USC Neighborhood Academic Initiative gala: Graduates display Fight On gesture

A record 65 of this year’s program graduates are set to attend USC. (USC Photo/Steve Cohn)


USC celebrates Neighborhood Academic Initiative graduates at Annual Gala and Awards Ceremony

More than half of the graduates of the university’s signature college prep program will be attending USC in the fall, and all will be going to college.

May 24, 2024 By Greg Hernandez

Founders Park on USC’s University Park Campus was filled with pride and joy on Wednesday evening as 95 local high school students were celebrated for completing the USC Leslie and William McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative access program.

All of the program’s seniors from Woodrow Wilson and Abraham Lincoln high schools in East Los Angeles and the James A. Foshay Learning Center in South L.A. are college-bound this fall, with 60 scholars set to attend USC.

“This marks the culmination of a seven-year journey, one that has inspired us all with your determination and your resiliency,” USC Senior Vice President of University Relations Samuel Garrison said in welcoming remarks. “You persisted through a global pandemic and the trials and tribulations of being a teenager in high school. And through it all, nothing stood in your way. Tonight, you made your dreams a reality.”

The NAI Annual Gala and Awards Ceremony celebrated a program that provides equal opportunities for success in higher education and beyond for students living in the neighborhoods near USC’s University Park and Health Sciences campuses. More than 1,500 seniors have completed the NAI program and attended college since the program began in 1997.

Starting in the sixth grade, NAI offers academic support and resources to prepare the scholars — including many who will be first-generation college students — for the academic rigors of college, admission and graduation. The program has a 100% high school graduation rate and a 99% college graduation rate.

USC Neighborhood Academic Initiative gala: On stage
NAI offers academic support and resources to prepare the scholars for the academic rigors of college, admission and graduation. (USC Photo/Steve Cohn)

“You should be so proud of yourselves and your hard work, discipline, perseverance and tenacity,” William McMorrow, who endows the initiative with his wife, Leslie, said to the students and their families. “I know the parents sitting here tonight are extremely proud of their young kids, and you should be.”

NAI students reflect on their journey

Lincoln High School Associated Student Body President Samantha Caldera was chosen to speak on behalf of the students and delivered her address with her fellow graduates standing on the stage behind and next to her.

“It’s hard to believe that we finally reached this day,” she said. “We have been inspired, supported and encouraged as we set our goals. More importantly, NAI kept reminding us that all of our goals are truly attainable.”

Caldera, a future Trojan, shared that the students began forming strong friendships from the first Saturday classes they attended as sixth graders. They started their high school years attending classes online at home due to the COVID-19 lockdown and, more recently, excitedly read through each other’s essays during the college application season.

“We have grown together, have set goals together, have reached milestones together,” she said. “You’re sitting among future engineers, doctors, lawyers, writers, directors, athletes, teachers and everything in between.”

Wilson High School senior Brandon Esquivel also spoke. The future Trojan read his original poem, “Persistence,” then talked about why that had been chosen as the evening’s theme after much thought and discussion among the students.

USC Neighborhood Academic Initiative gala: Scene
The NAI program has a 100% high school graduation rate and a 99% college graduation rate. (USC Photo/Steve Cohn)

“There was no other word that resonated more than persistence,” he said. “Persistence when facing challenges head-on, never giving up and continuing to strive for our goals. It meant staying up late to finish assignments, attending training sessions and seeking help when needed. And it meant believing in ourselves and our dreams, even when it felt like the odds were against us.”

Grateful grads are future Trojans

Foshay Learning Center graduating senior David Roblero didn’t speak as part of the program, but Garrison highlighted his inspiring family story in his welcoming remarks.

“David lives just a few blocks away from here,” Garrison said, noting that at a young age Roblero participated in Kinder 2 College, the NAI sister program that boosts literacy for elementary school-aged children. “David became an NAI scholar and inspired his two brothers, Daniel and Wilmer, who are now NAI scholars themselves.”

In an interview during the dinner, Roblero expressed his excitement about completing his high school journey and beginning a new one at USC this fall.

“I’m just proud that I got this far,” he said. “I’m ready to give it my all and be something and do something. I want to create impact in the world.”

Roblero also paid tribute to his mom, Carmen Hernandez, for encouraging her three sons to make the most of their academic opportunities.

“They have been working hard every day for this program,” Hernandez said, adding that her youngest son is valedictorian of his eighth-grade class. “NAI is a great, great program. I’m so proud of my three boys.”

Before the start of the dinner, the scholars — wearing their Sunday best with medallions hanging around their necks — mingled with guests and posed for photos together at an outdoor reception.

“I’m actually really excited right now,” said Lincoln High School graduate Yulian Amador, who will be attending USC in the fall. “[This moment] feels like a rite of passage, and thinking about the gala and thinking about this final stretch is what pushed me forward.”

USC Neighborhood Academic Initiative gala: Crowd
Many NAI graduates will be the first in their families to attend college. (USC Photo/Greg Grudt)

Standing nearby, Foshay Learning Center graduate Samantha Duran said she was nervous but excited about the “celebration of our accomplishments.” She was accepted to several colleges, including USC and UCLA, but has a specific reason for choosing to be a Trojan.

“It’s because of my hard work in NAI as well as the fact that I feel like I’m giving back to the community because we’re from around here,” Duran said. “It felt like they cared about us and wanted us to achieve.”

An NAI alumnus gives back

One of the evening’s highlights was the presentation of the 2024 Community Impact Award to NAI and USC alumnus Hiram Sims, who last year was appointed a board commissioner of the Los Angeles Public Library system.

The poet, essayist and adjunct assistant professor of the practice of English at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences shared several examples of how NAI helped him in his journey through school, including times when he was in desperate need of a backpack and later a computer. After Sims earned his bachelor’s degree in English and his master’s degree in professional writing from USC, program staff helped him find classroom space when he launched the nonprofit Community Literature Initiative to help writers of color finish and publish their books.

“Oftentimes, as a young person, when you don’t have many resources, what you’re really looking for is an open door,” Sims said. “There has always been someone connected to NAI who will open that door.”

Distinguished guests lend support

In addition to Leslie and William McMorrow, other members of the USC Board of Trustees in attendance were former Chair Rick Caruso and Trustee Amy Ross. Former California Gov. Gray Davis was among the evening’s special guests, and Marilou Hamill, vice chair of the USC McMorrow NAI Board of Councilors, attended with her husband, actor Mark Hamill.

“It’s one of the best events of the year because it’s for one of the best programs,” Marilou Hamill said. “It’s so impressive to not only get college access, but we see them through college.”

Mark Hamill described himself as a “supportive sidekick” at the event, but called NAI “inspiring with a success rate that is astonishing to me. People who enter the program get to transform their lives through education.”