Two undergraduate students earn prestigious fellowships to address school-to-prison pipeline
Thanks to their Soros Justice Fellowships, two USC Dornsife undergraduates will explore the incarceration and criminalization of young people of color in our public school system. (Composite: Letty Avila. Image Source: iStock.)

Two undergraduate students earn prestigious fellowships to address school-to-prison pipeline

The undergrads, both of whom serve in USC Dornsife’s Agents of Change civil rights advocacy clinic, are the first at USC to receive Soros Justice Fellowships from the Open Society Foundations.
BySusan Bell

In brief:

  • Two USC Dornsife undergraduates were selected from thousands of global applicants to receive two of 18 Soros Justice Fellowships.

  • They are the youngest Soros Justice Fellows in the 2022 cohort.

  • The students received $57,000 each to further their project to highlight the school-to-prison pipeline.

  • Both serve in USC Dornsife’s Agents of Change (AOC) initiative — the nation’s first undergraduate civil rights advocacy clinic.

  • Alumna Maytha Alhassen earned a Soros Equality Fellowship to design a storytelling model for TV shows and films geared towards social change.

Photo of Katherine Owojori
Senior Katherine Owojori plans to attend law school and work to reform the prison system. (Photo: Courtesy of Katherine Owojori.)

Two students at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, have become the university’s first undergraduates to be awarded Soros Justice Fellowships.

Irene Franco Rubio and Katherine Owojori were selected from thousands of global applicants to receive two of the 18 Soros Justice Fellowships awarded in 2022. They are the youngest in the cohort.

Granted annually by the Open Society Foundations, the fellowships fund projects that advance reform, spur debate and lead to change on issues facing the United States criminal justice system.

Owojori and Franco Rubio both serve in USC Dornsife’s Agents of Change (AOC) initiative — the nation’s first undergraduate civil rights advocacy clinic — and credit the program with helping to give their Soros Justice Fellowship applications a winning edge. AOC was also where Rubio and Owojori met and decided to team up to apply for the fellowships.

Each received $57,000 to further their joint project exploring and highlighting via the media the school-to-prison pipeline and its role in the incarceration and criminalization of young people of color in low-income communities in Los Angeles.

“The idea is to explore how zero-tolerance policies adopted by public schools, in tandem with police and the justice system, serve to oppress and deter young people from being able to pursue higher education by criminalizing and incarcerating them instead of investing in them and providing the support they need to thrive,” said Franco Rubio.

Owojori and Franco Rubio plan to highlight the issues involved by interviewing those directly impacted, along with community activists, organizers and experts. The interviews will be aired on the #SchoolsNotPrisons podcast, a digital movement to stop overspending on prisons and end mass incarceration, instead focusing on education, health, youth and community.

Agents of Change students expand activism efforts

Owojori, a senior majoring in political science, grew up in South L.A. and dreamed of attending USC.

A photo of Irene Franco Rubio
Senior Irene Franco Rubio plans to pursue a PhD after graduating. (Photo: Courtesy Irene Franco Rubio.)

An activist, academic, and community organizer, Owojori is a member of Black Lives Matter: Los Angeles, and a student director with USC Dornsife’s Prison Education Project. She was also an organizing fellow with WokeVote, the Policy & Budget co-chair at the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities, and a Warren Bennis Scholar at USC. After graduating from USC Dornsife, Owojori plans to attend law school and work to reform carceral systems nationwide.

Franco Rubio, a senior majoring in sociology with a minor in race, ethnicity and politics, is a social justice activist, writer and community organizer from Phoenix. She has worked as a local grassroots organizer for the Arizona Coalition for Change and organized nationally for Michelle Obama’s nonprofit When We All Vote, and she is a Public Voices fellow of the Op-Ed Project at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, a Humanity in Action fellow and a John Robert Lewis scholar.

After graduation, Franco Rubio plans to pursue a PhD in sociology while continuing her career as a freelance writer and grassroots community organizer.

Agents of Change experience gives students a winning edge

Award-winning civil rights lawyer Olu Orange, the founder and director of Agents of Change, is delighted to see the hard work of his AOC students coming to fruition through the Soros Justice Fellowships.

“Because AOC addresses three different areas — government policy, community activism and legal advocacy — we are seeing students have a phenomenal advantage when it comes to next steps, such as applying to law school,” said Orange, who also runs the USC Trial Advocacy (Mock Trial) program based at USC Dornsife. This winning edge, he says, also applied to the Soros Justice Fellowships.

“The director of the selection committee told Katherine and Irene that what set both of them apart as far as their applications, their profiles and proposed projects were concerned is the fact that through AOC, they were already doing the work rather than — as was the case for many candidates — wanting to do it.”

Owojori credits AOC with informing her future goals.

“My internships allowed me to become more knowledgeable about community organizing and being a good advocate,” she said. “But AOC also made me more intimately familiar with the issues that I wanted to impact on a level that I just wouldn’t have been able to get in the classroom.”

For example, her AOC internship with the American Civil Liberties Union included working on its Jails Project, enabling her to speak with people who are incarcerated and hear first-hand about the issues they face.

“I couldn’t have learned that by reading a news article or by learning about it in the classroom,” Owojori said.

USC Dornsife alumna named a Soros Equality Fellow

A photo of Maytha Alhassen
Alumna Maytha Alhassen, a journalist and historian, will design a storytelling model for TV shows and films. (Photo: Shayan Asgharnia.)

In addition to Soros Justice Fellows Franco Rubio and Owojori, the Open Society Foundations recognized another accomplished USC Dornsife scholar.

Maytha Alhassen, who earned an MA and a PhD in American studies and ethnicity from USC Dornsife in 2013 and 2017, respectively, has been awarded a Soros Equality Fellowship. The award seeks to help individuals become long-term innovative leaders impacting racial justice.

Alhassen will use the fellowship’s $130,000 in funding to design a storytelling model for television shows and films geared towards transformative change.

A journalist, historian and social justice artist, Alhassen has appeared as a co-host on Al Jazeera English and The Young Turks and has written for news outlets including CNN, Boston Review HuffPost and The Baffler. She has also written for the Los Angeles Review of Books and has co-edited a book on the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, Demanding Dignity: Young Voices from the Front Lines of the Arab Revolutions (White Cloud Press, 2012).

Currently, Alhassen produces and writes for the award-winning Hulu series Ramy and serves as an executive producer for the upcoming docuseries American Muslims: A History Revealed. She is a Harvard Religion and Public Life Fellow in Media and Entertainment.