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Foshay Learning Center provides more first-year USC students than any other high school

Freshmen from South L.A. high school stick together as they begin their collegiate careers

Group photo of the Foshay alumni that started at USC this fall
Foshay graduates now at USC: Kathryn Johnston, Jose Martinez-Garcia, Dayanara Saucedo, Samantha Suarez, Katherine Loera, Jessica Hernandez-Flores, Angelica Vasquez, Fatima Saravia, Sergio Lopez and Nancy Hernandez, from left (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

The Foshay Learning Center has done it again. For the second year in a row, the public high school — which is less than a mile from the University Park Campus — has sent more first-year students to USC than any other high school. Foshay first took the honor last year with 19 students, and that number rose to 21 this year.

Although the students may be moving in different academic directions, their Foshay bond doesn’t break.

“We’ve been together since sixth grade,” said Yulimar Ramos, who shares a room with one of her best friends from Foshay, one of the USC Family of Schools. “It was a struggle to be part of the program, to commit to Saturday school and summer sessions, and we did it together.”

Moving communities closer to college

Foshay’s college preparation program, the Neighborhood Academic Initiative, is a partnership between USC and the Los Angeles Unified School District. Of the nearly 1,000 students who have completed the program, 86 percent have enrolled as freshmen at four-year universities. More than a third of them have enrolled at USC.

“It works because we work together,” said Kim Thomas-Barrios, associate senior vice president of educational partnerships at NAI. “It’s an intentional building of community. They have each other to lean on, so the bumps and travails won’t knock them out of college.”

Started in 1991, NAI is a seven-year program that helps low-income students get ready for college. NAI includes Lincoln High School in Lincoln Heights and Wilson High School in El Sereno, near USC’s Health Sciences Campus. The first NAI students from those high schools will graduate in 2021.

“It’s growing, and college is now a common experience for families in our neighborhoods,” Thomas-Barrios said. “That experience is common ground, shared knowledge, and they can talk about that with their neighbors because they know this pathway to college now.”

Trading time for opportunity

Angelica Vasquez, a freshman who’s first in her family to attend college, can often be found with fellow Foshay graduates Fatima Saravia and Samantha Suarez.

“It was every day, every class together,” Vasquez said. “After school, we were at each other’s houses. There were extracurriculars, too. We started celebrating birthdays together. Sometimes our moms would call each other to check on us, to make sure we weren’t messing around. They’d get together after Saturday school and go out to breakfast.”

It feels good to have a support system you can go back to.

Samantha Suarez

“It feels good to have a support system you can go back to,” said Suarez, a Norman Topping Scholar majoring in biomedical engineering. “We were warned about the culture shock, but having a group of friends helps.”

Friendships earned over many years

Suarez and her fellow Trojan freshmen are well-remembered at Foshay, where Michael Laska has been teaching for over 25 years.

“I had them for tenth-grade math,” Laska said. “They were a tight group. You see it when they go off to USC and stick together. That doesn’t happen everywhere.”

Laska sees bonds form in the shared sacrifice NAI students make, starting in the sixth grade. They give up time on Saturdays and over the summers for advanced courses, labs, enrichment experiences, classes on the USC campus and preparation for the college application process.

“These kids have been achieving at high levels since they were in middle school,” he said. “They’ve done that together, the relationships built over time and now the future is wide open for them.”

Inspired by imperfection

Ramos is majoring in psychology, but she isn’t certain about what degree she’ll ultimately pursue. She thinks of her freshman year as a time to explore. Ramos said she wasn’t a perfect student from an academic standpoint at Foshay, and sees that imperfection as an opening to guide others toward college.

“You have to try to lift up other students,” Ramos said. “People come to me and say, ‘My child is on the wrong path. You’re at USC. How did you do it?’ I tell them it’s not all about grades. It’s about branching out, communicating and helping others.”

That sharing spirit is something Ramos developed alongside her fellow freshmen during her years at Foshay.

“I know I’m here for a reason,” Ramos said. “I struggled to be here, and in four years even greater things are coming. I want to walk in commencement with my friends from Foshay. We went through it all together and what a great accomplishment it will be to graduate with them in 2021.”

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