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Nothing deterred him from reaching USC

by Marc Ballon
Freshman Eduardo Avila, who grew up near the university, put in long hours of study and overcame the odds to reach the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.
Freshman Eduardo Avila, who grew up near the university, put in long hours of study and overcame the odds to reach the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

USC has long been a special place for Eduardo Avila.

Growing up near the university, he remembers going to campus for field trips, walking around it with his family for exercise and falling in love with all things cardinal and gold.

“When I was younger, I would walk by USC and tell my mom I wanted to go there,” Avila said. “She would laugh and say if I worked hard, I could do it.”

The odds appeared long. Neither of Avila’s Mexican immigrant parents went to college, and he grew up in a hardscrabble neighborhood.

With a determination and grit as expansive as his intellect, Avila overcame any and all challenges to realize his dream. This week, the 18-year-old Manual Arts graduate matriculates at USC as a student in the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

“I’m so happy to be here,” said Avila, smiling, as he sipped a coffee drink at a campus Coffee Bean teeming with students. “This is the first of many goals I want to accomplish.”

His was an arduous journey. Avila graduated from high school with a nearly 4.1 GPA, taking several Advanced Placement classes, including calculus, history and government. To prepare for the many robotics competitions that he competed in, Avila learned three computer program languages and mentored teammates. Some weeks, he logged in about 100 hours between school, homework and preparing for robot and other engineering-related tournaments.

“In spite of the fact that he had every opportunity to fail, to throw away his talents, to get involved with drugs, to get involved with gangs, he stuck with it. Now he’s at USC,” said Michael Ortega ’13, who mentored Avila through the USC chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE). “I’m so proud of him.”

Growing up, Avila’s parents encouraged him to aim high. They demanded excellence and expected him and his siblings to graduate from college, lest they end up driving a forklift for long hours and low pay like their father. Even with money at its tightest, his parents somehow found money for books.

Avila, like many scientifically inclined children, loved to draw pictures of cars, rockets and airplanes. He also enjoyed taking things apart to see how they worked. Sometimes he even managed to put them back together correctly. His parents, their frustrations notwithstanding, never quashed his curiosity. Instead, they cultivated it. Avila remembered his father teaching him how to repair the family car, what tools to use, what parts went where.

The love and support of his parents, Avila said, gave him a strong foundation for future success. A USC outreach program designed to increase the number of educationally disadvantaged students earning university degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, helped him to blossom intellectually.

Founded at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1970, Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement (MESA), now a national program, “motivates and prepares mostly low-income, minority students to go to college in STEM fields and later work in areas they might never have known existed,” said Larry Lim, director of pre-college programs at the Center for Engineering Diversity at USC Viterbi.

USC’s branch of MESA, which the university inaugurated in 1977, offers academic support, hands-on math and science competitions, and leadership training to 1,300 area students at 27 middle and high schools. As a measure of USC MESA’s quality, more than 97 percent of recently participating seniors went to college, including USC, UC Berkeley, Brown University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Lim said.

Avila joined the program during his freshman year at Manual Arts. Through it, he honed his leadership skills as team captain, deepened his mathematic and engineering skills and received mentoring from professional engineers. He also developed a love for robots.

“I like building them and programming them. What’s not to like?” Avila asked. “Just knowing you can build something that can do anything is a blast.”

Avila literally spent thousands of hours over the years working with Manual Arts teammates to create algorithms and build robots that could kick a soccer ball into a goal, climb a poll, pick up Lifesavers and put them on pegs and perform any number of other tasks, said John Santos, Avila’s ninth grade teacher and MESA adviser for four years.

Under Avila’s leadership, Manual Arts placed eighth in the world in the Zero Robotics Competition, a tournament sponsored by MIT, NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

“No matter what the situation, Eduardo would find a way to succeed,” Santos said. “He does whatever it takes to learn. He would stay after school, focus on tutorials that were online, have mentors review and approve his work. He was always prepared.”

Through USC’s SHPE chapter, Avila received additional help preparing for robotic competitions, assistance with his college and financial aid applications and academic tutoring.

Avila’s relationship with SHPE will continue at USC. Avila said he plans to attend group-sponsored study sessions, participate in the organization’s leadership and eventually tutor local Latino and other high school students in robotics and other subjects.

“I want to help make kids aware of STEM at an early age,” Avila said. “I want to make a change in my community and impact others.”

To ease his transition to USC, this summer Avila enrolled in Summer Bridge, a six-week program for students who might need extra assistance before their first semester. He lived on campus and took an educational psychology and English composition class. He received a B+ in psych and a “pass” in English, which he took pass/not pass. The experience, he said, has boosted his confidence and prepared him for his freshman year as a Trojan.

Of USC’s 2,200 USC Viterbi undergraduates, about 18 percent are African-American, Latino and Native American, said Traci Thomas Navarro, director of the Center for Engineering Diversity. Attracting talented minorities like Avila helps fuel innovation, she said, “because you need a diverse group with different ages, ethnicities and backgrounds to approach the Grand Challenges from a unique perspective.”

Ambitious and directed, Avila is already looking ahead. His next goals: to earn good grades and enroll in a master’s program in aerospace engineering.

“Whatever I end up doing, I want to be one of the best in my field so I can help others reach their own goals,” he said.

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