Meet the Class of 2012
Student standouts join the Trojan FamilyBy Pamela J. Johnson
December 1, 2008
One student likens conducting scientific research to playing the violin. Another found research inspiration in his adolescent acne. Still another, awed by the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh and intrigued by the artist’s mental illness, decided to study the intersection of art and science. Here is a peek into the minds and lives of some of USC College’s newest undergraduates. These eight students are among the 1,800 incoming freshman and transfer students whose innovation, intelligence, ambition and humanitarianism embody the traits of an ideal Trojan. Of the 18,194 applicants to USC College this academic year, 21 percent were admitted.
Ochanya Ogah: Rescuing Personal Freedoms
Ochanya Ogah’s first name has two distinct meanings.
In her father’s homeland of Benue, Nigeria, Ochanya roughly means “queen of womanhood.”
In her mother’s homeland of Imo, Nigeria, Ochanya means someone who is bold and very outspoken.
Combined the two names equal a strong-willed woman leader.
“Well, I’m definitely an extrovert,” Ogah remarked of living up to her name. “If I want something, I will go for it. I’m a very hard worker. Even at my high school, if I felt something needed to be done, and if no one else was doing it, I did.”
That was the case when she started Students Against Modern-Day Slavery (SAMS Club). Members at her Houston high school raised funds for the cause and organized an awareness week, including a 27-hour fast, representing the 27 million people enslaved worldwide.
Ogah was appalled to learn that the worldwide recruiting, transporting and harboring of people for the purposes of forced labor — including using children as prostitutes or soldiers — has become a multibillion-dollar-a-year industry.
“I was just so struck by this inhumane practice that should not exist in the 21st century,” Ogah said.
An international relations major, Ogah hopes to research the economic impact of human trafficking. She also may launch a SAMS Club at USC.
Embracing multiculturalism is equally important to Ogah, who was her school’s Diversity Club chair. She has also been a gymnast and dancer since childhood, performing throughout the world and remaining friends with dancers of many nationalities.
To show international solidarity, she created a huge “peace blanket,” on which she painted the faces of her friends and their corresponding country flags.
“Peace is something we all have to work on together,” she said. “No country can do it alone.”
Jordan Wong: A Different Kind of String Theory
For Jordan Wong, working science experiments in a laboratory is similar to playing a sonata on his violin.
In fact, he considers his violin playing since age 6 a great training ground for conducting lab research — something he’ll be doing quite a bit as a biochemistry major.
“Biochemistry is all about being creative and being original,” Wong said. “Playing music brings creativity to my mind, and I can bring that creativity to my science projects.”
Wong of Scottsdale, Ariz., has already had lab experience as an intern at Arizona State University in Phoenix, where he researched detecting prostate cancer. He said he’s eager to continue lab research with College professors.
And he has other credits to his name: He was a member of the National Honor Society and the Student World Assembly, and the Spanish Honors Society at his high school.
Wong, whose mother is from Belize, speaks fluent Spanish. He also speaks some Chinese — the native language of his father, who was born in Hong Kong.
In addition to his science work, Wong hopes to become involved with the USC Thornton Chamber Orchestra. He also plays the trumpet, but his real love is the violin.
Inside his dorm on campus, Wong opened his Venetian red velvet-lined, violin case and placed the instrument under his chin.
He played a sad melody — Samuel Barber’s violin concerto. These days, he doesn’t have much time to practice. Only minutes into Barber’s 22-minute concerto, he placed the century-old violin back into its cradle, shut the case and ran off to class.
Julie Guerin: The Artful Scientist
When Julie Guerin visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, she was intrigued by the drastic transformation in the artist’s paintings as he descended into madness.
Van Gogh’s early paintings — many realistic depictions of poor laborers — were dominated by earthy tones and minimal brushstrokes. Later, under the influence of Impressionism — and stints in a sanatorium — Van Gogh painted in bold, swirling brushstrokes and brilliant, intense hues.
“I found it fascinating to watch the progression in his art as his mental disease progressed,” Guerin said. “The paintings were tangible evidence of Van Gogh’s mental state. In the end, he became a fervent, fervent painter.”
Guerin’s passion for art and science drew her to USC College, where she quickly learned she would be encouraged to explore both areas.
“From the first moment I stepped on USC grounds, I knew this was the place for me,” Guerin said. “As soon as I talked to people, I felt I belonged.”
She has a double major of neuroscience and psychology and is considering a minor in art history.
“The integration of art and science is the most amazing thing,” said Guerin, also an amateur photographer. “People think of art and science as separate fields of study, but they’re interconnected. I’m excited about studying how art and science intersect.”
In her high school in Rolling Hills Estates, Calif., she was involved in science and won a prize for her research on in-vitro fertilization of red abalone eggs.
She’s eager to begin her first research project at USC and already has an idea.
“How does the chemistry of the brain affect the way someone paints?” she asked.
Alejandra Vargas-Johnson: Ties That Bind
In a black marker, she wrote on a remaining section of the Berlin Wall: ALEJANDRA SOLEDAD VARGAS-JOHNSON and her place of birth.
Just as her name — Vargas-Johnson — represents a unification of her father’s native Chile and her mother’s homeland, the United States, the wall also symbolizes unity.
It is a theme Vargas-Johnson, who was born in Santiago and raised in Alameda, Calif., can get behind.
“Seeing the wall made me appreciate the liberty I have as an American,” Vargas-Johnson said, referring to her summer backpacking trip through Europe with friends.
“It reinforced in me the importance of art as a tool for change and unity. I truly believe what the wall has become: an inspiration to create a better society.”
Her desire to build a better world prompted the new Trojan to major in sociology. She’s interested in human groups and institutions and their influences over each other. Already, she has worked for social service agencies.
Last March, Vargas-Johnson traveled with Habitat for Humanity to New Orleans, where she spent her spring break hammering nails into wood sidings. The residences they built went to Hurricane Katrina survivors still homeless three years after the deadly disaster.
Rather than a social worker, she envisions herself as a middle-school teacher.
“That’s a turning point for kids,” she said. “Students who have bad teachers in middle school can get turned off and drop out.”
Her next four years will help guide her direction. She’s not worried about making snappy decisions. Her summer European excursion taught her better.
“It’s not the destination that counts,” she said, “it’s the journey.”
Randall Machado: More than Skin Deep
When Randall Machado peered in the mirror and discovered what all teens dread, he went beyond reaching for a tube of Clearasil.
“It ignited in me a passion to discover the science behind it,” said Machado of the acne he suffered in high school.
“I became intrigued by the concept of beauty and the philosophy behind beauty, and how our culture is obsessed with vanity,” said Machado, whose complexion is now flawless. “I wanted to combine that question with learning more about the modern science of beauty.”
Born and raised in Kapaa, Kauai, Hawaii, Machado was attracted to USC’s Renaissance Scholars program, in which students who select majors from widely disparate fields and excel academically are eligible to compete for $10,000 prizes for postbaccalaureate study.
Majoring in philosophy and neuroscience, Machado wants to eventually become a dermatologist.
“I hope to go to medical school, but I don’t want just a science-focused education,” Machado said. “I want to create something to make me a more well-rounded person.”
He showed his multifaceted dimensions in high school, volunteering to clean Kauai beaches and visiting patients in hospitals.
The medical field has intrigued him since boyhood, when his baby brother was born with osteogenesis imperfecta — or brittle bone disease. His brother succumbed to the disease when Machado was 8. His father, a police officer, died a year later, and his mother, a nurse, raised Machado.
It was tough, he said, not so much leaving the island, but separating from his family and friends.
“It had to be done,” he said. “No one ever learned anything by coasting.”
Neelam Savla: Valedictorian with Valor
For the Savlas, visiting homes for abandoned, disabled children in their native India is a family affair.
“In most of India, poverty is hard to miss,” said Neelam Savla, who was born in Nagpur, India, and raised in Northridge, Calif. “Often, disabled children are left out on the street. Some can’t walk or talk. Some have no legs.”
While visiting relatives in India each summer, Savla and her family bring food and gifts to orphans.
“At first it was really hard seeing a 5-year-old disabled child without parents or even basic necessities,” she said. “But it became heartwarming to see smiles light up their faces when you give something as simple as candy. They become happy with the smallest act of thoughtfulness.”
During one such visit, Savla had an epiphany of sorts. Although she had always envisioned someday becoming a professor, she wondered whether teaching young children might be her calling.
“I realized after my experiences in India that elementary school is when children need a teacher most,” Savla said. “I don’t want to just teach them, I also want to be their mentor.”
But Savla is keeping an open mind. She’s majoring in psychology because she’s fascinated by the human psyche.
Savla has had to show amazing emotional resilience. In her junior year of high school, her father was diagnosed with cancer. While her mother, sister and she cared for her father, Savla also excelled in school, volunteered in a local public library, and won the U.S. Academic Decathlon Gold Medal for best interview.
Her father died in February 2007. Months later, Savla was valedictorian at her high school graduation.
“I know he would be proud of me,” she said.
Sara Kanematsu: Reading into the Future
Sara Kanematsu has eclectic taste in reading material.
With equal gusto, she dives into books by activist-author Margaret Atwood and “Queen of Crime” Agatha Christie.
She can get lost in the prose of Oscar Wilde, and knows enough of Robert Frost’s work to heed the poet’s warning: She took the road less traveled.
Kanematsu left her family and friends in her hometown of Auckland, New Zealand, and traveled 6,500 miles to attend USC. She admitted that starting college while acclimating to a new country was somewhat overwhelming.
But she’s glad to have stepped out of her comfort zone.
“The campus is gorgeous and everybody’s been very friendly,” she said. “It’s still a bit of a shock.”
As an English major, Kanematsu is excited about taking classes with renowned writers or poets such as Aimee Bender, T.C. Boyle, Percival Everett and David St. John.
Back in Auckland, her Singaporean mother is an English teacher, and Kanematsu can see herself as an English professor. (Her father, originally from Tokyo, is an accountant.)
“That’s something I would love to do in the future,” she said of a professorship. “It does seem rather far away at the moment.”
Although she plays badminton and studies the piano, Kanematsu finds most pleasure in writing.
“If one day I could establish myself as a novelist, that would be amazing,” she said. “I think that being at USC will be a great way to hone my writing skills. It’s one of the main reasons I’m so excited to be here.”
Passionate about studying English, Kanematsu also plans to explore divergent fields.
“Right now,” she said, “I just want to see where life takes me.”
Greg Woodburn: A Real Frontrunner
No matter how many times it’s expressed, Greg Woodburn’s altruistic message will never be worn.
His shoes? That’s another matter.
The competitive runner collects used athletic shoes and distributes them to orphanages in Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Mexico and impoverished areas of inner-city Los
Since launching Share Our Soles (S.O.S.) two years ago, Woodburn has collected, cleaned and donated more than 2,100 pairs of running shoes.
“People assume scrubbing dirty, smelly shoes would be a gross chore, but when I’m doing it I actually find myself smiling because I imagine the smile of the kid in Africa or Mexico when he receives the shoes, laces them up and goes out for a run,” Woodburn said.
“For many of these kids, it’s not their first pair of athletic shoes. It’s their first pair of shoes. Period.”
A freshman majoring in history, Woodburn hopes to expand S.O.S. at USC College and beyond. Eventually, he sees a S.O.S. chapter in each state.
His public service has earned him accolades in his hometown of Ventura, Calif., and nationally. He received a Jefferson Award for volunteer work, and the Congressional Award Gold Medal — the highest honor U.S. Congress gives for youth accomplishment.
The straight-A student was also named Ventura’s 2007–08 Student of the Year, Ventura County 2008 Star Scholar, 2008 Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Scholar and 2008 Ventura High School Hall of Fame inductee.
At USC, Woodburn is excited about expanding his intellect and his entrepreneurship.
His immediate plans for S.O.S. and its mission are a perfect fit.
“With every pair of shoes,” he said, “I’d like to send a pair of socks.”