John Sandoval ’12 is flanked by his parents, Jose and Sonia Sandoval. Photo by Vanessa Preziose

Although John M. Sandoval ’12 spoke no English when he arrived in California at age 5, he thrived in his new environment and quickly became a star student. Now he’s graduated magna cum laude from USC—but the path to success wasn’t always an easy one.

His parents, Jose and Sonia Sandoval, were both architects in El Salvador before they emigrated to the U.S. to protect their family from widespread gang violence and kidnappings in their native country. The jobs they found here were nothing like those they’d had—Sonia Sandoval is a babysitter, and her husband works at a gas station—but they sacrificed to provide their son the best education.

When the couple enrolled him in a private high school, his mother proudly told a counselor there that John had been a straight-A student throughout elementary and middle school. The counselor replied that it would be a while before he’d earn A’s in this school.

Despite those low expectations, John never earned less than an A in high school. And he went on to attend USC—where he did both his parents and his university proud.

He completed a double major in political science and philosophy in three and a half years. During that time, he also served as president of the USC chapter of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, led a yearlong weekly workshop series to guide high school students through the college application process, and worked as a residential adviser for three years, helping incoming freshmen transition to college life.

Now a paralegal in the law offices of Curiel and Parker, he plans to apply to law school.

John received the top student honor at the 39th annual USC Latino Alumni Association Scholarship Gala on March 1. In his acceptance speech, he thanked USC for believing in him, and dedicated the honor to his parents.

“This would not have been possible without the grant USC offered me when my father was unemployed, or without the scholarship and professional training the USC LAA has provided,” he said.

The LAA is a legacy of the USC Mexican American Alumni Association, founded in 1973. The name was changed in 2011 to affirm the growing diversity of USC’s Latino community and the association’s commitment to serving all Latino students at the university.

With support from an active and loyal cadre of alumni, students and friends, the LAA has awarded $15 million in scholarships over the past 40 years. Each year, more than 175 students receive LAA scholarships. Tuition assistance goes to USC undergraduates and graduate students who demonstrate financial need or merit as well as a commitment to the Latino community. Every scholarship recipient, in return, is required to provide volunteer service for the LAA. Most scholars join the association after graduation.

This strategy of linking financial support with a culture of giving back has transformed the lives of scholarship recipients while advancing the university overall.

“USC has been recognized by the Education Trust, a research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, for the outstanding job we do in graduating Latino students at rates that are at the university average,” said Katharine Harrington, USC vice president of admissions and planning. “We attribute that in part to the very positive influence the Latino Alumni Association has on our current students.”

Nationwide, according to a report by Excelencia in Education, Latino students’ university graduation rates trail 14 percentage points behind those of white students.

If he could ask just one thing of those attending the gala, John said, it would be to support LAA scholarships as a way of making a real impact on the world—and discovering “what true potential looks like when it’s unlocked.”

Learn more about the LAA and scholarships.

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