The youngest of three children, Isabel Duenas was in fifth grade when her brother joined a gang, started doing drugs and having run-ins with the law.
“I saw what this was doing to my parents,” Duenas said, who recalled visiting her brother in drug rehabilitation centers as a child. “They were suffering. It pushed me away from getting into any kind of gang activity.”
Her family was living in the Crenshaw/Pico area of Los Angeles when they moved to Lynwood, near South Gate and Compton, in order to distance themselves from the gang that got Duenas’ brother into trouble.
In middle school, USC’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative recruited Duenas, a stellar student, for its pre-college enrichment program. Through the program, Duenas attended Manuel Arts Senior High School near USC. The program required her to attend school on Saturdays and gave her the opportunity to be mentored by USC students.
All the hard work paid off. Duenas graduated from USC College with a bachelor’s degree in American studies and ethnicity and in sociology. For her exceptional service to the surrounding community, she was inducted into the Order of Troy.
During her academic career, Duenas has worked closely with the initiative. She returned to her Lynwood community and presented to high school classrooms a plan showing students how to get into college. She mentored students in neighborhood schools, becoming lead math tutor for the initiative.
As a McNair Scholar, she conducted graduate-level research, advised by USC faculty and graduate students. Homeboy Industries, a L.A.-based program helping to turn around the lives of gang members, became her main research project. She stresses the importance of institutions such as Homeboy, which recently has sustained crushing financial blows.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that there are better ways to deal with gang members than incarceration,” Duenas said. “I feel that my own brother was influenced more by gangs at a young age while incarcerated.”
In the near future, she plans to either pursue her Ph.D. or attend law school.
“We are so proud of her,” said Isabel’s father, Felipe Duenas, a busboy at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza for 23 years.
Keeping Tikvah Alive
When Brian Tenenbaum left his hometown of Miami Beach, Fla., at 17 and arrived at USC College, he immediately became involved with the USC Hillel Jewish Center.
As the new staff was unpacking, Tenenbaum was one of the few members champing at the bit to get things going.
“USC Hillel for me had become a chore rather than a passion,” Tenenbaum recalled. “Late after dinner I found myself stacking chairs and looking at an empty room with a few peers. So we set out to relight our community with a more open spirit and to have more fun.”
The few participants brought in Israeli music and dance. He and the others prepared dinners and invited engaging professionals and community leaders as speakers. Eventually, the students returned. And so did the sense of Jewish community at USC.
“Jewish political and cultural awareness came back to campus in a big way,” Tenenbaum said. “I set out to make my mark.”
And he did. Working as a Caravan for Democracy Fellow, he received mentoring from former Israeli diplomats who taught him how to spark constructive dialogue concerning issues in the Middle East. He brought in competing Jewish student groups to create a cohesive organization on campus. After meeting with USC’s Armenian Student Assembly and the Muslim Student Union, they worked together on joint projects.
He also became the founding member and president of the Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity. The Jewish fraternity had been established in 1948, but was closed in 1993. It has enjoyed a rebirth after Tenenbaum took the reins in August 2008.
Starting with 13 men who met at an apartment, the fraternity now has 40 members and its own chapter house. They have raised thousands of dollars for charities such as Fight On for Darfur.
“The legacy one leaves behind after graduation,” Tenenbaum said, “is based upon how one helps those who follow to succeed.”
The confident 21-year-old plans to attend law school. Graduating with a bachelor’s degree in international relations, he’s already well into his master’s classes in public diplomacy at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.
As a Trojan, he’s fiercely loyal.
The vanity plate on his car says it all: Trojan1.
Just Keep Swimming
A few years earlier, his mother who had adopted him from a Guatemalan orphanage took him to a speech therapist, who concluded that the toddler had a language processing disorder. He received rigorous speech therapy and was withheld from pre-school until he began speaking and showing steady progress.
Growing up, Marcus enjoyed the freedom of being underwater, where the pressure from speech therapists was replaced with contemplative silence. He excelled on the swim team at American Heritage School in Plantation, Fla., near Ft. Lauderdale, his hometown. An All-American swimmer in distance freestyle, he made the Guatemalan National Swim Team and began swimming in world championship games.
He missed the Athens 2004 Olympic Games by .30 seconds.
“Words cannot even describe that moment,” Marcus said. “I gave it all my effort. I thought, ‘OK, what can I do to get better?’ ”
An academic honors student, Marcus became a Trojan, joining the swim team where he became a solid point scorer at the conference level. Curious about his own heritage and background, he began taking psychology and sociology courses. He was intent on learning why he suffered from speech delay as a child.
Through research, he determined that he received little human contact as an infant and the lack of social interaction contributed to his speech delay. Born to a Mayan Quiche mother, Marcus spent his first six months in the Guatemalan orphanage.
His early research into disorders morphed into an interest in helping people overcome disabilities.
He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology at USC College, with a minor in occupational therapy in USC’s department of occupational science and occupational therapy.
He’d eventually like to work with disabled war veterans. While a student, he volunteered for USC’s Swim With Mike, a fundraiser for student athletes overcoming life-changing accidents.
Seriously competitive, Marcus knows something about stick-to-it-iveness. After taking a year off to train for the 2008 Olympics, he again missed the team by mere seconds.
“I’ve always been good at picking myself back up,” Marcus said, adding that he acquired this attribute from his mother, Sharon, a retired teacher and single mother. “She’s more than my mentor. She’s my hero.”
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