USC’s Emily Sandoval, center, speaks at Comic-Con, encouraging people to embrace their inner geek. (Photo/Steve Robles)

Top Story

USC’s residential education director shines in the geek spotlight at Comic-Con

Emily Sandoval takes her message to a sympathetic audience: Embrace your “nerdentity” and you can succeed in college academically and socially

July 24, 2017 Steve Robles

Nerd. Geek. Dork. Silly but powerful words describing sections of society that have, all too often, served to separate, denigrate or humiliate. They served to marginalize very specific groups of people, to force them to the social sidelines.

For Emily Sandoval, the challenge was doubly daunting.

“My best friend, Gina, and I were card-carrying members of the Legomaniacs Club — and we were girls,” said Sandoval, a self-described “child of the ’80s.” 

Sandoval, USC’s director for residential education, has made it her life’s ambition to bring students who self-identify as geeks, nerds and dorks from the margins to the limelight by appealing to exactly what appeals to them. By unleashing their inner geek and allowing it to flourish, Sandoval hopes that these students will have the freedom to succeed academically, as well as socially. She wants to help them embrace what she calls their “nerdentity.”

A long time ago …

Her brother introduced her to Star Wars when she was a geekling, and that’s what Sandoval feels was the open door she needed to embracing her own nerdentity. She described a time when her brother — eight years older than she — took her to a friend’s house where they watched Star Wars movies all day with his friends.

“I realized for the first time that I might be different because I was there enjoying Star Wars and I was the only girl in the room, even though I was a little kid,” she said. “I think that’s when I started realizing that the stuff that I like, maybe that made me different because I was a girl and I like these things. And I think it increased the older I got.

“In high school, I realized that I got along better with my guy friends than the women I was friends with because they shared that same geek interest. That changed in college when I met more women who liked geek things.”

Sandoval said she was very introverted as a child, a common trait among closeted nerds who might be daunted by the prospect of moving from high school, where they might have been comfortable in a group of like-minded friends, to college, where they might feel they have to start all over to find acceptance.

“If I’m at an event and I see someone in the corner, I approach them and say ‘Hey. My name’s Emily. Are you doing OK?’ And that can segue into, if they are a geek and into geek stuff, and we can go from there.”

Geek delights

Students who walk into Sandoval’s office are greeted with all sorts of geek delights, like Funko Pop!s vinyl figurines, designed not only to proudly display her nerdentity but to help students feel at ease and maybe get them talking about their own interests.

“If a student comes to my office, they automatically see my Pop!s or my Star Wars stuff and they might ask me about that. I also have one of my Comic-Con name placards up on my shelf, and that’s usually an instant conversation starter. They’ll say, ‘Wait, you’ve actually spoken at Comic-Con?’”