Community Connections, three years later: NAI graduates Yvonne Hernandez and Eduardo Lopez look back on their time with JEP as they graduate from USC

by Kathrin Rising

Yvonne Hernandez and Eduardo Lopez posing for a picture together
“The USC Leslie and William McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative (NAI) is a rigorous college access and success program operated by USC Educational Partnerships in the division of University Relations. NAI annually prepares almost 1,000 6th-12th grade students from low-income households from the neighborhoods closes to USC in South Los Angeles and East Los Angeles for admission and graduation from college. The majority of USC NAI Scholars will become first-generation college students.” – NAI Website (click on photo for the link)

For over a decade now, the Joint Educational Project (JEP) has enjoyed supporting and collaborating with USC’s Leslie and William McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative (NAI) in various ways. Whether it is JEP students mentoring or tutoring NAI participants or our very own professional staff teaching NAI classes, JEP appreciates the importance of this initiative for everyone involved.

One less expected way in which our involvement with NAI has benefitted JEP greatly has shown itself over the last few years: Students that graduate the NAI program love to continue their relationship to their community and learning more about the subjects they are passionate about by working for JEP. we JEP staff always knows that NAI graduates not only very dedicated and hard working, but are also uniquely qualified and talented to teach the next generation. Having often learned and studied in the same classroom as their current students do now, they often express that the children they work with see them as relatable role-models. On top of that, many of our student staff members who went through NAI have also just turned out to be some of the most compassionate, motivated, and kind student workers we have had the pleasure to work with at JEP.

Two of those extraordinary student staff members are Yvonne Hernandez and Eduardo Lopez. The two of them have worked for all three of our STEM Education Programs and also participated in JEP programs like the Trojan Health Volunteers. In 2020, they both shared wrote about their journey with us in 2020 through their “Community Connections” series (click on their names above to read their stories). This year, Yvonne and Eduardo are graduating from USC and wanted to share more about their experience with us to inspire others to follow in their footsteps.

Kathrin Rising: Thank you so much for chatting with me today! I know it’s going to be so hard to say goodbye to you this semester, but why don’t you tell me a little bit about the very beginnings?

Eduardo Lopez:
Well, before coming to USC, our friend Jasmin Sanchez, who used to be a student worker with JEP until she graduated and also is an NAI graduate, referred us to the Young Scientists Program (YSP) and told us about her amazing experience.

Yvonne Hernandez: Yeah it sounded like the perfect job – working with kids, learning more about science, which I was already interested in, and a motivating environment. I guess that’s why we want to share more about our work with others as well now, so that new students hear from us like we heard from Jasmin.

Oh and also, it was one of the first job offers that I had ever gotten combined with the fact that JEP was involved in the elementary school I went to, so I thought it would be like a really cool way to have a first job with the program that I was familiar with already since in elementary school.

Kathrin: That does sound exciting. And then once you started working with YSP, did you ever teach in your own school?

Yes actually, we both taught at Foshay, which is where we went as kids ourselves. It was actually pretty fun!

Kathrin: That must’ve been interesting – just as much as the four years that you have been with us, starting pre-pandemic, then continuing virtually and now we’re back!

Yeah. I think it was a challenge. Just trying to see how to be more inclusive. I think that was one of our biggest things we focused on when COVID hit, because we don’t know the personal situations of our students, and we can’t assume. So trying to be as inclusive with our lessons and how to actually navigate that in the online space is really hard. But I think coming back in person was just really exciting for both us and the kids. I think when they saw us walk into the classroom again, they were so incredibly excited… and so were we. It was very much like a roller coaster, but very fulfilling at the same time.

Yeah, it was very interesting to see how over time, because of the pandemic, there was really a fluctuation of what kids were interested in. So before the pandemic, the kids were really into academics overall. They wouldn’t really struggle with reading or writing. I think they were really proficient at that, but over COVID, as Yvonne said, we were navigating how to be as accommodating as possible, but also we’re kind of, at the same time, processing that these kids were being impacted by such a traumatizing, year long event. And when we came back, we had to re-think a lot of what we had done before. But we also learned many things along the way because we had never experienced a pandemic. Overall, it was a great lesson for both the kids and us to learn how to be resilient and rely on each other, because I felt like most of the time we as TAs would definitely support each other and give tips on what worked and didn’t work. It made me feel like we were not alone in this and we can do it together.

Kathrin: That’s a great point that we can grow from challenges. How do you feel that you two have grown over the last four years here?

For me personally, I came in to USC as a premed student. My experience with JEP, though, made me realize that I actually want to be an educator instead. So that’s what I’m pursuing now. But in general, just my leadership skills and confidence to be talking to people has really gotten so much stronger. I see it even in my classes, when I have a presentation, it just comes a lot easier, and I don’t get as nervous as I would before. Gratitude is also a big part of my journey, as well. Gratitude for my community. And being from South Central, you don’t really take into consideration the work that USC does. But then actually being a partner myself with the community, through JEP, you see the impact you’re doing, and it’s really just cool.

I also came in as a freshman as premed, human bio, and I still am passionate about health. But working with the Medical STEM Program especially opened my eyes to how important health education is, as well. Especially the preventative side of health education is something that I am interested in now. I’d love to continue to educate young impressionable people about important health issues so they can learn and potentially even teach there parents. I still would like to work in a health sedding, like for example as a physicians assistant, but I want to approach health and medicine from a more humanistic approach. I want to be able to interact with people more through emotions and understanding their background and who they are as a product of their environment. A lot of people are usually punished or even get ridiculed or criticized for who they are but it’s really important to understand that there’s so many factors to someone’s health that need to be seen and understood. I learned that especially when I got to meet so many different people in the field through my work with JEP.

Kathrin: That’s really awesome. Is that one of your favorite memories with JEP?

Eduardo: Hm maybe one of them, yeah. But I think if I had to choose just one thing I liked best about my time with JEP, aside from the memories we made together as a student staff team, it’s definitely when we do the Draw A Scientist Test with our students.

Kathrin: Can you explain what that is?

Eduardo: Sure, so before the school year starts, we ask our students to draw a picture of a scientists. Most often, they would draw a doctor or some random person because they didn’t know what a scientist was. We ask them the same thing at the end of the semester and sometimes they draw me, which always makes me smile, or themselves and proudly present their drawing to me. I love that.

Yeah that has happened in my classes, too. It’s really cute seeing that. I think my favorite memory was actually this semester. I remember something personal happening, and I was going to the classroom already in a bad mood. I was like, okay, I need to switch it up for the kids because they deserve me at my best. And as I’m walking towards the classroom, the kids were in a bathroom break so they saw me coming and ran towards me excitedly saying “Ms. Yvonneee!” I immediately felt so much better and like the kids really enjoy our work together.

Kathrin: That does sound like such a special moment. Well, thank you so much once again for sharing more about your time with us with me. I know you two will do amazing after graduation and I cannot wait to see what’s next for you!

To read more articles that were featured in the Spring 2023 Edition of “What’s new at the JEP House?” please click here: What’s new at the JEP House? – 2023 Spring Edition