By Eric Ruble
Sabina Panfil never imagined herself attending USC. The daughter – and granddaughter – of UCLA fans, she grew up surrounded by blue and gold.
That changed when she earned USC’s Presidential Scholarship and enrolled as a civil engineering major at USC Viterbi.
“Now, my parents are super pro-USC. I’ve gotten them hats and sweatshirts and all the memorabilia,” said Panfil.
Shortly after arriving in University Park as a freshman, the Palos Verdes native learned about the real estate development program in USC Price. Panfil switched her major her sophomore year.
“I knew it was something that I wanted to do, but I was taking a much longer path to get there,” said Panfil, who will be speaking to graduates on May 13 as USC Price’s valedictorian.
Panfil says USC Price’s holistic approach is what sets it apart. Even as a real estate development student, she learned about public policy, government and planning. She says the latter was especially helpful in understanding the long-term impacts of multifamily development.
“I had never learned that much about urban planning. But if you’re going to build something and you’re going to invest in something, you really should know how that’s going to work with the community,” she said.
In the male-dominated development sector, Panfil says she has learned to look for mentors for support and guidance. At USC Price, she found one in Professor LaVonna Lewis.
“Thoughtful, reflective, evolving [are] all words that come to mind when I think about Sabrina,” said Lewis, who is also associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion at USC Price.
Through an exercise in Lewis’ class, Panfil realized how one’s identity can be shaped by differences in their surroundings.
“In a room full of male peers, you realize how much you are perceived based first as your gender and second as everything else you have to offer,” Panfil said.
Lewis said Panfil understands the importance of using her talents to help others.
“I also saw her lean into her power — there are issues that she is passionate about and I am convinced that personally and professionally she will be a difference-maker,” Lewis said.
Panfil says crafting a commencement speech has been daunting.
“Every time I look at it, I end up rewriting a section because there’s just so much I want to say,” she said. “The time we live in – it’s been really hard. I wanted to capture that, but I also wanted to keep it hopeful, and that was a really hard line to walk.”
She says encapsulating the USC Price experience in under five minutes was a challenge, especially considering the diversity of majors.
“Real estate is definitely the most different from the other majors, and I want people to feel represented,” Panfil said.
In June, Panfil will start working as an analyst at the enormous investment firm Blackstone. She will be monitoring Blackstone properties to help the company evaluate which buildings should be sold or renovated.
“It’s a large-scale place, so I’m hoping it’ll give me the opportunity to have a lot of exposure,” Panfil said.
As she reflected on the last four years, Panfil offered some advice to incoming freshmen: get involved, take advantage of the connections the Trojan Family provides and get to know your professors.
“They offer you so many different ways of looking at the world,” she said.
Just five years ago, Panfil couldn’t see herself at USC. Now, it feels like home.
“I couldn’t imagine going anywhere else,” she said.