There’s a snapshot of Wendy Garcia-Nava as a fourth-grader that’s downright prophetic: She’s standing by a fountain in Pardee Plaza, shyly waving at the camera. The T-shirt she’s wearing reads: “I’m going to college at USC.”
On Friday, Garcia-Nava will march into Alumni Park in cap and gown, along with thousands of other Trojans participating in USC’s 132nd commencement.
It’s been a long journey from that snapshot to this day, though Garcia-Nava traveled only about a mile in physical distance.
She grew up in South Central Los Angeles, attended the James A. Foshay Learning Center and was admitted to USC with the help of the Neighborhood Academic Initiative (NAI). The community-based college prep program guarantees full scholarships to candidates who meet the university’s admission requirements.
Her NAI benefit covers four-and-a-half-years, and Garcia-Nava isn’t letting any of it go to waste. Though she receives her diploma this week, she’ll be back next fall taking the last few courses she needs to complete three undergraduate minors.
Garcia-Nava has made the most of her educational opportunities here. She qualified for the USC Dornsife psychology department’s honors program for her major and has pursued minors in forensics and criminality, and Spanish as well as computer and digital forensics. The last of these should come in especially handy should she fulfill her ambition of becoming an attorney and one day working for the FBI.
“I now know how to extract all the information from a computer or cellphone found at a crime scene,” she said with a smile.
Since her freshman year, Garcia-Nava has worked in the research lab of USC Gould School of Law Professor Thomas Lyon, an authority on child witnesses.
She is committed to helping these young people. For her psychology honors thesis, done under Lyon’s supervision, Garcia-Nava coded and analyzed dozens of forensic interviews with child sex-abuse victims, looking for relationships between the precise wording of questions and the degree of disclosure it elicits, taking into consideration case characteristics known to inhibit abuse disclosures. The research is important because child witnesses face special challenges in the courtroom, where their credibility is closely scrutinized.
Wendy Garcia-Nava stands in Pardee Plaza. Photo courtesy of the Garcia family.
In her spare time, she is involved with the USC NAI Theater Workshop. Garcia-Nava first fell in love with the classics through this program developed by her NAI-affiliated Advanced Placement English teacher Jacqueline Jean Barrios and professional actor Paul David Story.
Garcia-Nava now works behind the scenes, but in high school she tripped the boards as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing and as Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice, among other juicy roles. She and her brothers Jesus Jr. and Bryan Garcia, who are also Trojan undergraduates, have started a booster club, the USC Los Angeles Talented Thespian Ensemble, to sustain this much-loved theater program.
Garcia-Nava has stayed connected to the neighborhood in other ways. What began as a Joint Educational Project (JEP) freshman seminar pairing her with a college-bound Foshay senior has grown into an annual college-readiness presentation for the entire graduating class featuring Garcia-Nava and two NAI counselors as expert panelists. In recognition of her steadfast commitment to community service, JEP, based in USC Dornsife, honored Garcia-Nava with its 2015 Barbara Seaver Gardner Award.
That means a lot, said Garcia-Nava, because “community service is an integral part of who I am.”
Looking back, she is very grateful to the program that delivered on the grandiose claim emblazoned on her T-shirt in that old snapshot.
“I will always be an NAI scholar,” she said, with passion in her voice. “I am forever in debt to them. I will always be here.”
After finishing her coursework next fall, she will take the LSAT and start filling out law school applications. USC is at the top of her list.
Now all she needs is someone to snap her photo wearing a USC Gould T-shirt by that fountain in Pardee Plaza.