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Tales from Commencement

Trojans reflect on their journeys to graduation and what lies ahead.

By Sean Gallagher and Pamela J. Johnson
May 1, 2008

Andrea Contreras
Here is how a fellow student described Andrea Contreras, who graduated with degrees in two demanding majors — political science and neuroscience — and is headed to law school at Columbia University in the fall.

“She is straight-up one of the hardest working people I know,” the student said, adding that Contreras helped pay her way through school by holding down several jobs as well as devoting many hours to the USC Mock Trial Team.

She was a resident adviser in Cardinal Gardens and, since her sophomore year, worked 25 to 30 hours a week as a legal assistant.

The first member of her family to graduate from college, Contreras discovered her fervor for law in high school in Ontario, Calif., while participating on a mock trial team. She is passionate about human rights and U.S. immigration law. Her interest in neuroscience came about because her father suffers from epilepsy, and she wanted to better understand his condition.

She managed to find time for her interests in painting and drawing when she took a studio art class during her junior year at USC.

Even if her time at the university was hectic, Contreras said she wouldn’t have had it any other way.

“Thanks to my rather selective memory, while there were some days that, without a doubt, I was spread too thin and frazzled, I feel that if I had chosen to be less involved, I would truly would have missed out on what college had to offer,” Contreras said. “I certainly spent, as I’m sure many of my peers have, my fair share of time in Leavey Library from sundown to sunup studying for exams, running on fumes and Red Bull.”

Deara Okonkwo
Flanked by her family donned in traditional, hand-loomed lacy attire from their native Nigeria, Deara Okonkwo cradled her diploma.

She still couldn’t believe she had just graduated from USC College with a bachelor’s in English.

“Maybe it’s my age, but I don’t feel like a graduate,” Okonkwo said. “Or maybe it’s because I’m going right back in to earn my master’s.”

At 17, Okonkwo is the youngest of this year’s 10,000 USC graduates. An intellectual prodigy, she began taking college courses at 10.

“The first day I showed up at Los Angeles Southwest Community College, the students in my class were stunned,” she recalled. “They asked, ‘How did this little girl get in here?’ ”

By 14, she graduated from high school with an A.A. degree then went to Spain to study the language. Raised in South Los Angeles, she enrolled in nearby USC at 15.

“USC is in my neighborhood,” said Okonkwo, who speaks fluent Spanish and Igbo. “It’s home for me.”

A dancer, pianist and swimmer, Okonkwo opened DeDe Dance Studio in South Los Angeles in 2004. The nonprofit studio draws disadvantaged children and teens from the community who learn everything from flamenco to African dance.

Okonkwo, who was a senator in the USC Undergraduate Student Government, aspires to become the U.S. Secretary of Education. A volunteer in Los Angeles public schools, Okonkwo said she wants to devote her life helping at-risk youth.

“I want to leave a legacy when I’m gone from this earth someday,” Okonkwo said. “And I want my legacy to be about serving underprivileged youths.”