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Perseverance pays off for NAI graduates

Teresa Laraby Teresa Lara
Neighborhood Academic Initiative alumni David Tran, Quy Tran, Javier Ramirez and Samika Ramirez (Photo/Karen Ammons)
Photo: Neighborhood Academic Initiative alumni David Tran, Quy Tran, Javier Ramirez and Samika Ramirez (Photo/Karen Ammons)

Brothers David and Quy Tran grew up on the corner of Western Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard in South Los Angeles. Their father, who spent five years in a refugee camp, migrated from Vietnam in 1992, bringing his family to Los Angeles.

The youngsters attended Foshay Learning Center, one of the USC Family of Schools, and enrolled in the Neighborhood Academic Initiative (NAI) — the seven-year college program that prepares low-income students for admission to college. Those who complete the program, meet USC’s admission requirements and choose to attend USC are rewarded with a full 4.5-year tuition package.

David Tran, a newly minted pharmacist at Kaiser Permanente, was one of the NAI students who opted for USC when he graduated from the program in 2003.

His brother, who was four years older, graduated from NAI in 1999. He attended Yale University, went on to medical school in New York Medical College, completed his anesthesiology residency at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center and is now in the middle of his fellowship at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

More than 700 students have graduated from NAI; all of them have gone on to college and many enrolled in graduate school.

NAI graduates have attended Brown University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of California at Berkeley, Stanford University and Morehouse College, among many other notable universities.

“In the beginning, we hoped that NAI would inspire students to dream what seemed to them to be impossible dreams,” said NAI co-founder Barbara Solomon, a member of the NAI Advisory Board who raises funds for the annual NAI gala.

“We have an immense sense of pride and hope for the future as each NAI graduate name is announced along with all of the universities they’ve been accepted to,” added Kim Thomas-Barrios, executive director of USC Educational Partnerships, who oversees NAI. “This year, one student, Tristan Baizar, applied and was accepted to 14 schools. He decided on USC.”

Graduation from NAI represents a seven-year journey of perseverance.

“I learned about commitment and dedication through teachers and counselors at NAI,” David Tran said. “My dad dropped me off in the morning on his way to work. Then I would bus home at the end of the day, all the way to Gardena when we moved there my freshman year. We got up early to make the drive so that I could participate in the NAI program.”

Tran credits NAI for offering subjects that prepared him for university life and helped him “fit in” with other college students.

“I am grateful for all of those hours spent studying advanced courses on subjects like classical literature, Greek and Latin,” he said.

Samika Ramirez had a similar experience as a 1999 NAI graduate before she went on to become a USC alum.

“We essentially lived the life of a college student starting in the seventh grade,” Ramirez said. “We started class at 7:30 a.m. at USC for English and math, then [were] bussed to our respective schools to continue with classes and would then finish our day with after-school tutoring.

“The college mentality was instilled in us, which was so helpful to have, especially for kids who don’t come from families who understand the value of solid study habits or whose parents can’t afford to take the time they would want,” she added.

Ramirez, who received her master’s in health administration, works at Kaiser Permanente’s regional office in Pasadena, Calif.

“I feel very fortunate to have been part of NAI. It’s a balanced approach of curriculum and structure with life skills,” she said. “I remember they would also enforce confident posture, eye contact and use of proper grammar, all of which helped us develop into well-rounded, educated citizens.”

Anthony Clark, a 2003 NAI graduate, was raised by his grandmother because his parents were in and out of jail. He recalled the exact moment he knew that all his hard work had paid off.

“Our NAI teachers encouraged us to keep going, and that’s exactly what I did when I had to retake the SATs over and over to get the right number to qualify for USC,” Clark said. “I remember being at the library at school, logging into the system yet another time to check my SAT score and seeing the number.” He paused. “It was above what I needed. I’ll never forget that feeling.”

As the first of eight children in his family to go to college, Clark is proud of his accomplishment.

“Even though my grades weren’t the greatest, I had the drive,” said Clark, who received a full scholarship at USC. He’s currently in a graduate program at the University of California, Irvine, and aspires to a career in federal law enforcement.

“What is special about NAI is that students may not be the strongest when they begin with us, but we coach them in the skills of scholarly behavior,” Thomas-Barrios said. “These are the skills that will propel them into scholarly life.”

NAI graduate Lizette Zarate’s first job was coordinating a literacy program at a Los Angeles high school, where many students were reading at an elementary-school level and couldn’t write even a paragraph.

“I am forever thankful for the educational opportunities that NAI offered me — they not only prepared me for college, but they paid for my education and made sure I persevered,” Zarate said.

“I was building my cultural and social capital with exposure to career-oriented field trips, museums and different parts of LA and engaging in meaningful discussions. NAI pushed me to excel, finish well and be competitive when I applied to college.”

After graduating from Foshay Learning Center, Zarate was admitted to USC, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in English. She went on to get her master’s and doctorate in education from Loyola Marymount University, doing her dissertation on the NAI program. That trajectory led to her eventual job as the NAI curriculum and instruction specialist.

“I’m serving the community I’m passionate about in a program that transforms lives,” she said.

“USC supported my journey, and now I’m honored to be that person for the next generation of NAI scholars.”

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