USC alumni teacher Don Young
Teacher Don Young at Foothills Middle School challenges students to think critically. (Photo/Gus Ruelas)

It’s College Day at Washington STEAM Magnet Academy in Pasadena, California, and Ivan Harris ’88 has walked into the classroom of one of his fellow teachers.

“Boooo!” howl the middle-schoolers from their desks, laughing.

Harris laughs, too. “You guys are all brainwashed.”

Why the heckling? Harris is wearing a USC T-shirt, shorts and tall cardinal-and-gold argyle socks—in the classroom of a diehard Bruin alum.

But the banter is all in good fun. In this case, L.A.’s university rivalry serves a higher purpose than smack talk. By getting kids excited about college life, USC alumni who work as teachers in K-12 education are helping children see themselves as future college students.

From elementary to high schools, Trojan teachers are using their own university experiences to shape tomorrow’s leaders.

Morning Creek Elementary School | San Diego, California

Carol Kemler Buddin’s students may only be first graders, but they’re sold on USC.

As Buddin ’79 explains, Morning Creek Elementary is part of the “No Excuses University” network — schools spurred by the belief that all of their students can go to college. Each Morning Creek teacher chooses a university theme for his or her class.

Buddin graduated from the USC Rossier School of Education, so her choice was easy.

“Everyone knows that if you go into Mrs. Buddin’s classroom, that’s the USC Trojans classroom,” says the longtime teacher.

Every other Friday, her students wear USC T-shirts. They shake pom-poms as they sing a version of Rachel Platten’s tune: “This is my fight song. We Trojans stay strong. USC Fight On!”

She even has a laser pointer in the shape of two fingers making the victory sign, one of many USC-related gifts from her students.

Having a USC-themed room can lead to funny moments, Buddin says. One Notre Dame alumnus had to get over the idea of his children identifying with USC, she remembers. Another family had the opposite problem: They were USC fans, and Dad had to accept that his kids would move on to a UCLA-themed classroom the next school year. To avoid conflict over rivalries, Buddin says, “I give the kids a blessing and tell them, ‘It’s OK: Next year, you’ll have been part of both of the best colleges in Los Angeles.’”

Foothills Middle School | Arcadia, California

Ben Acker ’98, EdD ’19 is principal at Foothills Middle School — a surprising destination for a USC Marshall School of Business alum. Yet his business degree enables him to see his students and families as clients. “We’re in the people business,” he says, “but we’re not building widgets — we’re building citizens and leaders.”

How did USC push him toward teaching? He relished being a resident assistant, for one. Troy Camp played a part, too: Counseling kids there “was probably the turning point for me,” says Acker, who returned to earn his doctorate at USC Rossier this year.

His fellow USC alumni teachers at Foothills also came to teaching from other majors. Don Young ’96 studied exercise science and today teaches physical education, video and AVID — a college and career readiness program. He has university pennants on his classroom walls, and he draws on alumni from USC and other universities as guest speakers.

Favorite USC professors from Young’s past also provide inspiration. He loved attending classes taught by passionate instructors, he says, “so I try to duplicate that effect in my classes — I try to make it a little bit more fun.”

Then there’s Sarah LaReau ’02, a USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism grad. The humanities teacher uses her communication background every day. Middle school, beyond learning subject matter, is about “how to have conversations, how to be organized, and how to function in a work-type setting: turning things in on time and keeping yourself accountable,” she says.

And, of course, she represents USC. As students walk into her room, Classical KUSC plays on her speakers, and snapshots and spirit signs from football games adorn her bulletin board. Says LaReau: “I’ve always been a proud Trojan, and we’re big on college here.”

Washington STEAM Magnet Academy | Pasadena, California

A highly recruited athlete out of Pasadena High School, Ivan Harris listened to many coaches sell their basketball programs to him, but he chose USC. His mom made sure of it. “She was very proud,” Harris remembers. “The school spoke volumes of prestige.”

When his dreams of becoming a pro basketball star tempered after graduation, though, the USC Price School of Public Policy grad turned to his other love: coaching, encouraging and mentoring kids. In a bio in a 1987 USC basketball game program, he talked about wanting to teach. Decades later, he remains just as enthusiastic.

To inspire teens to plan for college, Harris and his colleagues take middle schoolers on tours of USC, UCLA and other campuses. They also visit college fairs, where he often lingers at the USC table, telling parents about his experiences.

“What I love is giving kids options for their life,” he says. “It’s all about giving them exposure to what could be their future.”

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