By Cristy Lytal
USC junior Alec Vandenberg is doing his part to end homelessness—whether on Skid Row or in USC’s Leavey Library.
“We have human rights violations in our backyard,” said Vandenberg. “And I think it’s just really fundamental: to have a just society, the least that we can do is to guarantee everyone access to a home and that basic decency.”Vandenberg first developed an interest in public policy while researching current issues as a member of the speech and debate team at Bellarmine College Preparatory, an all-boys Jesuit high school in San Jose. During his senior year in high school, his passion for public policy found a focus when he went on an immersion trip to Skid Row in Los Angeles. “That opened my eyes a lot more towards homeless and the housing crisis,” he said.
As a freshman public policy major at USC, he enrolled in a course taught by Spark SC, a group of student entrepreneurs that encourage creative solutions to campus issues. Realizing that hunger and homelessness affected a large number of USC students, as well as many members of the surrounding community, Vandenberg teamed up with USC Viterbi School computer science major Sandeep Suresh. Together, they built a website listing campus, local, state and federal resources available to help students struggling with food or housing insecurity. Launched in May 2017, the website includes information about everything from food pantries to need-based scholarships to emergency housing services.
Vandenberg is also directly involved in delivering many of these resources to the homeless and hungry both on and off campus. As president of the USC chapter of Share A Meal, he leads a group of students who prepare and distribute vegan burritos to the homeless on Wednesday nights. “That’s essentially more of an eye opening experience also for a lot of students, because along our service route, a lot of the first stops are blocks within campus, and you can see a lot of the USC landmarks from them,” said Vandenberg. “And small tent cities dot blocks maybe half a mile away from campus.”He also serves as a CalFresh Navigator, helping eligible students apply for food benefits, as well as a volunteer at USC’s Food Pantry, located in Parkside Apartments.
In addition to his service-oriented work, Vandenberg dedicates ample energy to raising awareness and engagement among his USC peers. As Director of External Affairs for USC’s Undergraduate Student Government (USG) and a former columnist for the Daily Trojan, he’s called attention to food and housing insecurity on campus. He has also used the USG and Daily Trojan platforms to encourage more civic engagement—complementing his work with VoteSC, which successfully engaged at least 2,000 USC students for the 2018 election by using an online platform called TurboVote. As president of Trojan Advocates for Political Progress, Vandenberg also canvassed for progressive candidates including Jacky Rosen, the Democratic Senator elect from Nevada.
During the summers, he continues his tireless advocacy in his hometown of San Jose. Recently, he interned with the Silicon Valley Leadership Group Foundation, where he advocated for state ballot propositions allocating funds to address housing problems and homelessness. He also interned with the International Rescue Committee, working to economically empower refugees through job training and other targeted efforts.
Associate Professor Michael Thom is impressed with the motivations driving Vandenberg’s efforts. “Alec follows a strong moral compass that has led him to work ‘in the trenches’ for some of our most vulnerable populations, including those without consistent access to food or shelter,” Thom said. “That compass has also led his tireless efforts to boost civic engagement on campus.”
Currently, Vandenberg is filling out his application for the progressive degree program, which would allow him to begin course work for the Master of Public Administration during his senior year.
After graduation, he looks forward to becoming engaged in the 2020 election, and may apply for the Coro Fellowship or Presidential Management Fellowship as an entrée into a public policy career.
“I’d like to get my feet wet in a few different areas in a little bit more of a structured environment before I ultimately make my decision for work,” he said. “I do really like the public and nonprofit sectors, and especially the advocacy work.”