By Matthew Kredell
Ivana Giang applied to USC for its highly regarded journalism program, but between acceptance and orientation she realized that writing about the issues she saw in the world wasn’t going to be enough for her.
She wanted to advocate for change, and to get the tools to do so she enrolled at the Price School of Public Policy.
Being an editor-in-chief of her high school newsmagazine in Liberty Township, Ohio, was the start of her process of “coming to social consciousness.” At USC, the daughter of two Vietnam War refugees made it her mission to make sure others felt like they belonged by improving support for underrepresented students.
Her efforts did not go unnoticed. Giang will represent the Price School as the University’s valedictorian for the Class of 2019 at USC’s commencement ceremony on May 10.
“I know that seeing my parents and the rest of my family when I stand up on stage to give my speech will be one of the most validating moments for all that they went through after being forced out of their home country,” Giang said. “They tell me that they’re still grappling with the fact that our family name will be engraved on the Wall of Scholars at an institution of the caliber of USC.”
From the moment she stepped on campus, Giang made a unique impact by bringing a different perspective to Undergraduate Student Government (USG). As a freshman, she joined the Diversity Affairs Committee.
In her junior year, Giang helped create the Chief Diversity Officer position in USG. While co-serving in the role, she helped push for the creation of the course OT 299, Thrive: Foundations of Well-Being, meant to help students of all backgrounds learn to live, learn and work alongside each other. The course ran in a pilot phase in the Fall 2018 and Spring 2019 semesters.
“It’s very easy to be self-centered and self-interested, and I’m sure as an undergraduate student, one can spend an entire academic career with that mindset,” said Lavonna Lewis, Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at USC Price. “But Ivana was consistently other-focused. She is someone who has a lot of advocacy and empathy. She wants to make changes with a mind toward really appreciating how other people are going to be affected by those changes, or how those voices are going to be represented when thinking about those changes.”
Growing at the Price School
Giang knew she chose the right school whenever something difficult happened in the nation or at the university. She appreciated that Dean Jack H. Knott addressed such incidents with thoughtful emails that acknowledged the challenging times and made it feel OK for students to talk about them.
“I felt that Price understood,” Giang said. “To hear over and over that it is within the mission of Price to understand, grapple with and attempt to solve the toughest social issues of our time—I really loved that. That trickled down into the curriculum I received at Price.”
At the Price School, she learned how the government works in the U.S. on the local, state and national level. She added a second major in global studies at USC Dornsife to take that knowledge to an international level.
Her favorite course at USC Price was PPD 300, Social Justice Issues in Public Policy, taught by Prof. Lewis. She’s pleased that the course is now mandatory for all undergraduate students in the School.
Lewis recalled that many students in the class were concerned about being judged, misunderstood or criticized for presenting themselves and their ideas, but Giang was open about sharing her thoughts and experiences without fear.
“We at Price in particular would be at a disservice if we didn’t go through a class that made us think about the most difficult issues of our time,” Giang said. “I think that is especially relevant for people going into roles that will make the rules, make the policies for large constituencies of people.”
From her journalism background, she sees the value in using narrative and stories to advocate for social change. From her studies at USC Price, she learned how to back up those stories with data.
“What I see my curriculum at Price doing for me is giving me the tools to understand these issues,” Giang said. “Underlying a lot of social issues is the government’s effort to tackle them. That means creating policies, compiling data after the policies come out and evaluating to see what comes next. Policies and government are not the only way to solve an issue by any means, but through my Price classes I feel I learned the econometrics to understand how I can use quantitative analysis to approach these problems and figure out their solutions.”
She took a master’s level course, Multivariate Statistical Analysis taught by associate professor T.J. McCarthy, to learn how to do data analysis with the software program Stata, which she used to complete her senior thesis on trends in racial segregation data in public schools.
Excelling outside the classroom
Through her advocacy for representation of underrepresented students and volunteer work at schools surrounding USC in South Central Los Angeles – she volunteered for Scholars Leading Scholars at the Foshay Learning Center, Teaching International Relations Program at the Roybal Learning Center, and had a part-time job with the Emily Shane Foundation at Global Education Academy Middle School – Giang became interested in education reform.
She carried that perspective into her internship in Washington, D.C., last summer on the educational policy team for U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein.
“Those experiences in understanding how underrepresented folks are coming up through USC and obtaining opportunities, and how they are being supported or unsupported, helped me when I had my internship most related to my work at Price,” Giang said. “As I attended those Congressional hearings and briefings, I thought every day about the students I worked with in Los Angeles. I thought about them individually by name. I thought about what bills she might introduce would mean for underrepresented students.”
Through USC, Giang twice had the opportunity to travel abroad. During the summer between her sophomore and junior years, she went to Uganda and interned for Spark MicroGrants, going out to rural communities to interview people on the impact such grants had on their community.
She spent the spring semester of her junior year in Nicaragua, where she applied her interest in education policy to developing rural Nicaragua. A civil insurrection broke out toward the end of the semester and the cohort had to evacuate to Costa Rica.
“We had to quickly say goodbye to our host families and it was a really heartbreaking experience,” Giang said. “But coming back from that program, my peers and I really wanted to understand not only that movement but similar ideas about social revolutions in Latin America and around the world.”
After graduation, Giang plans to go back to her roots. She got accepted to a fellowship offered by Princeton in Asia, a nonprofit affiliated with Princeton University that seeks to endow generations of future leaders with transformative experiences and knowledge of Asia, to go to Vietnam in the fall. She will teach English classes at Hau Giang Community College.
“While growing up, I was unaware and unappreciative of the stories my parents would tell me here and there about what it was like when they lived in Vietnam as the war ended,” Giang said. “Now, I still have much more to learn about their stories, which are my own, too.”
After a year or two in Vietnam, she plans to return home to the U.S. to get a master’s degree in public policy, honing those quantitative skills she learned in the graduate-level course at the Price School. Then she will pursue her interests in international development, education policy and academia.
A valedictorian like no other
Giang truly was surprised when she found out that she would be valedictorian. She didn’t have a perfect 4.0 GPA, and she knew that at least a dozen students in her class did. As one of 48 students eligible to apply based on GPA, she decided to give it a try because she heard that USC employed a more holistic approach to deciding the class representative.
“I think in part she was chosen because this is the type of student USC wants to send into the world,” Lewis said. “If you want to show people the value of higher education, Ivana is a good test case because she maximized the experience and is ready to make wherever she ends up a better place.”
Giang noted that when she interviewed with the faculty panel, she discussed what students on campus are dealing with right now and how it would benefit everyone to look out for each other.
“They told me that perhaps a few years ago they never would have expected someone to come in and talk about emotional vulnerability,” Giang said. “After this whole journey of storytelling and narratives and justice and inequality, what I’ve come to is this bottom-line emphasis on emotional vulnerability.”
Suffice to say, Giang’s valedictory speech to her fellow graduates won’t be full of the usual clichés about going out into the real world.
“After all these years thinking about how to achieve justice and what justice means in the U.S. and around the world, I think the way I can best express what I hope to see for our generation of leaders coming not just from USC but all parts of the world is this agreement that everybody has a right to feel safe and supported in their growth, whether that growth is mental, emotional, spiritual or physical,” Giang said. “Given that, I think I want to make sure to drive the point home that students of color, people of color, deserve this, folks in the LGBTQ deserve this – immigrants, refugees, women, etc.
“I want to make the argument that I don’t think everyone has that to a certain extent, so what can we do in our individual paths and careers to achieve that? I think it doesn’t matter what job you do in the future, you can be part of this greater idea of being able to support everyone’s right to feel safe in the world.”