A USC drum major standing alone on the field.

USC Trojan Marching Band drum major Jacobo Herrera is one of the students who receive scholarships annually from USC LAA. (Photo/John McGillen)


Celebrating a half-century of scholarships and mentoring for Latino Trojans

USC Latino Alumni Association marks its 50th anniversary at a time of record-setting Latino enrollment.

February 13, 2024 Greg Hernandez

USC Trojan Marching Band drum major Jacobo Herrera was a financially strapped freshman “digging around for scholarship money” when he first connected with the USC Latino Alumni Association (USC LAA).

The USC Thornton School of Music senior ended up being awarded scholarship money from the association each of the next three years. Herrera says in addition to the financial assistance, his connection with the association has brought him mentorship and community.

“It’s really like a big family,” says Herrera, a first-generation student who grew up in San Bernardino. “All the wonderful ladies in the office, they honestly feel like my tías. I feel so comfortable with them and with my fellow scholars.”

Herrera is one of approximately 350 students who receive $3,000-$5,000 scholarships annually from the association, which celebrates its 50th anniversary at a scholarship gala dinner on March 2.

First of its kind at USC

Just over five decades ago, a group of USC alumni founded the USC Mexican American Alumni Association. (In 2011, the organization changed its name to be more inclusive.)

Raul Vargas, then head of USC’s Mexican American Programs, was one of its co-founders. He became the executive director of the first-of-its-kind association that sought to assist Latino students with the high costs of a private university and increase the Latino student population at USC.

Today, the USC LAA is the oldest and one of the largest Latino college alumni associations in the United States with approximately 5,000 members. Since its founding in 1973, the association has awarded $23.4 million in scholarship funds to 9,700 USC students and has a $12.9 million endowment. It continues to thrive at a time when USC’s Class of 2027 set a university record by being 20% Latino.

Alumni members speak to students one-on-one, deliver leadership training presentations, share service and job opportunities, help with fundraising and networking, and donate gently used business attire.

“We started as a scholarship program to make sure that USC was affordable,” says Mercy Willard, the association’s executive director. “Now we have this huge network of alumni who have helped us propel each group of students every year and have helped build alumni pride.”


From scholarship recipient to USC trustee

A black and white photo of students around a table looking at books.
The USC LAA is the oldest and one of the largest Latino college alumni associations in the United States with approximately 5,000 members. (Photo/Courtesy USC LAA archives)

The situation was far different when Michael Felix ’83, now a USC Board of Trustees member, got accepted into USC in 1979 as a business major. There was immense joy and excitement for the first-generation college student and his proud family, who lived in nearby Pico Rivera. But then came the reality of how to pay the annual $7,000 tuition.

“I took out a lot of loans, and my parents contributed a good amount,” says Felix, who held a work-study job on campus and other part-time jobs in addition to receiving scholarship money from USC LAA.

But by his junior year, finances had become impossibly tight. Felix’s mother came to campus in tears and asked Vargas to please increase the amount of her son’s scholarship. Felix received “a significant bump” of $1,000, which made all the difference to him and his family.


Finding his way back to USC

USC alumni celebrating the Mexican American Alumni Association with a sign, standing outside Bovard.
Founded as the USC Mexican American Alumni Association in 1973, the organization changed its name to the USC Latino Alumni Association in 2011 to be more inclusive. (Photo/Courtesy USC LAA)

Vargas retired as executive director after 33 years in 2006. His successor, Domenika Lynch, helped increase fundraising for the organization and elevated student programming. She also reached out to Felix and asked him to become involved in the association’s Corporate Advisory Council.

Felix had never forgotten how much the association had meant to him during his college journey, but he recalled that he would sometimes feel unwelcome at USC.

“I felt privileged to be there,” he says. “It was a whole new world for me, and I felt I was getting a great education, but [fellow students] were asking me how long I’d been in this country and how long I’d been speaking English. It was just a very different experience from what it is now.”

Felix, retired senior vice president of The Capital Group Companies, knew that by getting involved in the USC Latino Alumni Association, he could focus on leveling the playing field for students whose stories might be similar to his own: students from underrepresented backgrounds who might not know what questions to ask to get ahead, what resources exist or how to navigate college life.

He is also immensely proud that three of his four children went on to become Trojans themselves.

“They now create an environment that makes you feel welcomed, included, appreciated, embraced and seen,” he says. “Getting accepted into USC is only the beginning. Leveraging all the university has to offer is another thing.”

Gala to honor outstanding student and alumni

A group of Latino men and women who are USC alumni giving the Fight On hand signal
The current USC LAA board is focused on the organization’s next 50 years: (L-R, front row) Saul Alvarado ’00, Yasmin Davidds ’95, Mercy Willard EdD ’21, Yimi Casasola ’02, Sonia Endler ’97, and Luis Campa ’02. Back row: Gustavo Amaral MBA ’14, Robert Campos ’91, Ismael Bautista ’03. (Photo/Courtesy USC LAA)

At the organization’s upcoming gala event, former United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz will be presented with the Alumni Visionary Award.

“We’re very excited to recognize him for his accomplishments and contributions to USC and to the community as a whole,” Willard says. “He’s had an incredible career as the only Latino to lead an airline and has also devoted his life to service.”

Former California State Sen. Martha E. Escutia will be the recipient of the Legacy Award at the gala. Escutia is a lecturer in law at the USC Gould School of Law, where she teaches the course “Environmental Justice and its Civil Rights Legal Implications.”

“Martha was one of the first recipients of our student award when she was attending USC,” Willard says. “So, this is really full circle for us.”

Also at the gala, a graduating undergraduate student will be recognized with the Dr. John R. Hubbard Recognition Award for their academic achievements, leadership and community service.

The USC Latino Alumni Association by the numbers

8: USC alums who founded the USC Mexican American Alumni Association in 1973

2011: The year the organization was renamed the USC Latino Alumni Association to better reflect its broad reach

300-plus: The number of scholarships awarded annually

$22.4M: The total amount of scholarships presented over the five decades (9,400-plus scholarships in all)

$12.9M: The organization’s current endowment fund

5,000: Current USCLAA members

Source: USC Latino Alumni Association