Valedictorian Tianna Shaw-Wakeman hopes to leave a lasting impact of sustainability at USC

Though she didn’t set foot on campus until orientation, Shaw-Wakeman quickly got involved in causes aimed at leaving the university — and the world — a little better for the next generation and beyond.

May 12, 2021 Grayson Schmidt

Tianna Shaw-Wakeman hadn’t even heard of USC until her senior year in high school in Nashville. She accepted her admission without ever visiting and did not set foot on campus until orientation, a month before classes started.

The moment she arrived on campus, though, she understood the opportunity she had, and she wasted no time pursuing her passions. From serving as co-director of USC Environmental Core to co-founding DivestSC, organizing USC’s 2019 climate strike or simply planting native trees on the University Park Campus, Shaw-Wakeman has left her mark on a university that became home.

Now, after earning her bachelor’s degree in psychology from the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, that same person who didn’t even know what USC was is graduating with her master’s in social entrepreneurship from the USC Marshall School of Business — and as 2021 valedictorian. (Story continues below.)

“My parents taught me that if you are living on this earth, you have an extraordinary amount of positive responsibility to everybody you encounter,” Shaw-Wakeman said. “When you get to USC, when you have the opportunity to get this education, which means so much, then your positive responsibility is amplified manyfold.”

Born in Texas, Shaw-Wakeman spent much of her childhood in Charleston, S.C., before moving to Tennessee. She hadn’t visited L.A. since she was a child, so her first day at USC was a shock.

“There weren’t a lot of people who were southerners; there weren’t a lot of people who were Black; there weren’t a lot of people who were low-income. So it really was just an overwhelming world for me,” she said.

But just because it was a shock doesn’t necessarily mean it was discouraging.

“I was excited because I was in this environment that was purely for learning and purely for growth, and I just felt so lucky to be, not even just nationally but globally, a woman who gets to go to college,” she said. “I remember being so proud and excited, but also nervous and a little imposter syndrome-ish because now I have to take advantage of every single opportunity that’s going to come my way.”

USC 2021 valedictorian committed to on-campus sustainability

From the start, Shaw-Wakeman threw herself into the issues that mattered to her, like sustainability. During her freshman year, she joined USC’s Environmental Core — at the time the only organization on campus solely focusing on environmental activism, like a commitment to carbon neutrality and native landscaping. She organized various small rallies and helped organize the 2019 climate strike. More than 300 people attended, including USC’s then-new president, Carol L. Folt.

“It was this very obvious space where you could see that things had changed, that we have a president who is actually willing to say that she cares about sustainability, and we have students who now feel like their voices matter,” she said.

We have students who now feel like their voices matter.

Tianna Shaw-Wakeman

Shaw-Wakeman and an alliance of sustainability-minded USC organizations then wrote a formal letter to Folt, asking that the university disclose how much of its money was invested in fossil fuels. The answer: roughly 5% of the university’s endowment was invested in fossil fuels. After more rallies and meetings, Shaw-Wakeman co-founded DivestSC, an organization committed to getting USC to divest in the fossil fuel industry and additionally reinvest those funds towards clean technologies and renewable energy.

“For any positive social change to really take place, I think you need the grassroots, bottom-up support; you need the people who are most affected — in this case, the community and students — to be on board and to be pushing in the same direction,” she said. “But you also need administrators with more of the decision-making power to be on board and to really be willing to work collaboratively with all of the interested parties.”

Those efforts proved successful, as the USC Board of Trustees’ Investment Committee voted earlier this year to liquidate current fossil fuel investments over the next several years, as well as freeze new investments.

Tianna Shaw-Wakeman pivots from teaching to socially responsible business

Outside of her sustainability efforts on campus, Shaw-Wakeman also volunteered with Teach for Los Angeles to tutor elementary school students in reading and writing. This might seem completely unrelated to her sustainability work, but she said the two are actually more closely related than people think.

“Where English teachers do their best work is when they make it personal to people,” she said. “That’s also where sustainability education does well: when it’s not just talking about sustainability as this ethereal thing related to the ocean, wetlands or places that a lot of people have never been, but when you make it about the park in your backyard or your home or your lived experiences.”

Though she was a psychology major as an undergraduate, Shaw-Wakeman always had teaching in mind and planned to teach English abroad after college. But with the pandemic, plans changed. She went into her master’s program for social entrepreneurship, an avenue she would’ve never thought about as a freshman.

“I think I harbored a lot of biases towards the business community, towards the financial community and really any community who — at that time — I perceived to have a singular goal of making a ton of money and not really benefiting the world,” she said. “But then I think college is definitely a place where you’re supposed to put yourself in different environments and experiences to realize that you have those biases.”

A meeting with some of the founders at Patagonia helped show her the social side of business and how it’s a tool that can be used compassionately.

“I had to come around to this idea that business could be and is used in a lot of ways,” she said, “and I think will be even more so in the future for the changes that need to be made in our world.”

Shaw-Wakeman completed her master’s in December and has since been working for unboXt, an Atlanta-based startup founded by two USC grads that utilizes data analytics to measure the happiness of employees. It’s a fitting role for someone who’s passionate about people’s well-being. Though she would downplay her role, it’s hard to argue the impact she has had. Whether she’s working on creating a more sustainable campus, teaching students to love reading and writing, or working to make a happier workforce, she seems to want to leave things a little better than how she found them.

“I only saw my role, working in sustainability and doing all the different things that I did, as trying to be a vessel for this energy and this vibrancy about how important sustainability is that was already there among the students,” she said. “I did what I did, mostly so that I could represent a lot of people who had this desire and have this urgency around USC becoming sustainable.”