USC mentors and mentees
(Illustration/Eric Hanson)

Caffeine-craving students steadily stream into USC’s Literatea cafe on Friday mornings. As one of them shuffles in and greets Bob Clifford ’85 in line, the alumnus can’t resist some good-natured teasing: “Hey, wipe the sleepy dust outta your eyes.”

Clifford, a founding principal at Liquid Venture Partners, feels right at home among undergraduates: He has long mentored them. Often he is paired with members of Society 53, the governing board of USC’s Student Alumni Society, but the student he is mentoring today came to him by happenstance.

They met at a USC Price School of Public Policy event a few years ago and have gotten together regularly since then. The college student is in the SEO Scholar program run by Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, a New York-based nonprofit that prepares first-generation and underserved students for college.

“We’ve never had a formal conversation about me being a mentor; that word has never been used. I just wanted him to know that the Trojan Family is real — in order to believe in it, there has to be a tangible, credible and sincere extension from alumni to the undergrads,” says Clifford, who is a member of the USC Alumni Association’s Board of Governors. (For Clifford, the Trojan Family is real in another way, too — he and his wife met at USC and their son is currently a student.)

“At first, undergrads can be somewhat skeptical, but over time they figure out that it’s all about the notion of paying it forward, which is rewarding for the mentor,” he said. “We were the beneficiaries of someone else’s generosity of time and energy once, and now it’s our opportunity to give back.”

A Guiding Hand

Using past experiences to help others succeed also resonates with Maria Jones-Sechrest ’87. The alum has run her own printing and packaging business since 1997.

In the early 2000s, one of Jones-Sechrest’s clients mentioned that a talented intern had been accepted to USC but was going to turn down the offer due to financial pressure. She was working her way through junior college while supporting her mother and young son. Jones-Sechrest kicked into high gear. She was a member of the USC Mexican American Alumni Association (now known as the USC Latino Alumni Association, or LAA) and the group had granted her a scholarship when she was an undergraduate. She knew the organization could offer resources to help financially and academically.

The connection to Jones-Sechrest and LAA encouraged that intern to transfer to USC. Leslie Ardon ’05 went on to graduate with a degree in business administration and is now an international merchandising manager at footwear company Skechers.

Being a USC graduate “has been the best thing ever,” Ardon says. “Maria’s mentorship was such a great help. Sometimes you don’t know what lane to take and you don’t feel confident. But when you have a mentor, the relationship really guides you and helps shape your own path.” She and Jones-Sechrest still keep in touch.

“Mentorship doesn’t have to be this daily [thing], I just opened a few doors. She did all the hard work,” says Jones-Sechrest, who has been a member of the LAA Board of Directors and the USCAA Board of Governors. She has gone on to mentor other students through LAA and the USC Marshall School of Business matching programs.

“For me, it’s the satisfaction of knowing somebody was able to achieve something that they were truly capable of and worked for,” she adds. “There are so many people who are talented in all sorts of different ways, but maybe no one said to them, ‘Hey, let me show you the way. I’ve been down that road.’”

USC Mentor Connections

It’s a feeling many mentors share. Clifford, who grew up in the Boston area and has spent more than three decades in investment banking, might not always have a background similar to his mentees but he finds common ground. “It’s not a Q&A,” he says. “It’s just, ‘How’s it going? Where are you from? Tell me about your family.’”

Jameson Lee ’15 attests to the genuine nature of Clifford’s approach. He was paired with Clifford through the USC Alumni Association’s Society 53 mentorship program when he was a junior. Since then, Lee has run every major life decision past Clifford.

“Mentors I’ve worked with in the past come in and say, ‘Hey, here are my three core beliefs about how life works and I’m going to fit this worldview over whatever you’re experiencing,’” Lee says. “Bob did not do that at all. He put in the time and effort to understand who I was as a person and the context that I was in when we first met.”

Clifford’s ethos of paying it forward is something that Lee shares now too. Through Society 53, he has been paired with a USC student mentee of his own. The three generations of Trojans — Lee, his mentee and Clifford — recently had brunch together.

“It’s been very gratifying for me to be a part of Jameson’s milestones. You just don’t take for granted that you’ve become the person who this young man really values,” Clifford says. “The USC campus is the place where it starts, and hopefully it’s not the place where it ends.”

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