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From actress to activist

by Michelle Salzman
Ferrera speaks to professor Steven Lamy's international relations class.

Actress and USC Dornsife student America Ferrera speaks to students in professor Steven Lamy’s international relations class. (Photo/Michelle Salzman)

In 2002, when America Ferrera was a freshman studying international relations at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, she was torn between two possible career paths.

At the time she had just appeared in the feature films Real Women Have Curves and Gotta Kick It Up! But her studies at USC had lifted a veil on a larger world that she wanted to have a hand in improving.

During the spring, Ferrera recalled her dilemma with students in professor Steven Lamy’s class “International Relations: Introductory Analysis,” where she discussed her efforts to advance national and international social causes.

“I always wanted to go to college and get my education although I always wanted to be an actor,” Ferrera told the students. “I never knew how those two things would work with each other, and this was revealed to me in my first year of college here.”

During that year, in a moment of panic, Ferrera visited international relations professor David Andrus to inform him of her plans to quit acting and pursue a career that would lead to positive changes in the world.

“Then he told me the most unlikely story,” she said.

Andrus had been mentoring a young Latina from the inner city and was having difficulty understanding her family dynamics. The girl told him if he wanted to understand her life, he had to watch a movie. The film was Real Women Have Curves.

In the drama, Ferrera portrays a Mexican-American girl whose family expects her to work and help support them while she tries to pursue higher education. The situation mirrored the mentee’s own experience.

Watching the film prepared Andrus to meet with the girl and her family and discuss her dream to attain an education. In turn, the story helped Ferrera make up her mind about a career, she said.

“What my professor really wanted me to understand was that my passion for acting and what I loved doing in the world had the power to be a tool,” she said.

“In that moment I realized that I didn’t have to give up what I love. I could find a way to link it to other things that I cared about.”

Since then Ferrera has worked to forge that connection. While sustaining a successful acting career — she won an Emmy Award in the title role of the ABC series Ugly Betty and has appeared in a number of feature films — she has focused her efforts on making positive change.

In 2010, Ferrera partnered with Save the Children, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to improving the lives of disadvantaged children in the United States and around the world. As an artist ambassador, she traveled to Diassadeni, a village in Mali, to help the organization raise funds for a school.

“This is an example of how I met up with the right organization to work on an issue that was important to me,” said Ferrera, who has directed people to the cause while making appearances to promote past entertainment projects.

Ferrera recently teamed up with The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof to focus on the problem of human trafficking in India for Half the Sky, a new documentary series to air this fall on PBS. The multiplatform project is based on Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, a book Kristof co-wrote with his wife, journalist Sheryl WuDunn.

In the documentary, Ferrera accompanies Kristof through the red-light districts of Kolkata, providing a point of view for viewers to learn about intergenerational prostitution.

“Nick and Sheryl are trying to create global awareness and a global campaign for women’s causes and slavery of the 21st century, and I’ve been excited to be a part of that,” Ferrera said.

Last year, Ferrera also met with President Obama at the White House to discuss immigration issues with prominent Latinos in the United States.

Andrea Aldana, who studies international relations at USC, was inspired by Ferrera’s presentation.

“I could relate to some of her feelings of being overwhelmed by all of the information you learn in class and also being at a crossroads for different career paths,” Aldana said.

“It’s nice to know that she found a common ground and that it’s possible to follow your passion and make a difference.”

Kyle Hudson, who studies international relations, said that it gave him a new perspective.

“It made me think that there are ways to work on a political level and on a human-vested level,” he said. “It’s cool to see individuals making an impact.”

Ferrera, who took a leave of absence from her degree program to star in Ugly Betty, is working with Lamy to complete her bachelor’s degree in international relations this fall. In her previous years at USC, she was active in the Joint Educational Project and the Teaching International Relations Program, both housed at USC Dornsife.

Lamy invited Ferrera to share her unique perspective because it allows students to learn from someone who’s been where they’re sitting and can show them what they can do.

“She’s one of them,” he said.

With Lamy as her adviser, Ferrera is writing a case study on celebrity diplomacy and how those in the public eye can use their influence to bring attention to global issues. In the end, she said, it’s all about change.

“You guys have just as much a responsibility to think about what you care about and try to make a difference,” she told the international relations students. “Nobody gets a free pass.”