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Tears of Joy

Los Angeles high school students celebrate their success at meeting the application deadline to USC during an emotional ceremony. Their USC Dornsife mentors in the JEP-NAI freshman seminar cheer them on.

“Soon, my achievements will show who Adrian Toledo really is,” wrote Adrian Toledo, a senior at Manual Arts High School, in the essay portion of his USC application. Photo by Pamela J. Johnson.
“Soon, my achievements will show who Adrian Toledo really is,” wrote Adrian Toledo, a senior at Manual Arts High School, in the essay portion of his USC application. Photo by Pamela J. Johnson.

For these high school students, the tiny mortarboard pins represented months of hard work and stick-to-itiveness.

As their USC Dornsife mentors fastened onto their shirts and jackets the universal symbol for education, some of the James A. Foshay Learning Center and Manual Arts High School students burst into tears.

“These are tears of joy,” said Kelly Rivas, 17, giving her mentor Guadalupe Cardona, a psychology major in USC Dornsife, a tight squeeze. “I felt so happy to finish my application to USC that I woke my mom up at 3 a.m. and starting jumping on her bed.”

The pinning ceremony was held on the day enrollment applications to USC were due. The high school seniors — all first-generation, college-bound students — had met their deadline. They were emotional after toiling over what many feel is the hardest part: their personal statements.

The Foshay students completed exceptional essays with the help of USC students taking a two-unit Freshman Seminar Program course, “(W)rites of Passage,” which focused on guiding the high school students through the writing process and drawing out of them compelling personal narratives.

Facilitated by USC Dornsife’s Joint Educational Project (JEP), the Fall seminar explored the rites of passage that mark the transition from high school to college. 

The course offered a space for high school students to reflect on who they are, where they come from and what they want to become — and the role of higher education in shaping them. Given USC’s Los Angeles location, the course considered identity formation from a geographic perspective, exploring what it means to be an Angeleno.


USC Students mentor local high school students as part of the partnership between the Neighborhood Academic Initiative (NAI) and JEP. Video by Mira Zimet.

Students taking the seminar became mentors for college-bound Los Angeles Unified School District high school students participating in USC’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative (NAI). JEP instructors and students worked with NAI teachers and administrators to help high school seniors draft their college application essays. Launched a few years ago, the JEP-NAI freshman seminar will again be offered in Fall 2012.

Susan Harris, JEP’s associate director of research and academic affairs, teaches the course.

“I know many of you are exhausted because today USC applications were due,” Harris told the audience of mainly high school seniors and their parents, who broke into loud applause. “Today we’re celebrating this very important event. It’s the beginning of your college career — your very first step in becoming college students.”

Also in the audience were the USC freshmen-mentors. Wendy Garcia-Nava, a psychology major in USC Dornsife, graduated from Foshay in June 2011. At Foshay, she participated in NAI, a six-year, pre-college program designed to prepare low-income neighborhood students for admission to USC. Those who complete the program and meet USC’s competitive admission requirements as Garcia-Nava did are rewarded a full 4.5-year financial package.

Garcia-Nava credits NAI for eking out her story when she was a high school senior.

“My mentors helped me find that one specific thing that I have that other applicants in the pool might not have,” Garcia-Nava said. “They helped me identify what else besides high school was going on in my life.”

In her essay, Garcia-Nava described her home life after a fall rendered her mother disabled. Garcia-Nava stepped in and took care of her younger brother, going to his school for teacher-parent conferences. She became a surrogate mother while maintaining A’s in school. She thinks her personal statement may have been the tipping point in getting her a scholarship to USC.

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During the Dec. 1 pinning ceremony, Garcia-Nava was there, but this time as a mentor. She fastened a mortarboard pin on her mentee 17-year-old Marlytt Garrido, who attended the event with her mother, Lubi, a nanny.

Garrido’s essay described her life through various cultural dishes. She begins:

The smell of breakfast wakes me up instantly. My mom is cooking in the kitchen and I picture the sizzling hot oil used to cook platanos and frijoles volteados, a specialty of hers. I can smell the sunny-side-up eggs crackling in the pan and the pancakes on the stove ready to be flipped. As my mom makes her way from the kitchen to the dining room with a plate of platanos in her hands, I realize these are the same hands that for years have been cooking blintz for the Jewish children she takes care of at the other end of the city.

Food, Garrido writes, is a cultural bond to her Guatemalan heritage. Her mother’s dishes give her a sense of identity in a city where one can feel disconnected. But L.A.’s diversity has given Garrido an opportunity to find connections in new ways. She writes:

By afternoon, we are all ready for lunch. We pile into the car and head to our usual Thai restaurant. I order Tom Kha Gai, embarrassingly stumbling over the pronunciation. The young waitress smiles at me, as if she understands the cultural differences between us, and repeats my order in a slow, deliberate manner, easing me into her world. 

Garrido appreciates each ethnicity for its own beauty. She ends her essay this way:

I am ravenous for life experiences and knowledge, never fully satisfied with one option, wanting to try them all.

While he was pinned, Adrian Toledo, a senior at Manual Arts High School, openly wept. He felt proud that he had completed his USC application and personal statement, which reads in part:

I grew up in South Los Angeles. Gangs, drugs and violence divert many young people. Hardships from losing friends to violence shaped the world around me. School is the only place where I can escape this bleak world and enter to a new world where I can express myself intellectually.

Toledo wasn’t afraid of showing his emotions.

“I’m just realizing all that I’ve accomplished,” Toledo said, wiping away tears. “After all my struggles, I’m thinking about how far I’ve come and about all the support I’ve received.”

In his essay, Toledo ends with:

While many of my friends have taken the wrong path, those closest to me have helped me stay on the right one. I know that I will always have their support, no matter the distance among us, and that I will be a successful person, with big dreams and aspirations. Soon, my achievements will show who Adrian Toledo really is.

The ceremony included a screening of First Generation, a compelling documentary following four high school students while they sought to become the first in their families to attend college. The filmmakers USC alumnus Adam Fenderson and his wife Jaye, and a few people featured in the film, took questions from the audience.

Jacqueline Barrios, a Foshay teacher who was chosen and trained for the NAI program, was so moved by the documentary that she, too, got choked up.

“I’m just so overwhelmed by the work that you guys did,” she told the filmmakers. “I was surprised at how emotional I was feeling. To see what we do everyday told in a film, it’s just so inspiring to see. I really hope that my own students will tell their stories one day, too, when they go off and live their dreams.”