By Shelby Stephens
For over three decades the University of Southern California (USC) has used its resources to streamline children and young adults into higher education. Nearly 1,000 6 – 12 grade scholars participate in their signature college prep program, the USC Leslie and William McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative (NAI), with many advancing to become first-generation college students.
On Wednesday, May 24, USC celebrated 96 local students at their annual Gala who have completed six years of rigorous study and who are college bound, at the university’s park campus Founders Park, as part of the NAI access program. The gala also introduced the first Community Impact Award honoring NAI Program Director, Lizette Zarate, Ed. D.
Other program participants were Senior Vice President of University Relations Samuel Garrison, USC Board of Trustees members Leslie and William McMorrow, and NAI Alumna Alyssa Young. Media personality Alysha Del Valle, served as emcee.
More than 1,500 seniors have completed the NAI program and attended college since it began in 1997. The program has a 100% high school graduation rate and a 99% college graduation rate. Since the first graduating class in 1997, approximately 44% of NAI scholars have attended USC as first year or transfer students. To date, 107 scholars have transferred to USC as undergraduates.
Barbara Solomon, Board of Councilor member and a founder of the initiative, shared, “This is evidence that if you give the kids the right support, they can make it. All our children should have that opportunity, not just the ones in NAI, but we’re hoping that this is a model we can give to other communities to show that it’s all about the children.”
Noting the program’s longevity, Board of Councilor member Pedro Noguera said, “We are celebrating scholars but what you don’t realize is there are dozens behind them who are inspired by their example. We’re looking to expand into schools who don’t have access and to work with those schools to help them improve to serve more students.”
Joshua Burks is one of the exemplary NAI scholars graduating from the number one feeder public school to USC, James A. Foshay Learning Center, and will be an incoming freshman in the fall. He was also accepted to Tuskegee University, but ultimately decided to stay in Southern California.
Burks is fascinated by computer coding and math. He has selected Computer Science and Business Administration as his majors to continue to explore the world of STEM and learn how to open a technology-based business to create jobs in his community. A problem solver at heart, Burks successfully navigated the challenges of distance learning during the pandemic.
While discussing his time with NAI, Burks shared, “NAI has been rewarding because it has taught me to balance my work schedule and learn how manage my time better. For future and current NAI scholars, I encourage you to just keep going! Keep doing what you’re doing and do the best you can because it is hard but also very rewarding. Six to seven years of hard work and coming to Saturday school has paid off.”
The technology industry has a diversity deficit, and with it a deficit of diverse perspectives and ideas. Underrepresented minorities account for just 15% of the U.S. science and engineering workforce. Approximately 20% of data scientists are women, and fewer than 8% of new AI doctoral recipients in 2019 were Black or Hispanic.
USC leads the nation’s top private research institutions in the total number of computer science degrees (undergraduate and graduate) conferred each year, U.S. Department of Education statistics show. It also ranks first among Hispanic students, and second with Black students, among private top 25 universities. NAI has now expanded their reach to East and South Los Angeles communities.
“We want to continue to grow the number of scholars from the neighborhood and prepare them to be college bound,” said Lika Dozier, NAI program specialist of Academic Programming and NAI Expansion Lea.
“We’re going one year at a time and this fall we will have our first two cohorts of sixth graders from Audubon Middle School and Barack Obama Global Prep Academy. With the expansion program we’re looking to include more African American families.”
This year’s NAI Champion Award was awarded to founder, chairman, and CEO of Allen Media Broadcasting, Byron Allen, who owns 36 network affiliate broadcast television stations in 21 U.S. markets, and 12 24-hour HD television networks, serving nearly 220 million subscribers. Also, he produces and distributes Emmy Award-winning and nominated shows while also selling advertising for 43 broadcast and cable television programs and movements like ‘Black Media Matters.’
Describing his connection to NAI, Allen said, “Education is everything, I believe in the five E’s – making sure everyone has a great education, economic inclusion, equal and environmental protection, and an empathy button. If we position everyone to succeed, then we will have one America and a strong America.”
During his acceptance speech Allen thanked his mother for her tremendous parenting and support, he credited his wife for their balanced life regarding work commitments, and acknowledged USC and the NAI program for recognizing his achievements.
To conclude the gala, Associate Senior Vice President of USC Educational Partnerships; USC University Relations Kim Tomas-Barrios, announced the 2023 NAI Graduating Class and acknowledged the scholars for their hard work and dedication through the last seven years.
Learn more about the USC Leslie and William McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative (NAI) Program and how to get involved at Leslie and William McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative.