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Brink of Life

Whether incoming freshmen or transfer students, the more than 1,800 undergrads starting their Fall semester in USC Dornsife take a giant step in life’s journey.

USC Dornsife freshman Azmera Hammouri-Davis flashes a Trojan sign while her mother, Tamara Hammouri Mie, gives the pinky and thumb salute -- the symbol of aloha and hang loose in Hawaii. Inside the USC Pertusati Bookstore, USC Dornsife incoming transfer student Baron Barrera buys textbooks with his wife, Cayla Barrera. Photos by Ben Pack.
USC Dornsife freshman Azmera Hammouri-Davis flashes a Trojan sign while her mother, Tamara Hammouri Mie, gives the pinky and thumb salute -- the symbol of aloha and hang loose in Hawaii. Inside the USC Pertusati Bookstore, USC Dornsife incoming transfer student Baron Barrera buys textbooks with his wife, Cayla Barrera. Photos by Ben Pack.

Arriving at USC from Oahu, Hawaii, the first thing Azmera Hammouri-Davis unpacked was a Kukui nut lei, a traditional greeting gift she brought for her roommate.

The state tree of Hawaii, the Kukui has a spiritual meaning of light, hope and renewal. Those words describe the 18-year-old freshman’s pivotal moment in life, when all opportunities are hers for the taking.      

Unpacking purple linens from her suitcase and placing them on the top bunk inside her dorm room at Fluor Tower, Hammouri-Davis said her goals for freshman year are to earn a high GPA and get involved in as many clubs and volunteer programs as possible. She knows this happens only once.

“I just want to enjoy freshman year,” she said. “And get a feel for what I want to do in life.”

Hammouri-Davis was among the more than 1,200 first-year and 600 transfer students welcomed into the USC Dornsife Trojan Family this week. After moving in on Aug. 22, the new students attended a lunch event in the Ronald Tutor Campus Center. USC Dornsife Incoming Dean Steve Kay as well as vice deans, faculty, students and staff greeted the new Trojans, who had the opportunity to speak with academic advisers and learn about research opportunities, majors and minors, programs, clubs and academic organizations in USC Dornsife.

Hammouri-Davis was eager to learn more about the more than 60 majors and 80 minors USC Dornsife offers. After conducting research on the Department of Psychology in USC Dornsife, Hammouri-Davis was impressed and registered as a psychology major. Yet, after learning more about all her options, she may leave her major open for now.

“I want to explore everything there is to offer,” she said.

In Hawaii, Hammouri-Davis’ mother, Tamara Hammouri Mie, is a family crisis therapist, which is why Hammouri-Davis became interested in psychology. Hammouri-Davis is considering following her mother’s footsteps and helping those in crisis situations.

Hammouri-Davis witnessed her parent’s marriage dissolve and her mother’s strength and courage to move from Hawaii to Miami, Fla., with four small children. During the past 13 years, Hammouri-Davis watched as her mother earned three degrees while raising her children as a single mother. Hammouri Mie, who moved her family back to Hawaii after five years in Florida, is currently finishing her fourth degree, a Ph.D. in psychology.

The freshman has learned from her past.

“Seeing my father battle alcohol and drugs showed me where it gets you — nowhere,” Hammouri-Davis said. “Instead of staying out late and partying with friends, I devoted more time on my academics, my extra-curriculars and my athletics.”

Hammouri-Davis graduated with a 4.0 GPA from James Campbell High School in Ewa Beach, 25 miles from Honolulu. She played on the basketball team and was selected class valedictorian.

“Seeing everything my mother went through instilled in me a purpose,” Hammouri-Davis said. “It motivated me to just stay focused and do well.”

It won’t be easy seeing her mother get on a plane back to Hawaii, she added.

“If it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t be who I am today.”

On the other side of campus, at the USC Pertusati Bookstore, Baron Barrera, 27, perused the shelves picking out textbooks to purchase. Barrera, a sophomore transferring from Houston Community College, will earn his bachelor’s degree in environmental studies. He’s considering a progressive degree that would allow him to obtain a bachelor’s and master’s concurrently.

After graduating from high school in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., in 2003, Barrera joined the United States Coast Guard, and was sent to boot camp in Cape May, NJ.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life nor did I have the funding to attend college,” Barrera said. “Instead of floating around I decided why not do something fun and save some lives.”

In 2004, he was sent to Valdez, Alaska, to work on a search-and-rescue cutter. There, he helped to rescue crab, halibut, salmon and pollock fishermen performing the high-risk job depicted in such television shows as Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch.

“I battled sea sickness, boat fires, fatigue, loneliness and fear when I arrived at my first duty station in Valdez,” Barrera said.

Sailing through 30-foot seas and navigating a small 110-foot boat while working through long hours of sea sickness and fatigue were difficult on their own.

“But getting out on deck with those conditions and fighting fires, towing boats, pulling people off of sinking vessels and out of the water while having the harsh climate of Alaska on your heels was nothing short of amazing,” he said.

While in Alaska, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 and he was sent there for recovery efforts.

“It was pretty horrific to be honest with you,” Barrera said. “I would have to kind of compartmentalize what I saw in my mind and deal with the emotions after my work day.”

In 2010, he led a team to help clean up the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and was sent to West and Central Texas to respond to the land side efforts.

“The Coast Guard gave me tremendous discipline, responsibility and work ethic,” he said. “It taught me to put others first and to always give 100 percent even while working through improbable success.”

After leaving the Coast Guard in 2010, he served as an environmental consultant and demobilization unit leader. He restarted his education and is elated to be attending USC Dornsife. His wife, Cayla Barrera, will teach math in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

After spending years at sea saving lives, Barrera now wants to devote his life to protecting oceans.

“I understand and respect our need for the maritime industry, but I want to stress the importance of preserving our oceans for the greater good of society and the environment,” he said.

For example, he said, can the U.S. impose regulations that would mitigate the spills of harmful pollutants? Can the U.S. supplement drilling products with additives that make the harmful elements less damaging to the environment upon impact?

“These are questions with possible solutions that I feel the need to learn about and further research.”