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FYI Peer Mentors

How can students get the most out of their USC Dornsife experience? These sophomores have the answers. They took FYI seminars last year and now are helping others acclimate and navigate.

From left, Christina Zdawczyk, Francisco Rios Casas and Shamoiya Washington. Illustrations by Joel Kimmel
From left, Christina Zdawczyk, Francisco Rios Casas and Shamoiya Washington. Illustrations by Joel Kimmel

Christina Zdawczyk
La Cañada, California
Neuroscience and East Asian Languages and Cultures

Before Christina Zdawczyk heard about her grandfather slinging a medical bag over his shoulder and making house calls on his bicycle in a small Japanese village, she envisioned herself one day donning a white lab coat. Those family yarns only intensified her dream to practice medicine in Japan.

At USC Dornsife, Zdawczyk, whose mother is Japanese and father is American, is dedicated to learning Japanese, traveling to Japan and narrowing down a practice area.

So, last year when she learned of Donal Manahan’s FYI course that focuses on the study of human health and provides each student with ongoing, current knowledge on the social implications of medicine, she quickly signed up.

“Other courses don’t offer close mentorship opportunities with such incredible teachers,” Zdawczyk said. “This is a great experience to really get to know renowned influential faculty.”

The intimate class setting allowed her to receive feedback from her professor on a level often unreachable in larger classes. Zdawczyk found comfort knowing she could approach her professor-mentor for guidance.

On the flipside, she wants to give back in the same way. As an FYI peer mentor, the Presidential Scholar is offering guidance to incoming students and directing them to clubs and activities aligned with their interests.

“USC Dornsife has so many unbelievable opportunities, but it can be overwhelming,” she said. “I got so much out of this experience and I want new students to as well.”

FYI Class: Global Human Health on a Changing Planet

“We investigate some of the medical, human welfare, health and environmental issues behind media headlines. We look at global connectivity and complicated questions such as how do humans sustain in their environment while using their environment?”

- Donal Manahan, vice dean for students and professor of biological sciences

Within the context of the modern, media-driven world, students focus on the sustainability of human health and well-being locally and globally. Using films, reviewing research and examining current events, they discuss constraints and possible solutions.


Francisco Rios Casas
Fullerton, California

Francisco Rios Casas carefully removes the foot-long whale bone from its drawer. He runs his hand along the curved pelvic bone, feeling its smoothness and rough ridges before using calipers to measure it.

Working in the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, the sophomore was elated to be spending his summer among fossils. Evolution, he has found, is fascinating.
He made the discovery after parlaying a conversation with his anthropology professor Roberto Delgado into a summer research opportunity.

It began with a knock.

Rios Casas had taken George Sanchez’s FYI course last fall during which Sanchez introduced them to “office hours” and held mock visits. He encouraged students to initiate conversations with their professors — a step that can be intimidating.

“Being undeclared was scary; the thought of visiting professors during office hours was scary,” said the first-generation college student.

Sanchez’s assurances gave Rios Casas the confidence to rap on Delgado’s door and share how his “Origins of Humanity” course led him to major in anthropology.

An FYI peer mentor, Rios Casas often recounts with new students how he took that first step.

“FYI,” he said, “is about finding your inspiration and having the courage to follow it.”


Shamoiya Washington
Los Angeles, California
Political Science

Shamoiya Washington prides herself on taking chances, no matter how formidable. The affable Trojan welcomed new experiences her first year on campus across the gamut — from conducting self-directed research examining the comparative politics of genetically engineered food to traveling to Sacramento to lobby for a bill she helped write.

But when she learned about an opportunity to travel to a country more than 5,000 miles away, she cast it aside. The concept of studying in England through the Cambridge Summer Programme seemed implausible.

“I haven’t often traveled because my family never had the means,” said Washington, a first-generation college student. “I never considered leaving the country.”

Exploring countries she had only come to know through books, though, intrigued her.

In his FYI course last fall, George Sanchez encouraged Washington to immerse herself in different cultures and exposed her to available resources, such as SOAR and SURF funds. That guidance whetted the Norman Topping scholar’s travel appetite.

Back from the University of Cambridge and an FYI peer mentor, Washington is eager to share stories of her time abroad and help new students take advantage of all USC Dornsife has to offer.

“With FYI, you gain a mentor,” she said, “someone who will guide you and expose you to the world of possibilities at USC.”

FYI Class: Understanding Los Angeles

“We go to places like Olvera Street, Catalina Island and Disneyland, and come back and talk about our experiences and observations. At Disneyland students discuss attractions and their underlying themes in relation to specific time periods. The course models the kind of intellectual life you want to have as a student.”

- George Sanchez, vice dean for college diversity and strategic initiatives and professor of American studies and ethnicity, and history

In and out of the classroom, students expand their views — discussing everything from Tinseltown to Los Angeles’ rich history. They delve into topics of ethnic diversity, poverty and racial tensions as well as other social and cultural issues integral to the city.

Read more articles from Dornsife Life magazine's Fall 2011/Winter 2012 issue