Ivan Garcia was a student at El Sereno Middle School when he joined NAI. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

Student Life

His Journey to USC Started with a Tough Choice

Ivan Garcia is among the first graduates of USC’s expanded college prep program, and now he’s a first-year Trojan. But he almost missed his chance.

September 28, 2020 Rachel B. Levin

Ivan Garcia held court whenever his family visited Chinese Friends, their favorite restaurant in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. Garcia’s mother, Laura, remembers how the little boy brought smiles to everyone’s faces in the restaurant when he spoke and sang songs in Mandarin with the staff.

“He spoke it without an accent,” she says, thanks to a Mandarin-language immersion program that he had attended since kindergarten.

Though the 18-year-old Garcia no longer remembers these encounters, his knack for language and communicating across cultures has stayed with him. He studied Mandarin until he was a high school sophomore and also took American Sign Language as a freshman. As he begins his first semester at USC, furthering his study of languages is in the college game plan, as are classes in anthropology, history and philosophy. On the horizon, perhaps, lies a career in immigration law.

Yet the talented young scholar might never have made it to USC — or any college at all — if he had not made a pivotal decision some seven years ago.

He took a chance he nearly passed up, and it changed his life.

USC College Prep Program: A Big Commitment

Back when Garcia started sixth grade at El Sereno Middle School, he and his family learned that he was eligible to enroll in USC’s Leslie and William McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative, often called NAI for short. USC started the rigorous college prep program in 1991 for children in underserved areas near its University Park Campus. NAI proved so successful as a college pipeline that it expanded to eastern Los Angeles in 2013.

In that first year on the Eastside, NAI began recruiting schoolkids around the USC Health Sciences Campus. Garcia’s family lived nearby in the predominantly working-class Latino neighborhood of El Sereno. His parents thought joining NAI would be a good idea, but Garcia had little interest. College was a speck far off his radar. Neither of his parents had attended, and he was admittedly “not the biggest fan of school … like most sixth graders,” he says.

He also balked at the USC college prep program’s requirements. NAI participants sign on for a seven-year commitment that includes Saturday Academy classes along with weekday morning classes at USC and after-school tutoring. The time investment pays off for their college prospects: 99% of the 1,237 NAI scholars have gone on to two- or four-year institutions, significantly higher than the state average of 64%.

Garcia loved spending weekends outside in neighborhood parks, especially playing baseball. “I wasn’t really excited about having Saturday school,” he says. The seven-year commitment also spooked him. His parents made the expectations clear: “If we’re going in this, we’re going all the way in, and you can’t back out.”

Ultimately, the deciding factor that swayed Garcia to enroll in NAI was something familiar to any sixth-grader: peer pressure. When his friends joined, he couldn’t say no. He had little idea what that choice would mean in the coming years. As he adjusted to the rigorous coursework, he grew to not only enjoy it but also excel.

This past June, Garcia graduated in the top 10% of his high school class. He also became one of the first 41 graduates of NAI’s Eastside program.

Most importantly, in August, he became the first in his family to attend college.

Higher Education Within Reach through USC College Prep Initiative

In recent years, El Sereno has grappled with the contrasting forces of gang violence and gentrification. Garcia describes his hometown as a quiet enclave where his favorite spots include outdoor spaces like the El Sereno Recreation Center and local Mexican eateries like Cheo’s Tacos (which, to his surprise, has become an Instagram sensation with outsiders).

Garcia’s father, David, who is Guatemalan American, was born in the U.S., moved to El Sereno as a young child and stayed. His mother, Laura, immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico with her parents when she was 3 years old. Both of Garcia’s parents have, until recently, worked full time to support the family — David as a freelance graphic designer and Laura as an L.A. Unified School District special education assistant. The COVID-19 pandemic has made their livelihoods more precarious.

David and Laura Garcia saw NAI as a path to college for their son, Ivan.
David and Laura Garcia saw NAI as a path to college for their son. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

His mother and father value education above all else, and Garcia knows it. They hope to see his two younger siblings attend college, too. As parents, says Laura, “you want better for them.” But until NAI emerged as an option, paying for college loomed as a daunting prospect.

The Garcias knew that NAI could offer critical help in paying for college — students who remain in the program until high school graduation are eligible for a fully funded financial aid package to USC, provided they meet admission requirements. The possibility of earning full college tuition “played a huge role in the effort I put into school,” Garcia says.

In high school, balancing six days of school each week with his other activities was tough. He was also an outfielder on the baseball team, served as a juror for Teen Court — a program for teens to hear real juvenile cases and learn about the judicial system — and helped plan school fundraisers and events. But Garcia credits NAI with motivating him to challenge himself, not to mention instilling discipline and time management. The curriculum in the USC college prep program helped him reach high-level courses, including AP biology and AP calculus, in his senior year.

He found the NAI tutors — many of whom are alumni from both NAI and USC — to be particularly helpful. They served as role models. “Some tutors were even there from sixth grade up until 12th grade,” Garcia says. “They’ve seen us grow, and it’s amazing having a bond with some tutors who’ve known us that long.”

Garcia ultimately gained admission to his two top-choice colleges: USC and the University of California, Berkeley. He knew that no matter which school he chose, NAI would be there to support him throughout his college years. NAI’s retention efforts help ensure that participants’ hard work getting into USC or any other institution pays off. Support counselors make sure scholars transition successfully to college life and complete a degree.

In the end, USC’s full-tuition grant and his NAI experience influenced him to stay in L.A. and become a Trojan. “I’ve been helped by USC all this time,” Garcia says. “It just felt like the better option for me.”

First-Year Student Builds a Trojan Family

Garcia is keenly aware that many of his classmates outside NAI face a tougher road to college than he did. Some of his friends are undocumented young people commonly known as “Dreamers” — named after 2011 Congressional legislation that would have provided protection to youthful immigrants. The legislation was never passed, and these students do not qualify for federal loans or grants to finance their education.

Witnessing their plight has deepened Garcia’s longstanding interest in law, which he traces to his love of watching the show Law & Order since he was a kid. He also credits his aunt Jacqueline Guevara, a paralegal in Los Angeles, for spurring his enthusiasm. Garcia dreams of specializing in immigration law as a way to assist undocumented members of his community. “Hopefully, they’ll be able to receive aid, attend better schools or even receive their citizenship,” he says.

This fall, his interest in immigration politics prompted him to enroll in Laura Isabel Serna’s history course “The Latin American Experience,” in which the USC associate professor of cinema and media studies explores the impact of Latin America on the world. At the same time, he wants to learn about people from cultures far different from his own, especially within USC’s diverse community.

As he makes new friends at USC, he still has his old friends, too. Of 94 students in NAI’s 2020 graduating class, 39 were accepted to USC and 36 enrolled. Many of the same buddies who persuaded Garcia to join NAI back in sixth grade have become Trojans. “I’ve known some of them since kindergarten and elementary school,” he says.

Garcia is also lighting the way for his sister, Dianna, 15, and brother, Ismael, 12, both of whom are in NAI and want to attend USC as well. “He’s helping us set the bar, and that’s their example,” their mother says.

Reflecting on the rewards that have stemmed from his participation in NAI, Garcia is glad that he didn’t pass up the chance to join as a skeptical 12-year-old.

“Looking back on it,” he says, “Saturday school is not that bad.”