USC College’s new group of freshmen, the Class of 2013, is extraordinary. Some are entering the university already world travelers. They are not only intelligent but talented; they are dancers, singers, actors and musicians. They live life with gusto and have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Many have one common characteristic: They are young philanthropists. Take Damaris Garcia, who helped build a water pipeline in Guatemala. Or Erik Peterson, who volunteered in the slums of Ecuador. Or Scarlett Royston, who taught children about public health in the Dominican Republic. These students and three others profiled are among 1,800 incoming freshmen and transfer students, the newest members of the Trojan Family. Of 18,331 freshman applicants to the College, 24 percent were admitted.
Jayme “Mea” Tsutsuse: A Savvy Sojourner
Jayme “Mea” Tsutsuse knows what live termites found deep in the Ecuadorian Amazon taste like. A little like pine.
She also knows the taste of Ecuadorian ants. Lemony.
While hiking the Amazon jungle, her Ecuadorian guide pointed out termite and ant nests. The students did what local indigenous people have been doing for ages. They ate the tiny creatures.
“I’ve always been pretty adventurous,” the second generation Trojan said. “And I find a lot of happiness traveling.”
But Tsutsuse’s monthlong trip last summer wasn’t only about hiking, climbing icy Cotopaxi, white-water rafting and swing jumping off bridges. She traveled with International Student Volunteers, Inc.
Staying with a family in Machalilla, a fishing village midway along the Ecuadorian coastline, she and others taught children English and educated them about a clean environment.
Here’s one reason Tsutsuse feels strongly about preserving a beautiful environment: She was raised in stunning Hawaii. She and her family moved from Oahu to El Dorado Hills in Northern California five years ago.
Prior to living in California, where her father, Wayne, is a dentist, the family resided in Hawaii. There, her parents worked in a family tourist business. Wayne Tsutsuse, who graduated from the USC School of Dentistry, was born and raised in Hawaii. His family migrated from Japan and Jayme is half Japanese.
“USC has always been a part of my life,” she said. “I look up to my dad so much and hoped I could get into the school he went to.”
Knowing acceptance would be competitive, she earned excellent grades and was an historian for her high school’s National Honor Society chapter. She was also on the swim team and mentored incoming freshmen.
In high school, she took a physical anthropology class at a community college and was hooked. But within her first weeks at USC College, she was so impressed with a religion course she was taking, she decided to major in religion.
“Learning about different cultures,” she said, “is my passion.”
Graham Harris: It is Easy Bein’ Green
Graham Harris was a high school junior serving ice cream at a gelato shop when a customer offered some life-changing advice.
The man, chairman of the Laguna Beach City Council Environmental Committee and a family friend, encouraged Harris to apply for a seat on the committee.
Harris took the advice and at 18, became the youngest member in the committee’s history.
“I learned how many boards and committees it takes to get one thing passed,” said Harris, who, as his high school’s student body president, had spoken before the City Council regarding the committee’s proposed environ- mental protection plan.
“And I learned how, frankly, inefficient government can be.”
He also learned he enjoyed fighting for green causes. The experience inspired him to major in environmental studies. He’s long been interested in preserving the environment. Prior to his committee appointment, he founded a recycling task force at his school.
Right now, he’s considering becoming a paleontologist, environmental attorney or starting his own green business. Or a doctor or dentist.
“I’ve loved going to the dentist all my life,” he said. “My mom suggested I think about med school.”
His mother is good at persuasion, he said. When he was six, she got him to take tap dancing lessons, which he continued for years.
“It was intimidating being in a class full of girls,” he said. “But I liked tapping, it was cool. I feel that I have a bit of rhythm in me that I can express with my feet.”
He went on to dance and sing in several school musicals. He also plays the piano. He was a dancing saltshaker in Beauty and the Beast, and landed the lead role of Bobby Strong in Urinetown, a performance that earned him the 2008 MACY Award for Highest Achievement.
By his first week at USC, he had joined the rowing club.
“I’ve always wanted to be in the Olympics,” he said. “Maybe I can do that if I train hard enough.”
Ethan Rubio: Book Smart and Street Smart
At 18, Ethan Rubio has been a world traveler for half his life and to date has visited 40 countries.
His empathy toward the downtrodden began at age 11 when he watched young children begging on the streets of Israel’s West Bank.
“It was such a shock to see so much poverty,” said Rubio of Palos Verdes Estates, Calif. The gypsy children in Eastern Europe also broke his heart. “The children my age wearing rags, looking malnourished, really got to me.”
In high school, he became a regional representative for a volunteer youth coalition and helped to organize a festival for low-income children in the South Bay.
Rubio wants a service-oriented career and may have narrowed it down to becoming a doctor or lawyer. Right now, he’s majoring in philosophy and biology.
Judging by his past, he may be a statesman in the making. In addition to volunteering, Rubio was co-secretary general for his school’s Model United Nations, vice president of the Junior Statesmen of America, and a pretrial lawyer for the mock trial team.
So what would someone as ambitious as Rubio do in his spare time?
Build computers from scratch. He’s quick to add that he also plays basketball, but don’t even think he shoots hoops to mask his intellectual image.
“I don’t care what other people think about me,” Rubio said. “I never live my life by other people’s standards.”
The only people who influence him are his parents, who have worked hard for all they have. His father, Edmundo, emigrated from the Philippines to the United States, where he met his mother, Aurora, whose family had migrated from Mexico. In the Philippines, Edmundo Rubio’s parents were farmers and storeowners. Edmundo, the first in his family to attend college, is a doctor. Aurora Rubio is a nurse.
“My parents came from humble beginnings,” Rubio said. “That has always made me appreciate things all the more.”
Damaris Garcia: Giving the Gift of Health
The daughter of a Guatemalan handyman, Damaris Garcia grew up in Inglewood and attended the rough-and-tumble Lennox Middle School.
Her high California Achievement Test scores drew the attention of volunteers from Richstone Educational Enterprise Project. The organization mentors bright students from Lennox, which has a 65 percent dropout rate. They help exceptional students enroll in the area’s top private high schools.
By ninth grade, Garcia was taking a bus across county to Palos Verdes Peninsula to attend the elite Chadwick School, where she was one of three Latina students.
“It was a culture shock,” Garcia said. “I came from a school where 95 percent of students were Hispanic.”
When Garcia sought out the school’s Hispanic Culture Club, she learned that the group’s only Latina was its president.
“She said to me very bluntly,” Garcia recounted. “You have to join the Hispanic Culture Club and in two years when I graduate, you’ll be president.”
And she did. As president, Garcia organized an “International Peace for Kids” festival for foster children. Her love of children and caring nature prompted her to major in biological sciences as preparation to become a doctor.
Her career choice gelled when she volunteered in Guatemala a few summers ago. She traveled to a village of 300 people, a 40-minute drive from San Mateo Ixtatán, in the region of Huehuetenango. There, she helped build a water pipeline.
She chose Guatemala to connect with her father’s roots. Her mother had emigrated from Honduras.
In the village, there was no electricity or running water. There was one road and no one had a car. The closest town was a two-hour walk, the closest hospital a six-hour drive. For water, people walked an hour to the natural springs.
“There were so many little children running around,” she said. “It’s a very high altitude, very cold. Technically, we were inside a cloud. The children were barefooted; their lips and cheeks, chapped.
“Seeing these children and their lack of health care affected me. I thought the best way to help them would be to help give them health.”
Scarlett Royston: Move Over, Mr. President
Ask Scarlett Royston, who is half African American and half white, if she feels a stronger connection to either race, and she will tell you she feels a bond with both.
In fact, she has an affinity for all races.
“Actually, I feel more Latina at times,” she said with a laugh. “I have a real connection to Latinos when I’m with them.”
After spending two months in the Dominican Republic last summer, Royston speaks nearly fluent Spanish. Upon her return, she knew she would major in international relations.
Raised in Houston, she was drawn to USC College for its unparalleled School of International Relations and “Trojan Family feel,” she said.
Although neither of her parents earned a bachelor’s degree, Royston has been preparing for college since middle school. By high school, she had changed her major in her mind several times. Now, her mind is made up.
In the Dominican Republic, she volunteered for Amigos de las Américas in a barrio near Elías Piña at the border with Haiti. She lived in a home with a cement floor and tin roof. Her host mother tended cows and sold milk for a living.
Her job was to teach children about public health. Their group answered a request to build a public restroom in the center of town, raised funds, gathered materials and organized construction.
Royston saw that villagers who wanted non-farming jobs had to take a bus to the capital, Santo Domingo. This was a watershed realization for Royston, whose goal is to create businesses in developing countries.
In the long run, her mother has another dream for her eldest daughter, a cello player who was president pro tem of her high school orchestra, homecoming queen, and acted in musicals.
“My mom is pushing me to become president of the United States,” she said. “My goal is simply to make a difference in other people’s lives.”
Erik Peterson: In It Together
Erik Peterson was volunteering in the slums outside Guayaquil, Ecuador, when he spotted something that made him feel as if he were living in a parallel world.
Visiting a home, he watched as an indigenous woman opened her oven packed with pots and pans. The homemaker pulled out a cast iron pan — or comal. It was a small but significant likeness to the habits of his mother, who stores her cookware inside her oven and has the same comal.
But he and his family live a very different life 4,208 miles away in the Portland, Ore., suburbs.
“If not for fate, this woman could have been my mother,” Peterson said. “I realized that fundamentally, regardless of culture, economic status and beliefs, we’re all the same.”
Peterson had been volunteering this past summer for the Catholic organization Rostro de Cristo. The new Trojan, whose mother’s family emigrated from Spain and Italy, speaks Spanish. He wants to merge his triple interests in Spanish, traveling and humanitarianism. He’s majoring in international relations and aims to eventually become a physician for Doctors Without Borders.
He raised the money for his Ecuador trip through violin performances. He’s been playing the violin since age 8 and was a member of the Metropolitan Youth Symphony in Portland.
At Jesuit High School, Peterson was president of the Spanish National Honor Society and Global Perspectives Club, and was a Model United Nations member. For a week, he lived on the streets during an educational homeless immersion program.
He’s also an actor and singer. He performed in high school and community theater productions, among them Cats and The Secret Garden.
You’re probably wondering, but can he dance?
Yes. He’s been ballroom dancing for years: swing, waltz, tango, you name it. “Ballroom dancing was definitely my mother’s idea,” he said with a laugh.
If that’s not enough, he also cooks. At his high school, he founded the Iron Chef Club. His friends say his chicken saltimbocca is magnifica.