Price hosts program promoting public service careers, ‘empowering social justice advocates’

July 31, 2017

Students work collaboratively on a case study. (Photo by Deirdre Flanagan) More photos available on Flickr »

By Matthew Kredell

The USC Price School of Public Policy introduced underrepresented college students to the rewards of a career in public service – and the vital role it plays in promoting social justice and equity – during the first-ever USC Public Service Weekend, held in June.

Partnering with the Public Policy & International Affairs Program and the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs and Administration (NASPAA), USC Price operated the workshop around the theme “Equity and Public Service: Empowering the Next Generation of Social Justice Advocates.”

Thirty-two students from colleges and universities in California, Arizona and Washington attended the three-day conference, which culminated with the students presenting a case study and analysis of the impact of homelessness on children.

Wise, Gutierrez, Esquivel

Speakers Britney Wise MPP ’17 (center) and Christina Gutierrez MPP ’17 (left) with event organizer Sarah Esquivel, USC Price associate director of admissions (Photo by Deirdre Flanagan)

“There is still a lack of awareness about what public policy really involves and careers in the public sector,” said Professor LaVonna Lewis, Diversity Liaison at USC Price. “Some students from underrepresented groups don’t see themselves in graduate school or have questions about graduate school they feel they can’t ask. Students feel isolated and need to see and hear from people that look like them as they navigate the university and possible careers. Programs like this one close the gap between all of the above.”

Lewis, who led the case study and a session setting the tone for the weekend on social justice and public service, worked with Sarah Esquivel, USC Price’s associate director of recruitment and admission, the organizer of the event. Programming focused on preparing the students for the case study, but also looked toward their future with a panel on the importance of having more people of color in elected positions, as well as a discussion on applying for graduate school.

“We wanted it to be practical for the students, not just talking at them but giving them hands-on types of activities,” Esquivel said. “Hopefully, students leave the conference feeling inspired to take what they learned here back to their hometowns and be able to effect change in their communities.”

Engaged cohort

Keynote speaker La Mikia Castillo MPP/MPL ’12, national organizing director of the National Foster Youth Institute (Photo by Deirdre Flanagan) More photos available on Flickr »

La Mikia Castillo, a 2012 USC Price alumna with dual master’s degrees in public policy and urban planning, who now works for the National Foster Youth Institute, provided a keynote address urging the students to recognize the power of their personal stories and experiences. She shared her own story of growing up in poverty and how it shaped her career trajectory.

“I was encouraged and inspired by the participants,” Castillo said. “They were intelligent, energetic and eager to learn how they could use their education and skills to serve their communities and other communities in need.”

Gary Painter, director of the USC Price Center for Social Innovation, led a session on delivering social impact through social innovation. He explained how research centers engage with students and the community. The participants were so intrigued that they took an impromptu visit to the center during a break and met with some of its student workers.

“We had good conversations about different approaches to delivering social impact,” Painter said. “The group was very engaged and asked terrific questions.”

Persevere and succeed

Alumni panelists, from left: Matthew Gonzalez MPP ’15, Marilyn Alvarez MPA ’16, Sally Kikuchi MPA ’13 and Rhea Mac MPP ’16 (Photo by Deirdre Flanagan) More photos available on Flickr »

Many of the students commented that their favorite part of experience was a career panel featuring seven USC Price alumni of color, who helped make the goal of going to graduate school and moving into public service professions seem more feasible. The panel included Marilyn Alvarez MPA ’16, Matthew Gonzalez MPP ’15, Yoko Igawa MPA ’09, Corinna Jiang MPA ’15, Sally Kikuchi MPA ’13, Rhea Mac MPP ’16 and Justin Tandingan MPP ’14.

Gonzalez urged students not to undervalue the motivational power of their insecurities, as he thinks the feeling that he was never smart enough is what drove him to get his master’s degree. He now serves as the manager of program data and evaluation at Leadership for Educational Equity.

Gonzalez, Alvarez

Matthew Gonzalez with Marilyn Alvarez (Photo by Deirdre Flanagan)

“I really got into [the public-service space] because working to get other people rich didn’t make me excited,” Gonzalez said. “I really do need to be at a mission-driven organization that’s trying to make the world a better place. Even if that meant for me in the nonprofit space to take a pay cut, I felt that my quality of life was better.”

Alvarez, the California Regional Coordinator for the National Council of La Raza, and Jiang, a U.S. District Court judicial extern, told their personal stories of being teenage mothers who credit nonprofits for helping them persevere to earn college degrees, which made them want to give back.

“What I want people to take away from my story is that no one has a traditional path to college,” Alvarez said.

Foundation for the future

Professor LaVonna Lewis, Diversity Liaison at USC Price (Photo by Deirdre Flanagan) More photos available on Flickr »

Although the weekend went by quickly, students left with a blueprint for a future in public service.

32 students

The first-ever USC Public Service Weekend drew 32 students from colleges across California, Arizona and Washington. (Photo by Deirdre Flanagan)

“Over the course of a weekend, you’re dealing with social issues, with new ideas, with demographics you’ve never necessarily thought about,” said Brian Santamaria from California State University, Los Angeles. “It’s a puzzle piece we’ve put together in three days, and what you come out with is this template to be able to organize and implement policies and affect communities directly.”

Hani Hussein, a senior at University of California, Berkeley, who is a refugee from Somalia, expressed that she came into the program intimidated about applying for graduate school, but left excited about starting the application process and intrigued by both USC and public policy.

“The fact that we had phenomenal women of color leading it, specifically a black woman, was super encouraging to me,” Hussein said. “I am so privileged and honored to be among these scholars, who are going to go on to change the world. Usually you leave a conference having met one or two great people, but we’ve all gotten each other’s contact info.”