Price Center for Social Innovation hosts San Diego high school students to help prepare them for college
By Matthew Kredell
Ulises Venegas-Rivera knew what many of the students visiting USC from San Diego’s Hoover High School were likely feeling about the chance to tour USC and hear about attending college — an opportunity provided by the Cardinals Interact Club, a San Diego-based partnership aimed at helping Hoover High students prepare for college.
A sophomore at the USC Price School of Public Policy and the first in his family to attend college, Venegas-Rivera long considered USC his dream school, but never thought that that dream could become a reality.
Even when he was accepted to USC as a community college transfer from Colorado, the good news was followed by a heartbreaking call. As an undocumented immigrant studying under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), he was considered an international student and therefore ineligible for financial aid. The U.S. was the only country he had ever known; his parents crossed the border from Mexico to the U.S. when he was two years old to get him a better education.
California residents can qualify for state-funded financial aid under the California Dream Act. For Venegas-Rivera, it appeared his dream had turned into a nightmare. Then something wonderful happened.
“I reached out to people here at the Price School, and all over campus, and I really got to see what the Trojan family was about,” Venegas-Rivera said. “Everyone I reached out to came together to help me out with the situation, because they really wanted me to come here. That was the true sign that USC was the place I needed to be.”
He secured enough financial aid to bring his tuition down to a very manageable total. He chose a public policy major because USC Price’s mission to improve the quality of life for people and their communities here and abroad resonated with him.
“I want to help the undocumented community here and one day go abroad and help the community where I’m originally from: Guanajuato, Mexico,” Venegas-Rivera said. “I always ask myself, ‘What could my dad have been if he had the resources I do today?’ It pushes me to do what I can for the communities abroad that don’t have the same resources, access to education and access to health care that we do here in the U.S.”
Blazing a Trail
Like Venegas-Rivera, most of the 50 students visiting USC as part of the Cardinals Interact Club — a partnership between Price Philanthropies and the Downtown San Diego Rotary Club — are planning to be the first from their families to attend college.
Cardinals Interact offers mentoring and tutoring to Hoover High students in grades 10 through 12, with the goals of helping them successfully complete graduation requirements and become ready for college, providing them a community of mentors and positive role models, and developing strong leaders who will make a positive impact in their community.
Gary Painter, director of the USC Sol Price Center for Social Innovation, shared that his parents were first-generation college students, which had a profound impact on him and his sisters in showing them that pathway. Opening up such opportunities is a key focus of the center.
“The Center for Social Innovation is about trying to figure out new solutions to the big problems we haven’t been able to solve for a really long time,” Painter told the students. “One thing we do know works quite well to develop pathways to opportunity for people is education, and that’s why you’re here today.”
Cardinals Interact has been visiting USC annually for the past five years, but it started as a generic tour that wasn’t having the desired impact. The Price Center for Social Innovation got involved last year, leading a program featuring talks by Painter and USC Price Professor LaVonna Lewis on what students could do with a USC Price degree, tour guides from USC Ambassadors focused on first-generation students and increasing diversity, information from USC Admissions on how to apply for college and loans, and a near-peer conversation with first-generation college students like Venegas-Rivera.
“We wanted to give these students a more tailored look at USC through the lens of the Price School of Public Policy, because we feel the school and its mission align with what these kids want to do with their lives,” said Caroline Bhalla, managing director of the Price Center for Social Innovation. “What we’re trying to do at the Price Center for Social Innovation is figure out how to overcome the notion that a person’s zip code growing up is the primary determinant of life outcomes.”
Yamilet Medina-Lopez, associate director of multicultural recruitment for USC Admissions, noted that 16 percent of USC students are first generation in their families to attend college, and that the university has a center to help first-generation college students with tutoring and mentoring and to guide them in their journey toward a degree.
“I am a first-generation college student, so I understand the challenge but also the reward that comes with having that pride of being a first-generation college student,” Medina-Lopez said.
Lewis told the students about her path to becoming a professor, her research into health disparities, her focus on social justice, and her role as director of diversity and inclusion initiatives at USC Price — a job she said she felt she was born to do.
“Whether we’re talking about how to deal with people in racial categories, different ethnicities, younger people versus senior citizens, people with disabilities, or gender identity issues — all those differences are meaningful,” Lewis said. “The challenge for an academic institution or any other workplace is to find ways to deal with those differences in a way people feel they are accepted and welcomed in those spaces, and I take that very seriously.”
Venegas-Rivera fielded a question from a Hoover High student who identified herself as a DACA recipient. He sought her out afterward to provide some personal encouragement.
“That makes it all worthwhile,” Venegas-Rivera said. “Being undocumented, I never saw someone who shared the same story when I was going through the process of looking for something in higher education. I wanted to offer the opportunity for someone to see themselves in my shoes, and bring them the focus that, ‘If he can do it, I can do it too.’”