Trojan trailblazer uses classroom experience to help underserved students get a head start

TITLE IX: Since becoming an administrator, Theda Douglas has made a difference in the lives of thousands of participants in her programs.

June 19, 2023 By Saúl García

Editor’s note: Title IX — the landmark legislation that prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding — was signed into law on June 23, 1972. In recognition of this anniversary, we’ll be profiling Trojan Title IX trailblazers throughout the year.

As associate vice president of USC government programs and University Relations initiatives, Theda Douglas is a tour de force. She oversees nine federally funded TRiO College Access Programs and the School for Early Childhood Education Head Start Programs. These programs touch and improve the lives of over a thousand K-12 students each year in the neighborhoods surrounding USC’s University Park Campus.

Title IX logoWhen Douglas began her career in education, she didn’t envision going into an administrative role. Yet she found the ones that have had a positive effect on students and the community, and she credits Title IX legislation for giving her the confidence and support to make the transition from the classroom to the administrative office.

“If Title IX wasn’t a force, if it didn’t have impact, then I wouldn’t be here. Women like myself, particularly women of color, we were afraid before,” said Douglas. “We wouldn’t apply out of fear or because we thought we wouldn’t be chosen.”

If Title IX wasn’t a force, if it didn’t have impact, then I wouldn’t be here.

Theda Douglas, University Relations

Douglas started her career teaching high school before moving to Los Angeles Trade Technical-College to work in higher education. It was there that her dynamic personality and the ability to get the most from students caught the attention of Evelyn Wong, the school dean who approached her with the idea of becoming associate dean.

Leaving the classroom: A tough choice

Convincing Douglas to leave the classroom wasn’t an easy task. “It was tough for me. I loved my students,” said Douglas. She ultimately embraced the opportunity and funneled her passion for helping those in need into her new role. In time, she rose to interim vice president of student services, where she boosted funding for low-income students, first-generation students and students with disabilities, and was instrumental in building LATTC’s student services programs.

USC TRIO students graduation
The USC TRiO program provides high school students like these 2021 grads — photo taken pre-COVID — with resources like tutoring, mentoring and application assistance. (Photo/Courtesy of Pablo Escobar)

It wasn’t long after that she was approached to return to her alma mater and lead USC’s TRiO and School for Early Childhood Education programs. Again, Douglas was hesitant until she realized that “the community is now my classroom” and that the expanded responsibilities in this new job would allow her to change the lives of thousands.

At USC, Douglas became a fierce champion for the underserved, turning over every rock to find funding to support her programs and ensure every participant’s success.

USC TRiO serves over 800 high school students annually, providing counseling, tutoring and assistance completing college and financial aid applications. It also offers academic support at its Saturday academies, and the summer residential program allows students to live and take classes at the University Park Campus.

The program has a 97% high-school graduation rate, and most go on to community colleges or four-year universities. Approximately 100 students graduate from the program each year, with a dozen students accepted to USC.

The need to do more

Despite the program’s success, and its near-perfect graduation rate, Douglas saw a profound need to do more.

I was seeing high school students in our TRiO program, and wondering, ‘Where will they go after high school if they don’t go to college?’

Theda Douglas, University Relations

“I was seeing high school students in our TRiO program, and wondering, ‘Where will they go after high school if they don’t go to college?’” She recognized the program wasn’t introducing career opportunities and pathways to students not interested in attending or unable to attend college, and that was a problem.

So, in 2015, Douglas reached out to her vast professional network and leveraged her valuable community college experience to launch the Concurrent Enrollment program, a partnership between USC, West Los Angeles College and Allied Health. The program is a 15-week course that offers entry-level health care certification for high school graduates interested in dental assistant, medical assistant and pharmacy technician careers.

Casa de Rosas: Children
Children at the newly renovated Casa de Rosas display the USC “Fight On!” gesture — taught to them by USC President Carol L. Folt in March. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

Since its launch, over 400 students have received health care workforce certificates qualifying them immediately for paid entry-level positions in health-related fields.

Douglas became a teacher to improve the world, and even though her career in education and administration has spanned over 30 years, she’s far from considering retirement. She was recently on Capitol Hill, advocating for additional TRiO funding. She’s also focused on USC’s eighth Head Start child care center, at the historic Casa de Rosas facility.

Reflecting on her career and the impact of Title IX, Douglas said, “Title IX has been our support, our foundation. It has given us the ability to know that there is a strong force that’s on our side.”