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Three USC Dornsife undergraduates who are ready to make their mark

For these three Trojans, commencement day has been a long time coming

by Pamela J. Johnson and Susan Bell

During USC’s 141st annual commencement on May 16, 2014, USC Dornsife College of Arts, Letters and Science issued nearly 2,600 degrees: 1,947 bachelor’s, 364 master’s, 73 graduate certificates and 203 Ph.Ds. There are thousands of stories behind these promising students; here are three from undergraduates ready to tackle the world.

Lucila Duarte: ‘I Can Do Anything’

Before Lucila Duarte’s mother died of breast cancer while Duarte was preparing to finish high school, she told her daughter not to be afraid.

“You were born with strong lungs, you have a strong voice,” her mother told a young Lucila, who held her mother’s hand as she lay dying. “Stay strong.”

Duarte has kept that mantra throughout her 45 years. Knowing that she is twice the age of those around her earning their bachelor’s degrees today at USC makes her feel all the more vibrant.

Born and raised in Veracruz, Mexico, the youngest of four children, Duarte became despondent after her mother’s death. A few years later, following the lead of a few friends, she enrolled at Universidad Veracruzana, where she studied business administration with a minor in international relations. She moved to L.A. to stay with family and was hired as a sales director for the international market.

Years later, in 2009, she walked into work and found she no longer had a job.

Lucila Duarte '14

Lucila Duarte graduates from USC Dornsife with a degree in Spanish (Photo/ Pamela J. Johnson)

“I felt like somebody pulled a rug out from under my feet,” she said. “It was depressing. This was my career. I said, ‘What am I going to do now?’ ”

No longer able to pay her mortgage, she lost her condo. “Imagine starting over at 40 and living with your brother,” she said. “Eventually, I realized that when one door closes another one opens. I started thinking about other possibilities.”

Interested in teaching, she started studying at Los Angeles Harbor College in Wilmington, Calif., and she laughed when a counselor told her she had the grades and community involvement to get into a school like USC.

“I thought, ‘I don’t have a chance,’ ” she said.

Today, she earned her bachelor’s in Spanish. Admitted on a Presidential Scholarship, she also worked full-time as a hospital nurse’s assistant while maintaining a 3.8 GPA. She’s been on the dean’s list each semester, belongs to the Phi Sigma Theta Honor Society, the National Society of Collegiate Scholars and was inducted in to the Latino Honors Society.

“Without the help of USC, I would not be here,” she said, giving a call out to El Centro Chicano, Billy Vela and Letti Delgado, and her “guardian angel” Consuelo Ortiz Sigüenza, assistant professor of Spanish.

She is set to earn her master’s degree at CSU Dominguez Hills, then will teach high school Spanish to underserved students.

“I am not that special,” she said. “I am just a humble and a hardworking adult student who returned to school after 20 years, and finally achieved my goals. Destiny had a plan for my life.”

—P.J.J.

Zade Shakir: Kicks for Kids

It was while volunteering at Spirits in Action—USC’s annual version of the Special Olympics—that Zade Shakir met Erick, a severely autistic young man. Erick had trouble verbalizing emotions but his love of sport was obvious.

Zade Shakir '14

Zade Shakir graduates from USC Dornsife with degrees in international relations and biology. (Photo/ Zade Shakir)

“There was genuine passion in the way he kicked a soccer ball,” said Shakir, who today earned a bachelor’s degree in international relations and biology. “Speaking to his mother after the event, I realized there are very few resources for children with physical and developmental disabilities, particularly in organized sport.”

Erick inspired Shakir to found Kicks for Kids at USC. The program started in September 2013 with 30 children and 50 registered volunteers. Dedicated to promoting a healthy, active lifestyle for special needs children, Shakir’s organization now counts more than 500 registered volunteers and more than 300 registered players. Regular sessions held at McCarthy Quad provide one-on-one sporting activities with a student volunteer, plus a free nutritious snack and tips on healthy living.

Growing up in San Jose, Calif., the son of immigrants from Iraq, participating in organized sports had been a major part of Shakir’s childhood.

“I’ve been passionate about health and fitness all my life. Playing sports was where I derived most of my happiness and made most of my friends growing up, so it really troubled me that children with special needs are excluded from these programs because of the disabilities they are born with,” said Shakir, a keen athlete and soccer player, who was selected to join the Olympic Development Program at age 11.

Now, Shakir is taking his efforts further. He is leaning towards a career in medicine with a focus on special needs children. First, however, he intends to spend two years teaching high school math in Northern California with Teach For America.

And Kicks for Kids? The program is in the process of becoming a national nonprofit, and Shakir plans to expand the program to other universities nationwide, including Stanford University where a second branch will open next fall.

“I wanted to provide a place where kids like Erick could come and play without fear of being bullied or feeling left out,” Shakir said. “I’m thrilled Kicks for Kids is achieving that goal.”

—S.B.

Sam Kosydar: From Physics to Economics

Clad in cap and gown, Sam Kosydar held up the gold medallion hanging around his neck with his honor cords.

The medallion was given to him by the Norman Topping Student Aid Fund for which he chaired the committee overseeing scholarship endowment.

“I’m proud of my work at Norman Topping,” said Kosydar, who today earned his bachelor’s in physics. “The Topping program is about giving opportunities to first generation college students and getting them through school. I believe education is the most important way to get people out from poverty and improve their livelihoods.”

Sam Koysdar '14

Sam Kosydar ’14 graduates from USC Dornsife with a degree in physics. (Photo/ Pamela J. Johnson)

His father Edward, an engineer in Boise, and mother, Jerri, a nurse at USC University Park Health Center, have shown him great support. Growing up, he had a posse of family around him: His identical twin(who is graduating from the University of Pennsylvania) and a set of twin brothers one year his junior.

“I came in knowing I wanted to do some science, but felt that if I was interested in economics or history, I would have the option to do that here.”

Kosydar made the most of his options. He became particularly interested in economics and began working in the laboratory of Nake Kamrany, a senior lecturer of economics. Working with Kamrany, he and other students helped to found the USC Global Income Convergence Group (GIC-G), which studies the narrowing disparity of per capita income among nation states around the world. Their research covers economic issues including policy, healthcare spending and energy.

With a degree in physics under his belt, in 2015 he is headed to the London School of Economics and Political Science for a master’s in finance and economics. A Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society inductee, he maintained a GPA of 3.9 at USC.

Kosydar wants to make a difference in the world economy and help bring economic opportunities for people of all socio-economic backgrounds. His experience with the Topping program showed him the importance.

—P.J.J

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