University of Southern California: USC Neighborhood Academic Initiative graduates return to campus

Move-in day felt like coming back home,” said a jubilant Edward Chanquin, a graduate of USC’s Leslie and William McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative and an incoming freshman. “I was homesick. I haven’t seen this place in a long time.”

The Neighborhood Academic Initiative, or NAI, is the university’s premier college access program. This semester, close to 60 graduates from its Class of 2021 will begin the next phase of their academic journey: attending USC. The program’s Saturday Academy brings scholars to campus on a regular basis to attend workshops and tutoring sessions, so starting in the sixth grade, USC becomes something of a second home.

“I felt ecstatic to come back,” said incoming freshman Gabriel Solis. “In my mind, I was thinking: ‘This is awesome. This is home,’ ” though he added, “My mom was crying because she was going to miss me.”

The scholars — who all hail from the areas surrounding both USC campuses — become familiar with being a part of campus life. In previous years, the transition to college was seamless, but campus closures made the transition different this fall.

“I’m excited, I’m rooming with one of my best friends. There are a lot of people in my dorm that went to the same high school,” said incoming freshman Jacky Mendoza. She has spent the time since move-in day reconnecting with friends and going on walks around campus and USC Village. “After not seeing them for so long, a lot of us lost connection during the pandemic.”

NAI scholars ready to tackle issues like the digital divide and minority business development
Losing touch with peers wasn’t the only challenge these scholars faced in their journey to USC.

“The high school I came from had a technology disparity. There was a lack of Chromebooks and hot spots,” Chanquin said. “These last 18 months, there were a lot of technology issues between the students and the teachers.”

While the NAI program bridged the gap by providing scholars with laptops and internet access, the issues have motivated Chanquin to find ways to improve technology and software to make it accessible to low-income communities. He will be studying arts, technology and the business of innovation at the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy.

The perspective of coming from and wanting to uplift low-income communities has also resonated with Solis, who plans to study social entrepreneurship at the USC Marshall School of Business.

“I want to help people like my mother, who wanted to start her own floral shop,” he said. “She had aspirations to begin a business but didn’t have the resources or finances to do so. I hope to help people like her, develop those businesses and focus on minority business development.”

Neighborhood Academic Initiative graduates now feel like true Trojans
There is a deep sense of gratitude among NAI scholars and a desire to give back to their communities. They are thankful for the assistance and resources the program provided throughout the seven-year journey, especially during a tumultuous senior year of high school.

“The transition from junior and senior year was challenging. Without the support of NAI, I wouldn’t be here today,” Chanquin said. He will be returning to the program this fall as a math tutor; as a mentor for senior scholars, he will help guide them through the college application process.

“I’m very thankful to NAI. My mom didn’t get a GED, my siblings didn’t go to college,” Solis said. “Putting that stress on a student who is dealing with school, the pandemic and colleges — it’s a lot, and NAI was there. They were like parents to us, the whole NAI family.”

The shift to online learning was difficult for many of these scholars, and the support they received has empowered them to succeed on the next leg of their journey, starting with freshman year.

“I’m excited for this year. I feel like I have a support system to get me through this,” said Mendoza, who will be entering the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences as a neuroscience major.

“We would walk around here and I didn’t feel like a Trojan yet,” Chanquin said. “I was on the path to being one. Fast forward and I’m officially a Trojan — I belong here. I want to use what USC offers to make my goals and dreams come true.”

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