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USC lauds Neighborhood Academic Initiative graduates

Merrill Balassoneby Merrill Balassone
2012 USC Neighborhood Academic Initiative graduation dinner
The USC Neighborhood Academic Initiative graduation dinner celebrated 54 scholars who completed the seven-year precollege enrichment program. (Photo/Steve Cohn)

For 54 teenagers from South Los Angeles, their seven-year journey with the USC Neighborhood Academic Initiative (NAI) meant trading extra sleep to squeeze in tutoring before school and dedicating their Saturdays to SAT preparations in lieu of going to a movie or the mall.

On April 30, the USC community gathered to celebrate the achievements of these dedicated graduates of the NAI, a program that since 1991 has prepared hundreds of students from inner-city neighborhoods for college.

Triumphantly, each of the students will attend college this fall.

Twenty-five of the graduates chose to attend USC on full-tuition scholarships. Among the students attending other top universities are twin brothers Jesus and Arnulfo Moran, who will attend Harvard and West Point.

Speaking to the graduates at the gala, USC president C. L. Max Nikias said their success will depend on the continued development of character, persistence, courage, spirit of adventure and good judgment.

Nikias also told the graduates they would be considered part of the Trojan Family, no matter where they attend college.

“You will always be Trojans, Trojans for life,” Nikias said. “We are proud of how you will represent us wherever you go. And we will always be family.”

The graduates were led into the Galen Center by the USC Trojan Marching Band for the celebration, which was attended by more than 350 supporters.

“This was a real victory for the NAI program and for this neighborhood,” said NAI executive director Kim Thomas-Barrios. “It’s a long haul because their friends back at their home schools aren’t carrying all the books and reading all the literature and studying on a Friday night. They’re really trendsetters for their families.”

Jasmine Torres, a former foster youth and NAI student who dreamed as a teenager of attending USC, also spoke to the graduates. Now a USC sophomore, Torres is majoring in sociology and researching educational attainment among foster youth in Los Angeles.

Following remarks and a toast by USC Board of Trustees chairman Edward P. Roski Jr., USC senior vice president for university relations Thomas S. Sayles presented Nikias and first lady Niki C. Nikias with personalized NAI letterman jackets – replicas of the same jackets earned by NAI scholars – to recognize their leadership and continuing support of the university’s civic engagement efforts.

In recognition of financial support for the NAI, the university gave the Civic Engagement Champion Award to Toyota Motor Corp.

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