Lillian Goodwin and Richard Petrosyan

Lillian Goodwin and Richard Petrosyan volunteer with Meals on Wheels as part of their work with the Philologos Society at USC. (Photo/Courtesy of Richard Petrosyan)

Social Impact

Student intellectual society doesn’t just discuss big ideas; it makes a big impact

The Philologos Society started as a way for USC students to share knowledge, but its members also make a point to give back to people in need throughout Los Angeles.

January 28, 2021 Grayson Schmidt

When Richard Petrosyan started volunteering with Meals on Wheels six years ago, it didn’t take him long to realize he was doing more than delivering food.

For many clients, Petrosyan provided their only socialization for the week. He saw firsthand how listening and conversing can go hand-in-hand with humanitarian work.

That combination became the basis for USC’s Philologos Society, an organization started by Petrosyan in 2019 that is dedicated to the exchange and debate of ideas‚ along with giving back. However, it wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic was in full force that he saw just how much the group was needed.

“Oftentimes, we don’t see the value of what seem like small details,” said Petrosyan, now a junior studying neuroscience at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “We don’t realize the impact of ensuring that these lonely elderly people have something to eat and someone to talk to.”

The Philologos Society — now with about 50 members — started as a way to “explore intellectuality” through organized debates, internal symposiums, documentaries, lectures and community service. The club name originates from the Ancient Greek words “philos,” meaning friend/love, and “logos,” meaning study/word/argument.

I have always had a fierce love of knowledge, and Philologos indulges and cultivates that in a compelling way.

Sean Silvia

“The Philologos Society embodies the best parts of university education, in that it is truly universal: learning, teaching and debating the fundamental questions of human existence while engaging in humanitarian outreach and camaraderie,” said Sean Silvia, a junior “Philologian.”

“I have always had a fierce love of knowledge, and Philologos indulges and cultivates that in a compelling way.”

Society members build community among L.A. residents of all ages

Last year, the Philologos Society partnered with Meals on Wheels West, which serves the coastal areas from Malibu to Marina del Rey. Face-to-face interaction hasn’t been an option, so the group started contacting clients through Meals on Wheels’ phone reassurance program, where members’ “comfort calls” check on elderly or at-risk members of the community.

“The Meals on Wheels motto says, ‘Deliver more than a meal,’ so we really wanted to build a community with the clients themselves,” Petrosyan said. “Many of them are drowning in solitude, so we’re trying to supplement that.”

Margaret Talai is the operations coordinator at Meals on Wheels West and has worked with Petrosyan since he was a high school student. She also oversees the phone reassurance program, which began in March. Since its inception, Talai said just over 19,000 clients have received calls.

“A lot of our clients don’t have family right now in the area, so once the pandemic hit many of them told us that they felt depressed,” Talai said. “The Philologos Society is doing a great thing right now, helping with the phone reassurance program and helping the organization as a whole.”

That sentiment is shared by Meals on Wheels clients, too.

“I’m so grateful for these young people who take time to come and bring me a meal every week,” said Hans Haberbeck, a Meals on Wheels client. “They never fail to cheer me up and make my day.”

I’m so grateful for these young people who take time to come and bring me a meal every week.

Hans Haberbeck

The work of the Philologos Society extends to the other end of the age spectrum as well. The group holds virtual school visits with L.A.-area students in grades 6-12, where they discuss a variety of subjects chosen by the Philologians and the schools. The group is also active with the Los Angeles Metropolitan Debate League, a nonprofit organization that supports local public high schools’ efforts to build robust, engaging and sustainable policy debate programs.

“The students are debating issues like the judicial system or the economic system, so we’re keeping them busy with reflections about important social issues that have the most relevance to the history of the United States,” Petrosyan said.

Philologos Society founder has dreams that go beyond USC

As USC classes start in 2021, Petrosyan hopes to not only grow the Philologos Society’s membership but also branch out into new partnerships internationally: University groups in the U.K. and Canada have already expressed interest. It might seem like a big step for an organization that’s just entering its second year of existence, but it’s one that fits the society perfectly.

“I’m hoping that people will be willing to bring their own contributions to the diverse slate of topics and fields that are being covered, explored and debated,” Petrosyan said.

“Hopefully they’ll be willing to embrace academic horizons they might not have been exposed to before and also expose themselves to real-life social issues through humanitarian endeavors.”

TO LEARN MORE: Read more about the Philologos Society on the USC Dornsife website.