Lucila Duarte: ‘I Can Do Anything’
Before Lucila Duarte’s mother died of breast cancer while Duarte was preparing to finish high school, Lucila del Carmen Jurado de Duarte told her daughter not to be afraid.
“You were born with strong lungs, you have a strong voice,” her mother told a young Lucila, who held her mother’s hand as she lay dying. “Stay strong.”
Duarte has kept that mantra throughout her 45 years. Knowing that she is twice the age of those around her earning their bachelor’s degrees on May 16 at USC makes her feel all the more vibrant.
“Since I am a Trojan, I know that I can do anything,” she said, pausing to reflect. “Life can be hard.”
Born and raised in Veracruz, Mexico, the youngest of four children, Duarte became despondent after her mother’s death. Her brother, Jose E. Duarte, invited her to stay with him in Los Angeles.
“Come here, take English classes and get your head straight,” Jose Duarte told his 17-year-old sister.
After a year in L.A., her father, a doctor in Veracruz, persuaded her to return home and attend college. Following the lead of a few friends, she enrolled at Universidad Veracruzana, where she studied business administration with a minor in international relations. A few years later, she moved back to L.A., where she eventually found work at a textile company.
Hired as a sales director for the international market, she made good money and often traveled to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and other countries on business. She bought a condominium in San Pedro and settled down.
Years later, in 2009, the great recession hit. Her company began downsizing. She walked into work one day and found she no longer had a job.
“I felt like somebody pulled a rug out from under my feet,” she said. “It was depressing. This was my career. I said, ‘What am I going to do now?’ ”
No longer able to pay her mortgage, she lost her condo. She moved back in with her brother.
“Imagine starting over at 40 and living with your brother,” she said. “Eventually, I realized that when one door closes another one opens. I started thinking about other possibilities.”
She awoke early every day and with high hopes, went job hunting.
“I said, ‘I’m here, I’m healthy, my mother didn’t have another chance, I have that chance,’ ” she said. “I always try to see the positive side of things because that’s the way my parents raised us.”
With so many people also suddenly unemployed, the market was flooded. After so many rejections, she did some soul-searching. She knew she wanted to teach and decided to go back to school.
A student at Los Angeles Harbor College in Wilmington, Calif., she laughed when a counselor told her she had the grades and community involvement to get into a big university such as USC.
“I thought, ‘I don’t have a chance,’ ” she said.
May 16, she earned her bachelor’s in Spanish at USC Dornsife. Admitted on a Presidential Scholarship, she also worked full-time as a hospital nurse’s assistant while maintaining a 3.8 GPA. She’s been on the dean’s list each semester, belongs to the Phi Sigma Theta Honor Society, the National Society of Collegiate Scholars and was inducted in to the Latino Honors Society.
“I said I wouldn’t cry,” she said, tearing up before the ceremony.
“Without the help of USC, I would not be here,” she said, giving a shout out to El Centro Chicano, Billy Vela and Letti Delgado, and her “guardian angel” Consuelo Ortiz Sigüenza, assistant professor of Spanish.
She is set to earn her master’s degree at California State University, Dominguez Hills, then will teach high school Spanish to underserved students.
“I am not that special,” she said. “I am just a humble and a hardworking adult student who returned to school after 20 years, and finally achieved my goals. Destiny had a plan for my life.”
Zade Shakir: Kicks for Kids
It was while volunteering at Spirits in Action — USC’s annual version of the Special Olympics — that Zade Shakir met Erick, a severely autistic young man. Erick had trouble verbalizing emotions but his love of sport was obvious.
“There was genuine passion in the way he kicked a soccer ball,” said Shakir, who earned a bachelor’s degree in international relations and biology on May 16. “Speaking to his mother after the event, I realized there are very few resources for children with physical and developmental disabilities, particularly in organized sport.”
Erick inspired Shakir to found Kicks for Kids at USC. The program started in September 2013 with 30 children and 50 registered volunteers. Dedicated to promoting a healthy, active lifestyle for special needs children, Shakir’s organization now counts more than 500 registered volunteers and more than 300 registered players. Regular sessions held at the heart of the USC University Park campus at McCarthy Quad provide one-on-one sporting activities with a student volunteer, plus a free nutritious snack and tips on healthy living.
Growing up in San Jose, Calif., the son of immigrants from Iraq, participating in organized sports had been a major part of Shakir’s childhood.
“I’ve been passionate about health and fitness all my life. Playing sports was where I derived most of my happiness and made most of my friends growing up, so it really troubled me that children with special needs are excluded from these programs because of the disabilities they are born with,” said Shakir, a keen athlete and soccer player, who was selected to join the Olympic Development Program at age 11.
Statistics showing that obesity rates for children with disabilities are 40 percent higher, and they are three times more likely to be bullied at school, added to his resolve.
“I wanted to create a program to provide opportunities to those who are denied them, while also creating a warm and welcoming environment for families that’s conducive to exercise and having fun.”
Now, Shakir is taking his efforts further. He is leaning towards a career in medicine with a focus on special needs children. First, however, he intends to spend two years teaching high school math in Northern California with Teach For America.
And Kicks for Kids? The program is in the process of becoming a national nonprofit, and Shakir plans to expand the program to other universities nationwide, including Stanford University where a second branch will open next Fall.
“I wanted to provide a place where kids like Erick could come and play without fear of being bullied or feeling left out,” Shakir said. “I’m thrilled Kicks for Kids is achieving that goal.”
Sam Kosydar: From Physics to Economics
Clad in cap and gown, Sam Kosydar held up the gold medallion hanging around his neck with his honor cords.
The medallion was given to him by the Norman Topping Student Aid Fund for which he chaired the committee overseeing scholarship endowment.
“I’m proud of my work at Norman Topping,” said Kosydar, who earned his bachelor’s in physics on May 16. “The Topping program is about giving opportunities to first generation college students and getting them through school. I believe education is the most important way to get people out from poverty and improve their livelihoods.”
The application letters from Topping candidates describing their experiences living in a garage or having to study late at night, after their many family members went to sleep, moved him. Reared in Boise, Idaho, Kosydar faced none of these obstacles.
His father Edward, an engineer in Boise, and mother, Jerri, a nurse at USC University Park Health Center, have shown him great support. Growing up, he had a posse of family around him: His identical twin (who is graduating from the University of Pennsylvania) and a set of twin brothers one year his junior.
After winning a silver medal in the National Science Olympiad in high school, he was drawn to USC Dornsife for its robust science departments.
“I came in knowing I wanted to do some science, but felt that if I was interested in economics or history, I would have the option to do that here. The focus at USC Dornsife is interdisciplinary with opportunities to sample all courses.”
And sample he did. He became particularly interested in economics and began working in the laboratory of Nake Kamrany, a senior lecturer of economics. Working with Kamrany, he and other students helped to found the USC Global Income Convergence Group (GIC-G), which studies the narrowing disparity of per capita income among nation states around the world. Their research covers economic issues including policy, healthcare spending and energy.
Through GIC-G, he assisted in the research and drafting of opinion pieces published in The Huffington Post. One article was titled, “How to Avoid a Depression: First Reduce Unemployment.”
Happily, his own employment is secure. With a degree in physics under his belt, in 2015 he is headed to the London School of Economics and Political Science in the United Kingdom for a master’s in finance and economics. A Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society inductee, he maintained a GPA of 3.9 at USC Dornsife.
Kosydar wants to make a difference in the world economy and help bring economic opportunities for people of all socio-economic backgrounds. His experience with the Topping program showed him the importance.
Jennifer Bou Lahoud: A Purposeful Graduate
Jennifer Bou Lahoud.
Jennifer Bou Lahoud walks confidently, with purpose, in front of her USC Dornsife classmates with her diploma in hand. In her mind’s eye, at least, she walks as she used to, before the accident — the way she dreams she’ll someday walk again.
In 2008, the then 16-year-old from West Covina, Calif., went on a ski trip with family and friends that took a tragic turn. Bou Lahoud skidded off her sled and slammed into a bed of rocks and packed snow.
“The moment I landed, I felt paralyzed,” said Bou Lahoud, who earned her bachelor’s in neuroscience and psychology on May 16. Everything she knew was about to change.
Physicians first predicted she might never regain use of her legs. But an MRI showed her spinal cord might still be intact, which meant a chance to walk again. She was hopeful, but after nine bolts, two steel rods, and a piece of her hipbone were fused to her vertebrae through a five-hour surgery, she still couldn’t feel any sensation in the lower half of her body.
“Just the day before I was running up and down the hill, and now I was facing life in a wheelchair,” she said.
Bou Lahoud didn’t lose hope. Her spine was injured, but the determination and competitive spirit that made her a star athlete and straight-A student before the accident were stronger than ever.
“Every morning when the therapists came in, I would say, ‘You will see me walk again,’ ” she said.
Through months of intensive physical therapy and strong support from her parents, sister and brother, Bou Lahoud eventually regained the ability to stand and take steps with assistance. Determined not to fall behind in classes, she finished high school on time and in good academic standing. She was unsure how she could attend or afford college, though, until she found out about USC’s Physically Challenged Athletes Scholarship Fund, supported through the Swim with Mike program. The fund helps aspiring college students who’ve suffered serious illness or injuries.
She jumped at the opportunity, applying both to USC and the scholarship program. “Within the same week, I got both acceptance letters and I knew that I was going to do whatever it took to make it work,” she said.
Bou Lahoud pursued a double major in neuroscience and psychology, hoping to integrate the two fields into tangible research that will help other recovering spinal cord injury patients. She plans to attend graduate school and earn a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience, and continue to bring more awareness to the needs of those with spinal cord injuries.
And she’s still working hard to realize her dream of walking again.
Read about USC Dornsife graduate Josh Shaw. The Trojan defensive back hasn’t always played it safe. Story and video.