As a 9-year-old girl growing up in California’s San Fernando Valley, América Ferrera remembers lying in bed, dreaming of fame and diamonds.
“That’s a 9-year-old’s fantasy of celebrity,” Ferrera said in a keynote address to more than 250 people who attended the 40th anniversary celebration of USC Dornsife’s Joint Educational Project (JEP) held at Town and Gown on the USC University Park campus Oct. 29.
“My mother gave us the courage to dream big dreams,” Ferrera said of América Griselda Ayes who had emigrated from Honduras and raised her six children as a single mother. Ferrera was the youngest.
“Ridiculous dreams like becoming a movie star. That was my crazy dream.”
During the ceremony, Ferrera, USC Dornsife alumna and Emmy Award-winning actress, said every single youth deserves the opportunity to reach her or his potential. While an international relations undergraduate, she said, “JEP sparked a flame in me and that flame is still burning.”
That spark became the catalyst leading to her worldwide humanitarian work today.
USC Dornsife Dean Steve Kay began his remarks by acknowledging Tammara Anderson, JEP’s executive director, whom JEP founder Barbara Seaver Gardner hired in 1981.
“The wisdom and guidance you have shared with countless JEP staff and students will continue to ensure that we make a tangible impact far into the future,” Kay told Anderson.
Gardner founded JEP in 1972 at a time USC was at odds with neighborhood residents, who saw the university as a wealthy, powerful campus expansion. Gardner believed that creating service-learning opportunities for USC students in neighborhood schools could fundamentally change relations with the surrounding community and empower youth and USC students alike.
Through the years, 70,000 USC students have contributed more than a million hours of service to the surrounding community. Each year, roughly 2,000 students through many courses and disciplines receive academic credit for their participation, and 400 more serve as non-credit volunteers. In 2000, Time magazine and Princeton Review named USC the “College of the Year,” citing JEP’s outreach programs.
In a JEP science program, USC students introduce fourth graders to the terms “volume,” “temperature” and “chemical reaction” using yeast and balloons as props. In another, tutors visit elementary schools, read children a book and then practice yoga imbuing the themes in the literature. JEP students challenge young students to look at Los Angeles through a global lens, considering topics such as culture, tolerance and conflict management. They provide support at area clinics and hospitals translating Spanish to English and assisting during examinations.
“This work is absolutely key to their university education and to their development as civic leaders,” Kay said. “As Barbara once explained, JEP’s goal is constantly to foster intellectual connections between what the students experience in their community service and what they study in their formal academic courses.”
With public service projected to be 34 percent of America’s gross domestic product by 2025, USC must prepare its students to be fully developed public intellectuals who understand the complexities of an urban environment, Kay said.
“Through their JEP experiences, these students have found how important it is for us to make human connections with each other and across divides: whether class, education, race or age,” Kay said. “Service learning, they have discovered, helps to bridge those gaps because it provides two precious commodities: access and opportunity.”
Opportunity was a theme in Ferrera’s speech. She recalled her regular visits to Norwood Street Elementary School to teach students conflict-resolution skills in a program then called Peace Games. Now called Peace First, Ferrera became the program’s national spokesperson.
“To be perfectly honest my reason for getting involved with JEP was to get extra credit in Professor [Steve] Lamy’s IR-210 class,” Ferrera said. “Of course I never imagined I would also be getting some of the most memorable and formidable experiences in my time at USC. Perhaps that was Professor Lamy’s master plan all along.”
JEP inspired her to participate in USC Dornsife’s Teaching International Relations Program (TIRP).
“I remember on my last day teaching TIRP, I made certificates for my ninth graders saying, ‘You did it! You completed TIRP!’ And a young woman came up to me with tears in her eyes and showed me the certificate I had made at Kinkos a few hours earlier. And she said, ‘This is the first thing I’ve ever won.’ ”
That is the real meaning behind JEP, Ferrera said.
“JEP gives young people an opportunity to be seen,” she said. “And to recognize in each other a shared humanity. Now, it would be so easy to look through all the young people who live on the other side of USC’s borders, young people who can only ever dream of having the opportunity to study here, young people struggling to overcome social and economic barriers just to stay in school or to get through school. But JEP is committed to recognizing these challenges.
“To looking at them squarely and to see at the heart of them, they are people, people with talent skills and dreams who deserve the opportunity to fulfill their potential and contribute greatly to the world. My experience showed me that talent is universal. But opportunity is not. And the duty belongs to all of us here tonight to help bridge that gap.”
Elaborating, Anderson emphasized the importance of partnerships. Throughout the decades, JEP has built partnerships with faculty, community members, students, alumni and donors.
“All of us coming together to make JEP one of the oldest and largest, internationally recognized service-learning programs in the country,” Anderson said. “Look around. Each one of you has played a part in our success — as you have partnered with us — sharing your time, talent and treasure. Thank you so much.”
Playing a key part in JEP’s success was Daniel Potter, who as a biology undergraduate and JEP participant founded Trojan Health Volunteers (THV), which provides pre-med students opportunities to work with doctors at area clinics and hospitals. Upon Potter’s graduation in 1987, JEP adopted THV, which today oversees about 160 student volunteers each academic year.
Speaking at the event, Potter recounted helping a doctor administer free vaccinations to children at St. John’s Well Child & Family Center near USC.
“There were long lines outside the clinic,” Potter, now a reproductive endocrinologist, recalled of his undergraduate service. “I was amazed by the physician who volunteered her time after a full day of work at her job to treat every patient in that line, no matter how long it took. I remember the gratitude the mothers expressed because of the care their children were given.
“When we were done seeing patients, the physician was no longer tired but exhilarated, as was I,” he said. “I discovered that providing medical care to others can and should bring joy to those who provide it. I was there to help the physician help patients. And I came away inspired. You set out to help others, but find yourself getting back so much more than you give.”
Audience members said the event was heartfelt. Steven Jarmus, who volunteered at JEP as a political science undergraduate the year after the program began, said the tutoring he gave third graders made a positive impact in his life.
“I’m not sure I understood at the time what kind of impact JEP would have on me,” Jarmus said. “Thirty-nine years later, JEP is still rockin’ and rollin.’ ”
On that note, the Trojan Marching Band emerged to play for the crowd, but not before Anderson and event co-chairs Deena Lew and Sharon Tesoriero ended by shouting: “Serve on!”