowledge and skills.”
Her day starts with a medical team meeting and then revolves around helping them do their jobs.
“Their role is to focus on the health of the patients,” she said. “I manage the reporting, operations, logistics and communications, which allows them to maintain that focus. It’s a lot of coordination and mediation with shoreside and, of course, adapting to constant change.”
The crisis continues to present a number of very fluid situations, and the details surrounding them can be mind-blowing. For example, CDC guidelines and requirements can change daily, and any medication ordered has to be cleared through them, the FDA and sometimes U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Every package loaded aboard a ship must go through multiple sanitation and cleansing protocols before reaching the medical team.
“The ship is like a small city,” Herbert said. “The captain is the mayor, and I’m the director of the health department.”
Balancing full-time work and MBA study
After a full day, one would hope Herbert could put her feet up and relax with one of those fanciful cruise ship cocktails. Instead, she logs on to her computer to watch recorded classes, work on group projects and study.
“Oddly, study is therapy,” she said. “Plus, my day never really ends. At night, I’m the on-call cruise ship doctor in case of emergency.”
While Herbert admits the combination of full-time work and full-time study has been trying, she credits her MBA education for helping her manage and thrive.
“The training has certainly helped me to organize things and even mitigate some cultural clashes,” she said. “If this opportunity had come up a year ago, I wouldn’t have been as successful.”
Her classmates and USC Marshall faculty stay in touch and have offered encouraging messages and care packages of brownies and home-cooked foods.
“She is amazing, so caring and willing to help despite putting her own life in danger,” said Ivonne Castillo, IBEAR program specialist.
As Herbert thinks about the future and the effects of her shipboard COVID-19 experience, she says she’s even more resolved and confident in her decision to become a health care consultant.
“There’s a disconnect between the providers — the doctors and nurses — and the health care and hospital administrators,” she said. “They’re not speaking the same language, and the decisions being made don’t make sense. In the end, it’s costing a lot of dollars and a lot of lives.
“I want to help bridge that gap and foster greater understanding.”
Herbert returned to Los Angeles on Friday. After almost two months onboard treating numerous severe outbreaks, she was pleased to report the ship is now COVID-19 free.
Even though her USC journey has just begun, Natalie Battiest already understands the value of embracing her heritage.
Natalie Battiest is no stranger to USC. As a Bovard Scholar, she lived on campus during summer 2019. And earlier this year, she helped lead the Native American Student Union’s biggest College Exploration Day to date.
“Native American students don’t pursue higher ed or graduate school because they don’t think that’s an option,” she said. “I never saw myself going to a prestigious school. You can see that on reservations — just a lack of opportunity and guidance.”
College attendance and six-year graduation rates for American Indian and Alaska Native students ages 18 to 24 is lower than any other racial or ethnic group. Cultural unfamiliarity and a sense of isolation have been cited as factors.
“Growing up, I never met another Native student,” Battiest said. “I did feel alone at times, and I didn’t see my culture represented. I was able to develop friends over time despite the differences.”
There will be a change
A descendent of the Choctaw tribe, Battiest was raised by a relative who moved to Downey, Calif., from Oklahoma.
“My biological parents weren’t fit to raise me, so my aunt took over,” she said.
While attending Warren High School, Battiest earned the title of Miss Teen Downey and used it to create connections.
“I got immersed in my Downey community,” she said. “I did an event with firefighters and a Christmas tree lighting, and I sold food at festivals. With that crown and sash, I could be a mentor and a role model for younger girls.”
“I don’t want Native youth to go through what I went through growing up.”
After becoming a Bovard Scholar as a rising high school senior, Battiest was accepted at Columbia University, Northwestern University, Emory University, Brown University and the University of California, Berkeley, where a Regents’ Scholarship was offered. She chose USC.
Now a Gates Scholar and a Presidential Scholar, she’ll pursue a degree in health promotion and disease prevention studies.
“We have a predominant presence of drug addiction, so I want to research in that field and help my reservation,” she said. “I don’t want Native youth to go through what I went through growing up. I want to see growth, and I think there will be change.”
Colin Roedl — a college-bound student who lives in Germany — presses forward during a wildly different summer session at USC, seeing opportunity in a time of upheaval.
Had things gone according to plan, Colin Roedl would be at USC right now. The rising high school senior was set to spend four weeks living on campus, taking college courses and engaging with hundreds of other high school students during the summer session.
Instead, his courses and activities — like a DJ jam session — are taking place online. From his home in Stuttgart, Germany, he now adjusts for time zone differences daily as he navigates the summer of 2020.
“It has slowed things down, and that allows for more freedom,” he said. “It’s given me the ability to take time and focus on what matters, and I’m appreciative of that.”
Roedl, 17, is one of 29 recipients of the USC Provost’s Pre-College Scholarship for Military Families. Now in its seventh year, the scholarship pays all expenses, which normally include travel, for a four-week immersive college experience on the University Park Campus that includes one intensive college-level course taught by USC faculty.
But the summer program had to make big changes on short notice in response to the rapid, worldwide spread of the novel coronavirus. With less than three months to go before hundreds of students were to arrive on campus, the in-person experience pivoted and reinvented itself.
USC summer scholarship student grew up globally
Born in Texas, Roedl lives with his parents and two younger siblings in Stuttgart, where his father — who serves in the U.S. Army — is stationed.
“USC is a rigorous program, and that’s what enticed me.”
An Army JROTC Battalion Commander, Roedl has served in student government throughout his high school career. He’s captain of the varsity tennis team, serves as a tutor and was the only freshman in his high school to venture into a Model United Nations program.
“I’m always seeking leadership opportunities, and I find that’s a way to help other students,” he said. “As for the summer session, I was looking for a larger university where people share experiences and memories. USC is a rigorous program, and that’s what enticed me.”
Quick turns for USC summer students
The rigorous workload during the summer session remains, as does student socializing, but the program otherwise looks completely different. Social events like speed friending, a DJ jam session and yoga classes became online experiences. Enrollment skyrocketed in a new course called “The COVID-19 Crisis: The Past, Present and Future of Global Health.”
“There’s a commitment to the same academic rigor and teaching excellence, bringing USC’s core values and sense of community to the digital space. We’ve got students, some of them overseas, running complex 3D modeling software remotely,” said Jennifer Colin, chief marketing officer of strategic and global initiatives. “Somehow, our students are navigating these rapids, and Colin is an example of that.”
USC pre-college student shares stories of racial tension
Roedl felt close to the racial conflict when the killing of George Floyd set off protests in the United States and Europe. As a biracial male, he’s felt both prejudice and privilege.
“There are a lot of people who favor biracial over Black, and I’ve experienced that privilege,” he said. “When I go to school and take rigorous classes, I’m labeled white.”
But in other settings, he has experienced anti-Blackness.
“I’ve boarded full buses in Germany and gotten a seat because someone would rather stand than sit next to me,” he said. “I went to the Stuttgart Library with a group of friends, all persons of color, and we were asked to identify ourselves ‘in case something went missing.’”
“The Black Lives Matter movement is going to continue well into 2030. It’s not enough to get streets renamed.”
Roedl’s experience has deepened his understanding of racial perceptions. An essay he wrote about minority representation on television earned a prize at a European junior science and humanities competition. He intends to continue focusing on racial equity long after the summer session ends.
“The Black Lives Matter movement is going to continue well into 2030,” he said. “It’s not enough to get streets renamed. We need legislation. I’m excited that the people going to college now are the ones who are going to be making changes.”
The rise and rise of CAIS++, the student branch of USC’s Center for AI in Society, where undergraduate students are using artificial intelligence to tackle projects with environmental and social impact.
From preserving and protecting endangered languages to helping doctors detect signs of lung cancer, USC students involved in CAIS++, the student branch of USC’s Center for AI in Society, are finding new ways to approach problems and improve people’s lives through artificial intelligence.
“Our belief is that AI can and should be used to solve society’s grand challenges, especially where traditional technology has fallen short,” said Head of Projects Leena Mathur, a computer science and cognitive science major in her junior year.
Mathur joined the club in her first semester and recently wrapped up a summer research internship in machine learning at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland. She says she probably wouldn’t have landed her dream internship without her experience in CAIS++.
“What really spoke to me was the sense of community we have as a club,” said Mathur.
“Everyone is so passionate about sharing their love for AI, and it makes us all more knowledgeable – it’s important to be surrounded by a community of people who support you.”
If you build it, they will come
Computer science senior Lucas Hu established CAIS++, the first student club of its kind in the country, during his freshman year in 2016, when he noticed many undergraduate students were interested in AI for social good. What started as a small group of eight freshmen from Hu’s dorm is now a thriving club, with 50 active members.
“People are so excited about their projects, they take the idea and run with it,” said Hu, who plans to join a “moonshot startup” after graduation, potentially focusing on using drones to deliver medical aid in Africa.
“It’s hugely rewarding to be part of a community that cares about lasting impact of technology and seeing people grow during their time with the club.”
The team meets once a week for student-led mini-tutorials based on the curriculum developed by the students in collaboration with faculty advisors. Each semester, a new cohort walks through an introductory AI curriculum, complete with online lessons and in-person coding workshops.
Preserving endangered languages
Members are able to choose projects that interest them. As a member, Hu’s team developed AI algorithms to detect signs of lung cancer in 3D scans, while Mathur is part of a team working with USC Dornsife linguistics Professor Khalil Iskarous to speed up the process of transcribing endangered languages. Experts say a fifth of humanity’s languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers, with one language going extinct about every two weeks.
The team, which has been working on the project since January 2019, is using partially labelled audio data in an endangered language called Ladin, mainly spoken in the Dolomite Mountains in Northern Italy, as training and test data. The ultimate goal is to develop a model that could be applied to any human language with limited changes.
“The CAIS++ students are some of the brightest student I have met,” said professor Iskarous, who meets with the team on a weekly basis.
“They’re brilliant and they bring very different skillsets to the table, from math to neuroscience to computer science and machine learning to linguistics and philosophy. I think working for the public good really motivates and inspires people and I’ve seen real evidence of that working with this team.”
Bistra Dilkina, a WiSE Gabilan Assistant Professor in computer science and CAIS associate director, developed her new undergraduate course, “Artificial Intelligence for Social Good,” this semester after speaking with members of CAIS++ leadership and realizing how much interest there was among USC undergraduates to learn about AI for social good.
“I have been impressed at the initiative, self-drive and passion for AI and social impact shown by the CAIS++ leadership and members,” said Dilkina.
“CAIS++ is an important student club because it raises awareness about the ability of AI to benefit some of the most pressing societal challenges among our undergraduate populations, hopefully inspiring them to learn AI and be good global citizens at the same time.”
Diversity is a big focus for CAIS++. Currently, around half the club’s members are computer science majors, with other members focusing on electrical engineering, astronautical engineering, neuroscience and linguistics.
“My favorite thing about CAIS++ is the drive towards an interdisciplinary engineering effort,” said Lauren Potterat, a senior in astronautical engineering with a specialization in computer science who worked on a project to identify wildlife poachers using artificial intelligence.
“The organization caters to, and was founded with the intent to unite a vast array of majors under a similar technical toolkit: artificial intelligence. In this way, business, finance, computer science, astronautics, social work and humanities bring a diverse mind and skillset in the pursuit of solutions to societal problems.”
This year, the club is partnering with the USC Sydney Harman Academy for Polymathic Study to run talks on the intersection between technology and humanity, especially with regards to the future of AI. Open workshops will also be on offer for those interested in learning some of the basics of machine learning.
“I am keen to reaffirm the positive potential of AI to students and the community,” said the club’s incoming president Benjamin Brooks.
“CAIS++ is about providing access to machine learning for those who might not have the opportunity to otherwise learn and apply their skills. We are working to build a more welcoming community for students who would otherwise be under-represented in the industry.”
Anish Parekh, the son of a USC professor, studies the spread and possible control of diseases as part of his public health degree
Policy decisions on health care challenges are made at local, state and even international levels.
By opting for a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree, USC medical student Anish Parekh aims to develop the skills and experience to work with policymakers on one of those pressing challenges — global warming.
Parekh, a third-year student in the Keck School of Medicine of USC’s dual-degree MD/MPH program, said his goal is to affect public policies to help underrepresented communities deal with the inevitable health effects of climate change.
“I hope to work at a national, or even international scale, because these issues will be global in scope,” he said. “But doctors always work at a local level, too — with patients, local authorities, city municipalities, various departments.”
Parekh said the MD component of his education will be important to making a difference, just as much as dealing with statistics and regulatory structures.
“I read a study that said that the people who are most trusted for information about climate change are doctors — primary care physicians,” he said, echoing a frequent theme at USC’s Health Sciences Campus: that physicians with direct experience with patients have a special credibility not only with patients, but with elected officials.
Global climate change and Affordable Care Act fallout
The group met with Assemblyman Jim Wood, co-chair of the Select Committee on Health Care Delivery Systems and Universal Coverage in California. They interacted with Wood during a 90-minute discussion of how California will deal with the fallout from changes to the Affordable Care Act, and the failure of attempts to establish a statewide single-payer system for covering Californians’ medical expenses.
Parekh — whose father, Dilipkumar Parekh, is a professor of clinical surgery at the Keck School of Medicine — said that USC offered a vibe that he felt had a special appeal.
“USC is one of the few institutions where you truly feel cosmopolitan, in the sense that there are so many opportunities open to you that you may not even realize what they all are,” said Parekh, who completed his undergraduate degree in biology at the university.
“I wouldn’t have known JPL had an opportunity for a med student,” he said. “But one of my instructors knew the lead scientist on the project.”
At JPL, Parekh studied satellite data to determine if changing factors such as humidity could be used to forecast future outbreaks of influenza around the world. Eventually, researchers believe health care organizations may be able to get three to four weeks’ advance notice before they need to mobilize resources to combat an outbreak.
“If I hadn’t been at USC,” Parekh said, “with those kinds of connections among people in widely diverse fields of study, I wouldn’t have had that chance to get important experience in global health work.”
Despite the long, intense curriculum of a dual-degree program, one of which is the seemingly sufficient challenge of a traditional MD degree, Parekh said such experiences outside the classroom were a critical part of his education.
“There are things that happen to you in medical school that you don’t expect,” he said, “but they’re just mind-blowing.”
Lexi Brooks, a first-year USC undergrad born without a left hand, helped build 3D-printed prostheses and organized fun events for children with limb differences as a teenager.
USC student Lexi Brooks knows how tough and isolating it can be to look different than everyone else at school.
As a child, she noticed the stares and heard the whispers. Some classmates even teased her — all because she was born without a left hand.
Brooks brushed it off, but she felt alone. She yearned to connect with other kids her age who understood what she was going through. So when the teenager from Newport Beach reached high school, she decided to build a supportive community where children and others like her could come together.
Her idea turned into the nonprofit High Five Project, which has hosted trips to the beach and other fun events for people with limb differences. The response from Orange County families floored her.
“I saw how much it meant for these young kids to see someone else like them.”
“The first time, I was in awe,” she said. “Some of the parents were crying, and I saw how much it meant for these young kids to see someone else like them. For the parents, it seemed like they realized it’s going to be OK. Their kids will be fine.”
Now a first-year student at the USC Marshall School of Business, Brooks continues those efforts, both back home and as a Trojan. She wants to ensure children born with limb differences get the encouragement and support they need to thrive.
“There isn’t a lot of representation in media, so it’s about helping them realize, ‘Oh, I’m not the only one going through these struggles,’” she said. “You can also learn from other people. How do you tie your shoes? How do you blow-dry your hair? And it’s just good to see how we come in all different shapes and sizes.”
Personal experiences fuel student’s passion to help others with limb differences
Brooks got a lot of practice as a kid explaining to others what it means to have a limb difference. She started her childhood in Newport Beach, but soon the family had made stops in Denver, Sacramento and Oklahoma City. Her dad, Scott Brooks, coaches in the NBA and is now the head coach of the Washington Wizards.
Moving every few years was tough, but she learned how to handle the transition to a new school and the same questions from her new classmates. Many were simply curious, asking what had happened and how she managed her daily routine.
“I wish that more people were less shocked by it,” she said. “It is the worst when you can tell that your limb difference is the elephant in the room. Sometimes it is best to just ask the person about it. Limb difference should not be something that makes people uncomfortable or feel bad for the person.”
After a tornado scare in Oklahoma, Brooks and her mom and older brother retreated to Newport Beach, where the kids finished high school. It proved fortuitous for Brooks, who discovered that her high school had a service program that was a perfect fit for her.
Students in the group use 3D printers to create prosthetic hands for children who can’t afford or don’t have access to a traditional prosthesis. The lightweight plastic devices are provided at no cost to the kids’ families, and the group gets requests from across the country.
From building custom prostheses to helping kids connect
Using detailed photographs from recipients, the students print and assemble dozens of components. The result: a custom prosthetic hand that fits well and responds to movements in arm muscles, allowing the user to pick up and grasp items.
“It’s definitely not high-tech, and they usually last about six or seven months,” Brooks said. “But a lot of the recipients are younger kids, so they grow out of them pretty quickly anyway.”
Prosthesis recipients often bond with students in the group, especially when they live nearby and can drop by to watch their device be assembled. Brooks recognized she would have benefited from an experience like that when she was growing up.
As a child, she had one important role model: Jim Abbott, the famed professional baseball player born without a right hand. Brooks had become close friends with Abbott’s daughter, Ella.
“We both realized as children how important it is to see people who look like you,” Brooks said.
USC student’s nonprofit supports children with limb differences
Brooks and Ella Abbott joined forces to launch the High Five Project during their senior year of high school. They raised money for the nonprofit and organized events like a visit to a baseball game at Angel Stadium of Anaheim.
“A lot of the people coming to our events are on the younger side, so we try to make it a fun day where they are able to play and interact with other kids like them,” Brooks said.
During the baseball trip, they saw 8-year-old Hailey Dawson, born with underdeveloped fingers on her right hand, complete her goal of being the first person to throw the ceremonial opening pitch at every Major League Baseball stadium. Hailey used a 3D-printed prosthesis to toss the baseball to Angels player Mike Trout, and Jim Abbott joined her on the mound to celebrate.
Enabling that kind of encouraging experience for kids with limb differences is inspiring and impressive, said Thomas Knapp, an associate professor of clinical entrepreneurship at USC Marshall who met Brooks when she took his summer entrepreneurship course before her senior year of high school.
“Anytime you can find ways to be impactful and get people involved in life, it’s great,” said Knapp, who serves on the board of the Challenged Athletes Foundation. “Lexi is a great ambassador, and she has that drive to have an impact and make a difference.”
First-year student uses mind for business to give back
Knapp gave Brooks advice on building up her nonprofit during his summer course, Exploring Entrepreneurship. The experience inspired Brooks, who enrolled as a business administration major after being accepted to USC. It was her top choice after she fell in love with the campus while visiting her brother, who completed his degree in economics at USC last year.
Now Brooks wants to put her newfound knowledge about entrepreneurship to work by expanding the High Five Project to USC and its surrounding community.
“She really wants to make an impact, not only for the kids she is serving, but for the families and the community,” Knapp said. “I’d be surprised if she wasn’t successful at whatever she chooses to do moving forward.”
And although she is still figuring out what she wants to do after college, Brooks said she plans to continue building awareness and acceptance of people with limb differences.
“From a young age, my parents have always emphasized the importance of giving back,” she said. “I think it is important to see the change that just one person can make and the impact it has on others.”
Tenacity and a belief in the power of education helped transfer student Nicholas Chapman build a better life for himself. He wants to become a doctor to give others the same chance.
After yet another morning tinged with the smell of whiskey and coffee on his father’s breath, Nicholas Chapman left home to live on the streets. He had finally had enough of the screaming matches, enough of the strict rules.
Chapman grabbed his cell phone. A friend gave him a backpack, $20, a change of clothes and some deodorant. With that, he became one of the thousands in Southern California who have no place to call home.
He was only 17.
USC grad overcomes early obstacles on path to career in health care
The 25-year-old plans to pursue that vision with the skills he gained at USC. He graduates this month with a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience from the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
Medical school is up next. He’ll work on his applications later this year after taking the MCAT exam. As a doctor, he can make a tangible difference in people’s lives, he said.
“There’s no doubt this is what I want to do, in terms of aiding people. I want to put a mask on and help a person, then take the mask off and also help a person. Advocacy will always be a part of what I do.”
It’s a lesson he learned at a young age from his mother. The two left the United States for her native Brazil when Chapman was 2. They lived in Curitiba, a city near the coast about 250 miles south of São Paolo. She struggled to find work and would tell her young son that education was his best path out of poverty.
Seeing no way forward in Brazil, she encouraged him to return to the U.S. to better his life. He moved in with his American father in Long Beach at age 14.
Chapman had to learn to read and write in English as a teenager. He hid his struggles from teachers and peers, taking strategic bathroom breaks to avoid reading out loud in class.
Then there was the strained relationship with his dad, a topic he discusses openly.
“My dad’s an alcoholic,” he said. “He knows that. My whole family knows. I think it’s important for people to understand that it’s just the reality of life. That’s sometimes just how things are.”
He also talks honestly about when he got caught sneaking out to visit friends a week before Thanksgiving in 2012. His dad had grounded him for a year and a half already over another issue, and no end to the punishment was in sight. Chapman decided it was time he left for good.
“You have to make choices in life and sometimes they are hard,” he said. “Sometimes you sacrifice a lot. I stayed in Metro stations. I stayed in homeless shelters. I stayed on friends’ couches.”
To survive, he played chess for hours at coffee shops, where older players befriended him and bought him food. Because he was young, kids liked to watch him play, and soon he talked their parents into hiring him for $20-an-hour lessons.
Although he had dropped out of high school, Chapman remembered his mother’s advice: get an education. He visited a $1 bookstore in downtown Long Beach, where he pored over economics textbooks for hours. He earned his GED, then enrolled in classes at Long Beach City College.
He did well at first, but lack of sleep and the constant grind of day-to-day survival caught up quickly. His grades slipped. “My 4.0 went to a 1.7, just like that,” he said.
A powerful advocate at USC
After a rough transition as a transfer student, Nicholas Chapman decided to advocate for others like him.
As president of the Transfer Student Community, he established the Emerging Leaders Program. The initiative helps transfer students develop their leadership, mentorship and advocacy skills.
He also led an effort to establish a “forgiveness” policy for transfer students, allowing them to retake courses from their initial semester at USC without affecting their GPA.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, he rallied the transfer student group to raise funds to benefit frontline health workers and vulnerable groups. As a result, they:
Donated a pizza dinner to surgeons at the Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center.
Supported a nonprofit that provides resources like food and clean water to families living in poverty in Brazil.
Acquired and donated 150 face shields to health workers at a local hospital.
Desire to help others set USC student on mission to study medicine
Then at age 19, stability came in the form of a part-time job at a mom-and-pop hobby store. He sharpened his sales skills and soon became a manager. He slept some nights in the shop, curled under a fire blanket. His grades recovered.
A year later, the store closed. But Chapman had saved some money and made friends with a few regular customers. They launched their own hobby shop, called Power 9, with Chapman as CEO. They sold figurines, board games and “other nerdy things,” he said. He soon could afford a car, then a rented room in an apartment.
Although he felt secure in his personal life, his business and economics classes left him uninspired. Nothing clicked. Then one day, the uncle of a boy he tutored had an epileptic seizure in front of his family and Chapman. Nobody knew how to react. Eventually, the man regained consciousness, but Chapman felt shocked and helpless.
“I went to that $1 bookstore, grabbed a human biology textbook and read all about the nervous system,” he said. “That’s when I started falling in love.”
He switched his major from economics to psychology. He planned to transfer to the University of California system or USC, with the goal of applying to medical school. But his academic counselor said with the string of poor grades early in his college career, he had no chance.
Chapman applied anyway, relying on advice from a USC admissions adviser. He got into three UC schools and USC, and he enrolled as a Trojan in spring 2018.
USC transfer student forges his own way forward
Life as a transfer student was rough at first. Chapman commuted 45 minutes each way from his Westwood apartment to the University Park Campus. He had little money for food. He knew he wanted to be a doctor, but how could he achieve that goal?
“I had a large course load, but it was unclear what courses I needed,” he said. “I didn’t know what financial aid would cover or what programs there were to support me.”
As he gradually found his bearings, Chapman realized research skills and internships would shine on his med school applications. So he blitzed professors at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles with emails.
Mark Krieger, senior vice president and surgeon-in-chief of CHLA’s Department of Surgery, recalls getting a request from Chapman to shadow a few surgeons. He was impressed by the young student’s determination.
“To become a neurosurgeon, you have to have basic tools like intelligence, diligence and the ability to work with other people, and he certainly has that,” said Krieger, a professor of clinical neurological surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “But the other thing you need is grit. You need to be able to overcome obstacles and work through barriers, and Nicholas has certainly shown that over time.”
Chapman’s persistence paid off with internships in neurosurgery and radiology. He analyzed brain scans, observed many surgeries and helped write a conference paper on how children with cancer recover from radiation treatment.
“He works at a much higher level than the standard undergraduate student,” said Natasha Lepore, associate professor of research radiology at the Keck School of Medicine. “He’s certainly at the same level as some of the PhD students I’ve known.”
Through medicine, neuroscience grad aims to give others a better life
Now as he moves into the next phase of his life, with medical school planned for fall 2021, Chapman took time to look back on his experiences. He summed it up succinctly.
“My life has been about survival and lost innocence,” he said. “Working at Children’s Hospital, you see that same innocence diminish when kids realize they are going to die. It’s the same innocence you see lost when a transfer student comes in and struggles. I lost that innocence at a young age, being on the streets.”
If Chapman achieves his goal of becoming a doctor, he feels he will have gained resources and credibility that he can use to help others. And perhaps sharing his past will give someone the courage or persistence they need to survive.
“There’s some kid out there on the streets crying in fear, or getting abused by their parents, or unable to have an education,” he said. “I want them to see my story and realize that they can push through, that they should conserve life and believe in themselves.”
I became excited about engineering from the moment I first touched it in as an undergraduate student. Growing up in Jiangsu, China, I loved to imagine myself as a machine and figure out the proper way to write programming. It was this passion and confidence that led me to USC Viterbi. And it was at USC Viterbi that I first met Professor Peter Beerel. I would not be where I am today – a PhD graduate starting a job as a CPU Implementation Engineer with Apple in California – without the experiences I’ve had here. I certainly never imagined I’d help design a novel circuit that may one day change the portable electronics and Internet-of-Things industries.
Like many new Masters students, I took Professor Beerel’s asynchronous circuits class in my second semester. I found him to be extremely knowledgeable, and his class was always full of fun and excitement. I simply had to go deeper into this area. This started with directed research in my third semester. Directed research is a special course at USC Viterbi that gives undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to work closely with professors and Ph.D. students on more advanced research. Through this experience, I realized not only that I wanted to go for a PhD, but also that I had the ability and support to do so!
“Our design greatly improves power consumption to such a degree that we expect it to have a significant impact on the world of portable electronic devices and Internet-of-Things (IoT).”
Soon, I was a full-time PhD student working on Very Large-Scale Integration (VLSI). This is the process by which engineers put millions, or even billions, of transistors on a single chip. The work is done at the nano-level and these integrated circuits form the cornerstone of nearly every modern piece of electronics. However, with the ending of Moore’s Law, the market must adapt to a relatively fixed technology base. This has made improvements in VLSI and energy-efficiency more difficult and it is one of the challenges I set out to help solve as a PhD student.
I work in an area called the synchronous domain. These are VLSI devices that have an internal global clock. That means that every computing process has to finish at every cycle of the clock. They have many advantages, but their major weakness is that they are incompatible with highly effective logic gates called latches. Latches have the advantages of high performance and low power consumption. They can also be robust and have high tolerance to process, voltage, and temperature (PVT) variations.
At least, they were incompatible until now! In my dissertation, “Automatic Conversion from Flip-Flop to 3-Phase Latch-Based Designs”, my advisor and I proposed a novel design which allows latches to be used safely on synchronous VLSI circuits. Our design greatly improves power consumption to such a degree that we expect it to have a significant impact on the world of portable electronic devices and Internet-of-Things (IoT). It may seem small (of course, everything in VLSI is small!), but it is actually a major breakthrough. I believe this work will inspire more brilliant ideas in this field.
For future students interested in VLSI or circuit design, I would suggest taking courses such as computer architecture (EE 457), VLSI circuit design (EE 477, EE 577A, EE 577B) testing (EE 658), and verification (EE 580). These courses provide knowledge that can be applied professionally in VLSI fields and also help immensely during interviews. For my fellow USC Viterbi students, I highly suggest Professor Beerel’s classes. He has so much professional experience from his years at Intel and his own start-up. Under his guidance, we can bring what we have learned to practice.
Finally, I want to say that when people think of a PhD, they mostly think of the challenging research. But a PhD challenges you in many other ways too. While conducting my dissertation research, I realized the challenge is often learning how to persuade experts on the importance of our work. During my years of research on this project, I received many discouraging comments. Fortunately, I got much support and help from my advisor. He gave me confidence and always believed our work had value. He explained that creating value is one thing and clarifying that value to decision-makers is another thing. This is an insight I will always keep with me.
Just as importantly, a PhD makes you highly resistant to stress and gives you exceptional problem-solving skills you will use in every aspect of life. If this past year has taught us anything, it is that in life things don’t always work out as we plan. PhD training teaches us how to be a person with a high emotional quotient (EQ) when you are suffering dealing with something difficult. I think this is one of the most important values I gained.
To future PhD students or those considering a PhD, I would say please be happy and open-minded! PhD life is hard but it’s also incredibly rewarding. Learn how to balance research, studies and personal life. USC Viterbi provides PhD students with so many course options you might be interested in, countless directions for your research to go in, lots of activities, and a strong and welcoming community for everyone. Again, enjoy this wonderful moment in your life.
USC-trained medical clowns believe laughter can bring foster families together
It is Saturday morning and a little boy in an orange shirt and blue shorts squeals with laughter. He has just spotted a group of familiar friends headed his way.
The 3-year-old drops the plastic toy he is playing with and sprints toward a group of people wearing colorful clothes, oversized shoes and big red noses.
“We’re three clowns running into the room, singing and dancing,” said recent USC graduate Casey Dunn. He is part of a group of theatrical performers from the USC School of Dramatic Arts’ medical clowning program that uses drama therapy to help bring healing and well-being to patients. “All of a sudden, that’s their world for as long as we’re in the room.”
That room is usually inside a hospital for seriously ill children, but today the clowning program is somewhere it has never been before: the Children’s Bureau. The children’s advocacy group is the largest investor in child abuse prevention in the country, contracted with the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services to provide adoption promotion and support services for adoptive families and children in foster care.
“This collaboration with USC is incredible,” said Sean Sparks, program coordinator at the bureau. “It’s something I would have never thought of, but it makes perfect sense. It’s like this blessing from the universe.”
With a grant from USC Arts in Action, an initiative created by the Office of the Provost that supports positive social change through the arts, the clowning program has partnered with the Children’s Bureau to bring medical clowning into their mental health programming and provide a space for affected children to receive emotional and transitional support.
Together, USC and the Children’s Bureau have launched a pilot program that will combine medical clowning and foster care with the goal of increasing the bond between the foster parent and child. The program will begin by introducing the medical clowns to a group of foster parents and a group of foster children. Eventually, the clowns will interact with both the parents and children in the same room to help the two groups bond.
“They don’t have the benefits of a parent-child biological relationship. They kind of need to get comfortable with the idea of bonding,” said Zachary Steel, assistant professor of theater practice at the School of Dramatic Arts and director of the clowning program. “The objective is to use medical clowning as a conduit to get the parents and the youth to embrace play as a bonding tool.”
That doesn’t always come naturally to foster children.
“Anytime there is a disruption in a relationship with a primary caregiver such as an early breach in attachment, research shows there’s a change in the brain. Neuropathways in the brain shift, which creates a world that is unsafe. Not only is the world unsafe, but relationships are unsafe,” Sparks said. “The thinking for a foster child is: If my birth family didn’t keep me, then why would anyone else stick around?”
Building relationships among foster families
With roughly 30,000 children in foster care in Los Angeles County and 1,400 awaiting adoptive homes in L.A., parent-child bonding is essential to increasing permanency and stabilization for children within the foster care system.
In addition, many of the children in care of the L.A. County Children and Family Services who frequent the Children’s Bureau are Latino. According to the bureau, understanding cultural heritage is vital to addressing specific foster care needs.
“My focus is on helping people in the American Latino community to find and connect with their inner clown,” said medical clown Raquel Gendry, the Spanish-speaking ambassador of the troupe. “The Latino community prides itself on hard work, and sometimes the foster parents think of play as frivolous or a waste of time. I am here to remind the foster parents that it’s okay to play — not only okay but essential to bonding with their foster children.”
In addition, drama therapy promotes mental wellness.
“Play is this really safe, fun way to build relationship and connection,” Sparks said. “We believe connection leads to healing.”
Indeed, there has been a reported reduction in fear and anxiety for foster parents and children during the counseling sessions, a positive psychological phenomenon that continues long after the clowns have left the building.
“The clowns can change the energy of the room from one that is clinical and stiff to one that is more open and vulnerable,” Steel said. “The hope is that when the clown session is over, the adults and children will continue to be more open and willing to share with the counselors.”
How medical clowning can make a real impact
Katie Snyder, who graduated from the School of Dramatic Arts in 2018, said that she was thrilled when she discovered the medical clowning class because she grew up loving the arts and community service.
“It puts all my passions together,” she said. “I’m very grateful that I found this particular art form.”
Snyder said she is proud to have been a part of the first medical clowning class and encourages other students to take the course, which can lead to fulfillment inside and outside of the classroom.
“If our playful and joyful presence brightens their day even for a couple of minutes, that brings me such fulfillment,” she said. “I think the clowns send a message: No matter what, you can find time to smile.”
And according to the bureau’s program coordinator, that smile could mean the beginning of a truly transformative connection that could change the foster care system as we know it.
“This is so innovative,” Sparks said. “I feel like it’s already had a really significant impact. Medical clowning crosses language, culture, color and socio-economic status. It’s just a really exciting thing going on here.”
It will take a year before the pilot program data is collected and the research is complete, but for the medical clowns, each smile and laugh is proof positive the drama therapy is working. Medical clown Dunn recalled a specific little boy who greeted them earlier in the day.
“The first time we were here at the Children’s Bureau, he was really scared. He was very hesitant and would stand far away from us,” he said. “Versus today, he was sprinting in the room to greet us. There’s such a massive big difference in his openness to the clowns, which will translate into the rest of his life. He will have an openness to new experiences, conquering fears and realizing something really magical: a connection with other people.”
Cesar Jimenez Jr. has help — from his wife, a service dog, thoughtful professors and a tutor — as he works toward a degree and a future helping others
Before Cesar Jimenez Jr. takes off for a day of classes at USC, he and his wife, Teresa, go over the checklist.
Wallet, check. Keys, check. Phone, check. Laptop and charger, check.
“I make sure I have everything,” he said. “My computer is charged to 100 percent.”
For Jimenez, 50, starting his first year at USC is a big step.
He’s led a fulfilling life — a roughly 30-year career with both the U.S. Air Force and the Social Security Administration, two children and a loving wife.
But at the age of 42, Jimenez was injured during a deployment to Iraq — one of about a dozen total deployments — and it changed the future he had imagined for himself.
In December 2009, he was sent to Balad, dubbed “mortaritaville” by soldiers due to the ubiquity of small explosives.
“We got bombed, shot at, almost every moment of every day,” he said.
Although he went unconscious, he remembers most of what happened that night in April: He was loading a C-17 cargo plane in the dead of night when insurgents got in the area.
“They were firing at us and throwing mortars at us,” he said.
The airmen had lights hooked to generators while they worked, making it almost look like daylight. To the insurgents, they were spotlights. The soldiers were sitting ducks, he said.
“A mortar exploded … and threw me back about 200 feet,” he said. “It blew up my truck, my Humvee.”
Jimenez blew out his shoulder. It took nearly two years to identify his traumatic brain injury, which left him with cognitive delays. He was depressed, and attempted suicide 10 times. He credits his wife for getting him a team of doctors and therapists that he meets multiple times a week — now fitting in those appointments around classes.
He met Teresa while working at the Social Security Administration. They were work pals, both divorcees with kids. They sometimes went to the movies together, but it was always platonic.
While he was away, they kept in touch. They sent emails. He walked three miles to the USO every morning — under fire the whole way — to call her before she went to bed. Sometimes they’d talk for hours.
“That’s what kept me alive,” he said.
When he came home, everything was different. He couldn’t go back to the job he loved.
He wanted to take care of Teresa; instead, she took care of him.
“I didn’t feel like a man anymore,” he said. “I didn’t have a purpose in life.”
Together they learned about PTSD, therapy and rehabilitation. They dated for a year and then Jimenez had all the emails bound into a book, took her to a fancy dinner in Beverly Hills and asked her to marry him. They wed in 2011.
“She’s the only reason why I keep going,” he said.
Thoughts of college
A high school graduate and son of Mexican immigrants — his mother a saleswoman, his father a sheet metal worker — he thought academia passed him by. But one day, feeling the monotony of his unwanted retirement, he thought about nearby Pasadena City College.
“I asked my wife what she thought about me going back to school,” he said. “She said, ‘Do you think you can do it?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, but I’ll give it a shot.’ ”
Initially, it was hard. His last and worst suicide attempt derailed him for a year. But he got help and he got Baylee, his yellow Labrador service dog. She’s always at his side.
“She knows when I’m feeling depressed,” he said. “She senses it and she comes and lays with me by my feet.”
Jimenez ended up finishing his associate’s degree at Pasadena City College in two years, not missing a class or a semester over that time. He met veterans who had gotten into USC and heard it was a veteran-friendly school. It became the only school he applied to, and he’s now the first in his family to attend a four-year college.
He remembers when he found out he got in. It was a couple months ago, during a summer session course at Pasadena City College.
“I yelled out ‘I got accepted to USC!’” he said. “My professor, who wrote one of my letters of recommendation, stood up and went ‘Did you really get in?’ and everyone got up and clapped.”
He wants to go back to helping people, like he did filing claims for folks at the Social Security Administration. A sociology major, he wants to start his own business connecting low-income residents and veterans in South and East L.A. with government programs or benefits.
“I want to help people less fortunate,” he said.
A couple weeks into the semester, the busy campus and intense workload can be overwhelming, but he’s taking it all moment by moment.
Coping with the unexpected
When something unexpected happens, Jimenez can get anxious — like when a book he’s supposed to read isn’t on his computer.
His memory and involuntary decision-making were impacted, so he constantly checks his iPhone calendar to make sure he’s on track. A tutor, provided by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, visits his house to help him with his studies.
His professors are supportive, one making special office hours for him. And having Baylee helps, letting him know things are going to be OK.
Even though it’s scary, it’s also tremendously rewarding, he said.
“I can bring my life experiences to the classroom. I’m probably older than my professors,” he said. “I can see that students are really listening to what I have to say. In a sense, I am making a difference in their lives.”
Once a shy kid held back by physical disability, Hawken Miller has flourished since becoming an active student at USC.
Growing up with a rare muscle disease, Hawken Miller often felt isolated. He couldn’t run around at recess, play sports or join friends on backpacking trips.
But when Miller ’19 arrived at USC over two years ago, his physical limitations didn’t prevent him from being an active student on campus. The journalism major became a reporter at the Daily Trojan. He joined the USC Photography Club and Christian Challenge, a campus ministry. Last summer, he did an internship at The Sacramento Bee newspaper. Once a shy kid held back due to physical disability, he has flourished at USC.
“It’s different now than it was before. It’s been a transformation,” said Miller, noting how physical activity is emphasized less in college. “I was really shy, but now I’m not as afraid to approach and talk to people.”
Duchenne muscular dystrophy: What we know
Miller lives with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a progressive and fatal disease for which there is no cure. It is caused by a mutation on the X chromosome and strikes 1 of 5,000 male births, affecting 300,000 boys worldwide. It causes muscles to degenerate, and the leading cause of death is heart failure. Those with the disease typically don’t live past the age of 25. Although there are medications to help with the symptoms, there is currently no cure.
Researchers at the USC School of Pharmacy have developed a new treatment for the rare muscle disease. The compound, known as RASRx1902, is an oral therapy that has shown positive effects on muscle function in animal models of Duchenne.
In these models, the compound has improved muscle strength and regeneration while decreasing muscle inflammation, degeneration and necrosis. Last year, the therapy was granted an Orphan Drug Designation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat Duchenne muscular dystrophy. The researchers formed a startup, RASRx, to continue to work on advancing this treatment invented at USC. Partnering with the foundation CureDuchenne, an organization founded by Miller’s parents, the team is now transitioning to toxicology studies to advance the new oral therapy toward human clinical trials.
By choosing to work on Duchenne, the research team has the opportunity to make a great impact by delivering a potentially life-changing therapeutic, said USC School of Pharmacy Associate Professor Stan Louie, one of the USC researchers working closely the RASRx team. Putting a face to Duchenne also motivates him to help move this therapy forward, he added.
“The inspiration is Hawken. He is part of the Trojan Family, and we look after our own,” Louie said. “The founders of RASRx all believe we are doing this for the patients, and when one of the patients is a member of the Trojan Family, then it becomes more urgent for us.”
Parents take action
When Miller was diagnosed at age 6, his doctor told his parents Debra and Paul Miller there was little to do. Instead, in 2003, the Millers started CureDuchenne, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to saving the lives of those with Duchenne, including funding new medical research.
“When we were told nothing could be done, it sparked something in my husband and me,” said Debra Miller, co-founder and CEO of CureDuchenne. “We felt there had to be something we could do. We just had to give it everything we had.”
In November 2015, RASRx, the startup company initially formed by USC and University of Arizona researchers, announced a partnership with CureDuchenne to streamline the development of their new compound to treat patients with Duchenne. Funding by CureDuchenne Ventures and a collaborative U.S. Department of Defense research grant with USC accelerated the potential drug’s preclinical development.
By coincidence, Debra Miller learned about the research at the USC School of Pharmacy after her son had already been admitted to USC.
“Knowing he was going to USC and that we would be funding a project [at USC] that would be helping him and the other boys with Duchenne was really special,” she said.
Independence from Duchenne muscular dystrophy
Like many USC students, college was the first time Hawken Miller lived away from home, and life with Duchenne brings extra challenges. He takes up to 30 medications a day, including steroids to reduce inflammation. He arranges regular visits from physical therapists to stretch and care for his muscles.
He has adapted well to living independently, he said, but being on his own makes him realize how hard his parents had worked before college to make sure he had enough support.
“The goal is to be completely independent from my parents, but I also want to spend as much time as possible with them,” he said.
One of the reasons he chose USC was because campus was close to home. His interest in journalism came from a desire to learn something new every day and overcome shyness. Last summer his internship gave him experience reporting from the California state capital, and this spring he is interning for KTLA.
Although physical limitations impact daily tasks, Miller said he is blessed. Many with Duchenne have severe cognitive impairment. He often gets tired and uses a motored wheelchair, but mentally he hasn’t had to hold back.
“The main thing I’ve gotten from Duchenne is: I focus on what I can do and don’t think about the stuff I can’t do,” he said. “That’s how you should handle any obstacle you might face. Focus on what you can do and not what you can’t do.”
Imagine a museum where Japanese-Americans from World War II live on as virtual avatars. Cole Kawana is working on it.
In sixth grade, USC Viterbi senior Cole Kawana interviewed his great-uncle for a school project. The topic: surviving the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
He stepped on a rusty nail the day before the bombing. That small misfortune saved his life.
This interview was archived in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in Japan. The lessons from his great-uncle — and three of his grandparents and great grandparents, all of whom were in internment camps in World War II — however, remain indelibly a part of Kawana’s legacy.
One of these lessons: paying it forward.
“When my family was in the camp,” said Kawana, “one of their neighbors agreed to hold their produce trucks for them. They lost all of their possessions not sold, but being able to come back to these trucks really helped them get off the ground when they returned,”
Growing up in Malibu, Kawana, a mechanical engineering student, always felt fortunate and aware that he owed much of this to those who came before him. As a young student, he balanced his interest in the arts with his passion for engineering. While the interview with his great-uncle kicked off an interest in documentary filmmaking, an early attempt at devising a pulley system — with a rope wrapped around his bedframe at age 4 — marked a lifelong interest in tinkering.
“I was always mechanically minded,” Kawana said. His interest in artificial intelligence and documentary filmmaking led him to USC, first through work with Steven D. Smith, Finci-Viterbi Endowed Executive Director of the USC Shoah Foundation.
As an intern, Kawana worked with Smith on New Dimensions in Testimony, which features 360 degree film run through an AI program, producing a hologram that visitors can interact with. Though it might’ve been natural to be a film major, however, Kawana said he was always more interested in the technical aspects of storytelling: the mechanics and technologies of putting together an experience, beyond a static narrative.
During Kawana’s freshman year at USC, he met a pivotal group of friends at Birnkrant Residence Hall. Through this group, he went from being more of a “stay-at-home” kid to a lover of the outdoors. He joined the climbing team and ski team with friends from freshman year, thriving on the mental challenge of addressing the elements. One of his favorite activities: multi-pitch climbing, where instead of climbing up with a rope and then climbing back down, you climb up, set up an anchor system and keep ascending. Along with friends from Viterbi, he completed a 13 pitch,1500 foot climbing challenge in Mazama, Washington.
“It’s totally engineering, conserving energy and resources, managing all the rope systems, making pulleys and tying knots. Every step requires cost benefit analysis,” Kawana said. “Climbing is very methodical and very cerebral. I’m not drawn to the under 20-foot acrobatics activities, but instead to the multi-pitch, technical climbs, where you have to engineer your way up and down.”
Given Kawana’s love of surfing, a pastime shared by his father, he soon became interested in in hydrofoils — a lifting surface that operates on water — the subject of his AME 441 project. He plans to work with Alejandra Uranga, WiSE Gabilan Assistant Professor in Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering, to further perfect the design of the hydrofoil cross-sections to decrease drag and increase speed and efficiency. To create the parts, Kawana uses a 3-D printer and hopes to eventually test his prototypes in the Dryden Wind Tunnel, when it reopens.
At the center of Kawana’s mission remains the desire to impact the communities around him. In high school, he created a non-profit called Clean Water Ambassadors after a documentary filmmaking trip to Rwanda, where he planned to gather testimonies on the 1994 genocide. He brought along water filters in his suitcase, which he donated to a women’s shelter. Upon his return, he started the organization, which has donated water filters to over 200,000 people in 25 countries to date. It’s run largely through volunteer transport and local partnerships, and is funded by a secondary company, which creates water bottles bearing the company logo for sale.
The project most on Kawana’s mind now was inspired by the Shoah Foundation’s Holocaust testimony project and by his grandparents.
“I want to make sure we gather firsthand stories now,” Kawana said, “from those who were young adults and adults living through unparalleled challenges. These stories won’t be available forever, as the more time goes by, the more of them we lose.”
Linking what the Shoah Foundation has been able to do with his desire to share more stories like those from his family, Kawana launched another non-profit called Japanese American Stories, when he filmed the first of what he hopes will be five documentary segments featuring original testimony documenting the Japanese American experience during World War II. The testimony will be integrated at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, where his family has spent much of their time giving back.
“People like my grandparents volunteered there as docents and were able to say, as they led tours, ‘When I was a kid your age, this happened to me.’ I hope that my films can be integrated into the museum through an AI docent experience, where visitors are led through the entire space with someone who has lived the experience and can answer questions about it authentically.”
Kawana hopes to raise a million dollars to fund the project and plans to dedicate most of his time post-graduation to ensuring the histories of the past are preserved, as are our connections to them.
As for his last few weeks at USC? While Kawana is sad to miss in person commencement activities, he says that his friendships and spontaneous experiences define his time spent at USC Viterbi. Looking back, he recalls the first day of sophomore year, when he convinced that same group from Birnkrant Residence Hall to drive 14 hours to Idaho to watch a three-minute eclipse.
“Seeing that with all my friends was insane. The temperature dropped 10 degrees and there was a 360 degree sunset. We saw Mercury and Venus. We saw animal behavior completely change. Then we got back in our van and drove 14 hours back, just in time for the second day of classes.”
While serving his country, an Army specialist missed most of his sister’s milestones — but not this time, thanks to a group of fellow students and their professor.
When the pandemic hit, USC senior Madison Holbrook was about a month away from finishing a student film for her USC School of Cinematic Arts advanced production course. In the class, the group of undergraduate students creates four 12-minute films — from script to screen — in just 15 weeks.
“Who would have thought a pandemic would come in the middle of production?” Holbrook said. “We had just started post-production when we had to go our separate ways.”
Professor Brenda Goodman, who has taught this filmmaking class for over two decades, reached out to her 40-plus students following the move to online instruction. Her message was simple: “We’re going to keep going and we’ll figure it out.”
Goodman and the school supplied the editors and sound mixers with laptops and online editing programs to finish their short films: Spit It Out Margot, produced by Holbrook, along with You Missed a Spot, The Order and Straw Man.
“It is really competitive. Everyone wants to be able to be a producer, director or have their script chosen,” Holbrook said. “But in the end, only four films will be selected.”
The selection of Holbrook’s film would prove to be history in the making. It was the first all-female/non-gender-conforming production in the history of the class, the longest-running production course at USC.
“Everyone, all the way down to our PAs,” she said. “It wasn’t really intentional, like ‘no boys allowed.’ It just happened that way.”
Scheduling a very important virtual screening for USC student film
Holbrook said the biggest hurdle in finishing the film was the loss of in-person communication. But she was determined to keep communication open because filmmaking is, above all else, collaborative.
“I would go on Zoom calls with the editor as she was editing to mimic the idea that I was there,” Holbrook said. “The biggest takeaway was adaptability — I learned you’ve just got to roll with the punches.”
Against all odds, all of the films were finished in time for the official film school screening at the semester’s end. However, unlike previous years — during which screenings were held in-person at the school’s Eileen Norris Cinema Theatre, with students and their families attending — this would be a virtual screening.
“Of course, I was upset that we couldn’t have an in-person screening,” Holbrook said. “Then I thought, maybe this is an opportunity” — an opportunity for her brother Seth, an Army specialist serving in Iraq, to attend. Since joining the military in 2012, he had missed most of his sister’s milestones, including her high school graduation and all of her USC events.
“He’s never been able to see any of my film projects,” Holbrook said. “I remember texting him, knowing he’s on an Army base in the middle of nowhere, to see if he could make the virtual screening. This time, he said he could.”
There was one caveat: The screening had to happen precisely at 2:30 p.m. PDT on Sunday, May 17, due to the soldier’s regimented military schedule.
Now it was up to Goodman and the rest of the students to agree to that date and time to hold the screening. Some of the students were living in other parts of the world with their own time-zone challenges, including China, Finland, Hawaii, Sweden, Singapore and Thailand.
“I put the proposition out to the class and, universally, they said, ‘Yes, we want to make this work for Madison, and we want to make this work for Seth,’” Goodman said. “I just couldn’t believe it. It made me want to cry. We know positive things will come out of this global stop, and this was certainly one of them.”
Army specialist raves about sister’s filmmaking prowess
Holbrook, who hadn’t seen her brother since July, said it was an emotional moment to have him join the screening.
“He finally got to see something of mine and I’m just so happy,” Holbrook said. “He was texting me through the screening and sending Snapchats saying, ‘I love you, I’m so proud of you.’’’
The Army specialist said his sister has done everything possible to set herself up for success.
“When you see her final work, not only does she love this but she is great at it too,” he said. “She has grown up so much in these past four years of her schooling, and she has all the potential in the world to be successful in this industry. I couldn’t be prouder of my sister and I can’t wait to see what she does in her career.”
Without the support of her close-knit classmates and Goodman, Holbrook said, it would not have been possible.
“Brenda was so supportive,” Holbrook said. “She was helping us every step of the way and has always been our No. 1 supporter in the class.”
Future filmmakers work around COVID-19 complications
Goodman said that’s simply what filmmakers do: They collaborate and recognize the power of stories being shared with everyone — even with a soldier on an Army base halfway around the world.
“Not only do we need film to be entertained and distracted a little bit, but we need it to think beyond what is immediately around us and understand the larger condition of life,” Goodman said. “That’s the job of a storyteller — these kids are storytellers.”
And future filmmakers.
“Their level of artistry and talent was always evident,” Goodman said. “But after they went into quarantine, they became so much more nimble. The fact that they could accomplish this in such a polished way and prove themselves in this environment — they will be a great asset to the film industry.”
Holbrook said she definitely grew as a producer during this unprecedented time.
“I loved my last semester at USC,” Holbrook said. “It wasn’t what I was expecting, but it still turned out OK and here we are: We just screened our film, and everyone loved it — including my brother — and it was just positive in the end.”
Jasmine Sears plans to use her degree in environmental studies to help the fashion industry do more to protect the planet.
When Jasmine Sears learned that the fashion industry is a major source of pollution, she knew she had found her mission.
The Atlanta native had long been passionate about environmental protection, but she also loved exploring and creating art. Combining the two into a career seemed impossible. Then she found her purpose at USC — right in front of her on a clothes rack. Now she is scrutinizing ways to cut back on waste and promote ethical practices in fashion as she pursues her degree in environmental studies at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
Sears, a rising senior, talks about how the clothing industry can move away from disposable “fast fashion” and embrace eco-friendly practices.
How does fashion fit with your interest in sustainability?
The fashion industry has such a huge environmental impact. Everybody wears clothes, so they are constantly being produced. The more I learned about fashion production, the more I was convinced that this is the perfect place to implement sustainability. Fashion can be so damaging in so many different ways. For fast-fashion brands, which are thankfully becoming less popular, they produce a ton of clothes overseas. They aren’t managing their production very closely, so who knows how much waste is occurring.
That also brings in the ethical side: Are the people working in these factories being treated well and paid fairly? Then there are emissions from the factories themselves and transporting all these clothes across great distances. They are using lower-grade fabrics with poor quality, so people are used to wearing a T-shirt only a few times and then throwing it away, and it ends up in a landfill. Also, dyeing fabrics is a big source of water pollution. There are rivers in China that are purple from dye.
How do you see yourself promoting sustainability in the fashion world?
I like assessing fashion companies and their impact, so maybe working in consulting to measure that impact and offer recommendations. But ultimately, I’d like to own my own wholesale company that produces sustainable products. Everybody uses blanks [plain garments sold in bulk], like if you’re making concert T-shirts or even USC shirts. People make so many T-shirts or plain clothes, so that’s a really good way to have a mass impact instead of a niche brand that’s really expensive.
How do you create more environmentally friendly clothes?
That’s difficult. When it comes to consumerism, I don’t know if it’s possible to have totally sustainable items, but moving toward that goal is essential. We can do things like using recycled fabrics and minimize waste. In these factories, there are so many fabric cuttings. Making sure you’re not producing as much waste from those little trimmings could help.
Paying people a living wage is also important. People with lower incomes are affected by climate change differently than people who are wealthy and can afford to move or adapt their lives. They aren’t living near highways or in higher-risk areas for air pollution and waste.
What got you interested in protecting the planet?
Atlanta is built into a forest, so I was used to being surrounded by nature and was always intrigued by it as a kid. It’s so complex, and I’ve always been curious and wanted to understand it better. I learned about global warming in elementary school. I don’t think it seemed as pressing as it is now, but even then, I was really freaked out because I loved the earth so much. I can’t think of anything that is more important than the health of the planet. Everything else we do on a daily basis relies on that, so it was the only thing I was interested in studying when I came to USC.
What childhood experience most affected how you thought about sustainability?
In my neighborhood in Atlanta, there’s a nature corridor a few blocks away from where I lived. It’s like a little forest with a trail running through it. There was a creek with tadpoles, so in the summer, my brother and I would catch them, raise them into frogs and then release them. But then there was a drought and the creek dried up. That was really scary to see. I remember attributing that to climate change and thinking, oh no. That place was very close to me, and now it’s gone. I don’t think there is enough water for there to be tadpoles anymore.
Do you have any sustainability heroes?
I worked with a brand called Everybody.World my freshman year, and the women who founded that company are incredible. The brand is centered around sustainable fashion, so they do wholesale for other companies and made the first recycled cotton T-shirt. What they are doing is exactly what I see myself doing. It’s good to have someone to look up to who is in the same field and has the same passion.
How can people think about sustainability differently?
Everyone should be well-educated consumers and research things before they buy them. Think about whether you need things, and not even just clothes. Do you need to order that right now? Free shipping really isn’t free.
Before you imagine a scene out of “The Sound of Music” with idyllic frolicking through the fields and singing “kumbaya” around the campfire, her duties included extracting honey from 100 beehives, installing barbed-wire fencing and shifting a herd of about 1,000 cattle to new paddocks.
“It was one of the best engineering experiences I had,” said Levy who is a USC Renaissance Scholar and Presidential Scholar, also graduating with a minor in visual culture. “It combined all my interests in environmental sustainability, social analysis, and systems thinking.”
Discovering the connection
In between dirt, sweat, and frustration, she formed a deeper understanding of the soil, climate, biodiversity, animals, and markets than she ever could in a classroom. She also witnessed the fast-growing movement of regenerative agriculture in New Zealand where farming is the country’s largest industry. New Zealand, which is about 1.5 times smaller than California, is also the world’s eighth-largest milk producer.
“The coronavirus pandemic is really encouraging people to think more about where their food comes from,” she said. “Even in New Zealand, a country I’d previously regarded as a place that sat at the pinnacle of sustainable food production, there seemed to be a large disconnect between farmers, policymakers, and end consumers. A top-down, policy-oriented, approach toward greening the country’s food system seemed to be threatening the economic wellbeing of farms and, consequently, the affordability of fresh, healthy produce for all New Zealand residents.”
Levy advocates for a deeper engagement with — and partnership between — farms, governments, and consumers. This, she believes, will become “the crux of ensuring a sustainable food supply for everyone on the planet.”
Fostering fashion sustainability
She saw the same disconnect between consumers and the clothes we wear. In response, she co-founded Bloom Boutique at USC, a non-profit start-up that promotes sustainable fashion by collecting and redistributing trendy clothes donated by the USC community. Their mission is “to end the environmental and human toll of fast fashion.”
Fast fashion is a term used to describe the modern fashion industry marked by a high volume of production and low margin, fast-paced, cheap, and disposable items. According to the United Nations, it contributes to ten percent of global greenhouse emissions not to mention the working conditions of textile factory workers and the fact that 85% of the garments they make end up in landfills.
Consider that 10,000 liters of water are required to grow just the one kilo of cotton needed for one pair of jeans. It would take a human being about 10 years to drink 10,000 liters of water. Through Bloom Boutique, Levy created an alternative to donating those jeans to another student or a person in need in the USC neighborhood.
“We started with four students, educating the USC community about the fast fashion industry,” she said. “We keep prices low and donate 100% of our profits to local charitable organizations because we know that fashion has the power to strengthen communities.”
Fashioning stronger communities
Strengthening communities is perhaps the best way to describe Levy’s mission at USC. As the vice president of programming for USC’s student chapter of the Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers (IISE), she also planned recruitment and informational events with Amazon, Boeing, and Disney opening doors for her fellow Trojans. Together with IISE’s president, Tyler Somlo, she developed a partnership with engineering consulting firm Moffatt and Nichol that allows students to analyze data from the port of Los Angeles to increase the efficiency of shipping operations.
This month, she opens a door for herself as a brand planner for General Mills’ Natural and Organics Operating Unit in Berkeley, close to her Monterey home and her parents, both public school teachers.
“My parents have always encouraged me to explore my curiosities, whether fashion or engineering and I think that encouragement is a result of their personal drive to explore the many facets of education,” said Levy whose love of engineering first sparked when she was the robotics team captain at her high school. “I am grateful for the example they’ve set for me – exploring their varied interests and really exhibiting tremendous motivation to do so.”
Levy further credits Professor Najmedin Meshkati’s ISE 370 Human Factors course in influencing her to pursue Global Grand Challenges.
“Soraya is the quintessential renaissance scholar and an embodiment of our Engineering+ philosophy. She is truly a global engineer”
“Soraya is the quintessential renaissance scholar and an embodiment of our Engineering+ philosophy. She is truly a global engineer,” said Meshkati, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, industrial systems engineering, and international relations. “Hesitant to shoehorn herself into one specific field of study, she’s always seeking to bolster the important ties between technological system, social, and spatial analysis while working to address the large, looming sustainable development challenges of her generation.”
Her ISE 370 term paper, which led to her collaboration with biomedical engineering student Dea Kurti, from Meshkati’s Engineering Diplomacy course, formed the basis for their research proposal “A System of Systems Approach to Bring the UN Sustainable Development Goals on Track: Focusing on the Cross-Cutting and Enabling Key Goal # 17 (Partnerships for the Goals)”, received funding from the USC Undergraduate Research Associates Program.
Graduation and onward
As she graduates, Levy will add two more feathers in her cap. She will graduate with the distinction of Exemplary National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenges Scholar and the Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering Award for Student of The Year.
“What I take away with me is how interdisciplinary and not siloed any one of our global challenges are,” she said. “I hope that all of us graduating this year remain flexible and versatile because the world is not predictable and because new situations that stray from the plan often open up new opportunities.”
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.”
International relations major India Sposato has been helping the vulnerable since she was a child. Her next steps aim to build on that experience.
The 5-year-old girl couldn’t take her eyes off the Dora the Explorer backpack.
The clothing drive wasn’t quite ready to open, but she found it difficult to distract herself by playing before it did.
India Sposato, who at the time was 15 and running the clothing drive at Malibu United Methodist Church, promised the girl she would set the backpack aside for her so no one else would snag it.
The girl got her wish.
India later learned from the girl’s father that they had seen the backpack at Target a week earlier, but that he couldn’t afford to buy it for her.
“It was a real pivotal moment for me,” recalls Sposato, now 21 and about to graduate from USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences as a major in international relations with an emphasis on global business.
“One small thing can change a person’s day more than you realize,” she says.
Since she was a little girl, Sposato has been focused on helping others — a passion she aims to put into practice with a career at a marketing company that is focused on creating social impact.
During her 3 ½ years at USC Dornsife as a freshman who started in the spring, Sposato, who is Italian and African American, completed a marketing internship at Propper Daley. There, she worked on projects that included John Legend’s FREEAMERICA, which is committed to criminal justice reform, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s National Day of Racial Healing.
Giving since childhood
Sposato’s penchant for helping others began when she was a little girl.
Her father, the music composer and producer Frankie Blue, and her mother, Shante Sposato, a fashion designer, got her involved serving food to the needy during Thanksgiving when she was around the same age as the girl who got the Dora backpack.
Her parents would drive her and her younger twin brothers to Mexico to deliver clothes.
Sposato was 11 when she launched a clothing drive at Malibu United Methodist — a Thanksgiving tradition that she continued to run through her years at Agoura High School and USC, and that flourishes today.
“It’s evolved into this large community tradition, which is really beautiful,” says Sposato, who plans to run the clothing drive again this Thanksgiving.
While in high school, Sposato went to the country she is named for, as well as Nepal, three times. She raised money for a foundation in India that is dedicated to underprivileged and abused children. She also volunteered for an orphanage that rescued women from sex trafficking.
Sposato says her time in India is what got her interested in majoring in international relations.
“It was a very impactful and eye-opening experience,” Sposato says. “And I learned so much studying international relations. It taught me so much about the world around me and how to analyze things.”
“What I enjoy about India is her genuine passion for what she is learning and her endless curiosity,” says professor Therese Wilbur, associate professor of clinical marketing, who taught Sposato the past two semesters.
“She asks the tough, insightful questions to really understand the class concepts,” Wilbur says. “By doing so, she helps other students learn in the classroom because it provides me insight on how to better teach or connect class concepts.”
In one of her classes, Wilbur selected Sposato for a leadership position. As brand team director, Sposato led a team of five students for two capstone projects.
“She’s definitely a team player, and her classmates rated her highly on her leadership skills,” Wilbur says.
A global student
In addition to majoring in international relations, Sposato also minored in Chinese. In the spring of her junior year, she completed a study abroad program in Shanghai.
“My roommate was a female Chinese member of the Communist Party,” Sposato says. “I only spoke Chinese to her, and I made a lot of really great friends. The experience was phenomenal. I traveled all across China, taking advantage of every three-day weekend to explore somewhere new.”
Sposato is proficient in putou, the main Mandarin dialect.
“Everyone was so patient [with my Chinese],” she recalls. “I was able to learn so much because people were so open to speaking with me.”
Sposato, who lives with her parents in Malibu, California, plans to order in food to mark her graduation and celebrate with them. Her brothers graduated from high school last year. One of them lives in Atlanta, the other in South Africa.
“It’s no one’s fault,” she says of traditional commencement being postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “What are you going to do?”
Between applying for jobs, Sposato enjoys hiking and surfing. She’s also an avid reader of everything from memoirs to summer romance reads.
“If I have the weekend free,” Sposato says, “that book’s going to be gone.”
Even with a bachelor’s degree from USC Viterbi and now a master’s from the USC Iovine and Young Academy, this proud Trojan still puts in his hours on the family farm.
As he walked through rows of citrus trees on the family farm in the Central Valley with two hard-earned sashes on, USC graduate student Xavier Hernandez III reflected on his academic journey.
He remembered the struggles he had as an undergraduate at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, overcoming some hardships in adjusting to an unfamiliar environment. He failed in his first semester on campus, earning a paltry 1.9 GPA and landing on academic probation.
“At that moment, I didn’t feel like I belonged,” he said. “It really took a toll on me.” He contemplated quitting altogether: “I felt alone. Not a lot of people on campus looked like me.”
Hernandez leaned on his family to get through his rough first few months, inspired by the passion of his parents when it came to hard work and education. Xavier Jr. and Barbara both enrolled in community college while he was in high school. By raising three kids and working on the farm while attending college, the tone was set.
“We wanted to set the example, we wanted to walk the walk. We told our kids that this was difficult but it’s worth the sacrifice,” Barbara Hernandez said. “At one point, there were four of us in college at the same time. They tell us they were inspired by us, but we were inspired by them.”
The family of five — all farmworkers — all now have college degrees: Xavier Jr. from Fresno State University, Barbara from Porterville College, Xavier III from USC, younger sister Alexandra from the University of California, Berkeley, and younger brother James from Fresno State.
Xavier Hernandez III: an advocate for all Latinx Trojans
After he stumbled early at USC, Hernandez caught up with the pack and even passed it. He launched STEM and Create, an organization focused on empowering individuals and organizations in STEM fields. He earned leadership roles in organizations such as Engineers Without Borders and snagged a spot as a USC TEDx speaker.
But his journey wasn’t over, as returning to the family farm after graduating reframed his focus.
“Coming back to the farm grounds me,” he said. “It reminds me that I want to make a difference.”
He felt at home and realized he never really had that feeling on campus. He never gave himself a chance to reflect on the loneliness he experienced during his freshman year.
“My drive was different. It’s hard for me to say I’m self-made when I had the support of my family,” he said. So Hernandez enrolled in the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy to pursue a master’s in integrated design, business and technology. He wanted to be an advocate, a voice for past, present and future Latinx Trojans.
“I’m a farm boy, I’m Latino, and I’m proud to say that,” he said.
USC grad inspires Latinx students to pursue STEM careers
“I hope more kids from the Latinx community pursue STEM education,” he said. “The industry needs perspective, and it needs diversity. I came from a farm. If I can do it, anyone can.”
Hernandez became an advocate for a student population that often felt overshadowed. He was on the Latinx Leadership Roundtable for La CASA, which provided the inspiration for the Latinx banners that graced Trousdale Parkway during 2019’s Latinx History Month.
His voice was even heard in Washington D.C.
“I got to speak in the Capitol about the need for more Latinx representation in higher education,” he said. “I don’t see myself as an expert, but it still blows my mind that a ‘farm boy’ like me is seen as one when I give these talks.”
Double Trojan still puts in time on the farm
Prior to leaving campus due to the pandemic, he was set to launch a museumlike exhibit highlighting Latinx students and their journeys in their pursuit of higher education. According to Hernandez, “the project is meant to shine a light on the struggles and perseverance of Latinx students, as their narratives are important.” He hopes to build on the project while diving into research education. His final project at the USC Iovine and Young Academy is researching ways to rethink the future of STEM in K-12 education.
“The COVID-19 situation has been crazy for me,” he said. “I’m working on the farm all day, and at night I’m logging on and presenting and going to class. I take pride in that. Despite all my accomplishments, when I’m on the farm I still have to fill water buckets and pull weeds. It’s humbling.”
The nearly decadelong journey to becoming a double Trojan isn’t lost on him.
“It’s been a wild ride, and without my family’s support I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “I never saw myself getting this far. It’s all for them, all the speeches and presentations. I feel like they were there with me.”
“I could talk all day about my accomplishments,” he added, “but it doesn’t mean anything if I’m not making an impact in my community.”
So many of those kids are just like her — Gonzales came to the United States from Mexico when she was 12 and did not know any English. In speaking with them, she emphasizes the availability of financial aid to help their dreams of higher education come true, a hurdle that deferred her college aspirations for decades.
Ana Gonzales: undeterred by virtual conferring of degrees
After attending high school in Boyle Heights in the late 1970s, she planned to reuse the cardinal and gold colors of her Roosevelt High School spirit garb at USC. Despite taking advanced courses in math and science to prepare, she quickly came to believe it was impossible.
“I didn’t know about financial aid, and it seemed so expensive,” she said. “I had to put it on hold.”
Nearly 20 years after her high school graduation, she began attending Pasadena Community College. In 2016, she graduated from the University of La Verne.
On Friday, Gonzales was awarded her degree along with more than 19,000 other USC students. Nearly 1 in 4 were, like Gonzales, the first in their family to attend a university.
This was not like any other year. Because of social distancing, universities are conferring degrees virtually. USC is planning a proper commencement for a later date.
But in an odd way, the pandemic has made graduation a family event for Gonzales and her family. She celebrated at home with her daughter Catalina, who graduates next week from Harvard University with a master’s degree in sustainable environmental management. Like USC, Harvard’s campus is closed to ensure social distancing. Because of the cost of airplane tickets, under normal circumstances they would not have been together for their graduations.
“I did not want to die before I had a college title,” Gonzales said. “I want my grandkids to say, ‘Grandma, she made it.’”
Inspiring USC grad makes an impact on President Folt
For the past 25 years, Gonzales has been working for the Pasadena Unified School District, making her way from a part-time instructional aid to a full-time job as a liaison with foster youth.
As fulfilling and personal as her mentorship experiences have been, she said her best college memory is performing at the halftime show of the USC-Notre Dame game. As part of the Grupo Folklorico de USC dance team, she took the field with the Trojan Marching Band in 2018. “The video went viral,” she gushed.
Or maybe the real highlight was another Grupo Folklorico de USC event. The group was set to perform a Día de los Muertos celebration at USC Village for the neighborhood, and Gonzales took the initiative to send an invitation — along with flowers — to President Carol L. Folt. And she said yes.
Nobody believed Gonzales had a special guest until Folt showed up in person. They talked for an hour.
“Ana Gonzales is amazing,” Folt said. “When I met her in the fall I was inspired by her grit, determination and spirit, and by the joy she brought to her dancing with Folklorico.
“As a first-generation and non-traditional student, Ana has fought her way past every obstacle and she epitomizes the great opportunity and promise that comes by increasing access and equity for all in higher education. With her MSW degree, I know Ana will continue to make an impact on so many lives. She already made a wonderful impact on mine.”
“I want to help people,” Gonzales said. “My daughter encouraged me to go higher; my son, too. They motivate me. I always wanted to teach them, that no matter the circumstances, you can succeed.”
Now more than ever, it’s a message that we need to take to heart.
Four years ago, as a Freshman, I wrote one of the first blogs for the ECE department. The topic was about why I chose USC and Electrical Engineering. I mentioned the interesting classes, the clubs, and the relationship USC Viterbi has with so many industry leaders. But in reality, I had no way of knowing the trajectory my college career would take. Like many other freshmen, my world was shaped so much by my parents.
And that entire world changed a month into my sophomore year at USC when my dad suddenly died. I was 19 years old and I was alone, grieving, and facing a mountain of responsibility. I couldn’t afford to take a break or take time to focus on my grief. I took charge in helping my mom manage our household and just a few weeks later returned to school, a place where everything around me was the same but I was totally different.
My dad was my best friend, my greatest inspiration, and the reason I wanted to study electrical engineering in the first place. My dad was not an engineer by training, but he was an avid electronic hobbyist his whole life. He would always tell me that as a kid growing up in Iran his favorite toys were the new electronic kits he would get to build things like radios. This love continued into his adult years, and much of my childhood was spent watching him take apart and build computers to the exact specifications he wanted. His toolkit and soldering iron were common sights in my household.
“I would tell him about what I was learning in my classes, and he would learn alongside me watching Youtube videos on EE basics and purchasing components to build his own circuits.”
Growing up, my dad always let me pursue my constantly changing interests – everything from English to history, to art and politics. I wanted to go into law or become a psychiatrist like my dad – fields where I could see a direct human impact. But he always told me that studying engineering would give me a good basis to do whatever it was I desired in the future. He would tell me of doctors and lawyers he knew who had started off as electrical engineers, and how engineering will teach me invaluable problem-solving skills that I won’t acquire anywhere else. He joyfully instilled in me the importance of engineering as a tool to take on the world’s problems and explore the world’s wonders.
When I started in electrical engineering at USC, he was ecstatic. I would tell him about what I was learning in my classes, and he would learn alongside me watching Youtube videos on EE basics and even purchasing components to build his own circuits. I recently used some of the passive components he had purchased and his old multimeter to complete my EE 447 capstone project. Even when I was struggling in some of my early coursework and didn’t get the grades I wanted, he would tell me that he was so proud of me for getting through a class in one of the hardest subjects at an amazing university like USC.
It’s been almost three years since my dad died and during that time I’ve worked every day in the Interaction Lab, published conference and journal papers, traveled the world to present my research, successfully led a team through business pitch competitions, interned at Microsoft and NASA JPL, mentored students in the South LA community as a Troy Camp counselor, helped my mom stay afloat, and still attended class.
I’ve worked so hard to accomplish all of this to honor the memory of my dad. It has been really difficult, there have been many seemingly hopeless moments where I wanted to give up. I have struggled with many questions over how I am going to support my family and get through school. As a result of the current global crisis, so much of the world is now also in a place of uncertainty. Many of my peers have had their lives irrevocably changed much like I did in the fall of 2017 when my dad passed. Yes, the situation sucks, but in these past few years, I have learned that the people around us is what really fulfills us. I saw my community come together to help me when I really needed it. Even though our USC graduation is virtual this year, I am still looking forward to crossing this finish line, knowing that I have made it through what has been the most challenging time of my life.
I’m incredibly grateful for all the ways my department and USC have supported me. In these past few years, I’ve come to learn the importance of mentorship from the people who have helped guide me.
These include Professor Maja Mataric who welcomed me into her lab freshman year, empowered me as a researcher, and showed me how engineering can be used to better the lives of people. Linda Chilton, the manager of USC Sea Grant Education Programs who hired me to help her lead groups of middle and high school students in learning about marine science and engineering on the USC Wrigley campus on Catalina Island. Her dedication to helping younger students, particularly those from backgrounds historically underrepresented in STEM, discover the wonders of our natural world through science and engineering has inspired me to do the same.
I have also learned a great deal about mentorship from Professor Krishna Nayak when I had the privilege of being the TA for his Engineering Freshman Academy Class the fall of my Junior year. This is a course that all first-semester engineering students take where they participate in team-building exercises to learn about the importance of engineering and its impact on society. As an upperclassmen coach, I organized activities for my students to teach them about the many resources USC Viterbi has to offer them and to answer any questions they had. I was inspired by Professor Nayak’s effort and compassion towards these new students and I learned a lot from his workshop on implicit bias.
“I hope that I, like my own mentors, too can help students see the true power of engineering in advancing humanity. I hope by helping to make engineering a friendlier and more welcoming environment to students from diverse backgrounds, I too can help others find this joy. Just like my dad helped me find that joy.”
So today, looking back on that first blog I wrote as a freshman, why am I happy that I chose USC Viterbi? Yes, the classes have been great, my peers have been amazing, and the industry contacts are second to none. But my mentors here have instilled something much more valuable in me: the human factor in engineering.
When I was a younger student in math classes, I never really understood the human connection of subjects like calculus. Through my four years of engineering curriculum and research at USC I have been trained to see the higher-level applications of engineering to the real world: human society and our natural environment. Applications that I have worked on, such as robotics to help children develop social and cognitive skills, or communication platforms to assist in exploring our oceans, are the reasons why I love engineering. Now that I am graduating, I hope that, like my own mentors, I too can help students see the true power of engineering in advancing humanity. I hope by helping to make engineering a friendlier and more welcoming environment to students from diverse backgrounds, I too can help others find this joy. Just like my dad helped me find that joy.
A USC School of Cinematic Arts student and his parents share their experience as he transitions to taking online classes from the family living room.
Like so many Trojans, freshman Cooper Roth entered the spring semester eager to set the world on fire.
“I had a lot to look forward to,” Roth said. Then, “it was like, ‘What the heck is going on?’”
Roth had been busy studying film and TV production at the USC School of Cinematic Arts when the COVID-19 pandemic forced him and his fellow students to abruptly end their on-campus classes and move to online instruction for the rest of the semester.
“He was at the Rolls-Royce of film schools, one of 50 students to get in, and he was so excited to be connected with kids who are creatively like-minded,” said Cooper’s father, J.D. Roth. “Then all of sudden, he had to unplug from all of it.”
The elder Roth knows first-hand what it’s like to be a wide-eyed freshman at USC: He attended the university for two years before landing a full-time job as a TV host. He would go on to create several hit television shows, including The Biggest Loser, Bar Rescue and My Cat From Hell. He was in production on five shows when the pandemic forced widespread closures.
Now with everyone at home — Dad, Mom and their two sons, 19-year-old Cooper and 16-year-old Duncan — the family began adjusting to their new normal. That included online classes for the first-year Trojan.
USC freshman comes to embrace learning at home
While the freshman admits that some classes have been challenging in the online environment, Roth had words of praise for how his professors have adapted.
“One of my favorite classes is ‘Comedy Writers and Their Work’ taught by [Robert] Ramsey,” Roth said. “Normally, we would watch a movie packed together inside the massive SCA Norris Cinema Theatre, so I was curious how that would work now and what to expect.”
Roth said his expectations were met — and then some — when Ramsey held a Zoom videoconferencing class that included the director of one the films being discussed.
“Literally 160 students were Zooming with Professor Ramsey and the director,” Roth said. “It was really amazing. We were typing in questions and doing a live Q&A.”
Cooper’s mother, Chrissy, is usually nearby when her son is taking his classes in this new virtual world. She’s impressed with what she’s seeing.
“I say, thank god for these online classes. I think USC is doing an awesome job,” she said. “They are making it work, putting in a tremendous amount of effort and it’s only been a couple of weeks. It’s only going to grow and get better from here.”
USC parents relish unexpected time with their son
And while Roth’s parents say it’s hard to replace the experiential and engaging side that in-person classes offer, they are keeping things in perspective and looking on the upside.
“For me, it’s the family dinners that have been really nice,” Chrissy Roth said. “We have great conversations, a good amount of laughing and serious talks too about the state of our world. Right now, going to bed with all of my family under the same roof makes me happy.”
Then there’s their extended family at USC.
“I’ve always been enamored with the Trojan Family, the USC spirit and the deep well of alumni and the legacy of teachers,” J.D. Roth said. “I know for a fact that whatever education they are providing to my son is the absolute best that they can provide — even online.”
At Belmont Senior Village in the Hollywood Hills, volunteers from the USC GlamourGals chapter are greeted by a group of older adults excited to connect and chat. The residents cheerfully tell stories and share laughs with the volunteers – and many also get a fun new nail color.
With over 100 high school and college chapters across the United States, GlamourGals has empowered young people to connect with older adults while providing manicures and makeovers. The USC chapter, founded by PhD in Gerontology candidate Carly Roman and now headed by President Anjali Devgan, continues to serve the nearby older adult population and hopes to expand outward to new areas.
Devgan, a junior majoring in health and human sciences with an emphasis in gerontology, says the USC chapter has grown since her freshman year, when it was comprised of about five students. Today, the group’s recruitment efforts have increased the pool of volunteers to more than 300. Their activities help put a human face on the study of aging.
“You really notice how precious life is and what the importance of gerontology is,” Devgan said. “You realize why we study longevity so much, and why it’s important to see how aging affects everyone differently.”
McCrae Mower, junior in lifespan health and USC GlamourGals vice president, said GlamourGals gives volunteers a terrific way to help older adults and spread joy. In addition to providing manicures, the group delivers student-made greeting cards to residents.
“Just being able to bring a smile to someone else’s face really makes my day. … It’s just so fun to just make the cards and share our goals and mission with other students at USC. Then, to be able to bring them to different residents at the nursing home and be able to see their smile when they see that we’ve made something personal for them always really makes me happy,” Mower said.
The student volunteers learn more about the daily lives of older adults living in these care facilities, where issues relating to social isolation in older adults are often prevalent. Many volunteers realize this ever-growing issue and gain a deeper appreciation not only for older adults in their own lives, but also for the opportunity to provide service.
Developing new gerontology curriculum for volunteers
Devgan has many plans for the chapter in the near future, and she hopes to expand to new care facilities as a means of addressing the health and isolation of older adult populations in minority groups. On a national level, Devgan has begun work on a Gerontology Volunteer Education Plan with the assistance of USC Instructional Associate Professor of Gerontology Paul Nash and Rachel Doyle, the CEO and founder of GlamourGals.
Learning about the detrimental impact of social isolation and ageism, Devgan hopes to share succinct and persuasive information about population aging and diversification for an audience of volunteers who want to help older adults but may not know about gerontology.
“I actually was in a writing class at USC where we had to write a project proposal, and I wrote mine about GlamourGals because it’s something I’m so passionate about,” Devgan said.
Devgan’s proposal has three parts to it, with the first component focusing on the need to diversify the older adult population with whom the organization works. Devgan emphasized the importance of finding lower-income and more racially diverse homes and efficiently pitching the project to senior home directors and staff. The second part of the proposal entailed educating volunteers about issues relevant to gerontology, such as isolation among older adults and the ramifications of implicit ageism. The third component — something Devgan hopes to implement in the future — involves a feedback mechanism allowing for staff and residents of these senior homes to comment on their experiences with GlamourGals.
As the 20th anniversary of GlamourGals approaches, Devgan hopes to expand to new care facilities as a means of addressing the health and isolation of older adult populations in minority groups. She will be sharing her progress with GlamourGals with the rest of the organization later this year.
2019 Live Más Scholarship recipient Amelia Thomas is the epitome of a Passioneer – the kind of person whose passion and pioneering spirit burns so brightly, they don’t just influence their peers, they inspire them.
While working towards a master’s degree in Integrated Design, Business and Technology at the University of Southern California, Amelia is also running her own social enterprise and preparing for a career as a social impact consultant. Using her personal experience with a social enterprise, she hopes to help companies authentically incorporate a social mission into their business model.
For many brands, the product comes first while social impact, if any, comes second. That’s not the case for Resident, Amelia’s socially responsible clothing company, as it makes an impact on the homeless crisis in Los Angeles. When combining her love for fashion and philanthropy, the cause was the guiding principle of her business model.
“After volunteering with a local organization in Los Angeles assisting people experiencing homelessness, I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of long-term. I have loved fashion for as long as I can remember, so I thought, what better way to combine my passions than by starting a clothing brand with a mission to help others?” Ten percent of Resident’s proceeds go directly towards organizations providing resources for people in Los Angeles, and every month Amelia volunteers and connects in person with the individuals these organizations serve.
Interested in creating a company with a cause? Amelia shares her tips for narrowing your focus to have the greatest impact for good.
Meeting the people you want to help will deeply connect you to a cause and allow you to learn what resources will truly provide them the most value. Money isn’t always the best solution. Do your due diligence to find out what will make a lasting impact and focus on that.
Get involved in your local community. Look on campus to see what opportunities are available in your area and participate in as many service events as you can. When you find the cause you identify most strongly with, you’ll know.
Keep it personal
Don’t worry about what works best for marketing. Rather, identify the cause that you are genuinely passionate about. You could help bring awareness to a cause that while special to you, is maybe not as well known.
Inspire your customers
To make a real impact and long-standing change, it’s crucial that you educate your customers on what your business is doing to help the cause, why what you are doing is necessary, and provide opportunities for customers to get personally involved too. “After making a purchase, Resident customers receive an email indicating exactly where the proceeds of their purchase went and are invited to join me in future volunteer opportunities.”
Put cause at the forefront
Focus your energy primarily on your mission. Selling a product you’re proud of is important, but creating a positive impact is everlasting.
From classically trained concert violinist to all-star computer science student at USC, Jillian Khoo is determined to use her technical skills to code the change.
Jillian Khoo fell in love with music at age 3, when she picked up a violin for the first time. A classically trained violinist and concert soloist, she always expected to major in music at university. But then, she took a required computer science class and fell in love again—this time, with coding.
Now a junior in computer science at the USC, where she also works as a teaching assistant while pursuing a master’s in the Progressive Degree Program, Khoo has scored multiple software development internships from companies like Redfin, Google, and Airbnb.
After receiving a nomination from the CTO of Redfin, in the fall of 2019, Khoo was the first student from USC selected as a Neo Scholar.
Launched in 2017 by serial entrepreneur and angel investor Ali Partovi, Neo is described by Forbes as a “scouting network for brilliant engineers.” The program offers students connections and mentorship while bringing novel thinking and new talent to tech veterans.
With more than 300 nominations annually, only about a dozen students make it through multiple rigorous rounds of interviews, including one tech interview with Partovi himself. As a newly admitted scholar, last fall, Khoo was invited on an all-expenses-paid Neo retreat in Arizona.
“I got to meet the pioneers who shaped the tech industry to where it is today,” said Khoo, who hopes to be involved in a startup in the future. “It was really interesting to get to hear their perspectives on how things have changed and what the next big thing will be.”
Learning and Serving the Community
Khoo finds ways to blend her two passions whenever she can: as an intern, she played in the Google orchestra and at USC, she played in the Thornton Symphony, sharing the stage with music majors. She was even selected to participate in Hack Music LA, a hackathon organized by the L.A. Philharmonic at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Khoo also served on the program committee of AthenaHacks, which is the largest all-female hackathon in Southern California. The annual event aims to support and nurture women in tech through a weekend of workshops, mentorships and social events.
“We’re there to empower women to try out computer science; you don’t necessarily have to become a computer science major, but you can try out coding,” Khoo said.
Applying her technical skills to solve real problems has long been Khoo’s goal. Besides AthenaHacks, Khoo has taken part in Code the Change since her first year at USC. The student organization designs and builds software projects for a couple of non-profit organizations each year.
Last year, Khoo and her team worked with Vision to Learn, an LA-based organization that provides free eye exams and glasses to students in low-income communities. Her team created and delivered a website to streamline the organization’s process of collecting and managing data, which was previously done on stacks of paper.
“We’re learning these technologies in Viterbi, so why not apply what I’m learning to help people and make a difference,” said Khoo.
“I want to build impactful things for people. It begins by understanding who my end-user is going to be, how this is going to impact them, and ultimately, how this is going to help them.”
Environmental studies senior Connie Machuca studies corals and anemones to understand how they respond to rising temperatures, acidification and other ocean-related issues linked to climate change.
The pale-yellow creatures cling to the sides of half-gallon plastic tubs in a dark science lab, their wispy tentacles swaying gently in the water. They can’t speak, but these dime-size sea anemones might give researchers answers to an important problem: how to protect sea life from climate change.
USC student Connie Machuca believes in their potential. She studies the genes of these tiny invertebrates, known to scientists as Aiptasia. Her goal is to understand how they deal with rising water temperatures, differences in the water’s saltiness and other consequences linked to the changing climate. Because Aiptasia share many characteristics with coral, studying them could reveal new ways to care for endangered underwater ecosystems like reefs that are dying due to coral bleaching.
“We don’t really see ocean temperatures decreasing or storms getting less intense,” she said. By figuring out what genes might protect these ocean animals from warmer temperatures or rougher seas, she believes scientists could help them adapt to their new conditions.
Machuca grew up in Chicago and never thought much about the beach before coming to USC, so she admits studying sea life is an unusual passion. But she was drawn to the field of ocean conservation and marine research at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences thanks to hands-on work with environmental marine biologist Carly Kenkel. She dove into coral and anemone studies in Kenkel’s lab as a sophomore and never looked back.
Looking back now as her undergraduate experience winds down this spring, Machuca is grateful for those opportunities and many more she had as a Trojan.
“I always wanted to come here, and USC has shown me that I’m here for a reason,” she said. “I have no regrets whatsoever. In the beginning, it was hard being away from my family, but I’ve made the most of it and showed them that all their sacrifices were worth it.”
A first-gen student’s advice on getting involved in research
Senior Connie Machuca admits she initially was scared to reach out to professors or other students for advice when she first started at USC.
She’s in the first generation of her family to go to college; her mother and grandmother immigrated to the United States from Ecuador 25 years ago. But she pushed past that fear and asked for guidance.
Her courage landed Machuca a spot in a research lab and helped her discover her passion for marine science. Now she encourages other first-gen students and undergrads interested in research to take that brave step.
“Don’t be scared to ask for opportunities that maybe you think you’re not ready for,” she said. “There will be people who believe in your potential.”
An early passion for science leads USC undergrad into marine research
Machuca gravitated toward environmental issues early in life. She did science projects in school on water quality in Chicago and Lake Michigan. She grew concerned about the effects of pollution and climate change, not only on people but also on plants and animals.
When Machuca came to USC four years ago, she was interested in environmental studies — but was unsure where to focus her attention. Ocean researcher Jill Sohm suggested finding a research position to gain experience and pointed her to Kenkel, who had just launched her lab focused on aquatic invertebrates like coral.
“Professors here are super understanding when you don’t know something or you come from a background where you don’t have experience,” Machuca said. “I didn’t have any research experience, but I was able to talk to some professors: ‘This is what I’m interested in, what do you think I should pursue?’ Having that relationship outside of lectures was really helpful for me in deciding what I wanted to do.”
First-gen USC student explores climate change and impacts on sea life
As an assistant in Kenkel’s lab, she grew fascinated with how climate change is affecting coral, anemones and other ocean creatures known collectively as cnidarians. Some of these animals have a give-and-take relationship with algae, Machuca said, relying on them for food. Rising water temperatures or other changes can prompt coral to kick out the algae living in their tissue, eventually leading them to starve. That’s the main cause of coral bleaching, which has devastated reefs around the world.
Studying coral is tricky, though. The finicky creatures need new seawater shipped in regularly and are sensitive to changes in their habitat. Aiptasia, on the other hand, thrive in so many conditions that they’re known as aquarium pests. Like coral, they have a symbiotic relationship with algae — but they also can survive without them.
Machuca thinks Aiptasia can stand in for coral in research labs. They could help scientists find solutions to the effects of climate change without the challenge of trying to keep their specimens alive.
“I want to show there is a wide range of genetic diversity with this invertebrate, so that it can be widely used as a model for coral,” she said. “That way researchers won’t have to use coral specifically to test and do experiments.”
Understanding how climate change affects sea life is important to protecting ocean habitats and guiding environmental policy. But Machuca is also interested in social and economic consequences.
Places like Australia, Fiji and New Zealand rely on coral reefs and ocean habitats for eco-tourism and economic stability, she said. Most of the people living within 100 kilometers of coral are in areas classified as developing or impoverished.
“It’s not just the ecological context, it’s also people’s livelihoods that are at risk with declining coral,” she said. “If the ocean conditions are not great, the economic well-being of these places is threatened.”
Undergrad researcher envisions career in ocean research and teaching
Machuca’s passion for marine research has taken her far beyond the basement lab at USC. She traveled to Florida last summer to collect anemone specimens using a SURF grant from USC Dornsife. Another summer, kelp research took her to Catalina, with funding from the National Science Foundation. She earned her scuba certification last year and now is taking a scientific diving course offered at the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies so she can conduct underwater research in graduate school and beyond.
“I have been continually impressed with her initiative, independence and resourcefulness,” Kenkel said. “From initially working to develop her skill set, to investigating the primary literature, to obtaining her own funding, to now executing her research program, she has exceeded my expectations in every facet of her work.”
Machuca also participated in a naturalist training program through USC Sea Grant, learning about California’s natural history with a focus on coastal areas. The experience helped her teach kids during an internship at a nature camp in Chicago. One of her goals is to instill curiosity in future generations and ensure they have resources like the ones that have helped her thrive at USC.
“Access to papers, being able to talk to researchers, being able to go to the Florida Keys and collaborate with other scientists — those kinds of things aren’t widely available to other students and people who might want to get more involved in research,” she said. “I want to share this information with younger generations, so they grow up with a different mindset and maybe have different goals in terms of research and science.”
She envisions research playing a big role in her career, and she is currently applying to advanced degree programs with plans to continue studying how sea animals are affected by environmental changes. Machuca credited the support and advice of mentors like Sohm and Kenkel for giving her confidence.
“Knowing that there were professors who believed in me despite my limited experience was something that helped me get to where I am today,” she said. “I feel like USC does a good job at giving less-experienced people the opportunity to be great and realize their full potential.”
Trojan Salma Ewing’s journey into the painful history of her mother’s homeland
The game of tennis has taken Salma Ewing all over the world, from Costa Rica to France to the United Kingdom and more. But the most memorable tournament of her career took place in Stellenbosch, South Africa, at the 2017 ITA Stellenbosch $15k.
Ewing, who is now a freshman on the women’s tennis team at USC, won six matches in a row (four of which went to three sets) to make it to the finals of the tournament.
In the finals, Pasadena-born Ewing faced off against South Africa’s No. 1 player, Chanel Simmonds. Despite being on the younger end of an eight-year age gap, Ewing held her own for most of the first set. The adversaries were locked up at 4-all when the unthinkable happened: Ewing got stung by a bee. Dealing with pain and distraction, she dropped the final two games to lose the first set, 6-4.
Ewing dug deep and managed to win the second set, 6-4. With the match all squared up, Ewing knew she had to be patient, yet aggressive, to come out on top. Despite a South African crowd rooting hard for her opponent, Ewing managed to get out in front and give herself multiple match points.
With the title on the line, Ewing took a deep breath.
“OK, you need to be fearless,” she told herself.”
And fearless she was. She approached the net and drilled an inside-out forehand that barely grazed the line. She held her breath, waiting to see if her opponent or the line judge would call it out.
But Simmonds clapped her racquet and conceded. Ewing had won.
Ewing’s mother, Reyana, stood up in the crowd and simultaneously began to cheer and cry. Not only had her middle daughter just won her first $15K tournament as an amateur, she had won it in Reyana’s home country of South Africa, on a set of courts Reyana was prohibited from playing on as a little girl.
Reyana Abrahams was born in Cape Town, about 30 miles west of Stellenbosch, in 1970. From the moment the dark-skinned girl was born, she was subjected to her home country’s system of institutionalized racial segregation known as apartheid.
Apartheid took effect in South Africa in 1948 when the National Party came to power and established laws to favor the country’s minority white population (mostly descended from Dutch and British colonists). The government created three other racial categories: Black, Coloured and Indian. These groups were removed from their homes and forced to live in segregated communities. They were forced to attend different schools and visit different public places than white South Africans. Interracial marriages were outlawed.
For Reyana, apartheid meant discovering a love for tennis while practicing on dilapidated courts, rife with cracks, sometimes without so much as a net.
Reyana’s father dedicated himself to her success, buying a book on how to play tennis to better instruct his daughter. He also bought a ball machine to help her improve her game, but most of the courts she was forced to play on, due to the “Coloured” label on her birth certificate, lacked electricity.
“I’d have to play in a banquet hall because it would have electricity,” she said. “So my dad would put up a net inside. If we did get on a court, and if the court was next to a swimming pool or another facility, he would run this long extension cord all the way from there. But I didn’t care. I’d play as much as I could. Whenever, wherever I could.”
Despite the obvious hurdles, Reyana grew into one of the best junior tennis players in South Africa. At 11 years old, she made the Western Province tennis team and competed against other Black, Coloured and Indian players at the national Under-12 Tournament. As a teenager, she traveled to the United Kingdom for tournaments and to South Carolina for the Van Der Meer Tennis Academy.
But while her tennis career was flourishing, her academic career floundered.
Reyana participated in a number of protests as a teenager, including a school boycott.
“Around mid-1985, schools shut down because of all the unrest,” she said. “We started boycotting heavily and it just snowballed and got bigger and bigger and eventually the schools shut down because we weren’t even at school. You’re participating in this because you want the right to eventually vote, you want to have equality, you want to have the same education that white South Africans have, you want the same facilities, you want Nelson Mandela and the other leaders to be released from prison. You know they’re on Robben Island. You know you’re living in a dysfunctional society. You want to go to that beach. You want to go to Camps Bay and enjoy it like white people can. You fight, fight, fight for a better life.”
After many of her classmates returned to school, Reyana continued to boycott. All in all, she missed two years of standardized schooling. She attempted correspondence school, where books and curriculum were mailed to her home, but she struggled to keep up. Eventually, one local principal took a chance on Reyana — despite her lack of educational foundations in some subjects — and invited her back to finish her high school degree.
As her high school days came to an end, Reyana and her family hoped the game of tennis could give her an opportunity for a better life. Her father wrote letters to influential figures like tennis legend Arthur Ashe, cleric and activist Desmond Tutu and Atlanta mayor Andrew Young in an attempt to get her out of segregated South Africa.
Eventually, the women’s tennis coach at Georgia State University in Atlanta caught wind of Reyana. Without ever meeting the young, hard-working South African, Georgia State offered Reyana an athletic scholarship.
“I jumped at the opportunity,” Reyana said. “In ’88 and ’89, the struggle and the protests and the demonstrations were really at a climax. People were getting killed left and right. … We felt like Mandela was going to die in prison and apartheid would flourish and continue. So I knew I had to get out of there. Even though it’s my home and geographically it’s gorgeous, I wasn’t appreciating the beauty when I was socially oppressed and subjugated. So I jumped, I ran, I didn’t even look back.”
Reyana grew up having to fight for everything she had, and her determination served her well once she got to the United States. She played at the No. 1 spot and earned All-Conference honors three out of her four years at Georgia State. After graduating with a degree in nutrition, she moved to Los Angeles to pursue a Master’s degree. She met her husband on a tennis court in LA, and together they had three daughters: Vera, Salma and Mina.
Despite her love of the game, Reyana didn’t push her daughters toward tennis at first. She only got the girls out on the court after her mother visited in 2010 and offered some sage advice.
“You’ve got to give something of yourself to the kids,” Reyana’s mother told her. “Transfer some knowledge or part of who you are to your children. Teach them Afrikaans or teach them tennis.”
Reyana thought back to the hours her parents spent giving her tennis instruction and helping her graduate high school and college.
From that day forward, Reyana played tennis with her daughters for at least an hour every day. When Salma’s talent became more apparent, Reyana cut back from full-time work to spend more time coaching her daughter. Eventually, she quit her job to give all the attention she could to Salma’s development.
Salma, who plays at the No. 1 spot for USC and is currently ranked No. 34 in the nation, has always appreciated her mother’s dedication to her success.
“We’re super close,” said Salma. “Ever since she started coaching me when I was 10, we’ve always been together, on and off the court. I was always with her instead of a coach. It makes me feel very supported to have her there at every single match. Having my parents there and knowing they love me no matter what, win or lose, helps me stay calm on-court.”
Salma, like her mother, also feels grateful for all the doors tennis has opened up for her.
“Tennis has given me so much, like the ability to travel to all these beautiful places and meet all these people whose stories have shaped me as a person,” she explained.
Salma has also gained a unique perspective on life thanks to her extensive time spent in Cape Town. When she visited as a child, a 12-year-old, a 16-year-old and again for the tournament when she was 17, she soaked in the city’s breathtaking beauty but also realized how much poverty still exists there.
“It definitely made me grateful for everything I have over here, like transportation, food, technology and more,” she said.
Despite the country’s tumultuous history and the effects it had on her mother, Salma holds a soft spot in her heart for South Africa.
“Knowing that my mom wasn’t allowed to play on those courts in Stellenbosch and that I could come there and not only play those tournaments, but win them, meant so much to me. It was so bittersweet,” Salma said. “I feel a very strong connection between me and South Africa. Even though I wasn’t born there, it still feels like a second home to me.”
Beyond their classwork, USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology students are a force for change in their communities and their professions.
In his dietetics rotation at Keck Hospital of USC, Master of Science in Nutrition, Healthspan and Longevity (MSNHL) student Kayee Liu enjoys sitting down with patients and helping them develop healthy eating plans.
“It’s fun talking to patients,” he says. “I just like talking to people.”
After graduation this May, he looks forward to continuing that work, both one-to-one as a dietitian and also expanding those conversations to a wider audience through education and filmmaking.
“I want to do something media-related as well as something clinical — a little bit of everything,” he says. “I want to get a message out.”
Liu, who studied human biology and society at UCLA before coming to the USC Leonard Davis School, first became interested in using media to share information about food and nutrition during his senior year. He took a class on making documentary films for social change, and his final project for the course examined food access and marketing to children in South Pasadena.
“I followed a family as they navigated their community,” Liu explains. “Unhealthy foods are marketed toward kids in a very in-your-face way.”
Liu has also taken photos and made a video chronicling L.A. Kitchen, a nonprofit providing culinary job training and affordable meals while fighting food waste. In addition, he’s provided in-person nutrition education both for older adults and for children from first to seventh grade through the organization API Forward Movement, which addresses community health and environmental justice issues affecting people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent. While his classes grew from just three attendees in the beginning to packed rooms now, Liu still aims to have his presentation be less lecture-like and more of a conversation, asking participants to share recipes and experiences from their own lives.
“It’s a two-way conversation. It’s not just, ‘Here’s what your nutrition should be.’ It’s a happy exchange,” he explains. “I admire the work that is more grassroots. You don’t see the impact immediately; lasting change takes time to develop.”
In the USC Leonard Davis MSNHL program, Liu has been able to connect with other people who are also passionate about sharing nutritional knowledge, even if they have different specific interests within the field. “The students in my cohort and I have a nice exchange of information; they’re some of my closest friends now,” he says.
As a student in the USC Leonard Davis School’s progressive Master of Science in Gerontology degree program, Stephanie Bolton will receive her Bachelor of Science in Human Development and Aging, along with a minor in French, this May, and will finish her master’s degree in just one additional year. Even with her busy academic schedule, she has taken on several extraordinary roles both within and outside of USC.
“I love being involved and meeting and interacting with new people, and I find that the more I get out and immerse myself, the more gratifying experiences I have and the more passionate I become about the issues that matter to me,” Bolton says.
Serving as the President of the Student Gerontology Association (SGA), she oversees all programming, events and service activities for the USC Leonard Davis School student group. From recruiting students to participate in the AlzLA’s annual Walk4Alz, organizing food drives for the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, and gathering holiday gifts for local senior centers, to planning guest lectures and an annual alumni dinner, Bolton serves as the main point of contact for her fellow gerontology students looking to get involved in SGA’s vast array of professional and extracurricular events.
She also works to recruit students for community service work, including for YouthCare, a caregiver respite program of the Youth Movement Against Alzheimer’s, as well as for respite care services at the Aging into the Future Conference on technology and aging taking place in downtown Los Angeles this April. Bolton also kept caregivers in mind with her recent internship with The Memory Kit, LLC, in Atlanta, Georgia, where she assisted with the launch of Care Card, an app designed for coordinating care among different caregivers.
“Caregiving is an extremely taxing job, so I think that any way we can give back to those in need or develop new products and systems to help the current population affected by debilitating diseases is essential to our future,” she says.
Bolton’s service work doesn’t just involve older adults. As a member of the Gamma Phi Beta sorority, she developed and implemented the USC chapter’s risk management plan for member safety and health. She has also developed mentoring relationships with girls at local middle schools through the Women and Youth Supporting Each Other program, which encourages college-age women to serve as role models and sources of support for young girls.
Bolton also supports research and other scholarly activities within the USC Leonard Davis School. As a research assistant in the laboratory of Professor Valter Longo, she’s completing a senior thesis on the effects of a short-term fasting-mimicking diet on brain changes in Alzheimer’s-predisposed mice, and has presented her findings during the USC Undergraduate Research Symposium. She also provides administrative support for the USC Fall Prevention Center of Excellence and assists prospective and current students of the center’s Executive Certificate in Home Modification courses.
“Being able to study and learn from some of the top experts in gerontology at USC has been a beyond enriching and enlightening experience,” Bolton says. “One thing that has been consistent throughout my time in the USC Leonard Davis School is the enthusiasm that professors have when teaching. It’s clear that they are in this field because this is their passion.”
Ph.D. in Gerontology student Elizabeth Avent first encountered a glaring gap in violence research when she was an undergraduate student at Georgia State majoring in sociology. She was trying to write a paper on intimate partner violence in older adults — but she couldn’t find much research on it.
Now, as a research assistant at the USC Secure Old Age Lab and USC Center on Elder Mistreatment, she’s devoting her doctoral program to investigating the important but overlooked topic.
“Elder abuse and late-life intimate partner violence are two distinct things,” Avent explains. “Intimate partner violence tends to go down as age increases, but it doesn’t go away.”
In her quest to understand more about domestic violence in older adults, Avent, who is now in the second year of her PhD program, investigated connections between people who have experienced adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, and victims of intimate partner violence over age 60. She has uncovered that people who experience more than one ACE, especially falling victim to sexual abuse or witnessing domestic violence, face higher odds of being victims of intimate partner violence after age 60.
The next step is to figure out how to use these risk factors to identify people in danger of becoming victims of domestic violence and ultimately make shelters and other resources for victims more inclusive for people of all ages, Avent says.
“We have a lot of work to do. I want to see where we could intervene for people at risk of abuse and provide trauma-informed care,” she says.
Avent first encountered research on violence and older adults by USC Leonard Davis faculty members during her undergraduate and master’s in gerontology programs at Georgia State. After learning more about USC at a Gerontological Society of America conference, she enrolled in the USC PhD in Gerontology program. Her mentor is one of the authors whose work she read years ago: Kathleen Wilber, Mary Pickford Foundation Professor of Gerontology at the USC Leonard Davis School.
“I saw that USC faculty were doing a lot of exciting research, and I wanted to be a part of that,” Avent says. “I like that the school is very collaborative. It pushes you out of your comfort zone, and that’s what I really needed.”
Avent says she ultimately wants to go into policy research, conduct and encourage more multidisciplinary investigation into late-life intimate partner violence, and apply the science in the real world to make violence prevention and intervention services more age-inclusive.
“I really want to convince people in other disciplines that this is an important subject and something we need to talk about,” she says. “We can do something about it. I want my work to reach the people doing the work on the front lines.”
By Beth Newcomb
This story originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Vitality magazine with the title “Making an Impact.” Photos by Stephanie Kleinman.
Penelope Hocking, the Pac-12 Women’s Soccer Freshman of the Year in 2018 and a sophomore majoring in computer science, shines on the pitch and in the classroom.
In the summer of 2019, Penelope Hocking took a dream trip to Europe with her teammates on the USC women’s soccer team.
The 19-year-old USC Viterbi computer science major had the time of her life, visiting the Tower of London, London Bridge, and the Eiffel Tour. Her most enduring memory, though, occurred June 11 in a raucous stadium in Reims, France. There, Hocking watched in awe as American women soccer stars Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, and others crushed Thailand 13-0 on their way to winning the 2019 Women’s World Cup. Seeing the best soccer players in the world inspired the Pac-12 Women’s Soccer Freshman of the Year.
“I looked at them, and I knew I wanted to there in the future,” said Hocking, whom friends call “P” and who counts Cristiano Ronaldo and Abby Wambach among her heroes. “That’s my goal: I want to play for my country at the most elite level.”
She’s well on her way.
An elite player
As a freshman, the scrappy Hocking led the conference with 14 goals, earning All-Pac-12 second-team honors. As a sophomore, she became a starter and quickly became one nation’s best forwards, making the All-Pac-12 First Team.
Hocking played perhaps her best soccer in the 2019 NCAA tournament. In the opening round against Cal State Fullerton, she scored not one, not two, not three, but four goals in USC’s 5-1 victory. She also had an assist. In the process, Hocking set a school record for most goals in a women’s postseason soccer game. She scored two more goals in the Trojans next three games, including one in the team’s heartbreaking quarterfinal loss to the University of North Carolina.
“I was just at the right place at the right time and happened to put the ball into the net,” said the self-effacing Hocking of her scoring spree.
USC women’s soccer coach, Keidane McAlpine, offers a different explanation for Hocking’s on-field prowess. “Her combination of speed, skill, and strength, coupled with her tenacity and ability to finish, make her extremely valuable,” he said. “I think Penelope has the potential to be on the U.S. Women’s National team for sure.”
A fiery competitor
Like hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, Hocking anticipates how the game will unfold and moves into position to capitalize on that. She possesses more than just raw talent, though. Much more. Hocking’s fiery competitiveness and unrivaled work ethic have allowed her to become a singular talent.
In 2018, Hocking badly sprained her ankle against Long Beach State in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Instead of sitting out the rest of the competition, she begged her coaches to let her play. A week later, Hocking took the field against No. 1 ranked Florida State in excruciating pain. No way would she let down her teammates.
“It was do or die, and I wasn’t going to dwell on the stupid injury,” said Hocking, who netted USC’s sole goal in the team’s shoot-out loss to the eventual national champions. “You have to overcome adversity, whether a bad game or bad ankle. You have to bounce back and look forward.”
Hocking, who grew up in Anaheim, comes from a family of athletes. Her father, Denny Hocking, played major league baseball for 13 years as a utility infielder, mostly with the Minnesota Twins. Her mother, Venetta Hocking, was a shooting guard at Cypress College. Hocking’s twin sister, Iliana, plays soccer at the University of Arizona. Her younger brother, Jarrod, plays baseball at Servite High School in Orange County.
As teenagers, Penelope and Iliana Hocking helped lead their club team, So Cal Blues, to the 2015 national title. That doesn’t mean the sisters always played nicely with one another. Fueled with a laser-focus desire to win, they often road home in silence together in the back of their parents’ car, annoyed with one another for perceived on-field lapses.
Hocking fell in love with soccer at 12. She practiced whenever possible, sometimes spending hours dribbling the ball alone or kicking it against a wall. Even now, Hocking works harder than almost anyone.
“Not only does she have some God-given talent that is hard to find in many players, but she is not afraid to work for what she wants and strive to get better every day,” said USC teammate Tara McKeown, the 2019 Pac-12 Women’s Soccer Forward of the Year. “Her work ethic on the field makes the people around her better, especially me.”
A model student-athlete
Denny Hocking said he exults in his daughter’s soccer success. However, he feels more pride in the woman she has become. “Being a good person carries more weight than anything,” he said.
Or as Penelope Hocking said: “My parents instilled in me to be the best person, student and soccer player I could be – in that order.”
USC Viterbi Dean Yannis C. Yortsos, an ardent soccer fan and a regular player in an over-50 soccer league, said he sees a connection between the sport and engineering; both require mental toughness and concentration. “We are elated to have Penelope in our computer science program and look forward to her thriving.”
At USC, Hocking brings the same intensity to the classroom as she does to the soccer field. She has a 3.5 G.P.A., studying computer science because of her love of technology and problem-solving. One day, she hopes to work in cybersecurity.
For now, Hocking works hard to juggle athletics and academics successfully. That includes daily study time from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Add lectures, office hours, practice, games and film sessions to the mix, and Hocking has little if any downtime.
That’s just fine with her
“I fell in love with the campus from the moment I saw it,” Hocking said. “I wanted good academics and a good soccer program, and USC has both. It was a really easy choice to come here.”
Twelve years ago, I was a bright-eyed, freshman Undeclared-Engineering major at UCLA. I grew up in the Baldwin Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles and I was inspired by my aunt who is an African-American engineer. She told me stories of the things she created and the challenges she faced. I admired her strength, creativity, and can-do attitude towards any task she took on. I wanted to be an engineer too, and work towards the same things she did.
Unfortunately, I never got that engineering degree I so wanted.
I was struggling with my full-time course load, working 20+ hours a week to pay for housing and attending tutoring to catch up in math. All while acclimating to student life on campus. I was one of those students who had the passion and the talent needed to become an engineer. What I didn’t have was the support, time, training, or money, needed to become an engineer. This was incredibly disheartening — it felt like my own education was out of my control.
“I asked myself, how can my art make an impact in the world in a meaningful and positive way? How can I utilize my work to support myself, my family, and my community even more?”
With that difficult realization, I looked for another outlet to exercise my creative brain while providing hands-on work: fine arts. I discovered that art has the ability to propel society forward. I loved the idea that my work could change how people thought about the world and interacted with it. Much like engineering, art requires a balance of aesthetics and analysis. Before I knew it, I was graduating; four years had flown by in an instant. I always told myself that engineering could wait, that I’d find the time do it. But life has a way of keeping you busy.
I took a job as a Project Director at UCLA’s Academic Supports Program (ASP) – a retention project targeting UCLA’s African-American students and providing them with peer counseling, mentorship, internships, and various skills-building workshops. I took this job because I loved being a student and I wanted to help other students find their passion and succeed. In some way, maybe I saw working with these students as a chance to right the wrong of my own missed opportunity.
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love the arts and I eventually threw myself wholeheartedly in that direction. By 2014, I was a small business owner with a gallery storefront and community space in LA. The space brought together local artists and musicians via performance, installation, and creation. At the height of our success, we hosted traveling artists who went on to become major cultural icons.
Through my work at ASP and my gallery, I developed a strong sense of commitment to my community. But I felt like I could be doing more. I asked myself, how can my art make an impact in the world in a meaningful and positive way? How can I utilize my work to support myself, my family, and my community even more?
Around the same time, I was invited to attend the UCSB Media Arts and Technology program’s End of Year Show. I met graduate students who were artists that ventured into engineering and engineers who turned to the arts. Here, art and science aren’t considered two separate fields but a marriage creating a whole new transdisciplinary medium. Suddenly, nearly ten years later, I felt like I was that bright-eyed freshman again. I remembered the promise I made to myself that I wouldn’t give up on engineering. I’d finally rediscovered that dormant passion inside myself and I researched furiously, seeking out people, institutions, and programs.
But how to pursue that dream? Soon, I came across the USC Institute of Creative Technologies – the team responsible for major engineering advancements such as bringing actors back to life on camera and enhancing mixed reality. I realized that USC Viterbi was the answer to my question of how to pursue a career in STEAM. It became my goal to get into USC Viterbi. But I had a lot to do before I could get there.
First, I had to completely start all over as a freshman, for the second time, in my late 20’s! I enrolled in Santa Barbara City College and this time, I was ready. This time, I found that mathematics isn’t some scary mythical creature but a tool I could use to solve problems in physics, chemistry, and engineering. This time, I was confident, mature, and understood how to access the resources necessary to succeed as a student. I attended office hours often enough for my professors to know me by my first name. I formed study groups that went on until the late hours. I attended every tutoring session available. Slowly but surely, math became my strongest skill.
“Electrical Engineering showed me I could create devices and write programs that I can use as creative tools. At that point I knew that Electrical and Computer Engineering would be my focus. I see limitless opportunities in this department to tackle so many challenges that people face.”
As you can probably guess by now, in 2019 I was admitted to USC Viterbi as a transfer student! This has been one of the most rewarding and amazing experiences of my life. On-campus I became involved with the Women In Engineering (WiE), the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), and the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers (IEEE). I attended the NSBE Conference in Detroit, and I was interviewed and offered internships with Northrop Grumman, Solar Turbines, and Harley Davidson. Over the summer I interned at Solar Turbines where I learned how to use Python to facilitate machine learning and design data analytics systems.
When I took an Embedded Systems and Linear Circuits course at USC, I learned about more ways to design hardware and circuits – something I had come to love at community college. One of my final projects was to build an electric guitar. This class demonstrated how I could use engineering to create art that’s functional and useful. Electrical engineering showed me I could create devices and write programs that I can use as creative tools. At that point, I knew that electrical and computer engineering would be my focus. I see limitless opportunities in this department to tackle so many challenges that people face.
As a freshman in 2007, I was disappointed that I had to give up on engineering. Today, I realize how lucky I am that my path back to engineering took so long. Would I have seen engineering as a service to community if I hadn’t struggled through college myself and worked with other African American students at ASP? Would I have been able to see the beauty and creative potential in engineering if I hadn’t spent time as an artist? Would I have been able to approach my engineering studies with a business mindset if I hadn’t spent time as a business owner myself?
I took a huge risk because I am ineligible for many scholarships or loans due to my lack of engineering experience. School can cost a lot and I’m not getting any younger. Some friends and family assumed I would drop out or change my mind. It’s been my goal to prove them wrong and to prove to myself that I can succeed.
So far, I have exceeded my own expectations and have yet to discover the limit to what I can achieve. I’m looking forward to a future where I will have the opportunity to blend my experiences as an African-American woman, an artist, a businesswoman, and an engineer.
My path back to engineering may have taken some time, but looking back on it now, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Randi is a Junior in the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. She serves as USC NSBE’s public relations chair, is a member of USC’s WiE program and IEEE@USC. She interned at Solar Turbines and has received an offer to intern this Summer at Raytheon. As a working/off-campus student, the generous support of USC Viterbi, and her friends and family have allowed her to remain at USC.
The School of Dramatic Arts briefly caught up with actor Antoinette Ricchio BA ’20 for a quick Q&A about her involvement with the School.
As Ricchio heads into her final semester as a BA student with an acting emphasis, she finds that her screenwriting minor supplements her major coursework well, providing her the tools to thrive in a hybrid industry. In the last year, she has worked at the Emmys, booked her first professional film, and worked on a Noah Cyrus music video.
Where are you from?
I am from Chicago, Illinois—born in the city, but spent most of my life in the suburbs.
Why did you choose to come to USC?
I was blown away by the school, the program and the faculty and staff when I came to the open house during my senior year of high school. Truthfully, I applied to USC without knowing much about it. I had my heart set on New York. It wasn’t until I came to visit that I knew undoubtedly, I wanted to be here.
What program are you in SDA? Why did you choose that program?
I am in the BA program with an acting emphasis. Originally, I thought I wanted to be in the BFA, but quickly realized my other interests outside of acting made the BA program the best option for me. Being able to choose my courses and schedule has allowed me to simultaneously pursue screenwriting!
Which show has been the biggest learning experience for you at SDA?
That’s tough because I feel like each show has been so enriching in a different way, but I guess I’d say When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? I think because it was my first mainstage show, it definitely had the biggest learning curve, but aside from that, Angel was such an intricate, delicate character that it really challenged me to dive deep into character work in a way I never had previously. I learned a lot about myself, my process and collaboration through this show. I’m very grateful.
What is your favorite thing about the faculty at SDA? Has one professor had a profound impact on you?
The faculty at SDA is truly unmatched in their dedication. They tirelessly invest time in us and our futures despite having families and careers of their own, and it’s a reflection of the way they love their jobs and deeply care about their students. It’s hard to single out a professor because my education here has felt like building blocks. I can’t just pick from the top without acknowledging the foundation below.
What is your role in the admissions department at SDA?
I have been serving as an SDA ambassador since my freshman year, aiding the admissions office in recruiting prospective students. I communicate with them via email and at our various events, ensuring that all their questions are answered and they’re able to make an informed decision about where to attend university (and we hope it’s USC)!
In that role, how do you represent SDA?
I represent SDA by sharing my positive experiences with prospective students. Attending USC has been the pride of my life, and to speak about the opportunities and growth I’ve had here in hopes that someone else might have the same experience is something I really enjoy and feel lucky to do.
As such an active member of the SDA community, what impact do you hope to leave after your four years?
Everywhere I go, I try to bring infectious, positive energy with me and I think it goes a long way. I don’t know about impact, but I guess I just hope my classmates remember me as someone they can come to. Even after graduation—as a friend, someone who makes mistakes, someone they can lean on—because this industry can be extremely difficult and very lonely. I also think the TSA mentorship program is an amazing addition to SDA and leaves an encouraging impact on younger students who are trying to find their footing.
Do you have a minor? If so, why did you choose that minor?
My minor is screenwriting in the cinema school. I always loved writing, and through the classes, I’ve realized I want to write for TV.
How does that minor build upon your SDA training?
Writing and acting really inform each other—I understand each in a different, better way by practicing the other. They are not separate at all. But more than that, no one in the industry is doing just one thing. Now more than ever, artists are exploring all facets of the industry.
Are you in any student organizations within the university at large? How have you found your community within them?
My biggest community outside of SDA is USC’s professional cinema fraternity, Delta Kappa Alpha. Not only is this organization filled with caring, wonderful people but it’s a group of amazingly talented artists who have given me most of my professional opportunities in LA. We are first and foremost a family, but we work hard together and make a lot of cool projects.
How has SDA changed your outlook on theatre?
My outlook on theater and acting has changed so much—it’s kind of crazy to think about all the things I didn’t know when I got here. I didn’t go to a performing arts high school, I just went to an average public school with really dedicated, talented and underpaid theater teachers! It’s not just my outlook; I learned how to act at SDA. I learned about techniques, historical lineages and came to love theater in a new way—a better way—like when you think you love something and then you discover its layers, see it more in-depth and love it even more.
How has your SDA education informed other creative endeavors?
I think it informs everything I do creatively, whether it’s subconscious or not. The perspective SDA has given me on life and collaboration allows me to bring my artistry and empathy into every project I work on.
The USC trio will explore trends in business, media and culture during a one-year master’s program at Tsinghua University.
A well-traveled filmmaker and producer, a business student interested in culture and sustainable growth, and a specialist in visual effects and machine learning will represent USC as Schwarzman Scholars in 2020.
Alumni Christopher Carpenter and Gabrielle Roberts and senior Songzhi “Richard” Huang won the prestigious scholarship. They’ll travel to Beijing next fall to complete a one-year master’s in global affairs.
It’s the first time USC has had three Schwarzman Scholars in one year.
The trio is among 145 students and recent college graduates selected from more than 4,700 applicants from 41 countries. Schwarzman Scholars study at Tsinghua University in Beijing, one of the country’s most prestigious universities. The scholars will gain leadership skills, learn about Chinese culture and study with top professors and students with the broader goal of understanding China’s role in global trends.
“Exceptional leadership, remarkable character and strong intellectual capacity are the benchmarks to become a Schwarzman Scholar,” said USC Provost Charles F. Zukoski. “Our recipients meet and exceed those. They have impressive interdisciplinary backgrounds and will go on to become global leaders to tackle the challenges of the 21st century. We are very proud of these students.”
Christopher Carpenter: Filmmaker seeks cultural understanding through media
Christopher Carpenter graduated in 2016 with degrees in film and television production from the USC School of Cinematic Arts and cognitive science from the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. For the last three years, he has crisscrossed the globe to produce films and other media in foreign countries.
During his travels in places like Japan, India and Kenya, he became increasingly fascinated with the cultural meaning behind movies and other art forms. The recent boom in Chinese cinema spurred him to apply for the Schwarzman Scholars program.
“It is very much like the Wild West,” said Carpenter, 26. “This is an industry that is totally blossoming in China, and nobody has figured it out yet.”
He had previously visited Beijing, Shanghai and Kaifeng as a USC student through Global East Asia, a study abroad research program offered by USC Dornsife’s East Asian Studies Center. When he returns to Beijing in August 2020, he plans to explore both the culture and business of filmmaking in China. That includes the implications of a policy for international film productions that requires hiring Chinese actors and crew members.
Carpenter also hopes to build on his experiences directing a documentary series in India called The Happiness Diaries for the government of Delhi about an education reform initiative. The series explored how the initiative affected students by focusing on their personal stories.
“The most important stories we can tell are those of the human individual, and it takes a high level of cultural, historical and social education and exposure to be adept at telling those stories,” he said. “Because China is growing increasingly important to global narratives, it then becomes that much more important to find and tell those individual stories, too.”
Carpenter’s long-term plans include continuing to create content from behind the camera, working with actors or documentary subjects to tackle complex global and cultural issues.
“I want to be able to produce media that is culturally sensitive, commercially viable and global in its reach,” he said.
Songzhi “Richard” Huang: Understanding China’s global standing motivates business scholar
If the Schwarzman Scholars program wants people with a global mindset, it found the ideal candidate in Songzhi Huang. The USC senior spent each year of his undergraduate education in a different country through the World Bachelor in Business program at the USC Marshall School of Business.
After an initial year at USC, he studied at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Then he traveled to Milan, Italy, to attend Bocconi University. Now back at USC for his final year, Huang, 21, was intrigued by the opportunity through Schwarzman Scholars to return to China with a fresh perspective on his home country.
I’ve been to many foreign countries and seen different external perspectives about China,” he said. “But I do want to go back to China, talk to citizens and expats there and take a deep dive into the diverse opinions within the country.”
Throughout his college education, Huang has represented USC Marshall and other institutions in case competitions, in which students tackle real-world business challenges with the knowledge they learned in the classroom. His success in the program allowed him to travel to Europe, Asia and other parts of the United States to compete against other university teams.
Another overseas experience in the business school’s Global Social Impact course — in Rio de Janeiro — cemented Huang’s interest in international consulting. He envisions working with international clients in Asia after completing his master’s degree, making cross-cultural communication skills a must.
“Schwarzman is very interdisciplinary,” he said. “It’s not just a business focus but also covers areas like public policy and international studies. That’s the part that really fascinates me.”
The scholarship will enable Huang to explore his interests in urban and infrastructure development, including understanding China’s approach to development and how local and international businesses might evolve under such a model.
Gabrielle Roberts: Visual effects specialist intrigued by emerging Chinese film industry
Few moviegoers watching blockbusters like Avengers: Endgame or Disney’s revamped The Lion King probably give a thought to the computer technology behind the movies. But achieving stunning digital effects requires filmmakers to lean heavily on people with knowledge in advanced computer science, such as USC graduate Gabrielle Roberts.
Like Carpenter, the 23-year-old Roberts will use her Schwarzman Scholarship to focus on filmmaking in China. The kind of technology she specializes in is only starting to break into the film world in China, where audiences are clamoring for high-quality productions.
Roberts, who completed her degrees in film and television production and computer science at USC in May, said building connections with and understanding the needs of the Chinese film industry will be critical in the coming years. China is expected to outpace U.S. audiences in ticket sales soon.
“That is a huge market we have to look toward and really understand,” she said.
As a Schwarzman Scholar, Roberts plans to delve into the intricacies of filmmaking in China, including learning about the China Film Group Corp. The government entity oversees the film industry throughout China. Roberts is curious about how its structure differs relative to Hollywood.
“For the future of the film industry, it will be imperative to have this global perspective and be attuned to international audiences,” she said. “Even just culturally, it’s important to be inclusive. The more people your film can affect and reach, the stronger it is and the greater room there is for impact.”
She’ll also explore efforts to bring computer science and machine learning into filmmaking in China. Instead of rendering visual effects weeks or months after filming through the use of a green screen and other devices, the technology creates a virtual production in which the director and other crew members can see those digital effects in real time.
“It cuts time and costs as much as 30%,” said Roberts, who works for Los Angeles tech startup Brud. “It also gives us a greater breadth of creativity. We can still use these traditional techniques of filmmaking — the [director of photography] can still have a camera, the director can still work with actors — they are just in a virtual environment that we’ve created.”
Sam Mantell spent almost three years producing, editing and selling a documentary about being homeless in Los Angeles. His biggest takeaway? Understanding the business side of entertainment is key.
The 31-year-old producer was finally approaching the end of a 35-month-long endeavor: shooting, editing and trying to sell an intimate documentary about homelessness in L.A. As he moved step by step through the process, he came to realize how much a business degree would help.
“Hollywood is a business, and it’s changing every year,” he said. “Though I’d successfully made a film, trying to show it to audiences — to get people to care — is a different story. No one is going to see your work if you don’t know how to sell it. I figured, why not go for my MBA?”
That might not be the next step for most independent producers who just finished their first film, but Mantell wants to do it all — not just making movies but handling the business side as well.
Ambitious producer sets sights on homelessness documentary
Mantell grew up in Geneva, N.Y., and graduated from Marist College in 2010 with a degree in radio, TV and film. Like so many would-be filmmakers, he soon moved to Los Angeles to pursue his dream. He met future collaborator and aspiring director Matt Siretta through a friend, and they’d often discuss potential projects. One night, they were driving around the city when an idea crept up on them.
“We turned from the Hollywood Hills onto Hollywood Boulevard and were struck by the difference between the two,” he said. “Despite being so close to each other, the hills were all about seclusion and wealth and quiet, and the boulevard was loud and dark.”
This thought eventually morphed into Disco’d, a documentary produced by Mantell and directed by Siretta that follows the moment-to-moment uncertainty of five people experiencing homelessness. The title was a term that the two filmmakers heard often — it was how their film subjects described their mindsets.
“It’s short for discombobulated, disconcerted, disconnected,” Mantell said. “When we were looking for a thread that would tie it all together, the way the footage looked and the stories the people were telling and the state that they were embodying while we were filming, they were all about discombobulation. It came to encapsulate everything.
“What we wanted to do was tell the story of how the simple fact of being on the street puts you in this state. Whether you want to be or not, it leaves you feeling this way. And when you feel that way, it makes it that much harder to get off the street, think straight and take care of yourself and survive.”
USC Marshall student supplements film knowledge with a business degree
While shooting Disco’d, Mantell was living what he calls “a double life”: days as an academic services coordinator at the USC Graduate School, nights in homeless encampments by the side of the road. It was a crazy, complicated time, one he believes he couldn’t have conquered without the USC Graduate School’s flexibility and encouragement.
“They understood that this was a creative pursuit and a dream I was fulfilling, and they were so supportive,” he said.
When he decided to go to grad school, most people assumed it would be at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. But Mantell wanted to do a deep dive into the business world — specifically, the business of entertainment.
“USC has the greatest film program out there,” he said. “But that’s an area I’ve focused on before; it’s something I already knew. When we began to bring the film to a close, I realized I wanted to continue to produce independent films. And for that, I thought I needed to know more about the business side of things.”
Although USC Marshall offers five different MBA programs, including an online program, Mantell chose the part-time MBA.PM program with a graduate certificate in the business of entertainment. Now in the second year of a three-year program, he’s found it both intense and illuminating.
“Marshall is really taking me to a level I couldn’t have reached on my own,” he said. “I’ve learned so much in such a short period of time. I feel like my career trajectory has totally changed and become more real.”
Meanwhile, Mantell and Siretta are ready to unveil Disco’d to the masses. It’s playing next week at the Downtown Independent in Los Angeles, and the two hope for future distribution deals to be finalized shortly. But the L.A. premiere means the most to them, as one of their goals was to capture and highlight what they saw for those 12 months among the homeless community.
“We want to facilitate a change in perspective for all Angelenos and all Southern Californians,” Mantell said. “We want them to look at people experiencing homelessness with a new set of eyes, so that they can begin to think differently about how we all coexist.”
Kevin Moran, an astronautical engineering transfer student, and U.S. Navy veteran has his eyes set on fusing engineering with humanitarian work.
Navy Veteran Kevin Moran, a USC Viterbi sophomore studying astronautical engineering, understands the meaning of “mission ready.”
Last summer, he interned for NASA, working on the Preliminary Research Aerodynamic Design to Land on Mars (PRANDTL-M) project where he contributed towards designing a glider that can sustain flight in the Martian atmosphere. He developed a MATLAB script that simplified the airfoil design process and reduced the overall work time by 20%.
As a U.S. Navy Petty Officer, 2nd Class, he spent most of his time onboard the USS Boxer in the engineering department, performing maintenance on damage control systems so that the amphibious assault ship would be ready to respond in the event of an emergency.
Moran came to USC in 2018 as a transfer student from Rio Hondo College in Whittier, CA. There, he served as a STEM tutor, designing personalized physics, chemistry and mathematics lessons to prepare other veterans and junior college students from all walks of life to fulfill their dreams of getting into a four-year college or better career opportunities. He still keeps the job as a way to give back to the community which he considers an “essential part” of his life. “They pay me to show up, but it’s really not about the money,” Moran said. “I love seeing other people achieve their dreams.” One of the students he tutored in physics was recently accepted into Harvard University.
At USC Viterbi, he is helping the USC Rocket Propulsion Laboratory to be “mission ready” to break another one of their records when they launch their next student-built rocket into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, Moran is immersing himself in all that USC Viterbi has to offer in his pursuit to become “mission ready” for another lifelong passion: humanitarian work.
Tell us about an exciting memory you have from your time serving in the U.S. Navy.
I think one of the coolest moments I ever had during my time in the Navy was watching flight operations for the first time. There was never a dull moment when Harriers, Ospreys and Sea Dragons were taking off or landing. It is what lead me to become an aerospace-astronautical engineer.
What influenced your study of engineering?
I’ve always enjoyed learning about math and science and learning how machines work. For me, being an engineer seemed like the perfect fit. Although my time in service is over, I believe everything I learned in the Navy prepared me for the daunting task of being an engineer and taking on 21st-century challenges.
What do you enjoy most about your time at USC Viterbi?
Definitely the student design teams. I’m currently involved with Rocket Propulsion Lab, and it feels great to put all my prior maintenance experience, along with my understanding of physical phenomena to use. Eventually, I hope to get involved with more student organizations, STEM outreach programs, or even a humanitarian project.
What’s next for you?
As I’m getting settled at USC, I am starting to consider the possibility of going to graduate school for a master’s in either aerospace or astronautical engineering. Regardless, I don’t want to just graduate and get a nine-to-five-job. I want to make an impact in the world. Whether it is designing the next generation of communication satellites to support troops overseas, or introducing the next generation of children to engineering, I want to leave the world a better place than I found it.
What does Veterans Day mean to you?
Veterans Day is a day to thank those servicemen and women who made extraordinary sacrifices. Many of the other veterans I know are quiet and humble about their service. I think it’s important to have a day that we can just be thankful that someone was and always will be watching our backs.
Matthew Quan is proof you can be deeply rooted and fly – all at the same time.
After nearly 10 years of active duty in the United States Air Force and at the Pentagon, it’s not surprising that Veteran Matthew Quan returned home to Southern California to pursue an advanced degree. Quan’s family has lived in California for six generations, and he hopes to play a large role in shaping the state’s future.
Quan will graduate from the USC Price School in May with a Master of Public Policy. He is one of 55 current students at the Price School who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces or are the immediate family member of someone who has or is currently serving.
As a decorated Captain and E-3 Air Weapons Officer in the U.S. Air Force, Quan accrued 750 hours of flying, including nearly 400 combat hours and four deployments in support of operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.
Quan transitioned out of flying to become an Afghanistan-Pakistan Hand, a Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff initiative to develop culture and policy experts in the region, where he learned to speak Dari and Pashto. He was later assigned to the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. as Country Director, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia, for the Secretary of the Air Force, International Affairs. In this role, he was responsible for Air Force policy in the region.
A lasting call to serve
Growing up in Orange County, Quan had always felt a desire to serve his country, his state, and his community. As an adventurous teenager, he started thinking about aviation and traveling the world, and had a growing curiosity about what was happening in Afghanistan. After graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of California at Irvine, he enlisted in the U. S. Air Force and began his military and foreign policy career.
“After being away for 10 years, I wanted to come home to Southern California and refocus on domestic policy issues,” said Quan. “USC Price has allowed me to take elective courses in tax policy, budgets, education, pharmaceuticals, and real estate. I try to challenge myself and vary projects to different policy areas such as the economy and the environment.”
Quan wants to stop the exodus and net out-migration from California, which he said has accelerated to 190,000 a year, with many people moving to states like Texas. He wants to help California address endemic issues with housing, the economy, education, infrastructure, and taxes.
Unsure of where his professional journey will lead, he hopes to focus on domestic issues but remains open to any opportunities that could take him back overseas.
USC Price’s legacy of military support
Quan is part of a large community of Trojan Veterans, many of whom studied at the USC Price School. The school administers the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) programs, which are designed to offer selected college students the necessary courses and training to qualify them for a commission in the United States Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps. There are currently 170 students in the ROTC programs.
The successful legacy of Trojan ROTC graduates is unparalleled, with more than 200 notable USC ROTC alumni making the ranks of general officer or senior civilian in the Department of Defense.
“We owe a great deal to the brave men and women who have or are currently serving in the U.S. Armed Forces,” said USC Price Dean Jack H. Knott. “USC Price has a tradition of public service, and it’s an honor to have so many Veterans as part of our community.”
If you would like to support scholarship funds for USC’s Veteran and ROTC students, please visit here.
USC undergrad Nicholas Foster started diving for fun while serving in Hawaii with the Armed Forces. Now, he hopes protecting the ocean will go from a passion to his life’s work.
Nicholas Foster peered through his diving mask at the colorful reef teeming with sea creatures and spotted something glaringly out of place: a plastic shopping bag.
The Marine sergeant had come to a popular dive site known as Three Tables on Oahu’s North Shore to indulge in his scuba diving hobby during his downtime. While stationed in Hawaii, he had also started volunteering at beach cleanup events, so he glided forward to collect the bag and recycle it later.
Then he realized something was caught inside. As he carefully cut away the plastic, a light-blue striped fish wriggled free. But before darting off, it turned and met his gaze for three or four seconds.
“I had this heart-to-heart moment with this fish. In my mind, he was saying thank you.”
“I had this heart-to-heart moment with this fish,” Foster said. “In my mind, he was saying thank you. That’s kind of where it really solidified that I wanted to be part of a solution.”
That flicker of inspiration reinforced his decision to go into a career in ocean research and protection after completing his Marine Corps service. Foster, now 26, is set to graduate this spring from the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences with a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies.
He has put his scuba skills to use as a Trojan, diving with research teams to measure vegetation growth and survey the seabed. He also picked up new talents, like flying drones and piloting underwater robots to gather data on ocean and beach health. As he prepares for life after college, Foster is more confident than ever that he has found his calling.
“I want to explore regions of the ocean that no one has ever seen before,” he said. “I want to measure the greater impact we’re having that we don’t even understand yet. And ultimately, I’d like to clean the ocean of plastics.”
Scuba hobby turns to lifelong passion for USC environmental studies student
Nature surrounded Foster during his childhood in rural Carrollton, Ga., 50 miles west of Atlanta. He helped raise chickens and grow vegetables on the family farm. He spent many days camping, hunting and fishing in nearby forests. His appreciation for the natural world flourished.
Drawn to discipline and service, he joined the Marine Corps after high school. Alongside his swell of patriotism, Foster wanted to explore the world. He got his wish: While based in Hawaii with the 1st Battalion 12th Marines at Kāneʻohe Bay, he deployed throughout the Pacific, with stops in Okinawa, Thailand, Guam and the Philippines.
At each locale, he strapped on his flippers, oxygen tanks and other diving gear to explore the fascinating world below the ocean’s surface. What started as a fun diversion sprouted into a passion for learning how to protect and preserve the delicate underwater ecosystem.
“We’re not the only living creatures on this planet,” he said. “That’s what I like about the ocean: It’s not our domain.”
Undergrad finds ideal match for his interest in ocean protection at USC
Despite discovering his love for all things aquatic, Foster wasn’t sure about his path after military service. He took a few general courses at Hawaii Pacific University and decided he wanted to become the first person in his family to earn a college degree. But as his discharge date grew near, he hadn’t settled on a plan.
While training in Twentynine Palms in the desert near California’s Joshua Tree National Park, Foster told an officer about his predicament. The officer’s advice: Go check out USC. Foster took some leave time and headed west to tour the campus.
“Immediately, something clicked: This is where I want to go to school, absolutely,” he said. “After being accepted and starting to take classes, that’s when I really knew, especially going out to Catalina and seeing the passion that people there have for the ocean.”
He discovered the institute’s scientific diving program based at Catalina Island and made sure he met all the requirements to become a research diver. Through USC Sea Grant, he connected with other underwater researchers and began scuba diving to survey areas of the ocean floor, measuring vegetation cover and marine life.
USC student uses advanced mapping to assess ocean and beach health
Although it felt great to be using his diving abilities in a scientific way, Foster sensed that something was missing.
“I realized I would need something more niche to dial in my passion,” he said. “I was looking for that technical skill I could use to do something that would have a greater impact but also help me get a job.”
Advice from another Marine friend proved fortuitous. Foster’s mentor in the Marines told him about a family member who was pursuing his master’s degree in the Spatial Sciences Institute at USC Dornsife. The institute’s scientists use advanced mapping and data analysis techniques to address global challenges like climate change and poverty. Intrigued by their new minor in GIS and sustainability science, Foster signed up to be in the first cohort.
He found the institute offered the mix of environmentalism and technical abilities he had been craving. He quickly joined a research project analyzing the health of Los Angeles’ Venice Beach using overhead drone footage. In addition to flying the drone, Foster started analyzing the data it collected using sophisticated software programs.
“We were looking at how the breakwater was impacting sediment change along the beach,” he said. “Drones are really cool, especially when you’re able to use them for science and to tell a story.”
Undergrad blends sustainability and technical skills for ocean protection
Foster is now using his spatial mapping skills with USC Sea Grant to build a 3D model of rocky reefs in a protected habitat at Catalina Island called Blue Cavern. Using a remotely operated vehicle outfitted with a GoPro camera, he gathers underwater images to monitor algae growth. By stitching those images together on his computer, he’ll create a digital map of the region to assess the effects of temperature change and pH levels on ocean vegetation over time.
Scuba diving for scientific research is a useful approach, he said, but using underwater robots to capture photos is less labor intensive.
“Anyone can do it,” Foster said. “You’re not restricted to having certifications or the physical ability to go scuba diving.”
The same remote mapping approach could be deployed to other protected areas to monitor reefs and other delicate habitats. Having that broad reach is exciting to Foster, who envisions working in ocean mapping with a focus on sustainability and environmental protection after he graduates this May.
He plans to use his spatial analysis abilities and knowledge of the ocean ecosystem to tell powerful stories that prompt change at the policy level.
“My passion just grows,” he said. “The more I discover, the more I see what I can do with these skills, and that’s what really motivates me.”
Freshman Reeves Cameron has always been a thinker. The
voracious reader grew up fascinated by human history and behavior, which turned
to the pursuit of understanding human thought and philosophy that led to our
society’s current legal and political framework. The passing of one of his
parents drove the Houston, TX native to seek meaning and explore the more
existential questions humans face through the study of philosophy. This fall,
he joined the USC Class of 2023, fittingly, as a philosophy, politics and law
Why did you choose USC?
In short, the reason why I chose USC is that there isn’t
anything I want out of a college that USC doesn’t check off. One specific
reason is that I wanted to be in a big city with a lot of opportunities, so Los
Angeles is undoubtedly one of the best cities that I could have ended up in. I
also love the fact that USC has all of the resources of a large research institution
but has class sizes that will allow most of the classes in my four years here
to be in a small environment where I can really get to know my peers and
What is one thing you will bring with you to college that means the most to you?
The thing I’m bringing with me to USC that means the most to
me is a small collection of photos of my family to go in my room. My family has
always been extremely important to me, so having those photos of them will make
me feel a lot better about not living with them (for an extended period of
time) for the first time in my life. I think the pictures of me and my brothers
will remind me to relax and have fun, the picture of my mom and I will remind
me to take care of myself, and the picture of my dad and I will remind me to
keep pursuing my goals as best I can.
What piece of advice about starting college do you think you’ll follow?
Some advice that I’ve gotten from several people about college is to treat it like a nine to five job. At first, this sounds like a pretty joyless way to go through college, but the more I think about it the more I think I’ll end up trying to follow that advice. The way I see it I’ll have so much more free time on weekdays in college than in high school, so a lot of my experience in college will really depend on how I budget that free time. I feel like the easiest way to do that will be to take advantage of the long amounts of time between classes in college and use that time to study and get my work done, so that I’m always free in the evenings and on weekends. This way, I won’t be wasting time doing nothing during the school day when everyone else is busy, so I can really get to hang out with everyone when we’re all done with classes.
What do you think/hope you’ll be like four years from now?
Four years from now, I hope to have a base of knowledge that will allow me to grow and pursue a higher level of education. Two skills in particular that I really hope to develop are my writing and reading skills, and I’m confident that with the program I’m in and the major I picked out I’ll be able to improve greatly in these areas. As of right now, my career plan is to become a lawyer, so I also hope that I’ll be able to develop my logic and reading comprehension through my major Philosophy, Politics, and Law.
Student Q&A: Carrie Hiramatsu BFA ’20 champions student involvement
The School of Dramatic Arts briefly caught up with BFA Stage Manager Carrie Hiramatsu for a quick Q&A about her voice at the School. SDA student Carrie Hiramatsu BFA ’20 has a jam-packed daily docket; between stage management, her role at TSA, and her job in the School’s communications office, she’s a liaison on many levels. Hiramatsu’s commitment to the SDA community is supplemented by her multifaceted talents, making her a force to be reckoned with on campus.
Where are you from?
I’m from Santa Maria, CA – right on the central coast of California. We’re about halfway in between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo.
Why did you choose to come to USC?
USC was one of the few schools I was considering that had the specific degree that I was interested in – not a lot of universities offer undergraduate degrees in stage management! I also knew that I wanted to be in LA, especially to work in the entertainment industry. All my extended family is based in and around LA as well, so it didn’t feel like I was all alone in a big city. Plus, come on, it’s USC! Attending such a highly regarded university was a great payoff after working so hard in high school.
What program are you in SDA? Why did you choose that program?
I’m in the BFA Stage Management program. Since I was in high school, I’ve known that I wanted to be a stage manager, and it was really important to me to have the most specific, hands-on training possible. In the BFA production and design programs at SDA, we’re trained in a cohort-style environment, and I loved the idea of sticking with that core group of passionate, creative, driven people and having your whole college experience together. That’s what sold me on BFA Stage Management, and my cohort has been one of the best parts of my SDA experience.
What is your favorite thing about the faculty at SDA? Has one professor had a profound impact on you?
I love that my faculty at SDA have so much experience in the professional world–almost all of my production faculty work locally on a regular basis in addition to teaching or have worked for years in L.A. or New York. They’re able to offer such valuable insight on not only the craft, but how to navigate the industry, and I’m able to meet and learn from their colleagues currently working in the industry as well. Especially as a senior looking ahead to post-graduation life, this is huge!
Scott Faris is head of stage management and has been my primary mentor since he started teaching at SDA in 2017. I wouldn’t be the stage manager I am today if it weren’t for his influence. He’s helped me to think big about my own career and made “long shot” goals I have seem tangible and possible. I’ve also been lucky enough to work with John DeMita throughout my time at SDA, and some of my favorite SDA experiences have come from that relationship. It means a lot to work with a director who understands that you’re a student and still learning and experimenting, and John cultivates such an open, fun learning environment. I really won the director lottery there – twice!
Tell us a little bit about your work with TSA.
The Theatre Students Association (TSA) is the undergraduate student government entity, specifically for SDA. We act as leaders in the SDA community and represent the student body when communicating with faculty and administration. I’m in my second term as Executive Board secretary, and it’s been one of my favorite parts of my college experience. To me, it’s really rewarding to be able to see aspects of our community that need reform, create a plan to better it, and then see our community benefit.
As a student, do you have a work-study job? What are your job responsibilities and what have you learned?
I work in the Communications department for the School of Dramatic Arts. I edit and facilitate the creation of all of SDA’s show programs, help to manage SDA’s social media, and assist in the creation of some of the School’s digital materials and marketing. When you see posts from SDA on social media, art on digital screens around campus, or read an SDA program, some of that was me! This year, I’m also taking on more editorial duties and creating original content – this fall I’m producing a video piece about the ISP community, from the perspective of its own leaders.
Working in an SDA office has really put into perspective how much work goes into making the School and its season of plays run smoothly. When you’re sitting in class or rehearsal you don’t really think about what it took to make that class or show possible, but when you’re right there in the thick of it, putting in the work, it makes you so much more grateful for your experience as a student. It’s definitely taught me how to better interact with and help out all of the School’s staff as a stage manager, and I also discovered that I really like marketing and graphic design! A couple of years ago, I would never have considered a desk job, but I really enjoy my work.
As such an active member of the SDA community, what impact do you hope to leave after your four years?
I hope to really cultivate SDA’s next generation of active members. The lifeblood of this school is the student community, and that’s what ultimately makes it a great place to go to school. I want to make sure that the future leaders of the SDA student community feel the same kind of responsibility and drive to make the School the best it can be that I found in my time here. In BFA Stage Management, we have such a strong foundation of mentorship, and passing on our own passion for the craft and love for this community to the younger students. It’s a kind of passing-of-the-torch that I hope to achieve in all aspects of my involvement. I can’t wait to see what those rising leaders do to change our school and the impact that they leave as well.
How has SDA changed your outlook on theatre?
I think SDA has made me way more appreciative of the whole team making the magic happen, instead of being so hyper-focused on my own role. You can’t just be focused on yourself when you see your friends researching their roles, hanging the lights, painting the sets, working alongside you until the early hours of the morning. Theatre is a team sport, and I learned how strong that team needed to be in college. My experience has also just affirmed how much I love this art form–in the words of CB Borger, the School’s Technical Theatre Manager… “yay theatre!”
Chemistry major Lorena Hong finds personal growth as she works to develop methods for storing energy from the sun.
Lorena Hong didn’t hesitate when asked why the solar energy conversion research she has been working on for the past year is so important.
“Since we’re eventually going to run out of fossil fuels, we need to look at sources of renewable energy, and solar energy is one of the most promising,” she said. “We have a vision of how to store that energy in chemical bonds.”
Hong was presenting her work at the USC Undergraduate Symposium for Scholarly and Creative Work. Modeled on a professional conference poster session, the annual event challenges hundreds of young researchers to describe their studies and field questions from USC professors roaming the room.
One of Hong’s toughest research obstacles was an elusive synthesis that required Hong and her mentor, graduate student Nicholas Orchanian, to set up day-long reactions, only to see them fail time and again.
“It taught me a lot about patience,” Hong said.
“It helped me accept having to do the same thing again and again and keep doing it carefully enough to figure out what was not working.”
After weeks of experimentation, Hong and Orchanian finally succeeded. The work contributed to a peer-reviewed paper published in Applied Energy Materials. Hong is a co-author.
The ongoing research aims to build assemblies of molecules to harvest solar energy and store it in chemical bonds, analogous to how plants capture the sun’s energy through photosynthesis. But where plants turn carbon dioxideinto sugars, the materials developed here convert carbon dioxideto carbon monoxide, a chemical useful for the production of liquid fuels. Success could lead to the creation of fuels in a carbon neutral process that doesn’t release new greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
“I’ve always liked chemistry,” said Hong. “I think it definitely helped me learn how to think critically. I feel I’m learning how to troubleshoot and figure out how I can find solutions and work independently.” Hong hopes to enroll in an M.D./Ph.D. program so she can pursue graduate science studies and medicine. She is one of five chemistry undergraduates to receive a Morrisroe Family Chemistry Undergraduate Research Fellowship this year. The funding augments undergraduate research programs within USC Dornsife.
“The fellowships make it possible for chemistry majors to participate in actual research projects, providing them with experiential tools to apply classroom learning towards tackling real-world problems,” said Peter Qin, professor of chemistry and biological sciences and vice chair for chemistry undergraduate curriculum.
She is only the second doctoral student at USC to achieve this TR 35 distinction before graduating, following Niki Bayat, Ph.D. CHEM ENG ’18. The annual list recognizes outstanding innovators who are younger than 35 and whose technical work promises to shape the coming decades. Bayat was honored in TR 35’s global list in 2018.
Alhanaee’s research focuses on environmental sustainability, energy resources, water, and food security. She is designing a framework to prevent and prepare the Persian Gulf region in the event of a disaster.
“One-third of oil production is in the Gulf and so is half of the world’s desalination,” Alhanaee said. “Now, add nuclear energy to the mix. We have one reactor operating in Iran, four being built in the U.A.E. (United Arab Emirates) and at least two planned in Saudi Arabia. These three industries are heavily reliant upon each other. If disaster occurs in one of these it will impact the other two.”
Alhanaee explained that although these industries are interconnected, they work independently of each other operating under their own rules and standards.
“I cannot do this alone. It requires support from the scientific community in the region and more research backing to say this is important.”
Sharing the same body of water with Iran, Iraq and United Arab Emirates among others, Saudi Arabia, one of the most water-starved nations on earth, relies on desalinated Gulf water to produce about half of the freshwater supply for its 33 million people. It is now building nuclear facilities on its coast and will also use desalinated water to cool them down. With nearly 13 percent of the world’s oil production in Saudi Arabia, if a Deepwater Horizon-like spill were to happen, nearby desalination plants would likely shut down sending ripple effects into the region and the world.
To prevent such a catastrophe, Alhanaee is working to create a linked emergency response plan not just across industries but also across countries, an effort that requires engineering diplomacy – the fusion of engineering, technology and scientific research with foreign policy. She envisions a cross-country governing body that all countries have a seat on and a unified plan in place. Her first step is to model these interdependencies and present them to scientists, engineers, and policymakers in the MENA region.
In recent years, engineering diplomacy has become a key issue at USC Viterbi. In 2018, The U.S. Department of State selected USC — with the USC Viterbi School as the hub — as a partner institution for Diplomacy Lab, a program designed to provide students and faculty with hands-on experience on global policy challenges.
“I cannot do this alone. It requires support from the scientific community in the region and more research backing to say this is important,” Alhanaee said.
She has presented her work internationally, from North America to Europe and the Middle East.
Alhanaee earned her master’s in energy resources engineering from Stanford University and her bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from The Petroleum Institute in her hometown of Abu Dhabi. Prior to her graduate work, she served as a research fellow at NASA in Mountain View, California, where she worked on bringing hands-on space exploration experiences to students and scientists.
At USC Viterbi, Alhanaee is in her final year of completing her Ph.D. under the supervision of Professor Najmedin Meshkati, a leading expert in nuclear safety culture.
“USC Viterbi has become my home away from home and for this, I will always be grateful,” said Alhanaee who also serves as the Viterbi Graduate Student Liaison through the Viterbi Admission and Student Engagement Office.
“I truly believe that Ghena’s unprecedented research topic addresses one of the most important and crucial issues affecting the future of the Persian Gulf and its eight littoral countries with a population of over 160 million people,” said Meshkati. “I am confident that the impact of her research can significantly help to prevent and mitigate the dire consequences of a major disaster in a geopolitically and ecologically sensitive region of the world.”
The TR 35 award bears special significance to Alhanaee as one of the few women in the U.A.E. pursuing a Ph.D.
“I’ve been able to do this thanks to the support of my family, but not everyone has that,” she said. “I have been blessed to have the variety of research experiences and an authentic cultural immersion at USC. Beyond making my family proud, I hope this award encourages more Arab women to travel and to further their education.”
A single movement of NASA’s next Mars rover could require, among other things, the careful dance of six independently motored wheels, a retractable arm containing a laboratory’s worth of tools, a swiveling head supporting multiple cameras and a computer that can pinpoint the rover’s precise location. So this past summer, while other teams and their interns at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory were testing cameras and calibrating science instruments to prepare the rover for its February 2021 debut on Mars, intern Isabel Rayas was making sure all those pieces move seamlessly together. This meant spending a lot of time in the laboratory’s Mars Yard, a sandbox of sorts where engineers put models of the rover through various test drives. For Rayas, a graduate student studying computer science and robotics at the University of Southern California, it was also a window into one potential future career, although, she says, “I’m definitely still exploring.” We chatted with Rayas to learn more about her role on the Mars 2020 mission and what it’s like to drive a rover.
What are you working on at JPL?
I am working on mobility testing for the Mars 2020 rover. It’s taking all of these parts that impact something like mobility – the motion of the rover – and understanding how they work together. We’re testing everything to make sure that all the parts play nicely together and that one of them doesn’t have a bug that’s going to cause a failure in another part of the system.
Are you working on the actual rover that’s going to Mars?
There’s a whole spectrum of testbeds. What you’re testing will dictate which testbed you use. If you’re only trying to test one small part of the rover, you’re not going to bother using the full system. The flight software testbed, where I’m working, has the real flight computer. It has some of the real cameras. It doesn’t have the real motors yet, but we’re working on it. Assembly, Test and Launch Operations, or ATLO, is actually putting together the real thing and doing tests with the real hardware.
Tell me more about your role in the flight software testbed.
There are two main things that I am working on this summer: One of them is getting all the hardware pieces in the flight software testbed that impact the mobility of the rover.
You might think that mobility is just the wheels of the rover, but there are a lot of subsystems and instruments that have an influence on mobility. There is an instrument called RIMFAX that will be used for radar sounding. It will point at the Martian surface to collect readings of what the subterranean surface looks like and what it’s made up of. You wouldn’t necessarily think that has an impact on mobility, but it actually does, because you have to know exactly where you are when you take a radar sounding in order to make any sense of it. You have to be able to tell, “I’ve moved this far, and this is what I’m sounding, and that’s what the ground looks like at this specific spot.” So that’s a piece of hardware that needs to be integrated into a full mobility test. Then there’s the flight computer. There’s a computer just for processing the images from the rover. That’s also not in the testbed yet, so that’s something I’m trying to get delivered so we can run tests with it.
Once we get all these hardware parts into the testbed, we want to run a mobility sequence that tells the motors to move while doing all of these tasks to make sure the system works. So I’m writing the procedure and making sure that all the parts are in the testbed for that.
The second thing I’m working on is in the Mars Yard. While we do test drives around the Mars Yard, we want to know precisely where the rover is located, because we want to be able to know whether or not the autonomous system that tells the rover where it works. So I’m looking at different systems that will help us do those tests.
What is your average day like?
There’s no good answer to that. It changes day by day, which is exciting. This morning, for example, I was in the Mars Yard learning about a position tracking system with someone who was setting it up to do a test. As a systems engineer, you have to go to a lot of meetings, because you have to learn from different teams about what’s going on and go over test procedures. I compile all the information from the meetings, try to understand it and meet with more people to get questions answered. I’m in and out of the office. I’m in the Mars Yard. I’m in the testbed, in the cleanroom – all kinds of stuff.
You mentioned your project deals with systems engineering. What’s the job of a systems engineer?
You do a little of everything. For the rover, you have people designing the wheels, and you have people designing the instruments. Those people have to be experts in that thing and understand exactly how it works and make sure that nothing’s going to break. While those people are experts in a specific part of the system, they can’t be expected to also understand how everything comes together and how that impacts the whole system. So that’s where systems engineers come in. They are not experts in any one of the areas, but they have to understand enough about each of them to know how they impact each other.
Is that what you are studying in school?
No. I just finished my first year of grad school at the University of Southern California, studying computer science and robotics. I got my undergrad in aerospace engineering from MIT, so I have previous experience in aerospace, but I haven’t taken any systems engineering classes. My senior capstone had a systems engineering project, and I got exposure to it there, but we had maybe 100 requirements for our project, and here there are tens of thousands. It’s a little bit of a step up.
What got you into aerospace engineering?
I think this is may be true of most kids, but I really liked looking at the stars and thinking about the planets. I knew from a very young age that I was interested in STEM. I took an astronomy class in high school that I loved, and I thought I wanted to do astrophysics, but when I got to college, I took a physics class and didn’t like it at all. I switched to the closest thing that wasn’t science, which was aerospace engineering.
I also minored in brain and cognitive sciences, because I really couldn’t decide. I took some computer science classes during college as well. So I’ve been kind of all over the place, and I ended up here again.
What made you focus on computer science and robotics for grad school?
My undergrad was in aerospace, but with a concentration in autonomous systems. I’ve always been interested in the robotic applications of aerospace – not necessarily the rocket design, or propulsion, or the aerodynamics or anything like that.
What brought you to JPL for this internship?
I actually interned here two years ago. My friend had interned at JPL the year before, and she was like, “This was awesome. I love it so much.” As an aerospace major, it’s kind of the dream, right? So I ended up coming here two years ago. Now that I’m at USC, it’s so close that I thought I could probably find some way to be here again this summer, doing something new that’s not really related to my program at school.
What’s the most JPL- or NASA-unique experience that you’ve had here?
My first day was right after the Explore JPL event, so thousands of people had come through that weekend to learn about what JPL does and see all the different labs and technology. They had brought the Scarecrow rover, [used to test Mars rover drives], down to the entrance of JPL so people could see it move around. When I got here on Monday, it was my mentor’s job to bring it back to the Mars Yard, which is all the way down the street, up the hill – not close at all. So he was like, “Do you want to move the rover across the Lab?”
We had to pick up the rover with a crane and drive it across lab. People were taking videos of us as we went by. After that, my mentor was like, “Do you want to drive it around the Mars Yard?” So I got to drive it around for a while. That was something that I think is kind of unique.
What do you hope to accomplish during your time here?
I would really like to see this test procedure run. I have high hopes. Ten weeks [at JPL] is such a short amount of time. I think it would be easy to get caught up in a lot of things that are less important and end up having something half-finished. I know from talking to my mentor that a test that includes all of this hardware could be really valuable because it would help the team find bugs before they’re too late to fix. Knowing that’s my responsibility is exciting. It’s a little bit scary but in a good way.
What’s your ultimate goal for your career?
I’m not really sure yet. I’m definitely still exploring. I think internships are a great way to do that, so I’m planning on doing as many as I can in as many different fields as I can. Beyond that, I think my overarching career goal is to keep learning. I don’t know where that will take me.
Wow. That’s tough. I would love to be one of the people who goes to the Moon. I don’t think I would want to go to Mars.
It’s too far. I like Earth a lot. It’s probably my favorite planet. So I wouldn’t want to get too far from home. But I would love to go to space. Going to the Moon would be a nice, happy medium.
Have you ever thought about applying to be an astronaut?
Not seriously. I wanted to be an astronaut for the first couple of years in college. But I thought about it some more and about how much training you have to do, and I didn’t want to dedicate all my time to training. I thought I could use engineering instead to help us get there.
The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of STEM Engagement’s reach, JPL Education seeks to create the next generation of scientists, engineers, technologists and space explorers by supporting educators and bringing the excitement of NASA missions and science to learners of all ages.
Stuart Diffely, a business major and men’s lacrosse player from
Portland, OR, joined the Class of 2023 having already started an emergency
backpack company with fellow USC freshman and roommate McKean Farnell.
Why did you choose USC?
I chose USC because of all of the amazing opportunities within Marshall and the university as a whole. I am excited to immerse myself in top-tier business classes as a freshman and become a member of the Trojan Family. With the Trojan Family being one of the most well-renowned networks in the nation, the offer seemed too good to pass up. And of course, the pristine campus, beautiful weather, and bigtime sports also add to the attractiveness of USC.
What is one thing you brought with you to USC that means the most to you?
The single most important item I brought with me to USC is a StuMac Survival disaster preparedness kit. StuMac Survival is a company that I started in high school with my current roommate. Not only does it have sentimental value for how our business careers started, it also provides us with peace of mind as we know we will be ready if unfortunate circumstances, such as an earthquake, occur.
Shiva is graduating in December of 2019 with a Master’s degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering and a focus on Digital VLSI and Computer Architecture. He is looking forward to working as a Design Engineer in the semiconductor industry.
Two years ago, I was a young electrical engineer from the under-developed Indian state of Odisha working on Radar Projects for a semiconductor company called CoreEL Technologies. This year I was named one of WayUp’s top 100 interns in America. I spent this summer working at Micron Technologies learning to write functional coverage and test vectors for the validation of a specific 3D NAND product. Of all the students here at USC, I, an electrical engineer, was the only representative of our University on that list.
Being from a lower-middle-class family never stopped me from achieving my dreams. My father is a teacher and he has always encouraged me to pursue an academic path. As a kid, I loved science and math. By the time I was in high school, I realized that physics is the exact combination of science and math that I wanted to pursue. Physics then introduced me to the world of electronics and from there, I never looked back.
What got me so involved in my community here? Simply put, my passion for electrical and computer engineering. In my opinion, there’s no better field for turning imagination into reality – all you need is the right training and a little hope.
I completed my undergraduate studies in India where I learned about semiconductors, electronic circuits and their applications in the real world. After college, I worked on radar projects used for Indian defense. I learned to design, test, and debug electronic circuits and systems. Every day we were building circuits, using chips our company outsourced. The more chips I saw, the more I wondered how they were built and what was inside those amazing, tiny little things.
At this point, I had pretty strong circuit-level knowledge, but I wanted to know more about chips. Imagine handling a cutting-edge piece of technology every day that is fundamental to your job, but being untrained on one important aspect of it. I decided to pursue my Master’s in Electrical and Computer Engineering with a focus on Digital VLSI and Computer Architecture at USC Viterbi.
From the moment I stepped on the campus, I knew I had made the right decision. My electrical and computer engineering courses not only contained the latest technology, they also offered real-world projects to reflect what working in industry is like today. This made studying an awesome experience. All of my teachers have helped prepare me for the next stage of my life, but I have to mention one of them by name. Professor Gandhi Puvvada did such a great job of teaching so much relevant material in a surprisingly short amount of time. His dedication to his students is inspiring!
The dedication of my teachers was especially important because my transition to USC was not so smooth. I had to switch from working life back to student life– all in a completely new country and culture. Being on a student loan, I worked an on-campus job as a student lead in SAL Library to earn enough for rent and groceries. These were responsibilities I didn’t have as an undergrad in India. Luckily, at USC there are all kinds of events and resources that helped me relax. I joined the Cromwell Premier League – USC’s intramural cricket club, winning the semi-annual tournament. For a student from India, this was especially cool! I also served as a Senator for ECE in the Viterbi Graduate Student Association and organized various events such as hiking, movie night and bowling for fellow students.
Participation in all these programs taught me a great deal about teamwork, self-confidence, organization, and empathy. These are all important skills any masters student will need in the workforce.
What got me so involved in my community here? Simply put, my passion for electrical and computer engineering. In my opinion, there’s no better field for turning imagination into reality – all you need is the right training and a little hope. I want to help my fellow electrical and computer engineering students see that we should never lose hope because as the quote from The Shawshank Redemption goes: “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies…”
If I could give some advice to future students, it would be this: Dream big, never give up on anything, and try to find your passion. Only then can you enjoy your studies or work. Actively seek out internships and career opportunities – USC is hosting a career fair tomorrow so go check it out!
My involvement with the community at USC Viterbi helped prepare me for the equally important social aspects of working in the industry. At Micron, I was the only intern who joined the Micron Young Professional group where I helped to organize events and Speaker Series. I also participated in several voluntary services like teaching elementary school kids about engineering and food sorting for the underprivileged community with Project WeHope. Micron’s Volleyball and Ping Pong Intramurals were other events I embraced. These may all seem like just fun things to do (and they definitely were fun!) but it was much more than that. Participation in all these programs taught me a great deal about teamwork, self-confidence, organization, and empathy. These are all important skills any masters student will need in the workforce.
Lastly, don’t be shy about trying to find a mentor at USC. There is no shortage of professors here who are eager to support young students. Learn from their experiences, ask questions, and get involved. If you do all these things, electrical and computer engineering will reward you!
USC freshman Jaxon Mullinnix grew up in Lone Tree, Iowa, a town of less than 1,400 people, and spent his entire school career from prekindergarten to high school graduation with the same 30-student class. Jaxon is passionate about solving food insecurity and breaking down the barriers to a nutritious life for all. Jaxon was a 2018 World Food Prize Borlaug-Ruan Intern at EARTH University in Costa Rica where he conducted research on educational methodology. Later, he was one of 161 American high school students to be selected as a United States Presidential Scholar, one of the highest honors the nation can bestow upon a graduating senior. The political science major impressed admissions officers with an essay about his desire to change the world.
Why did you choose USC?
USC encourages students to take an interdisciplinary approach to their education which is something that caught my attention right off the bat. I knew that I’d be pushed by my advisors and professors to seek understanding of the world around me in a way that simply cannot be done with a single concentration. The study abroad opportunities, even the domestic experiences offered, also piqued my interest.
What did you do when you first found out you got into USC?
For most, the college admissions process is stressful, and
for me, it was no different. However, once I found out I’d been accepted to
USC, I was finally able to take a breath. In fact, I took several breaths to
make up for the months prior which left me tired and dull. I was thrilled–
relieved. Perhaps it was the potency of the new oxygen entering my lungs, but I
knew I was one step closer to knowing where I belong.
What are you most excited to learn/do/experience while at USC?
I’m excited to contend with ideas that are unlike my own and broaden my perspective. A match of mental sparring always breathes a little life into me. I am fascinated with ideas and can’t wait to be immersed in a culture with people who are passionate about learning and intellectual exploration.
What is one thing you brought/will bring with you to USC that means the most to you?
On a family vacation in 2014, I walked right up to one of
those shanty stands on a Florida pier, handed an old man fifteen dollars, and
he began etching the phrase “never settle” onto a leather band. As cliché
as this phrase may be, it meant a lot to me when I was thirteen and that holds
today. I wasn’t always one to reach for the stars growing up, but this band
represents the time where I decided that my life must mean something, and I
must cleanse myself of complacency to make that so. The “never
settle” philosophy has driven me to become a better Christian, son,
brother, student, and leader. I’ll bring this band to USC and hope it’ll serve
as a reminder of how far I’ve come and how far I have left to go.
What do you think/hope you’ll be like four years from now?
After USC, I hope I can find an environment that allows me to
fully spread my wings, flex my mental muscles, and push the limits of my creativity.
I hope that I’ll use my skill set and qualities by working to develop solutions
to the technical and intellectual problems of the 21st century.
Regardless, I sincerely hope I’ll be honest with myself about my strengths and weaknesses so I can find a career that benefits others and makes me happy.
College business major and Questbridge scholar Ygor Pereira earned remarkable test scores and excelled academically despite coming from a disadvantaged school system in Mount Vernon, NY. With his two older brothers serving as role models, the track and field team captain used his own challenges as motivation for personal growth and to empower other youth in lower socioeconomic communities, starting a peer mentorship program in his high school.
Why did you choose USC?
When you think of USC, you think of the peak of academic
excellence in the modern world. By placing myself in an environment clearly
built on success, I will be furthering my career opportunities and extending my
reach towards my intellectual potential. USC fosters a community that
passionately instills work ethic and dedication into students while still
encouraging us to enjoy ourselves. That’s exactly the type of environment I’d
like to be in for the next four years, and I look forward to making the
absolute most out of it.
What did you do when you first found out you got into USC?
Up to that point, the college admissions process had truly
beaten me down; I wasn’t getting into schools that I thought were lock-ins and
my self-esteem was at an all-time low. Before opening my USC decision, I even
dreaded the “inevitable” denial that was sure to come. When I realized I had
gotten accepted, I was a complete emotional rollercoaster. I jumped around,
yelled, cried – you name it. I felt that USC actually saw something special in
me and believed I was capable of thriving in their environment. Now, I’m ready
to fight on and prove everyone else wrong!
What are you most excited to learn/do/experience while at USC?
Studying abroad, networking with peers from all over the
planet, and contributing to the culture established by USC alumni are all
examples of how unique and self-blossoming my experience at USC will be – not
to mention living Los Angeles, a city filled to the brim with things to do and
experiences to be made. Knowing that there will be new people to meet and
new stories to hear every single day is exhilarating to me, and I can’t wait to
What is one thing you brought (or will bring) with you to USC that means the most to you?
I’ll be bringing my track & field national championship bag;
some of my proudest moments come from track, and I’m not talking about the
actual track meets. The most gratifying moments of the sport come from
practice: specifically, the days where you have to work especially hard to
overcome yourself. My bag serves as a reminder that I am capable of accomplishing
anything I set my mind to, and it motivates me to hold on to that mindset
What piece of advice about starting college do you think you’ll follow?
Being as open to opportunities as possible! Who knows where these
next four years will take me? I will definitely be leaving my comfort zone both
academically and socially, and I look forward to the personal growth that it
will lead to. Being thrown into a city on the other side of the country can
certainly be scary, but my excitement for all that comes with it easily makes
it all worth it.
What do you think/hope you’ll be like four years from now?
With an entering class-bound to be filled with future politicians, doctors, lawyers, business owners, and teachers, my campus experience will be nothing short of a high-class educational wonderland full of opportunities to expand my mind. By combining contribution to a beneficial support system as well as honest self-reflection, I hope to be contributing to an elite community of scholars willing to do whatever it takes to be the best version of themselves possible, all while paying it forward and giving back to my community one way or another.
Carlos Lao lived in Shanghai his entire life but considers Manila, Philippines, a close second to “home.” The freshman double major in computer science and business administration says wherever he ends up after at USC, he knows it will involve giving back and helping others.
Why did you choose USC?
Among the many reasons to want to join the Trojan Family, I chose USC based on a first impression. Now, this may sound incredibly unreasonable but hear me out. When I first visited, there was a palpable warmth that radiated from the students. They were unapologetically happy to be there and being in their mere presence left me captivated. I know that people shouldn’t make decisions based on face-value judgments, but USC’s a rare case where the book is even better than the cover.
What did you do when you first found out you got into USC?
Since I lived on the other side of the world, I woke up and,
while still in a transient state between consciousness and sleep, checked my
phone to find a notification that my admission decision was ready to be viewed.
Amidst the inevitable stress of senior year, I was definitely not in my best
headspace. However, upon finding out that I had gotten in I, quite literally,
jumped out of my bed and burst into my mom’s room where I proceeded to scream
“I GOT INTO USC!” while jumping up and down like an overexcited fangirl.
Quite inglorious, but nevertheless sincere.
What are you most excited to learn/do/experience while at USC?
While I could easily go on about how excited I am to be studying my major on a deeper level or pursuing my hobbies through USC’s vast array of clubs and organizations, what I am excited for is less what you can do, and more what you can feel. I’ve heard many stories about how “the Trojan Family is real” and the unparalleled sense of camaraderie that is unseen, yet present, among the students and staff at USC. I’m incredibly thrilled to be a Trojan and explore what the “family” really has to offer. I’m excited for the raging school spirit on game days; the competitive yet supportive environment where students push each other excel; and, most of all, the lifelong friendships that I will make.
What is one thing you will bring with you to USC that means the most to you?
I am planning on bringing a small model of a Filipino
Jeepney with me to my dorm. Having grown up in China going to an International
American school, my life has always consisted of a seemingly incoherent amalgam
of cultures. However, thanks to my upbringing, Filipino culture has always
remained the one constant in a sea of variation. Bringing the Jeepney embodies
the home and family that I take with me wherever I go—something to remind me
where I’ve been while I explore new chapters of my life.
What piece of advice about starting college do you think you’ll follow?
Try everything. I’ve never been the type to stick to one interest and be content with staying in the bubble of my comfort, and so this particularly resonated with me. Throughout my life, I’ve always juggled multiple interests, and now I know I don’t have to stop in college. Even though to me, it seemed that the delineation between what we want to do and what we will do seems cut and dried as of the moment we select our major, this could not be further from the truth. College, like any other endeavor in life, is about discovering the breadth of your own capabilities. It’s not as simple as following the yellow brick road or even a matter of choosing between two roads diverged in a yellow wood; our capabilities comprise a jungle that begs to be explored. Now, that’s exactly what I intend on doing.
What do you think/hope you’ll be like four years from now?
It’s difficult for me to see myself doing any one particular thing, much less years from now. Nevertheless, I hope that whatever I do choose to pursue has an impact that stretches far beyond my immediate vicinity. Growing up, I was always taught to give back. It wasn’t a matter of balancing my good karma or expecting something in return, it was simply a natural method of interaction for my family. My mom grew up in a much less fortunate state than I am, and she constantly told me how the things that she does for others are simply an embodiment of the empathy she wishes she was shown more often when she was younger. I distinctly remember how my mom used to sit outside the gate of her disheveled childhood home handing out small bills to the children of her shantytown as Christmas approached. Though I doubt I could ever live up to a modern-day heroine like my mom, the lessons she taught me growing up have shaped my future aspirations. Whether it’s helping one person or one billion people, I hope that whatever I do in the future leaves someone better off at no one’s expense.
I chose USC because I felt I could get the education that efficiently addressed both of my interests. There were many schools that I was interested in that either made it difficult to study both topics, or they would boxed me in to computer science without a proper exploration of other subjects.
I was also attracted to USC because there was this energy I
felt when I stepped on campus. When I started visiting schools during my junior
and senior year, I could tell within the first hour or two if I liked the
school or not, and with USC, it always felt right and comfortable. The students
and faculty I met cared about me and wanted me to be successful, and the
environment fostered what I wanted out of my college career: a place where I
can work hard to attain a good degree while having fun and growing myself as a
When it came to the decision period, it was between USC and Yale. I loved both schools tremendously, but I had to lean towards Yale because they gave me more financial aid. However, I received the Gates Scholarship, and this opened up the opportunity for me to choose USC without the worry of a financial burden.
What did you do when you first found out you got into USC?
I absolutely lost it. I found out in January because I was a
finalist for a merit scholarship, and I immediately started screaming and
running around the house. Then all the emotions hit me, and I started crying.
It wasn’t the first college that had sent back an acceptance letter earlier
than expected, but it felt like a burst of relief to know that one of my top schools
wanted me on their campus.
What are you most excited to learn/do/experience while at the USC campus?
Academically, I’m really excited to learn about the field
I’ve been interested in for so long and discover how I can put all of my many
interests together to find a career that’s best for me.
Socially, I’m excited to be in an environment of people who
all worked hard to get here and want to see themselves and their peers succeed.
Already, I’ve met many Trojans from different backgrounds and with amazing
stories that just encourages me to do better.
(Also, football games of course. Hopefully the football team
makes a comeback season!)
What is one thing you brought (or will bring) with you to USC that means the most to you?
I have these blankets that my mom gave me a few years ago,
and they’re the softest and most comfortable blankets I’ve ever had. My
favorite one is this ivory blanket with dogs in scarves littered all over it.
This may sound really trivial or childish, but they’re really important to me
because my mom passed away back in 2014. It makes me feel closer to her when
I’m using it.
What do you think/hope you’ll be like four years from now?
I hope that I’ve been able to utilize all my resources at USC and am prepared to take on whatever career I’ve chosen. I hope that I’ve grown socially and was able to make authentic relationships with my peers and professors. I hope I’ll be five steps closer to the person I want to become.
Freshman Muhammed Aly is a political science major at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and L.A. native, who volunteers hundreds of hours at a nonprofit that aids domestic violence survivors
Why did you choose USC?
I chose USC because I knew that there isn’t any other school
that can both provide amazing resources to help students learn while also
providing equally amazing opportunities for students to succeed outside of the
classroom. I’ve lived in Los Angeles my whole life and I knew that I wanted to
stay in this city and make the most of all the open doors it provides young and
ambitious students with, and there’s no better school than USC for that.
What did you do when you first found out you got into USC?
The first thing I did was throw away all the UCLA
merchandise we had in the house. Subsequently, my mother and I called my
grandfather, who’s a chicken farmer in Egypt. We called him to tell him the
great news and also to thank him for all the hard work he’s been willing to do
to help my mom when she’s needed it, and for always believing in me.
What are you most excited to learn/do/experience/etc. while at USC?
I’m very excited to represent the Trojan spirit here at USC.
In high school, I always thought it was a waste of time to care or participate
in any of the school events or games, but I want to try it at USC. Growing up
in Los Angeles, the allure of the Trojan culture from the marching band and
football games to cultural events had always captured my interests and I can’t
wait to attend those events.
What is one thing you brought (or will bring) with you to USC that means the most to you?
I will have pictures of my friends on my wall and it’s one
of the most important things to me. My friends and I have always been one big
family and the memories we have had will last a long time and seeing them fly
across the country for college is not going to be easy, and the pictures will
always keep their memories with me.
What piece of advice about starting college do you think you’ll follow?
I was advised to always stay organized and to not let the
media’s representation of college and the excitement of the fun that college
will bring distract me from the fact that college is meant to be a challenge
and I’m supposed to work harder than I ever have before.
What do you think/hope you’ll be like four years from now?
I hope my four years will be filled with exciting and passionate work and experiences. I think that, at USC, I will be able to do all the work that I’ve been dreaming of throughout high school.
McKean Farnell, an incoming business major at the USC Marshall School of Business from Portland OR, joins the Class of 2023 having already started a company with fellow USC freshman, Stuart Diffely, making emergency backpacks for the impending “Big One” throughout the west coast.
What did you do when you first found out you got into USC?
USC began updating student portals at the beginning of my spring break. My family decided we would go on a week-long cruise on which there would be no service. Impeccable timing, really. The ship began pulling away from port when a close friend of mine sent in a group chat that he had gotten into USC. As my cellular data waned, I grabbed my phone, found the nearest chair, and scrambled on to USC’s application website.
Of course, my password was saved only on my computer. I
watched as two cellular bars faded to one. We were about a mile off
coast now. I had to use the backdoor and reset my password with a
temporary pin. With this done, I had finally made it inside the portal. My
thumb trembled as I clicked the “there has been an update to
your application” button.
I had only read the letters “congr” before
collapsing from the tremendous emotional pressure I had placed on myself the
past several months, all of which had mounted in those last awfully suspenseful
moments. I used the last of my cellular service to make a call to my parents
who were elsewhere on the ship. I was for the first time in my life speechless,
and I couldn’t get much out to my parents besides sobs with the occasional
“I” and “SC”.
My parents, hearing me emotional like this for the first time, were halfway to the hospital onboard because they legitimately thought one of my little sisters had fallen overboard into the “SC”. I finally mustered the sentence “I got into USC” which prompted both a physical and emotional 180-degree turn from the parents. Soon, the whole family greeted me on deck 8. The scene was electric: hugs and congratulations were exchanged with smiles bigger than I had ever seen. As the adrenaline wore off and the scene slowed down, I sat back in that near chair, turned my cellular data off, and smiled at the sunset. It was the best day of my life.
Brandon Whipple moved from the reservation in Rosebud, South Dakota to Los Angeles to join USC’s School of Dramatic Arts class of 2023 as a theater major.
Why did you choose the USC School of Dramatic Arts?
I am passionate about film work and in high school, I started a two-year film series titled “FIA” which really helped me get involved and gave me a voice in my community. A voice I hope to once again acquire at USC.
What did you do when you first found out you got into the USC School of Dramatic Arts?
I had just woken up from a nap, I checked my phone and saw I
had an email from the Admissions Office. Having recently gotten rejected from
other schools, I wasn’t too hopeful. I opened the email and saw the “This
year’s applicants was the best we’ve ever seen.” So, I immediately
thought, “It’s over.” I reluctantly clicked on the View Admissions
Decision button. The page loaded and I barely read the phrase
“Congra…” and I lost it! I started tearing up, I ran and got my
parents and showed them. I texted one of my teachers who really helped me with
the application process. It was one of the coolest moments of my life.
What are you most excited to learn/do/experience/etc. while at USC?
I grew up in a very small town, so I am very excited to
begin living in the great city of L.A. I am excited to explore all of the
opportunities that USC and L.A. have to offer and to make new and incredible
What is one thing you brought (or will bring) with you to USC that means the most to you?
I had (or have, I guess) an amazing group of friends in high
school. We have had numerous crazy experiences and memories together. So, I am
taking a framed picture that we all took at our prom this past year. They
all mean a lot to me, and this way it’ll feel like they are there with me.
What piece of advice about starting college do you think you’ll follow?
Well, the first piece of advice I got was to never have
morning classes. Well, after orientation, that advice didn’t stick. But the
other piece of advice I got was to make time for myself. Time to unload and
relax and to not stress for a bit. So, I definitely plan to take time for
myself either on weekends or after classes to either go workout, play video
games, or just eat. Whatever I’m feeling really.
What do you think/hope you’ll be like four years from now?
Four years from now I hope to have so much more experience in Theater. I hope to have friendships that will last the rest of my life. And I hope my life will then have a “somewhat” clear path as to where I am going. Like right now, I’m just kind of winging it.
When their mother died several years ago, these four siblings found strength and family in their friends and neighbors. They all start a new chapter this fall as USC students.
You can’t choose your family, or so the saying goes. The Shutes beg to differ.
The four teenagers — triplets Ireland, Kala and Smith and their older brother Cole — built their own family from the friends and neighbors around them. They had little choice.
Their mom, a single parent, had to work 80 hours a week to provide for them, so they supported each other. By age 7 or 8, they were getting ready on their own each morning and walked to school together. Then cancer robbed them of their mother two years ago.
The teenagers again found comfort in each other, and in their Southern California community of La Cañada Flintridge. Neighbors contributed thousands of dollars to help cover their daily expenses. When circumstances threatened to force the siblings to move away from the only place they’d ever known, a local family took them in, providing not just a roof over their head but also the warmth and understanding they needed to chart a new path forward.
So when it was time for them to head off to college, it made sense that they would stick together — and turn to a university known for its sense of family.
“We were raised on the notion that your friends and the people around you can be as close as family,” Smith said. “We get to keep that same mentality with the Trojan Family. We won’t have to deviate too much from what we know.”
A devoted single mom builds a special family
From the very start, the Shutes had a different understanding of family than the traditional definition. Their mother, Robin Shute, always wanted kids but discovered out she couldn’t conceive. So she found another way, using her sister’s donated eggs to carry and give birth to Cole, then the triplets a year and a half later. She separated from the children’s biological father not long after they were born.
To support her young family, Robin toiled tirelessly as a physician assistant at Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center, working alongside trauma surgeons in the busy emergency department. After long hours at the hospital every workday, she dedicated herself to her children. She attended school plays, gymnastics competitions and football games, often still dressed in her standard-issue blue scrubs.
“I feel like I got everything I could need and more from her,” Ireland said. “She taught us to be independent and hardworking.”
She was so devoted to taking care of others, she often disregarded her own needs, Smith said. “For me, she was the pinnacle of a human being,” he said. “She was so selfless and just wanted us to be happy.”
USC foursome learned self-reliance early in life
Life wasn’t always easy in those early years. The Shutes rarely had time or money for a family vacation. If the siblings wanted to play a sport, it was up to them to get to practice. They grew intimately familiar with the local bus schedule, using their school IDs to catch free rides around town.
They look back now with fondness at the moments they shared. Like the time they built a fort between the boys’ beds the first time they stayed home alone while Mom worked a night shift at the hospital. Or their Sunday treks to the donut shop, where Cole bought all the croissants and then ate only the soft centers, leaving the crispy shells for the girls to finish off.
Robin’s hard work eventually paid dividends, and they moved into a new house. The kids were doing well in school and had lots of friends. Everything seemed to be moving in the right direction.
Then two years ago, on the Fourth of July, Robin fell and hit her head. She had struggled with anemia for years, so the kids were used to her feeling dizzy and needing blood transfusions. But a few days went by and she remained in the hospital. Then a few more passed.
“This time, she was staying longer,” Cole said. “At first, I didn’t think too much of it, but as the days went on, I started to get worried. I knew something was definitely wrong.”
A sudden loss leaves young family reeling
When their relatives showed up unexpectedly, reality set in. Mom wasn’t coming home. Their extended family members gently let the siblings know that she had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer. She had known for years but hid it from everyone.
“She kept it a secret to protect us,” Kala said.
Smith added: “She was annoyingly stubborn. But above all, she wanted us to live a normal life without worrying about her.”
In a few weeks, she was gone. The triplets were 15 and about to start their junior year at La Cañada High School. Cole would be a senior.
Community support brings hope to grateful teens
In the darkness of that moment, the tight bonds they had created in their community proved to be their salvation. An online fundraiser and other events collected $40,000 within days. A family friend opened her doors to all four siblings until they could figure out the next step.
“The outpouring of support was incredible,” Ireland said.
Even with all that help, it soon became apparent that staying in their hometown wasn’t a viable option. They would have to leave for Nevada to live with a relative. And it happened fast: They had three days to get ready for the move.
Cole remembers sitting in his room, feeling lost. Then his phone buzzed with a message from a number he didn’t recognize.
“Hey, you’re not going anywhere,” the text read.
It was from Joe and Christine Lee. Their son, Trevor, was a close friend of Smith’s and had known the triplets since elementary school. The couple had met the Shute kids at various gatherings, like the Lees’ big annual Super Bowl party.
As they saw the tragedy unfolding before them, the Lees felt they had to act.
“How do you rip away four kids with great grades, these good kids?” Joe Lee said. “How do you take their mother away and send them off to Reno to a completely different lifestyle? Our initial thought was that they need somewhere to live, and we were willing to fill that gap.”
Christine Lee elaborated: “We knew how much the kids did not want to leave La Cañada. They felt like the community was their family. That pushed us even more to do something for them.”
Siblings put down new roots in familiar soil
With that decision, the Lees doubled the size of their household. Their daughter Lauren had left home to study at USC, but adding four more people to their home was still a tight squeeze.
“They are great kids; they’ve melded really well with our family and everything is going well,” Joe Lee said. “We’ve created a new type of family we never thought we’d have. But it was the best solution for them to move in with us. That’s where the adoption came in.”
The Lees had established guardianship of the Shute siblings, but they wanted to make it official. Things moved quickly from there. Kala described trips to the courthouse in downtown Los Angeles to take care of paperwork, followed by tacos at Guisados.
It meant the foursome could breathe a sigh of relief, assured they would finish their high school years with their lifelong friends.
“It leaves you at a loss for words,” Cole said. “You don’t know what to say. Even now, I don’t know what to say. I do know I’d definitely take a bullet for any of the Lees and a lot of the friends I’ve grown up with.”
Merging with the Lee clan also meant they would be steeped in USC traditions and lore.
The Lees are big-time Trojan fans, and they soon had the Shutes onboard after tailgating on the University Park Campus and catching football games at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
“We saw the spirit and the Trojan Family dynamic,” Ireland said. “It totally hooked us.”
Trojan ties grow stronger as foursome forges ahead
Looking back, the siblings can point out numerous other connections to USC. Their mom studied at the university, earning her degree in physician assistant practice from the Keck School of Medicine of USC in 1997 before going to work at the LAC+USC Medical Center.
It’s also no big secret that the La Cañada High School football team is modeled on the Trojans, Kala said, complete with cardinal and gold jerseys (just ignore the fact that they claim Sparta). She got a firsthand taste of the spirit as a cheerleader for three years, and Ireland also joined the squad. Then as a senior, Kala suited up in a No. 5 jersey as a backup kicker for the football team, fulfilling a longtime dream.
It led to some poignant moments, like on senior night when parents walk the graduating players out to cheers from the crowd. Kala called on Ireland and Smith, and the trio stepped onto the field arm-in-arm.
“Everybody in the stands was like, ‘That is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen!’” Kala said.
When it came time to send in applications for college, the triplets made sure USC was at the top of the list. They had done well in school and participated in extracurricular activities, but they were realistic. Many other friends and classmates applied, and they figured the competition would be stiff.
“For LC kids, it’s like USC or die,” Kala said, using shorthand for La Cañada. “Everyone wants to go there.”
An admissions day scare ends in joy
On the day admissions letters were due to arrive, Kala’s heart pounded as she headed to the mailbox. Only two thick packets waited. They were addressed to the girls.
“It didn’t make any sense,” she said. “If anyone was going to get into USC, it would be Smith.”
On a hunch, she returned to the mailbox 30 minutes later. Another packet greeted her. She thinks the postal worker must have missed it or returned later because it didn’t fit.
A month later, Cole was accepted to USC as a transfer from Pasadena Community College.
The decision to enroll together was easy, especially with the added influence of the Lees.
“Joe may or may not have brainwashed us a little bit,” Smith said.
Joe Lee has been a Trojan fan since childhood, and he envisions earning his PhD at USC in the near future. And it also helped that Christine Lee works in the anesthesiology department at the Keck School of Medicine, ensuring the kids would receive tuition assistance.
Lauren studies business administration at the USC Marshall School of Business, where she is a senior this year. And Trevor hopes to transfer from Pasadena Community College after a year, following the same path as both Lauren and Cole.
“We didn’t coerce them,” Joe Lee insists. “We didn’t say, ‘You all have to apply to USC.’ We left it open, but USC was always a target.”
Family honors the past while looking forward
Their mother’s influence is apparent in the fields of study the Shutes are pursuing. Smith is majoring in human biology, on a pre-med track. Cole is also interested in becoming a doctor or a physician assistant like his mom, and he followed doctors at LAC+USC Medical Center for several days this summer to understand their work.
Ireland enrolled as a psychology major, wanting to help people and give back to society. Kala plans to take an array of classes as a freshman to find her passion.
Robin Shute continued her selflessness in death, donating her body to help train new doctors at the Keck School of Medicine. The siblings recently attended a ceremony to recognize and celebrate donors like their mom.
Before she passed away, Robin told her kids to follow a Shute family tradition and forgo the funeral. Instead, she said, they should don brightly colored clothes and gather for an uplifting celebration.
“She knew mourning was inevitable, but she didn’t want us to be sad,” Ireland said. “She wanted us to celebrate her life first.”
On their mom’s birthday last year, the Shutes came together with several dozen of their friends. They wrote notes to Robin and tied them to balloons.
“We drove up Angeles Crest Highway, about 30 of us, just blasting music,” Kala said. “We let off all these colorful balloons. That was such a cool thing.”
New chapter begins at USC for incoming students
Honoring that part of their past will always be a priority for the Shutes. But they are creating new traditions with their new family. They are learning more about their adoptive parents, who have Chinese and Japanese backgrounds, and they enjoyed a family vacation to China last year and relaxed in Hawaii before classes started this fall.
The Shutes are eager to start their college experience at USC. They plan to get together for meals regularly, and of course, they’ll be at all the Trojan football games. Their excitement and optimism are gratifying for the family that took them in during their time of need.
“We just wanted to turn a big negative into a big positive,” Joe Lee said. “We want them to enjoy life, to look back and be thankful for their mom and everything she did, and to be able to say, ‘Mom, everything worked out.’”
As an undergraduate, the Pasadena native threw the javelin for USC Track & Field and was team co-captain when his passion for occupational therapy was ignited, thanks to Assistant Clinical Professor Kate Crowley.
“She inspired me to earn a minor in occupational science, to become an advocate for persons living with disabilities and, ultimately, to teach,” Lopez said. “It’s been an amazing journey.”
Mentorship from Crowley has continued into Lopez’s time in the USC Chan master’s degree in occupational therapy program, where during the spring he served as a teaching assistant in that same undergraduate course in which he was once a student.
Using occupational therapy to help people with disabilities
Although he received his degree at USC’s 2018 commencement ceremony Friday, Lopez will be staying at USC Chan for its clinical occupational therapy doctorate program and is already looking ahead to the fall semester, when he will be a doctorate resident working at Los Angeles City College. There, he will provide clinical services to student populations, and he plans to create an “Intro to O.T.” course available to all the college’s students.
Now that he feels equipped to make a positive difference in peoples’ lives through occupational therapy, Lopez is quick to express his gratitude. Given his ambitions, the advice he offers to incoming students is no surprise.
“Take time to get to know the teachers in the program,” he said. “We have this amazing opportunity to benefit from expertise and experience that extends far beyond the classroom.”
Transfer student Margarita Lopez home-schooled eight kids; now, at 58, she sets her sights on a psychology degree.
Transfer student Margarita Lopez is in her son Emilio’s room, getting him ready for the day. Emilio, 22, has cerebral palsy.
She turns on the Channel 5 news, his favorite, and gets him dressed before using a lift to hoist him from the bed into his wheelchair. She buckles him in and will wheel him into the kitchen for breakfast.
“It’s like one of those pit stops at a race,” she said. “You just do it fast.”
Lopez, 58, moves fast because she has to leave for school in a bit. It’s her first-semester studying psychology at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences as a junior. Lopez transferred from Santa Monica College, where she earned her associate’s degree in the spring. If it weren’t for her kids, she would be the first in her family to go to college.
USC ranks No. 1 in the country for transfer students among private universities, according to the Association of American Universities. With roughly 1,450 such students, USC has almost the same number as all eight Ivy League universities combined.
“I can’t believe I’ve done what I’ve done,” said Lopez, a Hawthorne resident. “It’s surreal.”
Education was always a priority in the Lopez household. Even though she didn’t finish high school, she home-schooled her eight children for the bulk of their childhoods, later doing whatever she could to get them into elite private and public high schools — including volunteering at their schools — between a job at Michael’s and cleaning homes. Many went on to four-year universities, including the University of California, San Diego and the University of California, Berkeley.
But now, for probably the first time in Lopez’s life, she’s doing something just for her.
Transfer student Margarita Lopez’s inspiration
It started five years ago when her daughter Emma asked to get a driver’s license and informed Lopez she was enrolling at a community college.
At the time, Lopez was reeling from the death of her daughter Milanca. Milanca, who was a high school valedictorian and had a child at 16, went on to graduate from UC Berkeley. She was about to start graduate school at UCLA when she and her 6-year-old son were killed in a car accident. Milanca had encouraged her mom to chase her dream of higher education.
“I found a message on Facebook. She said, ‘It’s your turn,’” Lopez said. “I never responded to her. It made me so sad. Here she was, encouraging me.”
That day, when Emma was pushing her, Lopez felt like it was time to see it through.
“I felt it was my daughter [Milanca] urging me on,” she said. “That it was my turn. That I could do this.”
But being in college later in life is a little scary, she said.
“School overwhelms me because I always think I can’t handle it, but I always seem to be able to do it,” she said.
As a kid, she loved school. But due to traumatic experiences growing up, she started to act out in high school, drinking and ditching class. When senior year rolled around, she didn’t have the credits to get her diploma. Soon after, at age 20, she’d get married to her husband Medardo.
A love of the classics
“I taught my children a love of learning,” she said. “I did homeschooling. I learned with them.”
She loved reading, obsessed with classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird, The Count of Monte Cristo and Anna Karenina.
While at Santa Monica College, she found herself doing things she had never done before, like reading poetry aloud at a Westside bar and getting her creative writing published.
“If I never did anything after that,” she said of Santa Monica College, “I would be happy.”
But she ended up applying to transfer. She not only got into USC as a transfer student, which gave her a partial scholarship, but also Columbia University, UCLA and UC Berkeley. She wants to be a counselor for young people from marginalized communities and is considering a master’s degree.
“This is a dream,” she said of going to USC.
When her first kids graduated from college, she made T-shirts and themed leis for them. She remembers when she graduated in the spring from Santa Monica College and looked out into the crowd for her family.
“Everyone showed up at my graduation and they had T-shirts,” she said. “I see ‘Margarita [on the front] and they turn around and it said ‘badass’ on the back. I was laughing so hard.”
They stacked her neck with leis — made from candy, money, and flowers — so high that she could barely see.
She knows, in a couple of years, her family will be there to root her on again. It’s her turn.
Nikki and Shaliz Aflatooni immersed themselves in volunteer opportunities as undergrads — their way of giving back after receiving merit scholarships.
Many college students have to take part-time jobs to help cover tuition and living expenses, a fact not lost on USC undergrads Nikki and Shaliz Aflatooni. The sisters feel blessed to have avoided that burden thanks to financial support like merit-based scholarships from Town & Gown of USC — funding that has inspired them to volunteer and help others while they study at USC.
An aspiring dentist, Nikki Aflatooni has traveled to Central America with other USC students to provide dental care in underserved areas. The senior also teaches classes in neighborhood schools through the Joint Educational Project at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, giving her a chance to share oral hygiene and health care tips with local students.
In high school, Shaliz Aflatooni volunteered at a summer day camp and wrote a children’s book that she read aloud to kids waiting for care at a pediatric clinic. Although she is just getting started at USC as a freshman, she has already signed up to dazzle local kids with science experiments as part of a STEM outreach program in elementary schools around USC.
“I’ve created so many great memories here, and I know Shaliz will, too,” Nikki Aflatooni said. “Having these scholarships has helped us be able to focus on our academics and volunteer involvement. And we’ll definitely want to come back and stay involved after we graduate.”
Emphasis on helping others started in childhood
The Aflatoonis grew up in Irvine, where both of their parents work as engineers. Their parents consistently stressed community service and encouraged the girls to dedicate their free time to worthy causes.
Making a difference
Over three weeks, USC News looks at Town & Gown of USC and how the philanthropic organization is changing the lives of some fascinating Trojans:
The university’s oldest women’s philanthropic support group awards 150 merit-based scholarships to Trojans each year and boasts an endowment in excess of $44 million.
First-generation USC student Saianna Smith, a graduate of the university’s Leslie and William McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative, models herself after those who helped her succeed.
Once a foster youth himself, Demontea Thompson earned his master’s degree at the USC Rossier School of Education and now advocates for foster kids.
“Irvine can feel like a bubble — it’s known as one of the safest cities in America,” Nikki Aflatooni said. “Our parents always wanted us to get exposed to other experiences outside of that bubble, so we started volunteering.”
She wanted to continue that trend when she enrolled at USC in 2015 as a health and human sciences major at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. She was worried she might have to work part-time to afford tuition, but she was fortunate to receive the Presidential Scholarship and additional support from alumni groups.
A high school counselor also told her about the early deadline for Town & Gown’s scholarship application. As the oldest support group and women’s organization on campus, the nonprofit has provided millions of dollars in scholarships for Southern California residents to attend USC. She applied and received funding that freed her up to pursue volunteer activities.
Volunteer opportunities take Trojan south of the border
That extra time allowed her to become president of USC’s chapter of Global Dental Brigades. The group has visited areas with limited access to dental care in Nicaragua, Panama and beyond, providing basic dental procedures and promoting good oral health.
During her most recent trip to Honduras in August, Nikki Aflatooni helped set up a clinic in a one-room schoolhouse and screened kids for gingivitis, cavities and other oral health issues. Five Honduran dentists saw local patients throughout the day and into the evening, wearing headlamps to continue their work. They treated many children seeking to have teeth extracted due to minor issues.
“Here, if we saw the same problems, we would just get fillings,” she said. “There, they don’t have the tools and capacity to maintain their teeth, so they just want them pulled.”
She hopes the group’s ongoing efforts start to change that mentality, encouraging more preventive care and regular cleanings. She shares that same message at local schools around USC. During a recent visit to 32nd Street/USC Visual and Performing Arts Magnet to discuss oral hygiene, anatomy, and nutrition with kids, she was surprised to see some of the same challenges and poor practices she witnessed abroad.
“Some kids don’t even own their own toothbrush,” Nikki Aflatooni said. “They share a toothbrush with their siblings or they drink fruit juice right before bed.”
Those experiences helped solidify her interest in dentistry, and she plans to attend dental school next year.
Welcoming atmosphere draws siblings to USC
When it came time for Shaliz Aflatooni to apply to colleges, USC was at the top of her list. She had fallen in love with the campus atmosphere during trips to visit her sister.
“There’s just something about USC that draws you in.”
“There’s just something about USC that draws you in,” Nikki Aflatooni explained. “You feel comfortable here. I toured the campus three times before I applied because I kept wanting to come back and see it again.”
Thanks to her sister’s insider knowledge, Shaliz applied for the Town & Gown scholarship early and received the same support to help cover tuition. She also received the Dean’s Scholarship from USC Dornsife. The merit-based aid tipped the balance in favor of USC.
“When that scholarship email came through, it sealed the deal,” she said. “It was definitely a big factor in my decision.”
Town & Gown support helps sisters make USC connections
In addition to providing scholarships, Town & Gown holds a lunch every month for scholarship recipients and donors. The luncheons encourage networking and enable students to share a meal with the donors who helped them. That’s how Nikki Aflatooni found out that several people who supported her scholarship are in the dental profession — one is an orthodontist and another is a faculty member at the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC.
“I’m so thankful for them and always try to express my gratitude. I also want to keep in contact with them after I graduate, to let them know what path I’m on and how I’m doing in dental school,” she said.
The monthly luncheons are also helping Shaliz Aflatooni make connections. She spotted several familiar faces from her dorm and made new friends during the first event of the semester. When she’s not studying for her degree in human biology, she plans to explore volunteer opportunities through Town & Gown, such as the USC Day of SCervice.
“I’m hoping to become a pediatrician, so a lot of my volunteer activities revolve around spending time with kids,” she said.
Passion for helping children inspires community service efforts
USC student Shaliz Aflatooni wrote and illustrated a children’s book in high school. (Illustration/Courtesy of Shaliz Aflatooni)
Last year, Shaliz Aflatooni wrote a motivational book for children called Believe You Can Do It! The main character is a girl who feels shy about performing in a talent show. Then she meets a blue jay who helps her build self-esteem and conquer her stage fright.
Shaliz not only wrote the text and created illustrations, but she also scanned, printed and bound the book and self-published it on Amazon.com. “I’m not the best artist, but the process was fun,” she said.
During trips to a local pediatric waiting room, she read the book aloud to children to help them feel more comfortable and less worried about seeing the doctor. She also handed out copies for them to take home.
Now that she’s at USC, Shaliz Aflatooni is following the example set by her sister by getting involved in other service opportunities. The science outreach program she has already joined feels like a great fit, combining her interests in science and working with kids. She is also a member of the Red Cross and Alpha Epsilon Delta, a pre-health honors society.
“I definitely want to continue volunteering here,” she said. “Because I have these scholarships, I feel like it will be my way of giving back.”
Salutatorian Diviya Gupta wants to make medicine more accessible.
Salutatorian Diviya Gupta became interested in medicine when her grandfather was diagnosed with an unfamiliar disease. With graduation right around the corner, she is looking forward to bringing her skills as a physician to underrepresented areas.
A couple of years ago, Diviya Gupta remembers going for a walk with her grandfather. They were at a park near his house in Los Alamitos when she started to notice something was off with his gait.
“The way he was walking was very rigid,” she said. Her grandfather, who she calls “Baba” in Hindi, was around 80 years old at the time.
A few years in at USC, Gupta had begun studying Parkinson’s disease and specifically looking at how motor coordination like gait was impacted. She got him to schedule an appointment right away.
It turned out he had normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH), a buildup of fluid in the brain’s ventricles. Unfamiliar with the disease, Gupta got curious — finding whatever she could online about shunts.
But “I wasn’t getting the information I wanted,” she said.
When her grandfather was out of surgery, she decided to reach out to his neurosurgeon, Jefferson Chen. Next thing she knew, she was standing in scrubs next to him as he performed a shunt on a man by burrowing a hole behind his ear into his brain. She’s been shadowing him ever since.
What prompted this USC salutatorian to pursue medicine
Getting the opportunity to understand her grandfather’s condition and the treatments available made her want to be a physician. It also showed her the importance of connecting to patients and their families — arming them with the information and knowledge to make decisions and understand their ramifications.
Gupta, one of USC’s 2019 salutatorians, always wanted to help people. That was core to her interest in medicine, first inspiring her curiosity in high school. During her summers, starting when she was 15, she would go to L.A. from Huntington Beach a few times a week to study alongside a UCLA neuropathologist. The research looked at how Latinos responded to a common malignant brain tumor called a glioblastoma.
“He would take me to the autopsies and show me the brain with the medical students and dissect them in front of me,” she said.
She continued that work at USC while adding on additional research, working with Khalil Iskarous, associate professor of linguistics, and Andrew Gracey, associate professor of biological sciences. Gracey is currently investigating worms with malfunctioning dopamine for hints into Parkinson’s disease. Those with the disease are lacking dopamine, affecting motor movement. They look at the worm because it’s engineered similarly to the human tongue.
USC 2019 salutatorian extends her medical boundaries
But helping others goes beyond the operating room. She knows that, when a crisis hits, often emergency personnel or first responders aren’t there. Volunteering with the Red Cross, she enjoyed teaching her peers CPR. She went on to bring CPR training to South L.A. middle schools, where she’s trained, 1,200 students.
“When I came in, I didn’t really know why I wanted to be a physician. I just knew I wanted to help people.”
When talking about this community work, Gupta often brings up the phrase “effective bystander.” This idea of being useful when crisis hits doesn’t just apply to CPR. While in the Undergraduate Student Government Senate, she created an effective bystander program to train campus organizations to combat sexual assault and misconduct. Her work with USC Student Health has led to two pilot programs with about 40 students — teaching students preventive and supportive actions.
Gupta, who plans to attend medical school in the fall, wants to continue working with underrepresented populations and making medicine accessible.
“When I came in, I didn’t really know why I wanted to be a physician. I just knew I wanted to help people,” she said. “I think USC taught me how important social responsibility is in the medical profession.”
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 envisio