From a village in Syria to USC Bovard Scholar and first-gen student

Toni Atieh came to America only knowing two words in English: “hi” and “bye.” Now he’s finishing his freshman year at USC.

April 16, 2019 Laura Lambert

In early 2010, Toni Atieh was with his family in Fairouzeh, a small village in a district of Homs, Syria.

“The biggest possibility I had was as a worker on a farm, or taking over a business,” he said. “Now, I’m in a university — at USC. How do you react to such a big shift?”

Atieh arrived in the United States that October at the age of 10, knowing just two words in English: “hi” and “bye.” After struggling to adjust to a new language, new culture and new home, he would go on to graduate at the top of his class at Jurupa Hills High School in Fontana, Calif.

To get into college, he gleaned from friends, you got good grades and did extracurriculars. No one was pushing him to think beyond high school. His parents, who spoke little English, did not understand the American university system. “Everything came down to me, in the end,” he said.

The summer after his junior year, Atieh earned a spot in the inaugural class of USC Bovard Scholars, a one-year program designed to help accomplished high school students with financial need apply, gain admission and succeed at the nation’s top universities.

“Bovard Scholars aims to address ‘undermatching,’ where academically-motivated students, like Toni, don’t apply to top-tier universities at the same rate as their more affluent peers,” said Anthony Bailey, founding dean of USC Bovard College and its signature program. “As we head into our third year, we’ve seen 70% of Bovard Scholars attend a top 25 university, with many choosing to come to USC. Plus, 86% of our scholars were awarded no-loan packages and scholarships covering full tuition.”

How Atieh became a USC first-generation student

During the program’s three-week summer residency on the USC campus, Atieh joined a cohort of rising seniors from around the country — 85% of whom were also first-generation students. Few, if any, had access to the kind of career exploration, admissions and financial aid counseling, and test prep that students at the top high schools in the country often receive. But most, Atieh quickly learned, shared a familiar story of academic success mixed with individual struggle.

“The scholars work one-on-one with college counselors, explore potential career paths, learn how to navigate financial aid, write essays and — perhaps most importantly — get a taste of campus life, firsthand,” said Jennifer Colin, executive director of USC Bovard Scholars.

When admissions packets arrived the following spring, Atieh chose USC.

The relationships from the Bovard Scholars program buoyed Atieh when he landed on campus last fall — a mere hour from his family in Fontana, and yet a world away. He chose another Bovard Scholar for a roommate, which helped pave the way for a smooth transition into a tough major: human biology, pre-med track. While stories about first-generation students feeling out of place at the country’s elite universities make headlines, Atieh has a different story to tell.

He credits Bovard Scholars with providing a safety net. There was a group of familiar faces on campus, fellow scholars and program advisors alike. He already knew the campus and how dorm life could be.

You meet these people, get to know their background, their struggles, and you realize, ‘Hey, I’m not the only one.’

Toni Atieh

“At first, it was different,” he admitted. “Then, you sign up for emails and they start telling you about events, ways to connect with other students in the same major, same track or same career path. You meet these people, get to know their background, their struggles, and you realize, ‘Hey, I’m not the only one.’”

Extracurriculars — like intramural soccer and a Christian church group — provided a through line from his early life in Syria, where, he jokes, soccer is practically its own religion.

And a genuinely optimistic outlook has spurred him along. “I try to utilize as many resources as I can on campus, whether for first-gen or not,” Atieh said. As a pre-med student, he makes it a point to attend small meet-and-greets for opportunities to speak with, say, a doctor from Children’s Hospital or a researcher from Keck School of Medicine of USC. “As a first-gen,” he said, “it’s good to go and explore your options, make connections. I’ve done that a lot.”

Tips for future freshmen

Atieh’s advice to fellow first-gen students is charmingly simple: Make friends. Manage your time. Always ask questions. Get involved.

For next year, he is considering a minor in the business school — marketing, perhaps, or entrepreneurship.

“My life just got turned around,” Atieh said in regard to the journey that has brought him to almost the end of his freshman year. “This is something I wouldn’t have imagined even a few years ago. I have a chance to do what my parents didn’t do — even setting an example for my siblings.”

Indeed, Atieh’s younger sister was also accepted into Bovard Scholars last year, and his youngest brother is in middle school: “I’m showing him, ‘Hey, if I do it, you can do it, too.’”