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Humanities

Her heart is in Highland Park

USC Dornsife junior grabs the opportunity to make a difference in her community

by Michelle Boston
D.C. grad cap
Before graduating, USC Dornsife undergraduates work in politics and impacting policy. (Illustration/Daniel Hertzberg)

Standing on the steps of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., Roxana Ontiveros had one thing on her mind: her Highland Park neighborhood in northeast Los Angeles.

The daughter of Mexican immigrants and the first in her family to attend college, Ontiveros had taken her first trip on an airplane to participate in a summer internship with the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.

My hometown is always at the forefront of my mind.

Roxana Ontiveros

The junior majoring in political science and American studies and ethnicity at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences was bringing Highland Park to the decision-making hub of the country. Now was her chance to make efforts to improve her community.

“I felt like it was my responsibility to bring my neighborhood into focus in what’s happening in D.C.,” she said. “My hometown is always at the forefront of my mind.”

In D.C., Ontiveros learned about Latino-focused education policy, communications and outreach at the U.S. Department of Education.

A sense of empowerment

During her internship, arranged through the USC Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, she wrote a white paper on the success of Latino males in the United States, gathering data such as college graduation and incarceration rates. Her work will be used to help policymakers strengthen educational opportunities for Latinos, the nation’s largest and fastest-growing population.

“I felt empowered to contribute to research on such an important topic,” said Ontiveros, who intends to become a litigation attorney but isn’t ruling out the idea of one day running for office or teaching law.

USC Dornsife’s support has been crucial in setting her up for success, she said. A political leadership award from the Unruh Institute provided her with funding to support the internship.

“Without it, I would not have been able to participate in this life-changing experience,” said Ontiveros, who is passionate about bringing the community and government together to improve educational prospects for minorities.

Leadership and civic engagement

USC Dornsife offers exceptional opportunities for students such as Ontiveros to gain hands-on experience in politics and impacting policy. Through internships, courses, mentorship and scholarships, students develop leadership skills and gain the experience to make a difference through civic engagement at the local, national and international levels.

Dan Schnur, director of the Unruh Institute since 2008, said the foundation for extraordinary work begins with USC’s commitment to its community.

“USC has always stressed the importance of USC students and faculty working with surrounding neighborhoods,” he said. The result is a student body that is devoted to improving Los Angeles, he added. Through the Unruh Institute, Schnur wants to show students that becoming involved in politics and government is a logical extension of their community work.

“Cleaning up a park or teaching an at-risk child to read is tremendous, but working to elect candidates to office who will help further those goals on a much larger scale is the next critical step,” said Schnur, currently on leave as he makes a bid for California secretary of state.

After her experience at the White House, Ontiveros returned to Los Angeles to put what she had learned to work in her community as an intern with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), the nation’s leading Latino legal civil rights organization.

At MALDEF, Ontiveros wrote a report for its Parent School Partnership (PSP) program, which trains Los Angeles–area parents how to become active participants in their children’s education, schools and community.

The report detailed the ways federal and California state codes protect parent’s rights to be involved in their children’s education. It highlighted the California education code’s stipulation that schools must establish parent-community advisory committees, as well as a U.S. education code requirement that schools provide parents with information on their child’s academic performance.

Hoping for a ripple effect

Research shows that student achievement is linked to parental involvement in a child’s education. Many of the parents in PSP are immigrants who speak little or no English and are unfamiliar with the U.S. system of education. The program teaches them how to navigate the public school infrastructure. They learn about the roles and expectations of teachers and administrators, protocols for resolving disciplinary matters and ways to monitor academic success.

Ontiveros’ report will ensure parents know their legal rights.

“At the end of the day, they gain confidence and understand how they can engage with these institutions,” she said.

Ontiveros hopes her work with MALDEF and the White House will have a positive ripple effect in Highland Park. Her goal is to make a deeper contribution.

“Regardless of what profession I take on, I’m inspired to improve opportunities for my younger siblings, my cousins and their friends,” she said. “Things such as K-12 education and after-school activities at the recreation center. They want to participate in more arts, music and theater programs, but don’t have the chance because of a lack of resources.

“I’m inspired to bridge the different facets of the law, academia and the community to help them and to move society forward.”

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