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Follow Your Heart

Illustration by Amy Martin
Illustration by Amy Martin

Like most of my fellow Trojans, I lived off the I-10 Freeway during my four years at USC. I took it to the beach on beautiful afternoons; I followed it to countless reporting assignments for Annenberg classes and the Daily Trojan. I feel like I’ve driven it a thousand times across Los Angeles.

I never thought I would take the 10 to its intersection at Claiborne Avenue, nearly 2,500 miles away in New Orleans, La.

Yet, through a series of unforeseen circumstances, every morning I followed the I-10 Claiborne Avenue off-ramp down into the depths of subterranean New Orleans, past the topsy-turvy devastation of the 9th Ward and into St. Bernard Parish. There, every single home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. A far cry from the shimmering skyscrapers I remembered off the 10 in L.A.

For my first two years as a USC alumna, I served as an AmeriCorps member working for a rebuilding nonprofit in the Orleans and St. Bernard parishes. Along with my 68 colleagues from around the country, I found myself in the midst of the slow, painful recovery of a great American city. Besides this fact, we all had a couple things in common: We didn’t know what we were in for, and none of us had imagined ourselves at the intersection of two back alleyways, in a former appliance repair shop that still bore the evidence of a 12-foot-high water line.

Together, we completed more than 100 homes, raised the funding to complete at least 100 more and met residents who would forever change our lives and our perspectives. Even now, as I write this back on the West Coast, I think often of Miss Elizabeth and Joycelyn, who lost everything — family members, their home, their community — and came back to rebuild and work in the nonprofit’s mental health and wellness clinic to counsel others still struggling.

Now that I’m back in California, when my experiences in New Orleans come up in conversation, I'm often asked why we should rebuild in these areas where flooding could happen again. It’s not smart, right? Aren’t we setting these neighborhoods up for another disaster? I asked these same questions of Elizabeth and Joycelyn and many other New Orleanians who we helped, and their answer was universal: It’s home.

For them, home is more than just a house or a block. It’s tight-knit community. For them, success is defined by living in a home you own on the same street as your mom and dad ... and cousins and aunts and uncles and nephews. That always stuck with me, because it is so different from the definition of success I laid out for myself long ago, which focused more on my career and assumed my happiness would be derived from that.

While at USC, I attempted to map out my paths and crossroads to success. I would write for a newspaper at first, go back to grad school and specialize in international public policy, then return to journalism as a special correspondent. My impact on the world would be to inform the public of critical events. I pictured that all of this would occur in a major metropolis.

So when the possibility of New Orleans threatened to disrupt this map, I was eager to dismiss it. I asked one of my professors for back-up, instead receiving the response: “You should do it. But you’re going to have to learn to talk slower.”

I never did. But I did learn how to eat crawfish, dress up for Mardi Gras, catch the best throws from a float and dance to brass bands. New Orleans taught me that success is much more than a series of paths to a distinguished career.

I’m now in San Francisco where they can understand what I say and don’t point out my “California accent.” Though I’ve crisscrossed my way back west, I carry my memories of New Orleans with me. They act as a reminder that life presents you with intersections all the time. Maybe you should take a chance on the one you never considered, because it might just change your perspective for the better.


Catherine Lyons ’09 is a policy associate at the Bay Area Council, a business-sponsored public policy advocacy organization in San Francisco. She graduated from USC Dornsife and the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism with degrees in international relations and print journalism.

Read more articles from USC Dornsife Magazine's Spring/Summer 2012 issue