Inspired by her mother’s love, a young poet prepares for life as a Trojan
Sandra Schmidt (left) and her daughter, 2021 NAI graduate Shandela Contreras, look forward to Shandela attending USC in the fall of 2021. (Photo: Gus Ruelas.)

Inspired by her mother’s love, a young poet prepares for life as a Trojan

Shandela Contreras would not have graduated from USC’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative without her mom’s hard work and sacrifice, virtues she’ll carry with her as a USC Dornsife student. [2¼ min read]
BySaul Garcia

Shandela Contreras always wanted to write poetry. When she penned “Ode to Los Angeles,” it became a love poem that reflected upon her journey through the USC Leslie and William McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative (NAI). 

Although she only joined USC this fall, pursuing a major in creative writing at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Contreras has already racked up some literary experience. In May, she published an anthology of poems, Mellow Ballads, that move your bones.

“I want to inspire people to create change through their voice and through spoken word,” she said.

To understand her desire to inspire, one must understand Contreras’ inspiration: her mother, Sandra Schmidt. Schmidt left behind her Central American hometown of Belize City and her dream career as a police officer to migrate to Los Angeles in order to care for her parents. While working as an office assistant at Contreras’ elementary school, Schmidt learned about NAI, and she knew her daughter would do well in the college prep program. 

Contreras and her mother were aware that NAI was rigorous, requiring scholars to attend early morning and after-school tutoring sessions along with Saturday Academy. Parents, too, must attend information sessions and workshops. It was a sacrifice both were willing to make.

What they didn’t expect to gain was an extended family. When COVID-19 hit close to home and Schmidt’s father died of the virus, the family was immediately supported by the program. In addition to helping Contreras navigate the college application and financial aid process during a difficult time, NAI provided the family with other forms of assistance.

“NAI helped a lot, not only with emotional support but financially,” Contreras says. “We had to bury my grandfather in Belize, and NAI stepped up and provided a donation to ease the financial burden. It meant so much. You really feel like you are a part of a family with NAI. I’m grateful for their support.”

And it was a sense of family that led to Contreras’ decision to attend USC in the fall. Not only did NAI help her feel at home at the university, but her mother now works near USC as a security ambassador. 

“Seeing her taking care of USC students, I know she always wanted to take care of me as a USC student,” Contreras says. “And I want to go to college to provide a better life for her one day.”

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