During the university’s first campuswide celebration of Native American Heritage Month on Wednesday, Assistant Professor Chris Finley of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences looked into the audience and made an observation: “This is my eighth year here, and this is the most Indigenous people I’ve ever been with on campus — ever.
“I’m really excited to be here and glad to be with you all to celebrate this moment,” said Finley, who is a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes. The assistant professor of American studies and ethnicity teaches a Native American studies course and developed the Native American studies minor in her department.
The Native American Student Assembly hosted the event inside the Ronald Tutor Campus Center’s Trojan Family Room — which became so crowded that some of the more than 175 attendees watched the program from the steps of a nearby staircase.
The celebration recognized the cultures, spiritualities and lands of Native Americans and included performances of a traditional form of Cahuilla music known as bird songs. The songs — in addition to their accompanying dances — serve as an oral tradition to keep the history and spirit of both the family and the tribe alive.
“These songs are the songs of our people, everything from our creation story to our migrations to where we’re at today — and they’re social songs,” said Derek Duro, head singer of Torres Martinez Bird Singers.
The event also included heartfelt remarks by students, faculty members and staff; a welcome from USC President Carol Folt; a panel discussion on the importance of Native American Heritage Month; and a presentation from the women’s lacrosse team on the origins of lacrosse as a Native American sport.
Deeply personal land acknowledgment
The event’s land acknowledgment — a formal statement that a public event is taking place on land originally inhabited by Indigenous peoples — felt deeply personal when it was presented by USC Dornsife first-year student Dineh Barragan.
Barragan, who is majoring in environmental studies, shared that her Gabrielino community ancestors are the original caretakers and stewards of the land where USC’s University Park Campus is located. She is the first in her family to achieve higher education and currently the first and only member of her tribal nation at USC.
“This shared space is where we live, study, work and raise families among the Gabrielino community,” Barragan said. “However, the land also symbolizes the trauma and removal of my people. We must recognize, respect and fully support current efforts by all Gabrielino peoples to encourage revitalizing [and] practicing their traditions and culture.”
A growing Indigenous presence
During her remarks, Folt described the event as “an amazing, beautiful gathering” that she predicted will continue to strengthen and grow in future years. She shared that of the university’s student population of approximately 47,000 students, 515 undergraduates and 375 graduate students identify as Indigenous Native American & Pasifika (peoples of the Pacific Islands).
“The numbers are increasing, and we’re excited about that,” she said.
Folt also talked about the 2022 renaming of one of USC’s most iconic academic buildings after Joseph Medicine Crow — a member of the Crow Nation, World War II hero, historian and alumnus who also received an honorary doctorate in 2004 from USC.
Folt recalled that one of the most memorable speakers at the dedication of the renamed building was the assembly’s student co-founder, Maracea “Mesa” Chase, who is part of the Navajo community with Hopi and Lakota heritage. Folt closed her remarks by repeating some of what Chase had said on that day: “When there is recognition and representation, there’s understanding.”
Student leaders find each other and organize
The student assembly for Native American Trojans is now one of nine cultural assemblies under USC’s undergraduate Student Government Programming Branch. It currently has 30 members and serves and connects Indigenous-identifying students on campus.
As the only Native American programming entity on campus, the group aims to voice the concerns and needs of the Native American student body at USC and provide members and allies with the opportunity to connect and empower one another through academic, pre-professional, cultural and social events.
Co-executive directors Daniel Williams and Nizhoni McDonough told the crowd that the group is proud to be united by its passion for advocacy, community care and Land Back, which is a campaign by Native Americans in the United States seeking to reestablish Indigenous sovereignty with political and economic control of their ancestral lands.
“We are proud to be a home for Native students from all across Turtle Island [the name for North America used by some Indigenous people] representing over a dozen unique tribal affiliations,” said McDonough, a member of the Navajo Nation and a USC Dornsife student majoring in law, history and culture. “Remember, this campus has always been and will always be native land. Your ancestors are proud of you. We hope today serves as a reminder that you deserve to be celebrated.”
Dylan Goodwill, a member of the Navajo Nation and Lakota and Dakota tribes, is staff advisor to the assembly and served as the event’s emcee and moderator.
“The Native Trojan Family is very strong, and we look out for each other,” said Goodwill, senior assistant director of undergraduate admission at USC with a focus on Native American recruitment. “I just am so appreciative of the community it’s built … because Native students have a right to be here and belong here as well.”
Goodwill said Indigenous history, because of colonization, can be “difficult” and “depressing” to learn about, “but it needs to be taught because there’s so many layers to our identity.”
One student’s story: From reservation to USC
USC Dornsife junior Amia Roach-Valandra, a member of the Native American Student Assembly’s executive board, participated in the panel discussion and shared that she is from the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. She described the event as “a surreal moment” and was proud to be representing her fellow students and to be a Trojan.
Roach-Valandra will be returning to her reservation for the holidays and shared that she is always trying to find balance “between this [USC] world and mine.” But the progress of the student assembly has given her a sense of pride and of mission.
“To have this event and everyone here is so amazing,” she said. “I’m so proud of us.”
Five Things You Need to Know: Newly Minted Trojans
USC welcomed 3,633 first-year students as new enrollees in the fall. They came from more than 2,000 high schools in all 50 states in the United States as well as Washington, D.C., Guam and Puerto Rico, and more than 60 countries.
November 16, 2023
By Greg Hernandez
Read on to learn some interesting facts about the first-year students and the 1,335 transfer students who are newly minted Trojans.
A record 25% of the first-year enrollees are first-generation college students whose parents do not have four-year degrees. Other USC records set by this group: 20% are Latino and 31% are from ethnic groups that have been historically underrepresented in American higher education.
Don’t worry, you’re not seeing double — or triple — if you come across these Trojans on campus or at a football game. The freshman class includes three sets of triplets and 28 sets of twins. In addition, six sets of twins are new transfer students who started at USC in the fall.
International students make up 17% of the first-year students, representing 65 countries. By far the biggest group (241 students) comes from China (including Hong Kong and Macau), followed by India (81 students), Canada (50 students) and South Korea (34 students).
The fall enrollees include 44 first-year students who participated in the USC Leslie and William McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative (NAI). This seven-year program prepares 6th-12th grade students from low-income households in neighborhoods closest to USC in South Los Angeles and the Eastside for admission and graduation from college.
Making the Grade
An impressive 31% of the first-year Trojans were straight-A students during high school. As a group, the students had an overall average of 3.86 on a 4.0 scale and 94% had a grade point average above 3.5.
During Wednesday’s honoring of National First-Generation College Celebration Day, USC senior Evelyn Marquez was among the students who wrote a personal message of inspiration on a small, colorful piece of paper. These messages, supplied by attendees of the event, were added to a makeshift bulletin board set up for the day in Hahn Plaza.
Marquez wrote the motto her immigrant mother would often repeat to her in Spanish: “Preguntando se llega a Roma,” which in English means, “By asking, you get to Rome.”
“Being very passionate about what I’m doing has really helped me figure out a path,” Marquez said. “It’s definitely been a learning curve every single year. But it’s about being actively curious and asking questions. It’s not going to just come to you and be served on a silver platter.”
“Our students are breaking barriers and filling our institutions with their brilliance, rich cultures, backgrounds and histories,” said Alejandra Delacruz Hong, director of Student Equity and Inclusion Programs’ Trojan Success Initiatives, who greeted students at an information booth during the event. “They’re just making it happen for themselves and their families.”
Being first in their families takes work
USC defines first-generation college students as students whose parents do not have four-year degrees. Of the 3,633 first-year students enrolled in fall classes, a record 25% are first-generation. In addition, 28% of fall transfers are first-generation college students.
“If you don’t come from a community or a space or a family where other people went into higher education, you don’t know a lot of times what it means,” Hong said. “Our students have all sorts of questions like: ‘What does it mean to do research?’ ‘What’s a fellowship?’ ‘What are office hours?’ ‘How do I interact with my professors?’ That’s what we try to provide, and we collaborate with several campus partners to make sure students have what they need to succeed.”
USC’s First Generation Plus Success Center was announced in 2020 and opened its doors this fall on the second floor of the Ronald Tutor Campus Center. It serves as a resource hub and aims to create a culture of belonging and inclusion for first-generation students as they transition into college life. The center promotes campus engagement, community building and visibility, with a focus on the retention and success of first-generation students.
Students find different paths to USC
As senior Gabriel Do of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering waited in line to get a T-shirt at the event, he talked about the “nerve-wracking” journey he had applying for college while in high school in San Jose, Calif.
“I had friends whose parents had gone to college, but I mostly had to figure things out on my own,” Do said. “But it worked out, and my parents were pretty ecstatic when I got accepted.”
Do hopes other first-generation students will be encouraged by his experience and advises them to find the support networks they need.
USC Dornsife senior Alicia Camarena-Millan was also among those who stopped by to leave a message on the bulletin board set up near Tommy Trojan.
“I feel very proud of myself,” said Camarena-Millan, who, by coincidence, had just written about her experience of being a first-generation student earlier in the day as part of the application process for a volunteer position. She transferred to USC last fall after attending Victor Valley College in Victorville, Calif., and will begin work on a master’s degree after graduation in May.
“I loved being a transfer student because it made the whole process a little bit easier,” Camarena-Millan said. “I was prepared.”
Some of the other messages students, faculty and staff left on the bulletin board included “Fighting on for my family,” “Making it easy for my bloodline,” “Don’t be afraid to [be] the one to pave the way” and “You’re a trailblazer!”
A Trojan already paying it forward
USC Dornsife senior Andrew Mecatl has made it part of his mission as a Trojan to help his fellow first-generation classmates get the most out of their collegiate experience.
Mecatl, who is also earning a Master of Studies in Law degree from the USC Gould School of Law, says he initially didn’t think about how being a first-generation student would affect his experience as a Trojan until he started classes at USC.
“Once I stepped foot onto campus, I had a realization that people come from different backgrounds and certain groups — certain populations — do have the upper hand and privilege,” he said. “They may have had access to resources that students like me do not have.”
Mecatl did not want to stand by and accept what he saw as an “unfair situation,” so he began to work with others on the establishment of the First Generation Student Assembly. The student group’s trial run began this fall; its main goal is to provide social and professional events for first-generation students, to advocate for them in university policymaking, and to increase visibility of these students on campus.
“One of the biggest things I have promised myself is to make sure that with every door that I open, that door remains open for other people to follow behind,” Mecatl said. “I think about the other students who graduated before seeing this opportunity come to life. I imagine what they would have experienced if they had something like this during their career at USC.”
School boards are the new frontline of America’s culture wars, USC experts say
A Banned Books Week display is at the Mott Haven branch of the New York Public Library in the Bronx borough of New York City on Saturday, October 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)
November 06, 2023
Diversity and inclusion programs, book bans, censorship, debates over school curricula are all signs that America’s culture wars have moved into a new combat zone: school boards.
School board races, which many voters will decide on Tuesday, have become increasingly partisan and polarized, despite boards’ statuses as nonpartisan institutions. In some districts, civil liberties are at stake as board members and candidates promote “wedge issues” that can divide voters and their communities. USC experts are available to comment on these issues.
Theodore Burns is a licensed clinical psychologist and clinical counselor whose research focuses on adolescent and family psychotherapy, sex education and positivity, and mental health work with queer and gender diverse (LGBTQ+) clients. Burns is a professor of clinical education at the USC Rossier School of Education.
Christian Grose is an expert in American government, political institutions; political representation; the politics of the policy-making process; electoral behavior and campaigns; race, ethnicity, and politics. Grose is a professor of political science and public policy at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
Shaun Harper is one of the nation’s most highly respected racial equity experts whose research focuses primarily on race, gender, and other dimensions of equity in an array of organizational contexts, including K-12 schools, colleges and universities, and corporations. Harper is a provost professor in the USC Rossier School of Education and the USC Marshall School of Business.
Royel Johnson is an associate professor at USC Rossier and an expert in educational access, racial equity, and student belonging and success, particularly for Black and intersectionally marginalized groups impacted by the criminal punishment, child welfare, and inequitable educational systems.
Julie Marsh is a professor of education at USC Rossier and an expert in K-12 policy and governance, blending perspectives in education, sociology, and political science. She recently co-authored an op-ed on how attacks on school boards threaten American democracy.
Pedro Noguera, Dean of the USC Rossier School of Education, is an expert on the ways in which schools are influenced by social and economic conditions, as well as by demographic trends in local, regional and global contexts.
Mindy Romero is founder and director of the USC Center for Inclusive Democracy whose research focuses on political behavior and race/ethnicity, and seeks to explain patterns of voting and political underrepresentation, particularly among youth and communities of color in California and the U.S.
Frank Zerunyan is an expert in governance, public policy and civic and ethical leadership who can discuss the importance of local elections. Zerunyan is a professor of the practice of governance at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy.
Standing in the bright, spacious room of the newly renovated Asian Pacific American Student Services Lounge on Tuesday, USC President Carol Folt reminded the hundreds of students, staff and faculty there that before this fall, they could never have gathered together to celebrate this way.
“We used to squeeze people together into one room, and you couldn’t get your arms up to say, ‘Fight On!’ at the end,” Folt said with a smile. “It was very, very tight. We needed bigger.”
The official grand reopening celebration of the dramatically expanded Student Equity and Inclusion Programs area on the fourth floor of the Gwynn Wilson Student Union building included music, refreshments and plenty of camaraderie and joy.
After a series of renovations, the spaces have been tripled in size from 5,000 to 15,000 square feet. The changes have resulted in less cluttered areas for APASS, La CASA, the LGBTQ+ Student Center and the Native American & Pasifika Student Lounge. Staff and students in these spaces present programs that acknowledge intersectionality and seek to create a sense of belonging and nurture well-being.
The improved student spaces are not only larger, but many are also now connected, with shared kitchens and meeting rooms paving the way for more interaction between the different student groups. Each area honors specific cultures and identities through artwork and other features, but all have one common design element: Stenciled on the wall of each in large letters are the words “You Belong at USC.”
“I would certainly say this is a moment when we have to find places that people can be together and find each other,” Folt said to the approximately 300 people at the launch event. “You can go from room to room and probably find a home in so many parts of this amazing center. That’s what students said they wanted to be able to do.”
Vice President for Student Life Monique S. Allard described the grand reopening of the multiple centers as “a momentous moment in our university’s history” and praised Folt’s leadership and dedication to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging on campus.
“She is one of our champions and a real pleasure and privilege to work with,” Allard said. “We’re able to build an inclusive legacy for all of our students today and all the students in the decades to come.”
A growing demand for USC Student Equity and Inclusion Programs space
During the 2022-23 school year, visits to the APASS space surged by 33% to 4,300 visits. Summer renovation resulted in more than double the previous square footage for the space dedicated to the more than 40 ethnic groups that are included in the Asian and Pacific Islander community.
Phong Doozy, a graduate student at USC Price School of Public Policy, has been frequenting the APASS Lounge since his freshman year and was pleased to be on hand for the event.
“I think this is state-of-the-art,” he said of the renovated space. “This is a great place for students to learn from one another but to also have a safe place to do their homework and to collaborate on personal or academic goals as well. I’m very happy to be involved.”
Doozy said it has always been a part of his cultural upbringing as a Vietnamese American to stay connected with his community. He is glad to have found the opportunity to do so at USC.
“I think there’s no better place than to be involved with people who care so much about your cultural background, your academic achievement and success in your personal life,” he said.
Also doubled is the physical space for La CASA. The center had 5,500 visits during the last school year. The number is expected to grow during the current school year, with 20% of this fall’s first-year students identifying as Latino — a USC record.
Graduate students Stacy Castillo and Eliana Cotom of the USC Rossier School of Education are among those who frequent the space and attended the grand reopening.
“I come here all the time, and every time I make a new friend,” Castillo said. “People just like to talk, and it’s a nice feeling. It’s really been a great space for me.”
Cotom has been coming to La CASA since her undergraduate days at USC and said the space always seemed a bit crowded before the renovation. She is appreciative of the additional room to study and attend meetings and events.
“It’s a bit more walkable now,” she said. “I love seeing the colors, the couch space, the seats. If you want to take a nap and put your feet up, you can do that.”
Cotom added that it is important for Latino students at USC to be able to connect with their fellow students to “understand the struggles, have a sense of belonging, a sense of home.”
Connecting with community
The LGBTQ+ Student Center, which had more than 6,000 student visits last school year, has been expanded by another 300 square feet after previously growing by 300 square feet in 2021. The center hosts weekly affinity groups for a variety of identities and communities within the LGBTQ+ umbrella.
“It just feels like a breath of fresh air,” USC Rossier graduate student Izzy Batiste said during the open house. “When you have a space where everybody’s familiar with each other and goes through the same experiences, you can have conversations where you can really connect with people.”
Junior Cat Broderick of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences chatted with Folt during a tour of the newly located Native American & Pasifika Student Lounge. She shared how students come into the space to listen to traditional music, share a laugh “and be understood.”
“It’s essential that we have a space that’s safe for us to come together and to be in community where we can really be honest,” Broderick said. “I come in here every day and I see my best friends — I think that’s the way it is for everyone.”
Moves create more room for USC Student Equity and Inclusion Programs
The transformation of the building began during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 with the moving of the ticket office from the first floor of the Student Union over to the Galen Center. This enabled the Center for Black Cultural and Student Affairs to move from the fourth floor to the first and expand dramatically.
The additional space has been crucial since the center has seen its student visits grow from 500 per year pre-pandemic to 8,874 check-ins last year. The space also became home to the new Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) Student Lounge.
The move also paved the way for the addition of the First Generation Plus Success Center, which serves first-generation students, transfer students, former foster youth and undocumented students. The fall enrollment of first-year students had a USC record 26% first-generation students, while 28% of new transfer students are first-generation.
After speaking, Folt toured each of the renovated spaces and spoke with the students who frequently spend time there between classes and during free time.
“Students really expressed a greater sense of belonging,” she said. “That’s what we’re looking for in this world. That is what we all want and need to feel and when we do our best work.”
As a Latina, Marquez is also part of the 27% of new transfer students who are from ethnic groups that have been historically underrepresented in American higher education: 17% Latino, 7% Black, and 6% who identify with two or more ethnic groups, some of which are underrepresented. In addition, Native American and Native Hawaiian students make up 0.3% of the transfers.
Based on national data from the federal government, USC leads all private research universities when it comes to enrolling transfer students.
USC’s Office of Admission reports that the transfer class comes from approximately 300 different colleges and universities, with 52% transferring from a community college in California and 8% coming from schools within the Los Angeles Community College District.
“Even though we are a private institution, we are working for the public good and taking care of students in our own backyard,” USC Dean of Admission Timothy Brunold said. “We are continuing to prioritize transfer students and they have long been important to USC.”
Santa Monica College sent the largest number of new students (107) to USC, followed by Pasadena City College (67), Glendale Community College (43), El Camino College (34) and Los Angeles Pierce College (27).
“We are continuing to prioritize transfer students and they have long been important to USC.”
— Timothy Brunold, USC dean of admission
Meanwhile, 13% of new transfer students came from a University of California or California State University school, with most students coming from the University of California, Santa Barbara; the University of California, Irvine; and the University of California, Riverside.
“Each year, we have enrollment goals to meet, and we always hold room for transfer students, which is a little different than at some colleges,” Brunold said. “We are proactive, and transfers are a permanent part of our enrollment mix.”
The road to USC for transfer students
Marquez applied to USC while in high school, dreaming of attending her father’s alma mater. But she also applied to the University of San Francisco just in case — and was accepted to both schools. In a difficult decision based on finances, she agreed to go to school in San Francisco.
After her freshman year, Marquez decided that she wanted her bachelor’s degree in computer science to be from USC and that she would take whatever steps necessary to make that happen. She moved back home and enrolled at Rio Hondo College in Whittier. She took the classes she needed, earned a merit-based scholarship and was able to move into Troy Hall and begin her junior year at USC this fall.
“I’m so glad I’m here,” she said. “They have a great computer science program, and it has the collaborative environment I was looking for.”
In addition to her classwork, Marquez has been attending career fairs and Trojan Talks, both hosted by the Career Center. She has also found it invaluable to be paired with a mentor through the USC Viterbi Center for Engineering Diversity, which assists in the recruitment, retention, and graduation of people from minoritized backgrounds pursuing engineering degrees.
“There are not a lot of women, especially Hispanic women, in my major, and I’m really proud that I have been able to get to this point,” she said, mentioning that USC has many resources for minorities in STEM that she’s been able to take advantage of.
“A big goal of mine is to inspire others like me to be able to do what I’m doing here.”
USC transfer students: Being first-generation
Antonio Espinoza-Espino, a sophomore in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, transferred to USC after spending his freshman year at the College of the Sequoias in Visalia, Calif. He is among the 28% of fall transfers who are first-generation college students. USC defines first-generation college students as those whose parents do not have four-year degrees.
“I was really wanting to come here,” Espinoza-Espino said last week after attending a late afternoon meditation session for transfer students at the First Generation Plus Success Center. “My parents were overjoyed for me when I got accepted because I didn’t have the grades for a school like USC out of high school.”
Espinoza-Espino grew up in a rural area of Central California and said that after some initial “culture shock,” he has been able to embrace life as a Trojan.
“The school spirit here is amazing,” he said. “I’ve never experienced anything like it. I’ve been going to the football games, and the energy is just contagious.”
Attending the same meditation session was USC Dornsife junior Keri Carter, a first-generation student who attended Harold Washington College in Chicago for two years before transferring to USC.
“I appreciate that there was an orientation specifically for transfer students,” Carter said. “It made me feel like they care about us. I also liked [New Student] Convocation. It was really fun, and the speeches were thoughtful.”
The meditation session is one of several events the Transfer Student Assembly has held this fall as they work to bridge the gap between transfer students and the greater USC community.
“There are definitely unique things that transfer students face,” said Alejandra Delacruz Hong, director of Student Equity and Inclusion Programs’ Trojan Success Initiatives. “We want them to know that they have not lost out. There’s plenty of time for them to get internships and for them to build their skill set and their professional network while they’re with us.”
Persistence can pay off
USC Dornsife sophomore Lina Urquiza is among USC’s newest transfer students who were able to enroll after having previously been denied admission.
Urquiza spent her freshman year at UC Irvine, after she wasn’t accepted to USC. She studied hard and got an on-campus job, but she remained determined to be a Trojan.
“At first, I was just disappointed in myself,” Urquiza said about her initial rejection. “But then I was like, ‘Well, I really want to end up there!’ So, I spent the entire year proving that I deserve to be here academically.”
She has spent the past two months happily navigating Trojan life with her three roommates, who are also transfer students.
“I’m appreciating my time here even more because I have less time here,” Urquiza said.
The average college grade point average of USC’s fall transfer students was 3.80, with 90% having a GPA higher than 3.50 and 28% having a 4.00 in college. Brunold said this is particularly impressive because making the academic transition from high school to college can be challenging.
“Clearly, these new students already know what it takes to earn an A grade in a college class,” Brunold said. “This leaves me optimistic for the future prospects of this group.”