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Students take action in Schwarzenegger course

Students presented their final projects to Arnold Schwarzenegger for the course "Celebrating Leadership for a Post-Partisan Age," with Dean Jack H. Knott, far left, and faculty members in attendance. (Photo/Alex Schepsman)

Students from “Celebrating Leadership for a Post-Partisan Age,” the inaugural class stemming from the new USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy, presented their final projects to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Dec. 15. For each project, the students not only examined, but directly addressed, an important policy issue.

As one would expect with an affiliation to Schwarzenegger, this was no ordinary class. Whether working both sides of the aisle in Sacramento as California’s 38th governor, as a movie star or a champion body-builder, Schwarzenegger has always been known as a man of action.

So rather than sitting around talking about policy issues, the 13 students of the course chose an issue important to them and started campaigns to make a real-world difference in the area. The group presented its semester-long work to Schwarzenegger as – not surprisingly – three-to five-minute videos.

“The ideas that you had were really spectacular,” Schwarzenegger told the students. “You went beyond the politics and said, ‘Here’s the problem, and this is what you can do.’ I think the presentations were absolutely extraordinary. I was amazed with how articulate all of you were.”

Created in August as part of the USC Price School of Public Policy, the Schwarzenegger Institute aims to find bipartisan solutions to social and policy issues.

Professor Nancy Staudt, who also serves as academic director for the institute, introduced her students for the micro-symposium at Ronald Tutor Campus Center in front of an audience that included USC Price Dean Jack H. Knott, the institute’s global director Bonnie Reiss, USC faculty, and family and friends of the students.

“The difference between this class and every other class I’ve ever taught was the focus on getting students out of the classroom to work on an important issue and then bringing the results back into the classroom,” Staudt said. “Every other class I’ve taught has been a discussion of important issues around a roundtable, while this one was about acting on these important issues.”

The students worked together in pairs or a group of three for their campaigns and presentations.

Sydney Allen and Mitchell Vieyra created Give a Voice LA, urging people to develop stronger community-driven after-school programs that focus on healthy living and the arts. For their part, Allen and Vieyra led a five-week after-school program at Hoover Recreation Center near USC. Even though the assignment is over, the two plan to continue the program during the spring semester.

Chris Daskalos and Tania Mercado started Health and WellneSC (Twitter: @HealthyUSC) to increase student awareness about the strong correlation between leadership and fitness. With the premise that staying physically fit is important to being successful on a professional level, they created fitness events for USC student leaders.

Chelsea Wood and Andrew Christopher founded Feed South Central (Twitter: @FeedSouthLA) to educate the community on the importance of choosing healthy food options despite the prevalence of fast-food options in the area. Their research showed that 32.7 percent of the residents in South Los Angeles are obese, the highest obesity rate in Los Angeles County.

Karina Casillas and Sabha Salamah began M.U.R.A.L. Project LA (Twitter: @MuralProjectLA, email: as an initiative seeking to document the murals in Los Angeles in order to show the importance of public art through civic engagement. M.U.R.A.L. stands for Maintenance of Urban Real Art in Los Angeles. The students spoke at City Hall in favor of an ordinance, which was approved by the City Planning Commission in October, to allow murals to be legally produced on private property in the city of Los Angeles.

Kele (Kelly) Song and Xiuzhi (Lizza) Wang developed SAIL or Study Abroad to achieve International Leadership, to encourage students to study abroad in order to foster greater collaboration among different cultures and nations. Song and Wang, who are pursuing master’s degrees in public policy, are two of 194,000 Chinese citizens currently studying in the United States. Noticing that their fellow Chinese students at USC tended to spend most of their time with one another, they hosted events to improve communication between Chinese and American students with the thought that developing understanding between the younger generations will improve relations between the countries when today’s students become tomorrow’s leaders.

Kristen Hernandez, Gabriella Hecht and Patrick Elder established Bike SCafely (Twitter: @BikeSCafely) to urge the implementation of more bike lanes on the streets around the USC University Park Campus. As all three of them live on fraternity row and bike to and from campus multiple times a day, it was an issue about which they felt passionate. As an additional part of their project, they urged other students to seek change in societal problems important to them by asking “What will you fight for?”

Throughout the semester, there was a genuine atmosphere of collaboration in the class. The students watched and critiqued each other’s videos and presentations every step of the way. Several of the students even volunteered to take part in the programs of their classmates.

“We’ve been working on this for over 15 weeks,” said Vieyra, a junior majoring in policy, planning and development at USC Price. “We spent tons of time as a group going over and over our video presentations and redoing our speeches.

“This was the moment we got to stand up, be proud of what we did and just present it,” she added. “It was really nice to be able to meet Gov. Schwarzenegger and just evolve this whole idea of post-partisanship because that’s why we took this class.”

Knowing they would be presenting their work to Schwarzenegger at the end of the semester provided added motivation. Schwarzenegger lauded the students for finding the post-partisan sweet spot in critical issues of the day.

“It was an extremely rewarding, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to present our ideas and our work to someone who is so influential in politics and the public-policy world,” said Hecht, a senior majoring in international relations. “To hear his feedback and really vet our ideas with him was just a wonderful experience.”

Students take action in Schwarzenegger course

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