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How one USC scholar shifted from cinema to counterintelligence

A meeting with USC’s David Petraeus led theater lover Remaya Campbell from storytelling to counterintelligence. And she intends to stay there

Remaya Campbell portrait
Remaya Campbell embraced new experiences at USC, including a trip to Ireland and the study of law. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

Remaya Campbell says that today she would hardly recognize herself as a freshman.

The avid “theater and AV club nerd” who was making movies on an old camcorder at age 7 thought she knew what made her tick: “Storytelling was such a formative part of my life, so why not aim for the best of the best and try for USC film school?”

Campbell was accepted as a Trustee Scholar and immediately found a home and inspiration at Birnkrant, the honors residential college at the time.

“‘BK’ was 24/7 positive peer pressure,” she recalled. “You want to succeed and do amazing things because all of your peers are insanely impressive. It’s a positive feedback loop.”

The Corona native loved honing her craft at the USC School of Cinematic Arts — and recalls actor Pierce Brosnan wandering through her shot while she was filming on campus as a highlight.

But something was missing.

Remaya Campbell film school

Remaya Campbell, who studied at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, worked on a student film in 2015. (Photo/Courtesy of Remaya Campbell)

“Something radical shifted in me. I remember marching out in the streets my freshman year after the Trevon Martin ruling, and when the world is moving in such a way, you feel the need to do something,” Campbell said.

Delving into family ties

She felt compelled to examine her own family background, which includes generational poverty and incarceration, to explore the role she wanted to play and the story she had to tell.

That’s when she switched majors to pursue law, history and culture: “You discover that history is still the art of storytelling, and it’s what we choose to tell and not tell that forms our identities.”

She said teaching inner-city high school students basic law through the USC Gould School of Law’s Street Law program was “utterly inspiring.” When the teens were asked to choose topics they’d like to learn further, Campbell expected requests related to police interaction or Miranda Law. Instead, they asked for lessons on constitutional law, cybersecurity and the Patriot Act. “Their interests were unlimited by their environment,” she said.

“I was so overwhelmed to see students who looked like me and if they continued on this path, they would be like me, in higher education,” Campbell said, adding that the students asked her and her peers how they, too, could get into USC one day. “They saw me as someone they could be someday, so I felt the weight of responsibility to be someone worth becoming. Because the privilege of graduating from USC is a responsibility that should not be taken lightly.”

Overseas study sharpened Remaya Campbell’s focus

It was a Problems Without Passports trip to study religion and human rights in England, Northern Ireland, Spain and France that crystalized Campbell’s academic and professional path.

No one in my family had ever left the country, and to come to USC, where they encourage you and give you funding to do these things, was mind-blowing.

Remaya Campbell

“No one in my family had ever left the country, and to come to USC, where they encourage you and give you funding to do these things, was mind-blowing,” she said.

The Catholic/Protestant struggle in Northern Ireland opened her eyes.

“In an all-white country, people still find ways to divide themselves, so you find you’re not alone in struggle and you’re not alone in hope,” she said. “To feel connected to a people and country you’re entirely different from was the epitome of education for me.”

The experience sparked her interest in terrorism, she said, and how one man’s terrorist can be another man’s freedom fighter.

Branching out into other fields

Back on campus, Campbell branched out into other fields by attending interdisciplinary events at the USC Sidney Harman Academy of Polymathic Study.

Remaya Campbell and Gen David Petraeus

Campbell met retired Gen. David Petraeus at an event for the USC Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Study in 2015. (Photo/Courtesy of Remaya Campbell)

“I consider it a laboratory for thought where you can experiment with disciplines like nowhere else at USC,” she said. “You use everything you’ve ever learned to synthesize new ways of thinking and solving problems.”

Campbell met retired Gen. David Petraeus, a USC professor, at one such event. She told him off-the-cuff that, as a ninth-grade student, she had dreamed of working for the Central Intelligence Agency. The former CIA director encouraged her to apply to the agency.

Though she has to remain vague on the details, Campbell said she got the opportunity to working on counterterrorism issues for the CIA.

“It’s an invigorating and intriguing time in our society,” she said.

A Leonard D. Schaeffer Fellowship covered all of her housing and transportation while she worked in Washington, D.C.

She’s also heading to the University of Otago in New Zealand to pursue graduate studies in peace and conflict on a Rotary International Scholarship.

As she prepares to walk in commencement in May, Campbell said she’s glad she decided to use every opportunity at USC to develop herself, rather than focus on the academic perfection she’d achieved in high school.

“I took courses liberally, crossed disciplinary boundaries and made the disciplines themselves overlap. It was the challenge of creating the perfect education,” she said. “I wanted to come away from USC better informed on how I can be of service to this world, and I think I’ve done that.”

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How one USC scholar shifted from cinema to counterintelligence

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