Wearing white cowgirl boots, Cynthia and Jazmin Vidana skipped into kindergarten in red cotton dresses trimmed with lace. Petite, they had the same slightly crooked smile, doe eyes framed with bangs and flowing russet tresses.
By third grade, one significant distinction between the twins emerged, although unseen. Cynthia couldn’t read. Or rather, she could make out the words but not their meaning. Her Weemes Elementary School teacher paired her with a reading tutor through the USC Joint Educational Project (JEP).
“Her name was Yvette,” Cynthia said. “She incorporated art into the lessons and made reading fun. It was something I looked forward to every week.”
Jazmin knew how important Yvette was to her sister. Cynthia would share with her the artwork she created with construction paper and paste representing a book she had just read. She would show off the gifts she bought with play money earned for reading. They were small rewards — funny sunglasses with eyes that popped out — but they were incentive enough and Cynthia quickly improved.
“Yvette was such a cool person,” Jazmin said, remembering how Yvette would crouch down to address the sisters at eye level. “At home, I’d try to help Cynthia with reading because I liked pretending I was a USC reader myself. My sister and I have never forgotten Yvette.”
A decade later, the USC College juniors are reading tutors at Weemes through JEP. Like Yvette, they are participating in the USC ReadersPlus program. Growing up a few blocks from campus, they were involved in the USC Neighborhood Academic Initiative that prepares low-income area students for college. Although accepted to several other major universities, after graduating from James A. Foshay High School, they became Trojans. With Jazmin majoring in political science and Cynthia in history, both are considering law school.
Arriving from Durango, Mexico, the sisters’ father is a house painter and mother, a homemaker. The twins are first-generation college students.
“Now at Weemes, we walk through the same hallways and the same playground,” Cynthia said. “We’re teaching children to read in the same room where I was tutored.”
Housed in USC College, JEP has been altering life paths since 1972. Many students have stories like the Vidana twins, tutored by JEP students and eventually becoming JEP volunteers themselves. In other cases, USC students moved by their JEP experiences decided to become teachers — sometimes returning to the schools where they once volunteered.
Alberto Rivera was a USC undergraduate with plans to become an engineer when he became a reading tutor at Vermont Avenue Elementary School through JEP.
“I changed my major to education and never looked back,” said Rivera, who for the past nine years has been teaching second grade in the classroom where he once tutored. Other JEP students have gone on to open their own nonprofit organizations.
But there is more to JEP than altruism. There’s the crucial “joint educational” component. The students’ community service is meant to enrich their in-classroom academics. Students taking more than 65 courses university-wide teach the practical implications of classroom lessons in neighborhood projects. Barbara Seaver Gardner, who founded JEP with 200 student volunteers in local schools, called this phenomenon “the two-way street.”
“Barbara would be so pleased,” Tammara Anderson, JEP’s executive director, said of Gardner who died of lung cancer in 1993. “Her baby has grown up.”
To date, JEP has placed in excess of 68,000 USC students in service-learning roles. More than 1,100 students volunteer each semester in 50 schools, nonprofits, social services agencies, hospitals and clinics.
Among the nation’s oldest and largest service-learning programs, JEP is an international model. The organization was the first to implement America Reads with its USC ReadersPlus program in May 1997, ahead of the official campaign kickoff by the Clinton Administration. Time magazine’s recognition of USC as “College of the Year” in 2000 was largely attributed to JEP’s success.
What began as the USC Readers program added a “plus,” indicating math tutoring. Another program, JEP’s Trojan Health Volunteers (THV), gives pre-med students a chance to shadow doctors. Each academic year, approximately 160 student volunteers provide support at area clinics and hospitals from translating Spanish to English, to assisting during examinations.
“JEP has taken what was a beautiful small plant with flowers and turned it into a big beautiful tree bearing fruit,” said Daniel Potter, an Orange County obstetrician who in 1987 established THV as a biology undergraduate in the College.
In JEP’s “The Writer in the Community,” College undergraduates learn to teach fiction and poetry to students at 32nd Street School. Author Aimee Bender and poet Cecilia Woloch, both of English, created and teach the course, administered also through the USC Center for Excellence in Teaching.
“The students teaching the school kids get a taste of this incredibly vibrant, imaginative world,” Bender said. “The kids have a sort of dream-like world that they dive into and I think you can’t help but feel a little invigorated and inspired by that.”
Other programs involve volunteers working with foster children, homeless families and at-risk youths.
Sociology lecturer Karen Sternheimer’s students have tutored at centers such as Western Community Day School where youths who have served time in juvenile detention centers and are on probation attend high school. The experience is part of her juvenile delinquency and deviance courses.
“They see the complexity of the person who has to overcome the stigma of being labeled a juvenile delinquent,” Sternheimer said of her students.
Although these programs greatly benefit the community, Anderson tells her volunteers to steer clear from what she calls the “messiah syndrome.”
“They’re not going out there and saving people,” said Anderson, hired by Gardner in 1981 and named executive director in 2001. “But through their service, they’re an important part of the solution to problems in our community.”
In training sessions, students are reminded that although the children’s lives may not reflect their own upbringings, that doesn’t mean the way the children are being raised is wrong.
“Our student volunteers are going out there and seeing different aspects of society,” Anderson said. “Hopefully they’re learning that we’re all part of the human race living on this one planet together.”
Katherine Schwarzenegger understands this. For California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and journalist Maria Shriver’s daughter, volunteering runs in her blood. In 1962, her grandmother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, John F. Kennedy’s younger sister, founded Camp Shriver, the catalyst for the Special Olympics. Her grandfather, Robert Sargent Shriver Jr., established the Peace Corps. In 1965, he created and directed the educational service for low-income students Head Start, Lyndon B. Johnson’s first “war on poverty” program.
“Growing up, my parents always made sure we did something community-service oriented,” said Schwarzenegger, a junior majoring at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and minoring in gender studies in the College.
In ninth grade, Schwarzenegger spent the summer in Costa Rica, living with a family and volunteering in elementary schools. She also helped build schools and worked one on one with abused women.
“Summers before that, we worked at my grandma’s house in Washington, where she had a Special Olympics camp,” Schwarzenegger said. “We were camp counselors, taught swimming, and did arts and crafts with students. Every break we had, my brothers and sister and I were always doing something to give back to our community.”
As a Trojan, Schwarzenegger volunteers with JEP. Last spring, she was a teacher’s assistant at Saint Raphael Catholic School as part of a gender studies course. At the South Central Los Angeles school, she tutored math, spelling and writing.
“I’ve always been crazy about little kids,” said Schwarzenegger, the eldest of four children. “I have a close-knit family and have always taken on the responsibility of being ‘junior mother.’”
Helping them makes her feel valued and real, she said.
“Mentor work is good for your soul,” she said. “Even if you see the child one time, it can make a difference. Besides aiding the kids, the act of community service helps build your personality and your character.”
The work also helps keep her grounded.
“For me, community service has been a way to check back into reality,” said Schwarzenegger of Brentwood.
Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Krekorian, too, considers his JEP involvement more than a community service — it was also a gift to himself.
“It was an enormously eye-opening experience that broadened my perspective on the world,” said College alumnus Krekorian, who in 1981 earned his bachelor’s degree in political science. “USC draws in part from a privileged class. I didn’t grow up privileged, but I grew up in a suburban environment.”
Raised in Reseda in the San Fernando Valley, Krekorian’s father was a Marine Corps World War II veteran and small business owner, his mother a homemaker with four children.
“I didn’t have much exposure to what the world was like outside my little environment until I started volunteering with JEP,” said Krekorian, who taught children about environmental issues then took them on nature walks, pointing out what they had learned in class.
One of the beauties of being a Trojan, he said, is the ability to be part of the diverse community surrounding campus.
“Personally experiencing the slice of life that’s faced by neighbors of the university is exceptionally beneficial,” Krekorian said during an interview at his Los Angeles City Hall office. “It’s important for someone who wants to get the complete broadening experience of a USC education.”
For the Vidana twins, who came from the surrounding community, they want to encourage youngsters to follow their lead.
“Sometimes we start speaking to the children in Spanish just to get that connection going,” Cynthia said. “They get to know that we share the same story, share the same obstacles, and if they try hard enough, they can make it to USC.”
Jazmin remembers tutoring a kindergartener named Joel who could not grasp the days of the week.
“I’d pick him up on Friday and say, “Hey, Joel what day is it today?’ And he’d say, ‘It’s Monday.’ I’d say, ‘No, Joel, it’s Friday,’ It went on like this the entire semester.”
To make the lesson stick, she used several activities. She had him create a calendar and write in his plans for each day. She made flashcards and had him arrange the days in order. With chalk, she wrote days inside squares on the playground and had him hop in order. He couldn’t quite get it. Until the semester’s last week.
When Jazmin went to meet Joel, she looked around the classroom and couldn’t spot him. Then an excited Joel, his hair spiked up with gel, came running toward Jazmin.
“Hey Joel, your hair looks nice,” Jazmin told him.
“I knew today was Friday,” Joel confidently replied. “So I asked my mom to spike up my hair for you.”
“It’s at these moments when I know this is what I’m supposed to be doing,” Jazmin said. “It feels right.”
Yvette would be proud.
For more information and videos about the Joint Educational Project, visit college.usc.edu/jep.