By: Eric Ruble
On April 1, Ariella Amit received an email informing her she would be the Sol Price School of Public Policy’s valedictorian. At first, she thought it was an April Fools’ Day joke.
“There are so many bright and engaged students at Price that I couldn’t really believe it,” she said. “I certainly don’t believe grades and GPA are the only measures of engagement or success.”
Indeed, under Amit’s humble attitude is an engaged, driven student whose academic excellence is just one facet of her time at USC.
Amit’s journey to receiving Price’s top student honor started at the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences where she studied political science.
“As I was getting through those classes, I noticed I wanted to focus more on community, so policy attracted me at first. I think I moved toward planning when I realized that I was interested in looking at community wellness and issues of affordable housing, public transportation,” Amit said.
She changed her major to Urban Studies and Planning and has since taken full advantage of the opportunities available in Price. While there, she thrived as a dedicated volunteer and advocate, working with the Joint Educational Project (JEP) to facilitate workshops for elementary and middle school students in South Los Angeles.
“Through JEP, I was able to not only engage with young students in the surrounding community through arts and physical education programs, but also reflect on how my experience was informed by the material I was learning in my Citizenship and Public Ethics course,” Amit said.
Last year, she also worked with Unite Here Local 11 to help union members who were furloughed due to the pandemic file claims for unemployment insurance.
“I was first introduced to Unite Here Local 11 in 2019 during a Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation (SCALE) club meeting. After that campaign, I wanted to continue to fight for worker justice on our campus, and became more involved with supporting food service workers in securing a fair contract with livable wages and benefits.”
In that same year, Amit learned about the built environment of border cities on the Associated Students of Planning and Development’s Urban Crawl to Tijuana. Her international adventures continued in Spreyer, Germany, where she participated in the “Price on the Rhine” study abroad program with students of varying degree levels that summer.
“Interacting with graduate students and learning alongside them was really difficult for me, but I think I also learned a lot from them and engaged in conversations that I wouldn’t otherwise engage in,” Amit said.
But the most challenging thing? Selecting a senior thesis topic. She settled on studying the discourse around decriminalizing sex work in New York City and evaluating how different social actors (e.g., journalists, policy makers and advocacy organizations) as well as sex workers themselves talk about the topic.
“If I’m doing even a little bit to shift the conversation around sex work in a way that focuses more on labor rights and human rights than policing and morality, then it’s all worth it,” Amit said.
It’s clear that her drive to make a difference is not slowing down. While many graduating students dread being asked about their next steps after commencement, Amit already understands something others can take years to realize: the world is an unpredictable place and career paths change.
“I’m OK and happy with that,” Amit said. “I don’t really dream of a job. I dream more of just a world that is more equitable and communities that are getting what they need. Grad school is definitely on the horizon, but I’m not quite sure what I’ll study yet.”
As she sets her sights on her next steps, she recalled the advice her advisor, Professor Lisa Schweitzer, shared: the sole goal is to learn, and to not impart any harm on the communities you are examining. Of all the things she learned at Price, Amit says that this – gaining the ability to truly understand a community’s needs – may have been the most useful.
“No matter how much education you receive on a topic, you’ll never be as much of an expert on something as someone else with lived experience,” Amit said. “And I think that was really an invaluable lesson that moved a lot of us farther away from, I think, a harmful savior-rescue mentality when it comes to policy creation that education can sometimes impart on people.”
Price’s commencement is scheduled for May 18 with limited in-person attendance. Learn more about USC’s 2021 graduation events on the official commencement website.