When Kendall Damon was a junior in high school, she seemed certain of one thing: She wouldn’t attend USC. Her father, brother and cousin all studied here, and the 16-year-old Damon wanted to chart her own path.
It took just a few hours on campus to change her mind. During a visit over spring break, Damon quickly fell for the sunny weather and energy from the bustling students. She got the chance to listen to a lecture by Professor LaVonna Lewis of the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy. As Lewis’ students pitched ideas to combat systemic sexism, Damon discovered a path where she could make a difference.
“It ended up being this click moment when I thought, ‘This is what I want to do. This is a major I want. This is a career I want,’” Damon said.
Damon is now the USC Price School’s valedictorian. It’s the culmination of four years full of accomplishments for the public policy undergrad, who landed internships in the U.S. Senate and L.A. County Board of Supervisors, oversaw diversity and equity initiatives at her sorority, and volunteered for political and climate advocacy campaigns.
In an ironic twist, she now tries to convince friends to study at USC – after her initial resistance to following in her Trojan family members’ footsteps.
“My friends will joke about this, but I am like a poster child for USC because I love it so much,” Damon said. “I’m really grateful for my time here.”
Her path will continue at the University of Cambridge, where she’ll pursue a Master’s in Environmental Policy.
Damon gravitated toward environmental policy over the course of her studies. She joined the Sunrise Movement, a youth advocacy group focused on climate change, and worked in communications for the organization in Boston, close to her Massachusetts home. She also worked on campaigns for Boston Mayor Michelle Wu – a big proponent of green policies – and Sara Gideon, a former house speaker in Maine who ran for U.S. Senate in 2020.
“I became so drawn to climate change because I realized that it was the one thing that will truly, unequivocally affect everyone,” Damon said. “I grew up living on the beach in the flood zone. So I have always loved the outdoors, but also have seen how flooding has worsened just in the span of the 15 to 20 years my family have lived there.”
She wants to pursue a career in government after interning for U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren in Washington and the L.A. County Board of Supervisors. Those experiences showed her the potential to enact climate policy from within a government office or agency.
All of this extracurricular work (Damon also served as DEI chair for her sorority, Kappa Alpha Theta) doesn’t surprise Professor Lewis. The word “extra” is actually what comes to mind when Lewis thinks about Damon. The student racked up a ton of extra credit in Lewis’ classes, even though she hardly needed it.
“In every assignment, she did extra,” Lewis said. “She took the extra time to process, reflect and make applications to what she wanted to hold on to from every assignment. She did this publicly as well, consistently sharing her thoughts on the reading and other materials I shared in class.”
Lewis said Damon organized a speaker to talk to her sorority about South L.A., so they could learn about the cultures and neighborhoods there.
“Just the fact that Kendall took it upon herself to help some of her sorority mates understand that there’s more to South L.A. than you may think about,” Lewis said. “That’s what I mean by extra.”
Damon excelled in high school as well, so much so that she was almost salutatorian. However, she didn’t spend enough semesters at her high school to qualify after living in Tokyo for two years.
At the time, she joked that the silver lining was that she didn’t have the difficult task of crafting a graduation speech. Now, she’s preparing remarks for her college classmates during USC Price School’s commencement on May 12.
“What’s exciting to me is that it’s Price, and all of the people who are in Price care about making a difference and going out and using the skills they learned to actually change something,” Damon said. “I think that it’s so cool that I can speak directly to that.”
She also plans to address the anxiety that comes with leaving college and figuring out what comes next – the “senior scaries,” as she calls it. Her advice: think about how far you’ve come in four years instead of dwelling on the uncertain future.
“Looking back, we have grown so much and learned so much,” she said. “Thinking about how much I changed in the past four years, that’s been really helpful for me as I move on.”