USC’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative Program Gets Low-Income Students to College

Since the 6th grade, Angelica Vazquez has started her days like the 56 other graduating high school seniors in USC’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative program — taking math and English classes at USC.

“As long as I have it in my mind that I go to college I can accomplish anything that I want,” her parents told Vasquez, who will graduate in June from Foshay Learning Center and attend USC next fall as a Mechanical Engineering major.

NAI scholar, Amber Johnston during the programs annual senior gala.

USC’s initiative has paved the way for hundreds of low-income students in South Los Angeles like Vasquez to earn full college scholarships by preparing them for admission to some of the nation’s most selective schools.

The rigorous enrichment program was started in 1990. It is funded by the university. Students who complete the program and meet USC’s competitive admission requirements are rewarded with a full 4.5-year financial package if they decide to join the Trojan family. So far, 984 students have graduated from the initiative and USC. In total, 83 percent enroll as freshmen in four-year colleges.

Students are chosen for the program after filling out an application or being recommended by their 5th grade teachers for the program. Participating schools besides Foshay include El Sereno ELementary School Murchison Elementary School in East L.A

Vazquez applied to USC, Princeton, Yale, Brown, and Harvard, and was accepted to Cal Poly Pomona, CSU Long Beach, San Jose State, San Francisco State, UC Irvine and USC. She credits her parents’ continuous support — and the initiative — for her passion to go to college and set an example in her community.

“[The initiative] is family that I could go to and bombard with questions. They have my back and they are always there for me. The program doesn’t let you slide by. They push us to adhere to deadlines and provide us with tutoring and math lessons. The support that they give you is a good resource for all the students in the program,” she said.

“Our purpose is to ensure that kids from our neighborhood have access to college and to help remove the barriers for college,” said Dr. Lizette Zarate, the initiative’s program administrator. She also graduated from the program in 1998 and was admitted to USC as an English major.

SLA often is regarded as one of the “tougher” neighborhoods in Southern California, if not the nation. Many of the families are low income and predominantly Latino. The area also is known for higher-than average high school dropout rates. L.A Unified has a 40 percent dropout rate. In SLA, the dropout rate is 22 percent, according to data compiled by the Los Angeles Times.

Despite these challenges, Foshay’s program has had the highest number of students gain admission to USC. Last year, 19 out of 21 Foshay students who were accepted to USC decided to attend. This year, 22 scholars were accepted to USC.

“Since 6th grade, it has been [the initiative’s] goal to get us to college. They have always told us ‘You’re going to college’ and we have such a strong support system. They give you the information and tell us that we have to do in order to go to college. They tell is that we can go to USC or any other school,” said Vazquez.

Although her journey to college hasn’t been the easiest, Vazquez takes pride in being a first generation student. “I would have to discover that college experience on my own because I would be the first,” she said.

NAI scholars take math and science classes.

Another graduate of the program, Fatima Saravia, applied to 10 schools including Stanford, Berkeley, and USC. She has faced a lot of barriers in applying to college but praises the initiative for helping get her into USC, where she will major in Health Promotion and Disease Prevention with a Pre-Med emphasis beginning in the fall.

Saravia taking science classes at USC.

“With my parents I’m asking for tax papers or signature because they don’t know what I’m doing so I would have to ask my mentors or the [initiative] staff for help or other friends for help proofreading my college essays. In a sense my parents couldn’t be there for me,” she said.

Saravia is proud to come from a community where she has learned how to be a tough worker, and plans to become a pediatric surgeon.

Saravia grew up in the South Los Angeles community and will attend USC in the fall.

“I come from a Salvadoran background. My parents come from really rural town and my dad barely made it to third grade and my mom only attended high school, but they had to stop going to go to school because of the Civil War and they had to find ways to help their families,” she said.

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