Trojans share their commitment to being ‘All Out With Pride’

Mason Morris, a member of the Trojan men’s swimming and diving team, helped kick off USC’s Pride Month activities on Thursday by sharing why he is proud to belong to the LGBTQ+ community and is determined to stand up against the current wave of legislative attacks against it.

Pride logo“This community’s bravery, courage and ability to champion everyone’s differences give me beautiful optimism about our human potential,” he said. “And it fuels the burning rage I have against anyone who threatens it.”

Morris joined USC President Carol L. Folt, fellow students, staff and alumni on Monday for a virtual event that explored the theme “All Out With Pride.” Nearly all of the speakers mentioned that LGBTQ+ Pride Month is taking place this year at a time when an unprecedented wave of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation is being considered or passed in various states.

Folt lamented the “terrible record number” of these bills and pointed out that “even drag queens are under attack for reading storybooks to schoolchildren.”

She affirmed USC’s continued commitment to the LGBTQ+ community and to basic human rights for all.

“It’s a part of our special mission, and it is unwavering,” Folt said. “While we celebrate our march forward — and we should celebrate that — we also must continue to remain vigilant and keep up the fight.”

Pride Month at USC: A call to action

Morris, an international relations major in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, issued a call to action to all LGBTQ+ people and their allies to educate themselves on and fight against the more than 400 bills proposed this year aimed at limiting LGBTQ+ rights. Largely raised by Republican lawmakers, nearly half of them target transgender and nonbinary people, with some including efforts to outlaw gender-affirming care for minors.

“Everyone with a bone of humanity in their body needs to be all out with pride, not just queer people,” Morris said. “The fight for the LGBTQ+ community is long from over.”

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Megan van der Toorn, student equity and inclusion programs manager for USC’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer Plus Student Center, also spoke out against legislation such as anti-trans bathroom bills, anti-drag laws and, in Florida, the prohibition of discussion about sexual orientation and gender identity throughout primary and secondary grade levels.

“We are here to boldly say that we will not be erased,” she said. “We will continue to live authentically with pride.”

Steps forward and backward

USC Lambda LGBTQ+ Alumni Association President Erika Hartman pointed out that the community’s rights have been moving forward “incrementally” since the alumni group was founded in 1992. Hartman said the current legislative attacks “made for a very painful time in our history.”

Rather than be daunted, Hartman told her fellow Trojans that this is a time for building community and increased visibility.

“We are not going to let anyone steal our joy — not now and not ever,” she said. “We are here letting our community know you are seen, you are valued, you are celebrated, and there will always be a place of safety and belonging for you in the Trojan Family.”

Hartman, who earned a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from the USC Rossier School of Education in 2009, said she felt encouraged when she saw rainbow pride flags along Trousdale Parkway while on the University Park Campus.

“USC had let us know that our identity was affirmed and that we belonged,” she said. “The more we have amplified our visibility and the more we have created a safe space, the more our students and alums have courageously identified themselves and our community has grown.”

Pride Month at USC: LGBTQ+ visibility grows at the university

In her remarks, Folt paid tribute to the USC Lambda LGBTQ+ Alumni Association, which celebrated its 30th anniversary this year at a gala at the Grammy Museum.

“LGBTQ+ visibility continues to be important to us and to grow across our campuses,” she said. “This was not always the way. We had to rely on trailblazers to bring us to where we are now.”

Folt also put a spotlight on Alexandra Billings, who this year became the USC School of Dramatic Arts’ first transgender professor to achieve tenure; openly gay USC alum Robert Garcia, who was sworn in this year as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives; USC alum Michael Ausiello, whose memoir Spoiler Alert was made into a major motion picture released in theaters last December; and Keck Medicine of USC’s innovative Gender-Affirming Care Program.

Journey to the authentic self

Morris shared that the quality he loves most about so many LGBTQ+ people is that they often achieve a higher level of “consciousness” and “enlightenment” as they seek to live an authentic life.

“Each individual embraces the world and exposes it to the rawness of their true character, regardless of the resistance that it may face,” he said.

Another speaker, Sarah Hong, agreed.

“Queerness is about being authentic and embracing yourself,” said Hong, assistant director of data and metrics in the Health Promotion Strategy office at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “This Pride Month — and every month — I hope you are able to surround yourself with friends and community members who support you and help you become your authentic self.”

A full list of USC Pride Month events can be found on the university’s event calendar.

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Trojan trailblazer works to make women, LGBTQ+ students feel ‘safe and comfortable’ at veterans center

Editor’s note: Title IX — the landmark legislation that prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding — was signed into law on June 23, 1972. In recognition of this anniversary, we’ll be profiling Trojan Title IX trailblazers throughout the year.

As the USC Veterans Resource Center‘s first full-time supervisor, Janine Williams is very intentional about creating programming and community for a variety of individuals in the service, particularly women and gender-expansive students.

“I want a space where women vets can meet others in our community and be involved on campus in a way that makes them feel safe and comfortable,” Williams said.

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Williams joined the U.S. Army at 17 and was deployed to Iraq at 18 years old. As a queer woman serving in the military under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, it was difficult for Williams to make friends and trust others.

When she arrived at her first duty station out of basic training, she was in transitional housing with a woman who was being dishonorably discharged for marrying another woman while on leave. This was her first interaction with another soldier, and it solidified for Williams that she could not share her own identity with others.

“Serving overseas, you’re in this bubble where everyone knows everything about each other,” she said, which made it very challenging to keep her personal life a secret and had a negative impact on her mental health.

Because of this, Williams has become a major advocate for mental health and well-being among the students she works with, particularly LGBTQ+ folks. Despite the armed forces being the biggest employer of transgender folks in the United States, there is still a stigma against being transgender or nonbinary in the military.

“I know so many people have had harmful experiences like mine,” Williams said. “I hope by talking openly about my experience, how it changed who I was and how I hold myself in certain spaces, will encourage others to get connected to counseling and mental health services.”

Working at the USC Veterans Resource Center — her first job in higher education — Williams said she has noticed the effect of policies like Title IX on her work. “It creates a support system for students, but it also provides protections for me too. Being able to explore my gender identity without fear of being othered or fear for my job allows me to focus on the work I’m doing for our student populations,” Williams said. She recognizes that Title IX has created the foundation for people to grow and be protected within the university. It has allowed her to share her experiences with students and be someone to whom they can relate.

These experiences also help Williams in developing programming for women veterans and cadets. Williams has noticed that most female-identified veterans and cadets come to the USC Veterans Resource Center not realizing there are other female-identified veterans on campus. Williams helps build those bridges with them at whatever stage they’re at. She continues to create more women veteran initiatives, particularly with online programming, because many of USC’s women veterans take courses in online programs.

Title IX trailblazer: Passion for students and her community

Williams’ passion for her community and the students she serves shows through in her work. She is proud to be the connection for students to other campus resources, whether that be the USC Veterans Certification Office, the Career Center, the Office of Student Accessibility Services or other individuals across the university. She fosters partnerships with all these offices so that when a student comes into the Veterans Resource Center asking for help, even if they don’t know quite what they need, she can connect them with the right people. She trains her student staff to do the same and to create a welcoming community where veteran and military students can come hang out, get schoolwork done and find support among their peers.

Williams has been at USC just under a year and a half, and in that time she has seen the impact that a supportive and equity-focused university can have on students, in particular student veterans.

She completed her undergraduate degree in Texas, where she said she encountered a conservative culture that “was not very welcoming for me as a woman or an LGBTQ+ person.” Working at USC, she has felt accepted and valued as a whole person, and she has seen a lot of support for student veterans and cadets in all their intersecting identities.

“Having the Veterans Resource Center housed under Student Equity and Inclusion Programs and having [USC President Carol L. Folt and Monique S. Allard, the university’s vice president for student life] attend military-affiliated events and speak to students shows our community that from top to bottom, the university supports this community and all its members,” she said. “Our students feel like they are a part of this campus, and they belong here.”

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USC Pride Month celebrations come as LGTBQ+ community is targeted across the country

USC is stepping up to show much-needed support for this year’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Pride Month. The annual June event takes place as more than 400 anti-LGBTQ+ bills are being introduced or passed in state legislatures across the country.

Pride logo

The monthlong celebration kicks off Thursday with an “All Out With Pride” virtual event that will include remarks from USC President Carol L. Folt, students, faculty, staff and alumni. On the same day, the progress pride flag will be raised in front of Keck Hospital of USC in a special morning ceremony. (The progress pride flag adds a five-colored chevron to the classic rainbow flag, representing marginalized LGBTQ+ communities of color along with the colors of the transgender pride flag.)

Later that day, the USC Lambda LGBTQ+ Alumni Association will hold an evening reception on the University Park Campus.

USC Pride Month celebration: Honoring the struggle

Pride Month is celebrated each June in honor of the 1969 Stonewall Inn uprising in New York City, which was sparked by police harassment and persecution. Stonewall is considered by many to be the tipping point for the modern LGBTQ+ liberation movement against discriminatory laws and practices in the United States. A year after Stonewall, the first Pride parade — held in Manhattan — was organized by the Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee. The tradition has since spread to parades, parties, picnics, concerts and other gatherings throughout the country and around the world.

“Pride has been, for many years, an important ritual,” said Karen Tongson, a professor of gender and sexuality, English, and American studies and ethnicity at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “For the decade leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a sense that Pride had lost its political urgency. Unfortunately, in light of the intensifying scapegoating of the LGBTQ community, it’s become even more important to show solidarity.”

Nearly half of the bills — largely raised by Republican lawmakers — target transgender and nonbinary people, according to figures compiled by the Human Rights Campaign. The swath of legislation includes efforts to outlaw gender-affirming care for minors, anti-trans bathroom bills, anti-drag laws and, in Florida, the prohibition of discussion about sexual orientation and gender identity throughout all grade levels.

Pride has been, for many years, an important ritual.

Karen Tongson, USC Dornsife

“Pride Month can be used as an opportunity to really connect with each other and to think about what it is that our [LGBTQ+] community needs,” Tongson said. “How can we support the most vulnerable among us and stand alongside each other as protectors?”

Tongson laments what she describes as “internecine struggles” that are taking place within the LGBTQ+ community. She said “a small minority” are essentially trying to “exile our trans kin” when they need solidarity the most.

“That’s become alarming,” she said. “How can one turn away from others who need care when we’ve suffered those very same indignities?”

Tongson pointed out that gays, lesbians and bisexuals “have also been scapegoated, demonized and turned into the rationale for the policing of bodies.”

Gender identity supported at Keck Medicine of USC

When Keck Pride — the LGBTQ+ employee resource group that spans Keck Medicine of USC and the Keck School of Medicine of USC — marched in last year’s Los Angeles Pride Parade in Hollywood, they were seen as heroic by some in the crowd.

Keck Pride co-chair Lindsey Morrison shared a parade highlight: When a parade watcher saw Keck Medicine employees marching on Hollywood Boulevard, they yelled, “I’m getting my top surgery there!” to much applause.

We want everybody to feel seen and understood and cared for.

Lindsey Morrison, Keck Pride co-chair

The group will be marching again this year when the parade takes place on June 11. Morrison said the group is determined to show that Keck Medicine is a safe place to receive care, including at Keck Medicine’s innovative Gender-Affirming Care Program, which provides comprehensive health care to transgender and nonbinary people while affirming their gender identity.

“We want everybody to feel seen and understood and cared for,” said Morrison, who works as a process architect at Keck Hospital of USC. “Affirming care for LGBTQ+ people in general is so essential, and there are terrifying actions that are happening in this country.”

USC support for AIDS/LifeCycle

The day before participating in the L.A. Pride Parade, members of Keck Pride will be among those volunteering at the finish line of Santa Monica’s AIDS/LifeCycle, a seven-day, 545-mile ride from San Francisco to L.A. benefiting the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the Los Angeles LGBT Center. Keck Medicine of USC is the medical sponsor of this year’s ride.

“We want to welcome the riders — including our own Keck Stands team — as they come back and help with the grunt work of parking the bikes and whatever else they need,” Morrison said.

The health care system is also welcoming its newest hospital to the Pride Month festivities. This year is the first time USC Arcadia Hospital will mark Pride: The progress pride flag will be raised in front of the building during a ceremony on Monday, with a Pride celebration following three days later, on June 8.

A full list of USC Pride Month events can be found on the university’s event calendar.

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Trojan trailblazer lays the bricks for children’s path to college

Editor’s note: Title IX — the landmark legislation that prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding — was signed into law on June 23, 1972. In recognition of this anniversary, we’ll be profiling Trojan Title IX trailblazers throughout the year.


Kim Thomas-Barrios began her career as a high school teacher a little over a decade after the passage of Title IX. While some things for women improved soon after, such as changes to dress codes and the introduction of mixed physical education classes, other reforms were slow to take effect.

Title IX logoShe vividly recalls being a first-year teacher and having to break into a male-dominated science department.

“They didn’t even talk to us,” Thomas-Barrios said of her bumpy start.

She was one of three new female teachers at her school in the San Fernando Valley; only two made it to the second year. “We were completely ignored, thrown into the lion’s den with no help. I was lucky because I had educators in my family to guide me,” said Thomas-Barrios, now USC’s associate senior vice president of educational partnerships.

She credits her father, Robert, a longtime educator and school administrator, and her mother, Elizabeth, a preschool teacher, for helping her navigate those stressful circumstances — but what really carried her forward was her passion.

I was a young teacher who loved what she was doing. I wasn’t going to let anyone stop me from doing what I felt needed to happen.

Kim Thomas-Barrios

“I was a young teacher who loved what she was doing,” Thomas-Barrios said. “I wasn’t going to let anyone stop me from doing what I felt needed to happen.”

In her second year, she started an all-female new science teachers’ group. Each week they met over lunch to discuss classroom management, strategy implementation, activities and how to do lab work with minimal resources. They would also offer one another support.

“What we were doing as science teachers was almost cutting edge because we weren’t allowed into this all-male group and what they were doing,” Thomas-Barrios recalled, thinking back to all the new ideas and resources she and her fellow teachers developed to ensure their students remained engaged — and learned.

The group’s ability to generate fresh ideas was a hit with students and also built a community for the new teachers, ensuring they had a sustainable support network to rely on, particularly in the early part of their careers. Later, the school principal adopted the group’s approach as a model for all new teachers, regardless of gender.

Seeing the uneven playing field firsthand

Despite the moral victory, Thomas-Barrios continued to face situations where the playing field wasn’t level for everyone. She reflects upon a disheartening experience while she was coaching the girls’ basketball team at 32nd Street Magnet School in the mid ’90s: The girls were expected to vacate the court when the boys arrived.

“Girls weren’t even given court time,” Thomas-Barrios said. When she fought for them, she didn’t get the reaction she expected from the administration: “I was met with anger. It was devastating for the girls to see that. I was disrespected, and they were disrespected for being females.”

Although she didn’t receive the support she needed at the time, she has seen progress. She noted that the Los Angeles Unified School District has made strides by creating awareness for Title IX policies and supporting faculty and staff through its LAUSD Educational Equity Compliance Office.

In the nearly four decades since Thomas-Barrios first became an instructor, she’s gone from trailblazing high school teacher to leading one of the country’s most prestigious college access programs. The USC Leslie and William McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative is a seven-year college preparatory program with the promise of a full-tuition scholarship upon completion and acceptance into a university for those who complete it.

“I feel very fortunate to have been chosen by this career where I can see the fruition and impact of what I do every day,” said Thomas-Barrios.

Thomas-Barrios didn’t aspire to go into education when she was younger. After watching her English teacher father stay up late at night correcting papers and creating lesson plans, she decided to go to medical school. But while pursuing her undergraduate degree at USC, she accepted a teaching assistant position at a Watts school where her father was the assistant principal.

“I fell in love with the kids. They really needed us,” said Thomas-Barrios. She had her first taste of the joys of teaching — but medical school remained the goal.

Back to the classroom — and a life-changing experience

Upon graduation, her father suggested she sign up for an emergency teaching credential. Schools were in dire need of science and math teachers, and Thomas-Barrios figured she’d be able to save some money to pay for the next round of her education.

“It was just a job for me at first, but then I realized how much education was really going to move them if they continued,” Thomas-Barrios said, thinking back to the impact she saw she was making on her young pupils. The rest is history.

Since 1992, over 1,500 students from South Los Angeles and the Eastside have graduated from NAI, which boasts a remarkable 100% high school graduation and college acceptance rate. This year, over 50% of the 96 NAI scholars received acceptance letters to USC.

Even though the NAI journey is rigorous for its scholars and their families, the level of support provided — tutoring, mental health resources, assistance applying to college, guidance on how to apply for financial aid — is almost unprecedented.

“How great is it to be able to develop an environment in classrooms that is welcoming, creative, open, hopefully safe — where they can explore their dreams,” Thomas-Barrios said.

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Folt encourages student-athletes at conference to be their ‘authentic’ selves

The DJ onstage at Bovard Auditorium played Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” as USC President Carol L. Folt arrived at the 2023 Black Student Athlete Summit on Monday morning for her fireside chat-style interview with Leonard N. Moore, the summit’s founder and executive director.

The respect was clearly mutual.

“We are so honored to have you here,” Folt said to the crowd of students, many of whom had traveled from colleges and universities across the country for the conference. “This is an amazing organization, and we love to see it flourishing like this.”

Folt’s appearance came during Day 2 of the four-day event, which continues on the University Park Campus through Wednesday.

The summit drew 1,440 registrants this year — approximately 600 more than the previous year, when it was held in Houston. It is described as the only event of its kind that focuses on the “holistic development” of Black student-athletes and works to prepare them for life after sports.

Attendees are able to connect with a wide range of professionals in the world of college sports who can help them maximize their college experience and navigate post-graduation opportunities.

Tuesday afternoon’s “Pro Day” session, for example, gave participants time to meet with Black former student-athletes who are now working in such professions as athletic coaching, consulting, technology, law, politics, music, journalism, marketing and medicine, among other fields.

Branding, faith and real estate at Black Student Athlete Summit

The summit includes numerous table talks and forums, including one titled “Hairstyles, Tattoos, Piercings and Gold Teeth: How Do We Mentor?” Others feature Black athletes from Ivy League schools, a discussion with former NBA player Matt Barnes, and a panel on how a white coach or staff member can connect with their Black student-athletes.

There are also sessions on personal branding, the power of faith, why Black representation in college athletics matters, and how Black student-athletes can buy, develop and own real estate.

During her time onstage, Folt said she wants to see student-athletes “flourish in all aspects of their life,” including when it comes to their professional aspirations.

I believe in the student-athlete model very, very deeply.

Carol L. Folt, USC president

“I believe in the student-athlete model very, very deeply, and I do believe you can be successful at both,” she said. “Our efforts have to make that success possible so that the students aren’t pulled apart, the faculty aren’t pulled apart and the staff and coaches aren’t pulled apart. It’s going to take a lot of work, but it’s worth doing.”

Folt said she believes it is the university president’s job to really understand students and added that one of the most important things she likes to say to them is: “You do need to be your authentic self.”

Preceding Folt on the Bovard Auditorium stage was a conversation featuring Resa Lovelace, assistant athletic director at the University of Maryland. This is the fifth summit for Lovelace and her first time on the University Park Campus.

Black Student Athlete Summit: ‘We’ve been embraced’

“I’m blown away at how USC has created this space for the conference,” Lovelace said after leaving the stage. “I feel like we’ve been embraced by the institution and able to show up as our authentic, Black selves in this space.”

Lovelace believes the summit is a major opportunity to influence student-athletes at a critical time in their lives.

“We often talk about athletics as this family, but in some ways we don’t see all of the family,” she said. “How do we create spaces where students, staff and coaches can just bring who they are to the environment so that the next generation coming behind us know that they can just be who they are, whether it’s showing up Black and proud, waving your international flag or your LGBTQ pride flag?”

On Wednesday, the event will conclude with a conversation with Lesley Slaton Brown, chief diversity officer for the National Basketball Association; a panel of voices from the National Collegiate Athletic Association national office; a discussion with Rich Paul, founder and chief executive officer of Klutch Sports Group; and a group photo shoot at Allyson Felix Field.

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Keck School of Medicine of USC Dean Carolyn Meltzer beats impostor syndrome


Editor’s note: Title IX — the landmark legislation that prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding — was signed into law on June 23, 1972. In recognition of this anniversary, we’ll be profiling Trojan Title IX trailblazers throughout the year.


As a student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in the 1980s, Carolyn Meltzer remembers being plagued with feelings of impostor syndrome — especially each time she walked by the famous portrait of the university’s founding physicians known as “The Big Four.”

Title IX logo“It was where men are men and giants walk the halls,” she said. “If you were a woman, you were a bit of an outlier. My frame of mind was always to fit in with the guys and be twice as good to be recognized.”

Meltzer, dean of the Keck School of Medicine of USC and the May S. and John H. Hooval Dean’s Chair in Medicine since 2022, describes those years as “an arduous journey” that she had to push through. Only one-third of her classmates were female, and positive reinforcement was hard to come by.

“I remember a moment when I was a senior medical student and a female chief resident said to me, ‘You know, you’re really talented. You really do a good job,'” Meltzer said. She was speechless, and the chief resident wondered why. “I said, ‘Nobody has ever told me that since I’ve been here.'”

Speaking out to help others

These are among the experiences that inform Meltzer’s work overseeing the operations and academic affairs of Keck School of Medicine and its 16 major research institutes and 26 basic and clinical academic programs. She is mindful that it remains more common for women and other underrepresented and marginalized groups to doubt their abilities despite successfully performing at a high level.

When you’re early in your career … it’s very hard to speak up for yourself.

Carolyn Meltzer, Keck School of Medicine

“It’s only as I’ve gotten more senior that I’ve been able to speak out, to maybe be able to help others,” she said. “When you’re early in your career and at the bottom of the power and privilege gradient, it’s very hard to speak up for yourself.”

Meltzer has done a lot of work in the diversity space and has often heard people talking about impostor syndrome as if it were a character flaw that people need to get over.

“There’s a big part of our environment that helps create it,” she said. “Speaking now as a senior leader, we have to create environments that ensure people are feeling included and valued for the identities they bring to the table.”

Despite any self-doubt she battled as a student, Meltzer believed in equal opportunity “from a pretty young age” and “didn’t see a reason I shouldn’t be able to do anything the guys could do.”

Early role models

Meltzer earned her undergraduate degree with honors from Cornell University, where she was president of the Women in Medicine club and would try to find female physicians to come and share their experiences with students.

At Johns Hopkins, she was influenced by Catherine D. DeAngelis, a professor and physician who went on to become vice dean for academic affairs and faculty at the university and the first woman editor in chief of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“Some of those giants who walked the halls were women,” Meltzer said. “Not too many, but just their presence had a great impact on me.”

Meltzer became an expert in neuroradiology and nuclear medicine and has conducted research to understand the structure and function of the brain during normal aging, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and psychiatric disorders later in life. She also specializes in cancer imaging research.

“I went into a field that was very male-dominated with a lot of technology, innovation, PET [positron emission tomography] imaging and research areas — just very physics-heavy,” she said. “We still struggle with having women go into the hard sciences at equal rates.”

Meltzer was recruited to Keck School of Medicine after spending 15 years at Emory University School of Medicine, where she was chair of the department of radiology and imaging sciences. She also served as executive associate dean of faculty academic advancement, leadership and inclusion and as chief diversity and inclusion officer.

Meltzer had earlier held various academic and administrative appointments at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, including creating and leading the school’s clinical PET center.

Protecting hard-earned rights

Although she wasn’t yet in high school when Title IX went into effect, Meltzer is grateful for the law and the protections it provides.

“It often takes federal legislation to put a stake in the ground and move the world forward, whether it’s civil rights or gender rights,” she said. “I don’t think we would have made as much progress in higher education and created as many opportunities for diverse individuals if Title IX hadn’t become law when it did.”

Progress is not linear, and it tends to be made by a series of tipping points. Then there are also moments where things slip back.

Carolyn Meltzer, Keck School of Medicine

While she celebrates Title IX’s 50th anniversary, Meltzer remains very concerned about gender equity overall in the United States, including women’s reproductive rights, the rights of the transgender community and the rights of professionals who provide gender-affirming care.

“Progress is not linear, and it tends to be made by a series of tipping points,” she said. “Then there are also moments where things slip back. I feel like we’re in a moment where there are both tipping points and slides back happening at the same time.”

Meltzer is working to make sure these setbacks don’t happen at USC.

“I think it’s a very optimistic place through the lens of Title IX,” Meltzer said. “I work with some wonderful women leaders and men leaders, and we’re trying to build a diverse team to give more voice to the complexity of the problems we’re focused on.”

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Annenberg Inclusion Initiative unveils The Inclusion List

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The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative unveils The Inclusion List in collaboration with The Adobe Foundation
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The Adobe Foundation partnered with Associate Professor of Communication Stacy L. Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative to debut The Inclusion List, a new data-driven ranking that provides the titles of the 100 most inclusive theatrically-released films from 2019 to 2022.

The website also highlights the top distributors associated with the movies on the list, names eight individuals as the top producers and showcases two top directors for inclusion across the time frame evaluated.

“With The Inclusion List, our goal is to celebrate the films, filmmakers, and companies who are supporting inclusion on screen and behind the camera,” Smith said. “This is the first rigorous, quantitative assessment of hiring practices across almost 400 movies and more than 900 producers, over 350 directors, and 16 distributors. The results are clear: Universal Pictures, A24, Will Packer, James Lopez, Kevin Feige, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Lulu Wang and the others on the list are ushering in a new era for inclusion through the choices they have made and the stories they have told. We are excited to showcase and recognize those efforts.”

To form the list, the research team scored 376 theatrically-released films across 20 inclusion indicators, with the highest-scoring films receiving top honors. The indicators ranked gender, race/ethnicity, LGBTQ+, disability, and age representation for cast in leading and all speaking roles. Behind the scenes, gender and race/ethnicity were assessed across 10 positions to create a crew score. Those ten positions were: Director, Writer, Producer, Cinematographer, Editor, Composer, Costume Designer, Production Designer, Casting Director, and First Assistant Director. More than 14,000 speaking characters and over 5,500 crew members were evaluated in the process of compiling the Inclusion List.

Whereas other Hollywood lists about inclusion rely on submissions, a nomination process, or subjective decision-making, The Inclusion List draws solely from data to create a cast and crew score based on actual hiring practices and story elements. As a result, the films, distributors, and producers on the list appear based on a demonstrated track record for inclusion.

“The Inclusion List shows us who has excelled at showcasing stories featuring voices that are often missing from popular movies. Seven of the top 10 films on the Inclusion List were directed by women of color, and the first 47 films on the list were made by directors from historically marginalized communities,” Smith said. “What’s even more powerful about this list- and consistent with our previous work-is that films from women and women of color directors on the list earned the highest average Metacritic score. These women are excluded from the industry when we know that they are some of the top performers, telling some of the strongest and most compelling stories. This list celebrates women of color in an industry that doesn’t.”

The top distributors reflect the companies responsible for bringing the films on The Inclusion List to audiences. They were ranked by the number of films appearing on the list itself. Among large distributors, Universal Pictures took top honors with 24 films on the list, followed by Sony Pictures Entertainment (14 films) and Warner Bros. Pictures (11 films). For smaller distributors, A24 led among its peers with 9 movies, with Neon landing in second place (6 films).

A total of eight producers received a nod for their work in film over the past four years. Will Packer, James Lopez, Kevin Feige, Dede Garner, Jeremy Kleiner, Jordan Peele, Ian Cooper, and Jason Blum were named the most inclusive producers for having 3 or more films on The Inclusion List.

“These producers have a clear commitment to championing material that reflects culturally specific content and/or a variety of perspectives, and for their inclusive hiring of crew behind the scenes,” Smith said.

“At Adobe, we believe that when more diverse stories are told, the world becomes a more equal and vibrant place,” said Stacy Martinet, VP of marketing at Adobe and Adobe Foundation Board member. “Initiatives such as the Adobe Foundation’s collaboration with USC Annenberg gives us the ability to elevate the stories and people that are making inclusivity a priority, while also finding the ways we can still make change in the industry.”

This latest partnership builds on Adobe’s commitment to creating greater inclusivity, access, opportunity and creativity for all. The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and Adobe Foundation together launched a landmark website on inclusion among Academy Award-nominees and winners ahead of the 2023 Academy Awards ceremony. The Adobe Foundation also announced funding to support the USC School of Dramatic Arts MFA program, directly supporting the production of short films for underrepresented students.

The results from the groups’ first report, and the full methodology for The Inclusion List, are available at

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Trailblazer Elyn Saks sees ‘gender-inspired mental health activism happening all the time now’

Editor’s note: Title IX — the landmark legislation that prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding — was signed into law on June 23, 1972. In recognition of this anniversary, we’ll be profiling Trojan Title IX trailblazers throughout the academic year.

When Professor Elyn Saks was a college student in the mid-1970s, she was in the minority. At Vanderbilt University, where she studied philosophy with a minor in ancient Greek and graduated as valedictorian, 28% of students were women undergraduates. At the University of Oxford, where she earned a master’s degree in philosophy on a prestigious Marshall Scholarship, one-third of the students were women — and all of her professors were men.

Title IX logo

Saks had the full support of her parents — “There was never any sense that as a woman I could not earn multiple degrees and have a good career,” she said — and she recognizes that when she was hired as a professor at the USC Gould School of Law in 1989, she was on a path that had been forged by Title IX, passed in 1972.

“Title IX is an extremely important law that changed the rights of women, and others, to participate fully in government, work and education,” Saks said. “When I started working at Gould in 1989, we were aware of the rights and interests of all groups. Since that time, it is great to see that more women are professors and students at USC.”

Saks, founder and faculty director of the Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy and Ethics, went on to Yale Law School. During this time, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia, which presented the greatest personal challenge of her life, eventually guiding her toward a distinguished career in mental health advocacy and scholarship. That includes writing the groundbreaking 2007 memoir The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness, which earned wide acclaim and made the New York Times Best Sellers list. In 2009, Saks was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, aka the “genius grant,” which she used to launch the Saks Institute.

Saks’ interdisciplinary career intersects fields of law, public policy, and mental health research and advocacy, which is no surprise considering her life experiences.

Finding her calling

Diagnosed with depression while at Vanderbilt, Saks’ symptoms became more intense at Oxford. Her studies were interrupted by a monthslong stay in a psychiatric hospital, which she kept from her family for fear of worrying them. While hospitalized, she realized that being alone in a hospital room did not improve her condition. Studying and being with friends anchored her. Saks’ doctors agreed and let her get back to her studies at Oxford.

After earning her master’s degree, Saks, who had considered pursuing philosophy but realized her analytic thinking processes were more suited to law, began law school at Yale. Saks says her knowledge of Title IX became more prominent while at Yale, which is when she had returned to the states after five years. “Yale Law was also very keyed into civil rights and civil liberties,” Saks said. “It was common knowledge that Yale Law students went on to become professors or public interest lawyers.” Saks began incorporating mental illness topics into her student papers. One of the first was about how painful and degrading mechanical restraints in psychiatric hospitals were. She was shocked at her professor’s reaction to the paper.

“He said, ‘You don’t understand, Elyn. These people are psychotic. They don’t experience restraints as we would,'” she said. “It was only by ‘othering’ us that this professor could feel OK about doing to us what he never would want done to himself or loved ones.”

At Yale, Saks was eventually hospitalized and diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia. From her 2012 TED Talk, “A Tale of Mental Illness,” she mentions her “grave” prognosis as a woman with schizophrenia was not hopeful, according to the doctors. “At best, I was expected to live in a board-and-care [facility] and work menial jobs,” Saks said.

A community of support

Saks says mental illness treatment has certainly changed over time. For years, many women could be institutionalized for simply standing up for themselves or being “difficult.” Saks was fortunate that her family and friends believed in her abilities and supported her efforts to treat her mental illness and succeed academically.

“Many women were put in hospitals by their husbands for terrible reasons,” Saks said. “When I developed serious mental illness and was expressing pessimism about my future life and career, my father’s response was that people with serious cancer overcome their prognosis, and there was no reason to think I couldn’t overcome mine.”

After receiving her law degree, Saks worked as a staff attorney at a legal services agency in Connecticut but found it unfulfilling. She decided that her goal was to become a law professor.

“I truly enjoy introducing the next generation of students to the joys of thinking and writing about important societal issues,” Saks stated. “As a law professor, you can choose what you spend your time on. I love writing books and articles in my area of law and mental health.” When Saks joined the USC faculty in 1989, the university had only six female law school professors. As of 2022, there were 26 female professors.

Fighting mental health stigma

The Saks Institute is a think tank that studies issues at the intersection of law, mental health and ethics. The Saks Scholars, a yearly cohort of graduate students from various USC schools, spotlight one important mental health issue per academic year in a collaborative effort with faculty. Even within the institute, Saks has seen a decrease in mental health stigma over the years, which promotes more positive and open discussion about mental illness.

Because of Title IX, I believe things are getting better.

Elyn Saks, USC Gould

“Over 10 years, 80% of the Saks Scholars had disclosed in their application that they or a loved one had mental illness. When we first met as a group and we went around the room to discuss why they wanted to be a scholar, only one person self-disclosed,” Saks said. “Quite surprising for law students who were about rights, liberty and dignity. But, within the last year, almost everyone self-disclosed, including one woman who said she’d never mentioned to anyone that she had bipolar I with psychotic features.”

Saks is also encouraged by changes in terms of gender equality.

“Because of Title IX, I believe things are getting better. We see that in my area of research, mental health and mental health law,” Saks said. “We see gender-inspired mental health activism happening all the time now.”

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USC center seeks to ‘illuminate, disrupt and dismantle’ racism

8313 Led by Shaun Harper, the USC Race and Equity Center is teaching business leaders, educators and administrators how to better serve their communities with evidence-based strategies to advance equity.
By Margaret Crane Published on March 28, 2023
Shaun Harper
Shaun Harper, founder and executive director of the USC Race and Equity Center, speaks at the LAUSD Racial Equity Leadership Academy Kick-Off at the Galen Center in 2020. (Photo/Steve Cohn)
“Racism is America’s longest-standing social problem. Racial inequities remain pervasive in workplace settings and the larger society,” says Shaun Harper, executive director of the USC Race and Equity Center. “At the same time, our educational institutions teach students far too little, sometimes nothing at all, about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).”
Students in many fields are graduating without the skills needed to effectively address issues of race and implicit bias in their workplaces. “A lot of the work that we do at the Center is remediation,” says Harper. “We work with professionals to teach them the things they never learned in their educational training.”
The Center’s mission is to illuminate, dismantle and disrupt racism in all its forms and is “unapologetically race-forward,” according to Harper. It provides dynamic research, professional learning and organizational improvement for educational institutions, government agencies, nonprofit organizations and a multitude of industries in the U.S. and abroad. Participants in its evidence-based educational programs become leaders in the quest for racial equity and informed advocates for all those experiencing marginalization.
One of the nation’s foremost DEI experts, Harper is University Professor and Provost Professor of Education and Business at the USC Rossier School of Education and the USC Marshall School of Business. He founded the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania in 2011. When he joined USC in 2017, the Center relocated to become the USC Race and Equity Center.
“We come to the table, not simply to highlight the pervasiveness of injustice and inequity,” Harper says of the Center’s goals, “but to share tools, solutions and learning opportunities–to teach leaders, workers and everyday Americans how to effectively combat inequities and injustices.”
“Diverse companies are more productive. When you don’t treat your employees fairly, you have high turnover. It becomes difficult to recruit, hire and train talented people. But when organizations like Nike lead the way, it’s saying this is not theoretical. This is attainable.” –Brandi Junious, Director of Corporate Partnerships, USC Race and Equity Center
Rigorous interdisciplinary research is key to the Center’s evidence-based methods. At USC, more than 100 faculty members collaborate on research with Center experts and contribute to the development of useful tools such as the annual National Assessment of Collegiate Campus Climates. The Black Students 50-State Report Card grades public colleges and universities on racial equity indicators, and a recent report offers professional sports teams and leagues resources for advancing racial justice.
Since its inception, the Center has worked with more than 700 partners and clients, with projects ranging from strategic advice for academic and business leaders to multi-session corporate and campus-wide training series. Courses are led by an interdisciplinary cadre of more than 60 distinguished scholars and DEI experts.
At USC, the Center provides no-cost, multiyear professional DEI learning experiences to administration, staff and faculty. These live virtual sessions can accommodate up to 10,000 employees.
“Most of our work at the Center is focused on educators, administrators and leaders, and equipping them with the skills that are needed to better teach and lead,” says Harper, who also holds the Clifford and Betty Allen Chair in Urban Leadership at USC Rossier. “We educate them about isms and phobias: sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ageism and more. But more importantly, we’re teaching them how to disrupt and dismantle those isms and phobias in the workplace.”
DEI training programs like the Center’s Racial Equity Leadership Academies educate professionals to develop cultures of inclusion within their own organizations. Equity-focused curricula help them learn to talk about race and racism, increase their understanding of DEI practices and develop strategies to implement positive change in their organizations.
Learning opportunities are customized to fit the specific needs of businesses and institutions. “We can be working with a company as big as Nike on a Monday,” says Harper, “then addressing two dozen teachers in an individual middle school on Tuesday, and working with a group of STEM department chairs on Wednesday.”
K-12 Racial Equity Academies
Associate Director of K-12 Professional Learning Programs, USC Race and Equity Center.
Erica Silva
We’re responsible for educating all of our students, especially students of color who experience dire racial inequities and who have been historically marginalized in schools,” says Erica Silva EdD ’19, associate director for the Center’s K-12 Professional Learning Programs. “At this time, when the national conversation around equity is so polarized, the Center plays a role in dismantling racism in schools.”
In 2021, 15% of students in America’s public schools identified as Black and 27.5% as Latino/Hispanic. Partnering with schools throughout California and across the country, the Center’s K-12 Racial Equity Academies offer principals, counselors, superintendents, faculty and staff the tools they need to serve their diverse student bodies.
Latino and African American students comprise 82% of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s population. In 2020, Harper partnered with LAUSD to create a Racial Equity Leadership Academy for principals and administrators in the nation’s second-largest school district. The Center’s chief academic officer, USC Rossier Professor of Clinical Education John Pascarella, designed and facilitated the ongoing project in coordination with the district’s Darnise Williams EdD ’09. Participants completing the program received an executive leadership certificate from USC Rossier.
In 2021, Pascarella hired Silva to co-design and co-lead workshops for Year 2 of the LAUSD academy. “We ask leaders, ‘What does it mean to be equity-minded when you’re seeking to retain teachers of color, when you’re analyzing and assessing your curriculum or evaluating your school library?’ We work to build racial literacy within schools and districts and provide actionable tools and strategies for our participants to advance racial equity within their organizations,” Silva says.
“A lot of the work that we do with leaders is remediation. We are teaching leaders and faculty things that they never learned in their educational or professional trainings.” –Shaun Harper, Founder and Executive Director, USC Race and Equity Center
The academy offered a DEI learning series to 124 principals and administrators in LAUSD. “By approaching their work with a race-conscious lens, leaders were able to go back to their school communities and have productive discussions about race and racism with school staff,” notes Silva, who joined USC Rossier as the associate director for K-12 professional programs in 2021 and, later, as an adjunct professor in the Master of Arts in Teaching Program.
Adalberto Vega, principal of John Liechty Middle School in the Pico-Union neighborhood of Los Angeles, says, “The academy allowed me to understand my own biases and gave me the confidence to lead Liechty stakeholders in brave conversations about race.”
As part of a schoolwide focus on racial equity, Vega addressed inequities faced by Black/African American students. He worked with school leaders to create the Black Students Matter Committee. To include it in schoolwide objectives, the principal embedded his racial equity project in Liechty’s annual School Plan for Student Achievement. As the initiative progressed, he collaborated with the Los Angeles Center for Love and Justice and LAUSD’s Local District Central to inaugurate anti-racist educational projects for students and parents.
In 2021, the Center launched a Racial Equity Academy for Inglewood Unified School District, to provide DEI training for 800 teachers, counselors and administrators in the Los Angeles County-based district.
The Center has worked with public and independent schools and districts across California and the nation and plans to expand its program to include more opportunities for teachers and school leaders to learn how to advance racial equity in their organizations.
STEM Racial Equity Leadership Academy
The Center’s Racial Equity Leadership Academies have helped administrators and faculty in a range of academic disciplines acquire much-needed skills in the practice of racial equity. The Racial Equity Leadership Academy for STEM Leaders is targeted to rectify inequities in college-level science, technology, engineering and math departments.
COO and Chief of Staff
Brandi P. Jones
“Discussions that involve race are often treated as off-limits in engineering and computer science classrooms and departments,” says USC Rossier Research Professor Brandi P. Jones, a national thought leader in DEI for STEM disciplines. “No clear or uniform structure exists to prepare faculty for discussions on race and racism, particularly in highly technical disciplines.”
The lack of recognition for racial inequities in STEM departments has serious consequences for higher education, the workforce and the national economy. Offering context to one of his presentations to the academy, Harper cited the notable graduation gap between Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Pacific Islander and multiracial students who choose STEM majors and those who ultimately attain degrees in
their chosen fields.
Offering a solution, the Center launched its first Racial Equity Leadership Academy for STEM Leaders in 2021. The nine-month program for 250 STEM department chairs from across the nation was funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Once a month, these academic leaders met for live virtual learning sessions. For many, this was the first time they had seriously addressed issues of race and racism
within their disciplines.
Harper, Jones and Kendrick Davis comprise the creative team for the STEM academy. As project leader, Davis, who is an associate professor at USC Rossier and the Center’s chief research officer, facilitated the STEM academy’s monthly sessions. Presentations addressed contemporary DEI dilemmas and racial problems in classrooms and labs. Participants learned to identify systemic inequities embedded in curricula and to address discriminatory policies and practices. They collaborated on discipline-specific equity action plans with colleagues in their respective fields.
Another important topic was how to engage in sensitive discussions. Jones, the Center’s chief operating officer and chief of staff, recently led a STEM academy session on productive departmental conversations about race and racism. She modeled exercises on a series of questions: “How do you talk about race in fields where we don’t generally talk about race? Who has the power and privilege to speak in a classroom? What are the questions that students of historically underrepresented backgrounds may have?” Jones’ questions lead participants to “discover ways to create practices, systems and structures in which everyone can thrive.”
Nike multiyear DEI learning partnership
“We’re talking about the biggest brand on the planet,” Harper says, discussing the Center’s dynamic multidimensional partnership with Nike. Launched in 2020, the partnership focuses on advancing DEI in every continent where the Nike, Converse and Jordan brands operate.
From the C-suite to the warehouse, the two-year program provides meaningful equity training to employees at all levels of the company. Learning experiences are tailored to the specific needs of senior executives, headquarters staff, and manufacturing, retail and distribution workers. “As we engage the corporation’s 75,000 employees, we’re developing a scalable, replicable approach to partnering with businesses of comparable magnitude,” notes Harper.
Since its inception, the Center has acquired vast experience helping corporations achieve their equity goals. In 2019, it partnered with USC Marshall to launch a professional DEI learning portfolio for businesses, firms, government agencies, cities and other organizations–providing its live virtual learning experiences to companies ranging from Citibank and T-Mobile to Wondery, PayScale and more.
The massive companywide endeavor with Nike began in 2019 with a DEI Leadership Acceleration Academy for nearly 400 Nike leaders from around the globe. Framed within the context of the Nike workplace, sessions addressed such issues as how to recognize and reduce implicit bias, best practices for partnering with employee networks, and strategies for disrupting homophobia and heterosexism. In 2022, the Center launched the Professional Learning Series, a course of live, online DEI learning sessions for thousands of Nike managers worldwide. Additionally, 60 digital shorts were produced on a range of DEI topics for all Nike employees worldwide.
COO and Chief of Staff, USC Race and Equity Center.
Brandi Junious
Brandi Junious, the Center’s director of corporate partnerships, points to an important area of the corporation–the Nike United Networks. “At Nike, affinity groups represent Black and LGBTQIA+ employees, women and others,” she says. “We’re working with network leaders to help them with language, tools and activities they need to move the DEI project forward.”
The Center’s work with Nike and other businesses is grounded in their research on organizations of all sizes and contexts. “Data shows that diverse companies are more productive,” Junious says. “When you don’t treat your employees fairly, you have high turnover. It becomes difficult to recruit, hire and train talented people. But when organizations like Nike lead the way, it’s saying this is not theoretical. This is attainable.”
The future
Looking back over the Center’s achievements, there’s something Harper would like to change. “I’d like to get ahead of the process before people enter leadership positions,” he says. “That’s an important role for higher education. We ought to better prepare students for citizenship work and for eventual leadership on DEI issues.”
In January 2022, Harper brought Christopher Emdin to the Center. Emdin is the Center’s inaugural director of youth engagement and community partnerships and a USC Rossier professor of education. “Chris will create new programs designed specifically for young people,” says Harper.
Among the Center’s ongoing projects, a national commission on historically Black colleges and universities and racial equity launched in January. Also, a two-year initiative that began in November focuses on improving academic success among male students of color in community colleges across the country.
“We don’t have a ‘just add water’ approach at the Center,” Harper notes. “Because, honestly, that’s not what equity is. Equality is giving everybody the exact same thing in equal shares, in equal amounts. Equity is giving people what they need and customizing it to meet their needs. It’s understanding the unique context of everyone we work with.”

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Latina doctoral candidates are first in their families to pursue PhDs; now they’re set for USC graduation

After doctoral candidate Karina Santellano submitted her dissertation for review last week, the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences graduate student immediately began texting two fellow doctoral candidates who would likely know exactly how she was feeling. Her spirits soared as clapping hands emojis and “I’m so proud of you!” messages began flashing on her phone.

Santellano had bonded with the women largely over Zoom during some of the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic. They were among more than a dozen Latina doctoral candidates from various disciplines brought together through a series of online workshops and check-in sessions organized by USC Dornsife Distinguished Professor Natalia Molina and funded by USC Dornsife’s Center for Latinx & Latin American Studies.

“Being a part of this beautiful community just made the moment even more special,” said Santellano, who will be an assistant professor at the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics at Arizona State University. “I hope that it’s an example for incoming and future Latina PhD students to think about how they can form community with each other.”

The pandemic complicated what was typically solitary work for the group of graduate students. But they managed to create a community and support each other as they moved forward — and sometimes struggled — with studying, researching and writing their dissertations.

Santellano is one of five women from the group set to graduate with a doctorate this week or this summer. The others are Laura Dominguez (history), Divana Olivas (American studies and ethnicity), Blanca Ramirez (sociology) and Tisha Reichle-Aguilera (English). They are joining an exclusive club of 113 Latina students who have graduated with a PhD from USC since 2012, according to the USC Office of Institutional Research.

“Reflecting on the last couple of years, it’s wild to think that we’ve managed to write dissertations through a global pandemic,” Dominguez said. “It’s been a long journey to get a PhD, and to finally have it within reach — it’s just exciting and surreal. I’m grateful that if we had to live through something like that, that we at least have the technology to stay connected.”

Road rarely taken for Latina PhD candidates

Molina learned firsthand what it’s like to feel alone while trying to complete her doctorate 23 years ago.

“The PhD journey is filled with new stages — as soon as you master one, you are faced with another,” said Molina, an American studies and ethnicity professor who earned her doctorate at the University of Michigan.

That’s why in the spring of 2021, Molina formally created the online community for USC’s Latina doctoral students who were in various stages in their programs. She hoped they would benefit from hearing about each other’s experiences and be able to provide feedback on each other’s written work. She also wanted them to help each other set attainable goals and exchange resources.

“I literally saw in their Zoom rooms during retreats that they were facing challenges as they wrote their dissertations,” Molina said. “They were also helping their families with child care or had a parent sick with COVID-19. These are women who are part of a culture that says you put your family first.”

Latina PhD candidates: ‘Stepping into our purpose’

Molina pointed out that most Latina doctoral candidates are charting new academic territory within their families. Even those with higher education-minded parents might have been encouraged to be a doctor or a lawyer, but almost certainly not a professor.

“We are in a constant battle to give first-generation students the tools and resources to pursue avenues that weren’t brought up to them as options growing up or even when they were in college,” she said. “It’s about encouragement and making these pathways transparent.”

While her late mother had earned a master’s degree, Olivas is the first doctoral candidate from either side of her family.

“We have that shared experience of being the first in our family to get our PhD,” she said. “The reality is that there aren’t many Latina PhDs, not only just at USC, but in the country. This journey has helped me to realize the importance of stepping into our purpose and power in terms of representation.”

Reichle-Aguilera shared that her maternal grandfather was unable to complete his education due to finances. It was his dream that his children go to college. None of them did, so she has felt like she is carrying the academic torch for her entire family.

“This is really a way to kind of fulfill that dream for him and also for myself,” she said, explaining that the pursuit of that dream brought a lot of pressure. “Whenever I thought about giving up, I realized I wasn’t giving up on just my dream. It was like the whole village that was coming along with me.”

Dominguez acknowledged that she felt similar pressure and that the isolation of the pandemic amplified some of her doubts.

“It was never preordained that I was going to go to a top college and then get a master’s degree and then get a PhD on top of it,” she said. “So much of what I battled, especially early on, was that imposter syndrome that so many people experience who are women, who are people of color and who belong to other kinds of communities that are just not represented in academia.”

Highs and lows during Latina PhD candidates’ journey

Some of the women got to know each other further through their successful efforts to elevate Latina PhDs at USC — once an informal group — into an official student organization during the early days of the pandemic. The group includes current students and Trojan alumni who organize events and programs for doctoral students from all disciplines.

The organization provides community, mentorship and guidance.

Members have shared tips on setting up their workstations at home, swapped the names of occupational therapists and been there for some of life’s milestone moments.

Santellano received much-needed emotional support from the group when her paternal grandfather died from COVID-19 and her father, who had recently visited him, nearly died from the deadly virus. Her father was in intensive care for four months, and she struggled with whether or not to try and continue her research during that time.

“We were just very open and vulnerable when talking about how family shapes our academic choices and experiences,” she said. “Having people check in on me while navigating a loved one’s long-term illness, it was really important. And I got that support consistently.”

Dominguez gave birth to her first child in the middle of the pandemic. One of the first groups she shared the news of her pregnancy with was her fellow doctoral students.

“To become a mother while trying to finish a dissertation, that’s challenging,” she said. “I felt support from other female graduate students who have contemplated this for themselves. There was that openness. I didn’t feel like I had to sort of silo that part of myself.”

Her son, born 18 months ago, even made a few cameo appearances in Zoom meetings.

“I didn’t have child care, and I wanted to show up and be part of it,” Dominguez said. “It was so great that he could just sit there and be part of it, too.”

Paying it forward

The women may have focused on different topics, but they share a passion and commitment to use their careers in academia to help Latino communities.

We are in a constant battle to give first-generation students the tools and resources to pursue avenues that weren’t brought up to them as options growing up or even when they were in college.

Natalia Molina, USC Dornsife

For example, as an assistant professor of sociology at University of Texas at Austin, Ramirez will focus on immigration enforcement and what a lack of access to legal representation means for attorneys and immigrant communities.

“Because it’s such a small number of Latinas who get PhDs, it’s so important to see how other Latinas are grappling with a question of ‘How do we give back to our community that we’re studying?'” Ramirez said. “It’s about wanting to do research more than just for research’s sake.”

Olivas, who begins a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of New Mexico’s Chicana and Chicano studies department in the fall, will focus on food justice issues, including access to healthy foods in disproportionately affected neighborhoods and access to land, water and resources.

“It was always my goal to come back home and to share the knowledge, the resources, the social capital, that comes with having a PhD,” she said. “It’s about using it strategically to support my community.”

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