Hearts in the Highlands

Students get their practical politics on with the help of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics and many other purveyors of opportunity at USC Dornsife. First stop, the White House.
Michelle Boston

Standing on the steps of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., Roxana Ontiveros had one thing on her mind: her Highland Park neighborhood in northeast Los Angeles.

The daughter of Mexican immigrants and the first in her family to attend college, Ontiveros had taken her debut airplane trip to participate in a summer internship with the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.

The junior political science and American studies and ethnicity major at USC Dornsife was bringing Highland Park to the decision-making hub of the country. Now was her chance to make efforts to improve her community.

“I felt like it was my responsibility to bring my neighborhood into focus in what’s happening in D.C.,” she said. “My hometown is always at the forefront of my mind.”

In Washington, D.C., Ontiveros learned about Latino-focused education policy, communications and outreach at the U.S. Department of Education. She is passionate about bringing the community and government together to improve educational prospects for minorities.

During her internship, arranged through USC Dornsife’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, she wrote a white paper on the success of Latino males in the United States, gathering data such as college graduation and incarceration rates. Her work will be used to help policymakers strengthen educational opportunities for Latinos, the nation’s largest and fastest-growing population.

Throughout her time in Washington, D.C., “I felt empowered to contribute to research on such an important topic,” Ontiveros said.

Ontiveros intends to become a litigation attorney, but isn’t ruling out the idea of one day running for office or teaching law.

USC Dornsife’s support has been crucial in setting her up for success, Ontiveros said. A political leadership award from the Unruh Institute provided her with funding to support her internship.

“Without it, I would not have been able to participate in this life-changing experience,” she said.

USC Dornsife offers exceptional opportunities for students such as Ontiveros to gain hands-on experience working in politics and impacting policy. Through internships, courses, mentorship and scholarships, students develop leadership skills and gain the experience to make a difference through civic engagement at the local, national and international levels.

Dan Schnur, director of the Unruh Institute since 2008, said the foundation for extraordinary work begins with USC’s commitment to its community.

“USC has always stressed the importance of USC students and faculty working with surrounding neighborhoods,” he said. The result is a student body that is devoted to improving Los Angeles, he added. Through the Unruh Institute, Schnur wants to show students that becoming involved in politics and government is a logical extension of their community work.

“Cleaning up a park or teaching an at-risk child to read is tremendous, but working to elect candidates to office who will help further those goals on a much larger scale is the next critical step,” Schnur said.

An institute goal is bridging the academic study of politics with practical experience in the field.

For example, the Unruh Fellows Program brings top politicians and policy professionals to campus to participate in panel discussions and smaller, informal meetings with students. The institute’s Legislators in Residence Program recruited Republican Tony Strickland, a former California state senator, and Democrat Anthony Portantino, a former California state assembly member, to be on-campus mentors.

In addition to speaking on panels and co-teaching political science courses with USC Dornsife faculty, Strickland and Portantino hold regular office hours for students to drop in, learn about the mentors’ experiences in politics and seek career advice.

Students also gain insight into California’s electorate through the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll, directed by Schnur. The statewide public opinion poll, conducted at intervals throughout the year, gauges voter attitudes on a range of political, policy, social and cultural issues.

Just as the controversial Affordable Care Act (ACA) prepared to roll out at the beginning of 2014, a November 2013 USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times survey showed that despite overall support for the law, voters in California were concerned about how the legislation would affect the economy and their own health care access.

The poll revealed that 50 percent of California voters favor the ACA, including 33 percent who strongly favor it. But even those who support the law had significant concerns, including lost wages and higher out-of-pocket costs.

Schnur uses findings such as these in his course “The Future of California,” in which students research policy challenges for the Golden State based on issues surveyed in the poll. “Through the poll, students also develop an understanding of how public opinion research works. They get to hear directly from the people who put the poll together,” Schnur said.

The Unruh Institute sponsors a weekly “Students Talk Back” forum, in which USC students sit on panels with seasoned experts to discuss topics like immigration reform, California prisons and social justice in L.A.

Following the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which claimed the lives of 20 children and six adults, USC students had the opportunity to air their views on U.S. gun policies.

During the forum, international relations major David Meister cited the Second Amendment, arguing that the shooting should not be used to curtail gun rights. Those who pass a background check and are not psychologically unstable should be permitted to carry a firearm, he said.

“That being said,” Meister said, “I’m hopeful that policy will reduce the number of high-capacity magazine clips, and we can limit the number of automatic — not assault, but automatic — weapons.”

Americans have a Second Amendment right to own a gun, agreed political science major Andrew Myers. “But it [boils down] to what kind of guns people are allowed to own and being responsible with them.”

The Second Amendment was created in 1776, when people mainly owned muskets — they didn’t have the kinds of weapons available today, Myers noted.

“As you look at how guns have progressed, the meaning of the Second Amendment and what it means to bear arms have changed.”

Another event co-sponsored by the institute involves the national nonprofit Running Start, which introduces high school girls to political leadership. Each year, the institute collaborates with Running Start to hold a leadership conference for young women.

Senior political science major Kaya Masler has helped to recruit young women to Running Start.

During the conference, she hosts a workshop to teach the high school participants how to craft “an elevator pitch” touting their strengths. Another workshop she leads is about bolstering fundraising skills.

“Studies have shown that women have a harder time asking for money,” Masler said. “We want to teach girls that they are worth it and can ask right off the bat. Not only is it more efficient, but it’s also more effective.”

Masler, a former administrative assistant with the Unruh Institute who is now director of USC’s Women’s Student Assembly, said she has seen young women thrive in the program.

“They gain a new sense of self and a sense of what they can do,” she said. “I have seen this when they take the initiative after the event to e-mail me, eager to get involved and learn more.”

And many do get involved. After last year’s conference, two students reached out to Masler for guidance launching a student club at their high school to help other young women get involved in politics and leadership. Masler, who was working as a staff member on Wendy Greuel’s L.A. mayoral bid, invited them to assist her on the campaign.

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USC Dornsife students have opportunities to work at the White House through programs at the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics.

Masler also attended a 2013 mayoral race debate between candidates Greuel and Eric Garcetti co-hosted by the Unruh Institute and held at USC. (Garcetti won the election.)

“The single strongest memory I have of the Greuel-Garcetti debate is not how many of our former students I saw attending the debate, but how many I saw working for both campaigns,” Schnur said.

Students are also gaining insight from Schnur’s own experience. Schnur is currently on leave as director of the Unruh Institute as he makes a bid for California secretary of state. While campaigning, he continues to teach one class a semester at USC Dornsife.

“I hope that the experiences I have on the campaign trail and potentially in office are things that students can learn from,” Schnur said.

At the institute’s core is a robust internship program — supported by a host of scholarships — that puts students in the field working on the issues they care about while earning credits toward their degrees.

For instance, the institute supported junior Nick Kosturos’ internship at the Pentagon, where he worked for the Department of Defense. The summer placement involved work in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics. The international relations major was awarded USC Dornsife’s Coady Scholarship for Summer Interns, which covered his travel and living expenses in Washington, D.C.

At the Department of Defense, Kosturos researched international arms agreements between the U.S. and other countries, and frequently met with diplomats from the United Kingdom.

“At these face-to-face meetings I was able to gain insight from the diplomats as well as provide my own insight into how we might proceed with cooperative engagements,” said Kosturos, who aspires to work in the U.S. Foreign Service. “I was able to get a sense of how the United States interacts with other nations on military and political issues, and the many steps and intricacies that are required to nail down these complex agreements.”

In Washington, D.C., Kosturos took part via Skype in a career leadership course through USC Dornsife’s Gateway Internship Program led by Donal Manahan, professor of biological sciences and vice dean for students. The course featured guest lecturers from a range of professions. Among them were Joan Abrahamson, president of the public policy–focused Jefferson Institute, and Robert Osher, president of the Digital Production division of Sony Pictures Entertainment.

“Never eat lunch alone,” was a piece of advice one professional offered. Kosturos took it to heart.

“Following that recommendation I met extraordinary people across the Pentagon,” Kosturos said. “Their stories and career advice helped me shape my approach to pursuing a career in public service.”

Kosturos said two USC Dornsife Problems Without Passports (PWP) courses influenced his career goals and prepared him to work at the Department of Defense. Under the guidance of Steven Lamy, professor of international relations and vice dean for academic programs, and Robert English, associate professor of international relations, Kosturos traveled to Sweden, Russia, and Finland to meet with top diplomats, energy experts and scientists to study the ecological security and global politics of the Arctic region.

The undergraduate recalled a telling moment while speaking with Nordic diplomats at the Finnish Consulate in St. Petersburg, Russia, after a formal presentation on Arctic security. During the presentation, officials had asserted that the Arctic was a strict zone of peace. But afterward, one diplomat confided something.

“We don’t talk about conflict or else it will happen,” the diplomat whispered.

“This revealing aside illustrated the tense security situation in the region that would not have been portrayed in the classroom or at any official presentation,” Kosturos said. “Our intimate opportunities to speak with these diplomats off-the-record afforded us great insight into the genuine opinions of prominent Arctic officials.” 

While in Washington, Kosturos also learned about U.S. defense and foreign policy on nuclear nonproliferation and weapons of mass destruction. Led by Wayne Glass, professor emeritus of the practice of international relations, Kosturos and his classmates visited nonprofit organizations, think tanks, federal agencies and Congressional offices.

At the Brookings Institution, the students had the opportunity for a face-to-face meeting with retired Gen. David Petraeus, director of the CIA from September 2011 until November 2012.

“Engaging in conversation with one of the greatest generals in American history on a wide variety of topics from U.S.-Russian relations to the evolution of America’s role in the Middle East was humbling and extraordinary,” Kosturos said of Petraeus, a Judge Widney Professor at USC.

Part of giving students opportunities in politics and government is tapping into the extensive Trojan Family network.

Kyndell Paine, who graduated from USC Dornsife with a bachelor’s in political science in 2007, took full advantage of this.

As a student, a classmate informed her that a L.A. political fundraising firm was looking for an intern. Paine landed the gig and ended up working for the organization as it raised money for George W. Bush’s exploratory committee, then his primary election and once he was elected president, for his inaugural committee.

“Whatever side of the aisle you lean to, seeing that process play out in our country is truly amazing,” said Paine, who earned course credit for the position through the Unruh Institute’s internship program. “It was one of my top political experiences and it was all while I was a student at USC.”

Paine is the manager of government relations for the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, Calif. As an Unruh Fellow, she recently hosted a mentoring meeting for USC students at the Disneyland Resort. The meeting gave students the opportunity to learn more about the Disneyland Resort and what a career in government relations entails.

“It’s about paying it forward and helping other Trojans,” Paine said.

The paying it forward mantra resonates with Ontiveros.

After her experience at the White House, Ontiveros returned to Los Angeles to put what she had learned to work in her community as an intern with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) — the nation’s leading Latino legal civil rights organization.

At MALDEF, Ontiveros wrote a report for its Parent School Partnership program (PSP), which trains L.A.–area parents how to become active participants in their children’s education, schools and community.

The report detailed the ways federal and California state codes protect parent’s rights to be involved in their children’s education. It highlighted the California education code’s stipulation that schools must establish parent-community advisory committees, and a U.S. education code requirement that schools provide parents with information on their child’s academic performance.

Research shows that student achievement is linked to parental involvement in a child’s education. Many of the parents in PSP are immigrants who speak little or no English and are unfamiliar with the U.S. system of education. The program teaches them how to navigate the public school infrastructure. They learn about the roles and expectations of teachers and administrators, protocols for resolving disciplinary matters and ways to monitor academic success.

Ontiveros’ report will ensure parents know their legal rights.

“At the end of the day, they gain confidence and understand how they can engage with these institutions,” she said.

Ontiveros hopes her work with MALDEF and the White House will have a positive ripple effect in Highland Park, her local community. Her goal is to make a deeper contribution.

“Regardless of what profession I take on, I’m inspired to improve opportunities for my younger siblings, my cousins and their friends,” she said. “Things such as K–12 education and after-school activities at the recreation center. They want to participate in more arts, music and theatre programs, but don’t have the chance because of a lack of resources.

“I’m inspired to bridge the different facets of the law, academia and the community to help them and to move society forward.”

Read more about Robert Shrum

Read more stories from USC Dornsife Magazine‘s Spring-Summer 2014 issue