Sisters embrace a spirit of service as students at USC Dornsife
Many college students have to take part-time jobs to help cover tuition and living expenses, a fact not lost on USC Dornsife undergraduates Nikki and Shaliz Aflatooni.
The sisters feel blessed to have avoided that burden thanks to financial support like merit-based scholarships from Town & Gown of USC — funding that has inspired them to volunteer and help others while they study.
An aspiring dentist, Nikki Aflatooni is majoring in health and human sciences with a minor in global health. She has traveled to Central America with other USC students to provide dental care in underserved areas. The senior also teaches classes in neighborhood schools through USC Dornsife’s Joint Educational Project, giving her a chance to share oral hygiene and health care tips with local students.
In high school, Shaliz Aflatooni volunteered at a summer day camp and wrote a children’s book that she read aloud to kids waiting for care at a pediatric clinic. Although she is just getting started at USC Dornsife as a freshman majoring in human biology, she has already signed up to dazzle local kids with science experiments as part of a STEM outreach program in elementary schools around the university.
Shaliz Aflatooni (second from right in back row) is part of a USC outreach group that encourages local students to explore STEM careers. Photo courtesy of Shaliz Aflatooni.
“I’ve created so many great memories here, and I know Shaliz will, too,” Nikki Aflatooni said. “Having these scholarships has helped us be able to focus on our academics and volunteer involvement. And we’ll definitely want to come back and stay involved after we graduate.”
Helping others started in childhood
The Aflatoonis grew up in Irvine, where both of their parents work as engineers. Their parents consistently stressed community service and encouraged the girls to dedicate their free time to worthy causes.
“Irvine can feel like a bubble — it’s known as one of the safest cities in America,” Nikki Aflatooni said. “Our parents always wanted us to get exposed to other experiences outside of that bubble, so we started volunteering.”
She wanted to continue that trend when she enrolled at USC Dornsife in 2015. She was worried she might have to work part-time to afford tuition, but she was fortunate to receive the Presidential Scholarship and additional support from alumni groups.
A high school counselor also told her about the early deadline for Town & Gown’s scholarship application. As the oldest support group and women’s organization on campus, the nonprofit has provided millions of dollars in scholarships for Southern California residents to attend USC. She applied and received funding that freed her up to pursue volunteer activities.
Aid for the world’s underserved
That extra time allowed her to become president of USC’s chapter of Global Dental Brigades. The group has visited areas with limited access to dental care in Nicaragua, Panama and beyond, providing basic dental procedures and promoting good oral health.
Nikki Aflatooni, center, demonstrates proper use of a toothbrush during a USC student-led dental service trip to Central America. Photo courtesy of Nikki Aflatooni.
During her most recent trip to Honduras in August, Nikki Aflatooni helped set up a clinic in a one-room schoolhouse and screened kids for gingivitis, cavities and other oral health issues. Five Honduran dentists saw local patients throughout the day and into the evening, wearing headlamps to continue their work. They treated many children seeking to have teeth extracted due to minor issues.
“Here, if we saw the same problems, we would just get fillings,” she said. “There, they don’t have the tools and capacity to maintain their teeth, so they just want them pulled.”
She hopes the group’s ongoing efforts start to change that mentality, encouraging more preventive care and regular cleanings. She shares that same message at local schools around USC. During a recent visit to 32nd Street/USC Visual and Performing Arts Magnet to discuss oral hygiene, anatomy and nutrition with kids, she was surprised to see some of the same challenges and poor practices she witnessed abroad.
“Some kids don’t even own their own toothbrush,” Nikki Aflatooni said. “They share a toothbrush with their siblings or they drink fruit juice right before bed.”
Those experiences helped solidify her interest in dentistry, and she plans to attend dental school next year.
Welcoming atmosphere draws siblings to USC
When it came time for Shaliz Aflatooni to apply to colleges, USC was at the top of her list. She had fallen in love with the campus atmosphere during trips to visit her sister.
“There’s just something about USC that draws you in,” Nikki Aflatooni explained. “You feel comfortable here. I toured the campus three times before I applied because I kept wanting to come back and see it again.”
Thanks to her sister’s experience, Shaliz applied for the Town & Gown scholarship early and received the same support to help cover tuition. She also received the Dean’s Scholarship from USC Dornsife. The merit-based aid tipped the balance in favor of USC.
“When that scholarship email came through, it sealed the deal,” she said.
A growing network of connections
In addition to providing scholarships, Town & Gown holds a lunch every month for scholarship recipients and donors. The luncheons encourage networking and enable students to share a meal with the donors who helped them. That’s how Nikki Aflatooni found out that several people who supported her scholarship are in the dental profession — one is an orthodontist and another is a faculty member at the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC.
“I’m so thankful for them and always try to express my gratitude. I also want to keep in contact with them after I graduate, to let them know what path I’m on and how I’m doing in dental school,” she said.
The monthly luncheons are also helping Shaliz Aflatooni make connections. She spotted several familiar faces from her dorm and made new friends during the first event of the semester. When she’s not studying, she plans to explore volunteer opportunities through Town & Gown, such as the USC Day of SCervice.
“I’m hoping to become a pediatrician, so a lot of my volunteer activities revolve around spending time with kids,” she said.
Driven to help children
Last year, Shaliz Aflatooni wrote a motivational book for children called Believe You Can Do It! The main character is a girl who feels shy about performing in a talent show. Then she meets a blue jay who helps her build self-esteem and conquer her stage fright.
Shaliz not only wrote the text and created illustrations, but she also scanned, printed and bound the book and self-published it on Amazon.com. “I’m not the best artist, but the process was fun,” she said.
During trips to a local pediatric waiting room, she read the book aloud to children to help them feel more comfortable and less worried about seeing the doctor. She also handed out copies for them to take home.
Now that she’s at USC, Shaliz Aflatooni is following the example set by her sister by getting involved in other service opportunities. The science outreach program she has already joined feels like a great fit, combining her interests in science and working with kids. She is also a member of the Red Cross and Alpha Epsilon Delta, a pre-health honors society.
“I definitely want to continue volunteering here,” she said. “Because I have these scholarships, I feel like it will be my way of giving back.”