Shandela Contreras always wanted to write poetry. When she penned “Ode to Los Angeles,” it became a love poem that reflected upon her journey through the USC Leslie and William McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative, one that will end this Saturday at a gala celebrating the 2021 graduates. Her published anthology, Mellow Ballads, that move our bones, is meant to inspire others.
“I want to inspire people to create change through their voice and through spoken word,” she said.
To understand her desire to inspire, one must understand Shandela’s inspiration: her mother, Sandra Schmidt. Growing up, Sandra set the tone for hard work and sacrifice.
She made the ultimate sacrifice when she left her Central American hometown, Belize City, and left behind her dream career as a police officer. As difficult as it was, she knew it was the right choice.
“I migrated to Los Angeles because my mom and dad were here. Someone had to come to take care of them,” Schmidt said. Her attempts to pursue a law enforcement career in her new home were unsuccessful, but her deep desire to help people led her to nursing school, where she graduated first in her class.
“I always knew she sacrificed so much when she came to the United States. I know she loved being a police officer,” Shandela says. “Just knowing that she still sought out work to provide for me and my siblings was very inspiring to me.”
Shandela Contreras and her mother find family in USC’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative
Schmidt would seek out employment opportunities in or near the schools her children attended in order to supplement the family’s income. It was fate that she found out about the USC McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative, or NAI, while working as an office assistant at Shandela’s elementary school. Lizette Zarate, the initiative’s program director, was leading an information session for students and parents on the academic and higher education opportunities that USC’s premier college prep program can provide. Schmidt was enamored with the program and knew it was where her daughter belonged.
Shandela and her mother knew that the program was rigorous, requiring scholars to attend early morning and after-school tutoring sessions along with Saturday Academy. Parents are also required to attend information sessions and workshops developed by the Family Development Institute program. It was a sacrifice both were willing to make.
You really feel like you are a part of a family with NAI.
What they didn’t expect to gain was an extended family, but that’s just what happened when COVID-19 hit close to home and Schmidt’s father succumbed to the virus. The family was immediately supported by the program.
“I lost my grandfather, my mom’s father, to COVID,” Shandela said. “NAI helped a lot, not only with emotional support but financially. We had to bury him in Belize, and NAI stepped up and provided a donation to ease the financial burden. It meant so much. As students, we are in different programs and clubs, but you really feel like you are a part of a family with NAI. I’m grateful for their support.”
“They reached out to me personally and helped us. Not many programs would go out of their way to do that,” Schmidt said. She credits the program with helping Shandela navigate the college application and financial aid process during a very difficult time for the family: “The program went above and beyond, and I’m forever grateful.”
Nearby support system will help new Trojan embrace life on campus
It was that family feel that led to Shandela’s decision to attend USC in the fall, a decision that was more difficult than she expected. Although NAI scholars become very familiar with USC and its campuses, the initiative also encourages students to visit other colleges. Even though the visits were virtual, Shandela began to see herself going to college outside of the region. Ultimately, her family — both close and extended — helped her choose USC.
“In college, you are entering a new world. Knowing that I have a family and a support system will be very beneficial and very special,” Shandela said as she reflected on her mom taking a job as a security ambassador near USC. “Seeing her taking care of USC students, I know she always wanted to take care of me as a USC student.”
“I always have to dedicate everything I do to the sacrifices she made, for us and for me,” she added. “I want to go to college because I want to provide a better life for her.”