Becoming a Giver
In the new Fisher Fellows Program, USC Dornsife first-generation undergraduates will participate in international travel, field research and community service. Sam Fisher graduated from USC Dornsife in 2011. Photo by Matt Meindl.

Becoming a Giver

Seeking to help first-generation college students succeed, alumnus Sam Fisher creates the Fisher Fellows Program. The deadline to apply for Fisher Fellows Class of 2018 is Feb. 13.
Pamela J. Johnson

When it comes to fly fishing, Sam Fisher may have the patience of a monk. But in regard to giving back, the USC Dornsife alumnus refuses to wait.

“You’ve gotta give back when something is given to you,” Fisher, who graduated from USC Dornsife in 2011 with a bachelor’s in environmental studies, said matter-of-factly.

The grandson of Doris and Don Fisher who founded The Gap clothing stores, he is grateful for the opportunities he has been given. Like his grandparents, his parents Sakurako and Bill Fisher are philanthropists dedicated to arts and education. Watching them help underprivileged kindergarten through 12th graders thrive, Fisher noticed a disturbing trend.

“We see many kids go through charter schools, get a great K-12 education, then they get to college, they move across the country where they’ve never been,” Fisher said. “They’re left alone with no network, no family, no support and a lot of them don’t make it. That’s a shame because they’re already well-educated, great people, they want to do great things for the world, but they just need something more.”

At age 26, Fisher is giving them something more. He’s made possible the Fisher Fellows Program for first-generation undergraduates at USC Dornsife.

Fisher brought his ideas to the table and worked with the USC Dornsife Office of Advancement and Steven Lamy, professor of international relations and vice dean for academic programs, to create a program involving a community of first-generation students who receive support beginning in their sophomore year.

These students — six to 10 will be added each year — can use the scholarship funds to participate in programs involving international travel, field research and service to communities. 

In particular, the Fisher Fellows will be encouraged to participate in the Problems Without Passports (PWP) and Maymester programs, as well as student-faculty research programs such as the Student Opportunities for Academic Research (SOAR) and Summer Undergraduate Research Fund (SURF) or a program of their choosing.

Each year, fellows will pick a project that provides a service to a selected community, which may include partnerships with Habitat for Humanity, Oxfam, the Sierra Club or Heal the Bay. Fellows will also participate in a two-day retreat on Catalina Island, and benefit year-round from leadership seminars, guest speakers and mentoring by faculty and alumni.

“We’re creating a frontline organization to expose students to all the opportunities they have at USC, but particularly Dornsife,” Lamy said. “We want to help to create people like Dana and David Dornsife, who will go out in the world and make a difference. They will fight on, but fight on for something that matters.”

The fellows will support one another and also become peer mentors for the next class of Fisher Fellows.

“The program also mirrors Sam,” Lamy said. “Sam is making a contribution to give back to USC. That’s the kind of spirit we’re trying to foster.”

California born, Fisher’s family moved to Paris, France, when Fisher was 9. After four years, he attended boarding school on the East Coast. When it came time to select a university, he wanted to return to the West Coast.

“I visited USC, and it was a beautiful, sunny day like it is generally in Southern California,” Fisher recounted. “Beautiful people, beautiful buildings, great academics. I fell in love right then and there. I applied. It was the only school I wanted to go to, so when they said I had to start late as a Spring admit, I didn’t care, I just wanted to jump at the opportunity.”

When he arrived, he faced his first conundrum.

“What did I want to study? Where did I want to see myself in 10 years? All these questions that when you’re 18 years old, you’re not ready to answer.”

It was a fly-fishing trip with his father in Northern California that gave him some answers.

“I did not have a very environmentally-focused childhood, or outdoorsy one,” he said. “But when I went fly fishing with my Dad and cousin, I kind of had an ‘aha’ moment.”

He talked to USC Dornsife advisers and learned the environmental studies program offered classes that weren’t only science based, but included business, communication, public policy and law.

“I didn’t realize I was so passionate about these subjects until I started studying them. I really liked the interdisciplinary nature of environmental studies.”

He particularly remembers his trip to Belize with PWP, which taught him about the ancient Mayan civilization. The experience showed him the value of studying abroad, which is why he made certain the Fisher Fellows Program gives these opportunities to lower-income students.

After graduation, Fisher became a sales executive at ReGreen Incorporated, a company providing cost-effective energy and water to property owners and managers. He then tried his hand at a technology start up in San Francisco.

“That didn’t really pan out and I had a moment of, maybe I should just listen to my dad,” he said. “My father always said, ‘Sam, commercial real estate is exactly what you should be doing, you have the perfect personality for it.’ And I was always like, ‘Dad, come on.’ ”

After an internship, he realized his dad was right. He now works as a senior associate at JLL (Jones Lang LaSalle), a real estate services and investment management company with offices throughout the world. 

He said his liberal arts education expanded his horizons.

“A liberal arts education gave me an open-mindedness and willingness to learn,” he said. “I was always afraid of pigeon-holing myself and just focusing on one thing because then how do you talk to that person who’s focused on something else?

“It allowed me to take a wide range of classes that gave me the opportunity to connect with a wide range of people. In the real estate business, I deal with anyone from a property manager to an institutional landlord. Learning a wide range of things allows you to connect with a greater number of people.”

The application for the Fisher Fellows Class of 2018 is available here. Deadline to apply is Feb. 13.