Sydney Turner started taking classes at USC in sixth grade. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

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Freshman Sydney Turner has been preparing for USC since the sixth grade

She’s a graduate of the university’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative, a rigorous program that helps prepare local kids for college — and rewards them with a USC education when they succeed

August 18, 2016 Joanna Clay

Sydney Turner, cruising campus on her skateboard, has the confident air of an upperclassman. But she’s not.

The 17-year-old incoming freshman already knows many of the building abbreviations, probably because she’s taken classes at Zumberge Hall and Kaprielian Hall.

Growing up off Crenshaw and Adams boulevards three miles from the University Park Campus, Turner has been taking classes at USC since sixth grade­ through USC’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative, giving up Saturdays and summers for a big chunk of her youth.

I kept pushing through because I knew the end result would be going to USC.

Sydney Turner

“My non-NAI friends would have days where they could sleep or go out, but I was at home studying, doing my Saturday schoolwork or having Saturday school,” said Turner, a first-generation college student. “I kept pushing through because I knew the end result would be going to USC.”

The program, around since 1989, allows low-income neighborhood kids to take college preparatory courses over seven years. At the end, if they meet USC admission requirements, they’re given a full ride to the school;­ 378 NAI graduates have been admitted since 1991. Some NAI graduates go off to other universities, too.

“Students like Sydney are exactly the reason we stand firmly behind this program,” said Provost Michael Quick. “They are committed, engaged students who add a great deal to our classrooms and our campus life.”

Heard it from a friend

Gloria Turner, Sydney’s mom, heard about the program through a friend. While working out on a USC track one day, the friend saw a group of kids and found out they were part of NAI. His own kids were older, but he thought Gloria Turner might be interested for her daughter.

“I was thrilled, fascinated — I couldn’t believe it actually,” Gloria Turner said. “We said whatever we need to do, we’re going to get her in that program.”

Earlier this year Sydney Turner graduated from Foshay Learning Center, one of the USC Family of Schools. There she’d spend her first two periods on the USC campus and then a bus would take her back to the high school. This summer, she took writing and sociology classes at USC to get a leg up.

Looking back, she says she can’t really imagine what life would be like without NAI.

“This program really pushes you to strive higher,” she said.

Turner and the other 18 NAI freshmen this year are bringing an invaluable perspective to USC, university administrators said.

“They are wonderful human beings with incredible personal stories of beating the odds and making it to this incredible university,­ literally steps from their homes,” said Kim Thomas-Barrios, executive director of USC Educational Partnerships. “These students are able to think about what they are learning in class through the lens of these experiences and add their unique voice to the discourse.”

Passion for computers

While at USC, Turner is looking forward to honing in on her passion: computer science.

“From a young child, I was always computer savvy,” she said. “At 8 years old, my dad would wake me up and say, ‘come fix the TV,’ ‘?hook up the computer,’ ‘?the internet isn’t working.’ ”

She recently helped develop a game to raise awareness about water scarcity. The player, dropped in a desert wasteland, is tasked with finding enough water bottles to fill up a well in a village.

“We need to conserve our water because, if we don’t, our children won’t have a society to thrive in,” said Turner, who has been recognized twice by the National Center for Women & Information Technology for her interest in computing.

Her mom, a legal secretary, and her dad, Edward Turner — a cargo agent at LAX — always had college in mind for their daughter. But Gloria Turner said that without NAI, it likely would have been very difficult financially.

It’s a godsend to have been able to have the assistance financially to be able to attend a first-rate university like USC.

Gloria Turner

“We would’ve been in debt up the wazoo,” Gloria Turner said. “It’s a godsend to have been able to have the assistance financially to be able to attend a first-rate university like USC.”

Turner is already out of the family home, having moved onto campus during the summer. Two weeks ago she moved into her dorm in Marks Tower.

“I’m far away enough that I still have my independence. There is a tiny chance I’ll see my mom at the supermarket, but that’s OK,” she said with a laugh.