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Labors of love for America Ferrera

Pamela Johnsonby Pamela J. Johnson
Actress America Ferrera earned a bachelor's degree in international relations at USC Dornsife.
Photo: Actress America Ferrera earned a bachelor's degree in international relations at USC Dornsife.

As an international relations major at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Golden Globe winner America Ferrera had a worldly perspective when she recently embarked on several lengthy discussions with Helen Chávez.

Ferrera was at ease and knew the issues in her conversations with the wife of American labor leader César Chávez, who co-founded the United Farm Workers.

Playing the part of Helen Chávez in the upcoming film Chávez, Ferrera spent time with the wife of the late leader who organized 50,000 farmworkers in California. Ferrera said her education made her feel confident speaking on international matters with the woman, who along with Dolores Huerta, is among the biggest civil rights icons in the United States.

“I am using so much of what I learned in the School of International Relations in my life,” Ferrera said. “I’ve learned about the root causes of so many issues I’m passionate about and how to improve people’s lives. Sometimes the issues have taken me across the world, sometimes here in our own backyard.”

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 the village of Diassadeni, Mali, to help the organization raise funds to build a school.

Ferrera arrived at USC Dornsife in spring 2003 at age 18, shortly after her breakout role in the hit independent film Real Women Have Curves. She became involved in the Joint Educational Project and other programs then starred in a number of movies, such as The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and its sequel.

By the time she took the lead role in Ugly Betty, the ABC series in which she earned an Emmy Award, her education became a minor character. A decade after she began, with the encouragement and help of her mentors at USC Dornsife, she earned her bachelor’s degree on May 17.

“I was so close to finishing,” Ferrera said. “It always felt like an unfinished chapter.”

She gave a special shout out to Steven Lamy, professor of international relations and vice dean for academic programs, and David Andrus, also a professor of international relations, who shared with Ferrera how her films had helped him.

Mentoring a young Latina from the inner city, Andrus was having difficulty understanding her family dynamics. The student told him: If you want to understand my life, you have to watch this movie.

The film was Real Women Have Curves in which Ferrera portrayed a young Mexican-Americanwhose family expects her to work and help support them though she wants to pursue higher education.

Watching the film prepared Andrus to meet with the Latina student and her family and discuss her dream to get an education. The story made Ferrera realize that her films could be used to enlighten people on issues dear to her.

“Professor Andrus inspired me to not only learn about the world but to stay true to my passion,” Ferrera said of Andrus, who died in 2004. “I wish he were alive today to see that I never forgot his message.”

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