Latino Alumni Association gala

USC Latino Alumni Association sets ambitious goals after raising more than $1 million in a single night

The group’s 50th anniversary scholarship gala dinner brings generations of visionary Latino Trojans together.

March 04, 2024 By Greg Hernandez

USC Latino Alumni Association Executive Director Mercy Willard did not expect to be addressing a crowd of more than 1,000 people inside Sound Stage 22 on the Warner Bros. lot on Saturday night. But rain had forced a last-minute change in venue for the association’s highly anticipated 50th anniversary scholarship gala.

“The unpredictable Southern California weather ultimately led us here,” Willard said. “In true Trojan spirit, we pivoted and persevered.”

Instead of the gala being an outdoor event at Allyson Felix Field on the USC University Park Campus, the soundstage in Burbank was transformed in just days into an elegant ballroom. No one seemed to mind: The sold-out event raised more than $1 million in scholarship funds in a single evening.

Founded in 1973, the 5,000-member group is the oldest and one of the largest Latino college alumni associations in the United States. During her remarks, USC President Carol Folt described the association as “truly a blue-chip organization” that helps students be their best.

“You’re the wind at their back,” she said. “You’re the gentle boost that lifts our students higher, and you’re the network that they truly can count on.”

USC Latino Alumni Association Gala: Carol Folt
USC President Carol Folt addresses the gala. (Photo/Will Chiang)

Folt pointed out that the association has awarded nearly $24 million in scholarships to close to 10,000 students during the past half-century in addition to providing resources such as mentoring, job opportunities and leadership training.

“You’re opening doors, you’re enriching our communities and our Trojan Family, and have been doing so for 50 years,” she said. “I just want to thank all of you for helping our students thrive.”

The night’s honorees reflect on their journeys

USC Latino Alumni Association Gala: Martha Escutia
Martha Escutia received the Legacy Award. (Photo/Will Chiang)

Former California State Sen. Martha Escutia, USC vice president, state relations and special counsel, was presented with the Legacy Award at the gala. After graduating from USC in 1979, Escutia went on to earn a law degree from Georgetown University and became the first woman to chair both the Assembly and Senate Judiciary committees in the California State Legislature.

“Our family’s sacrifices have brought us here tonight, and we have learned to survive and to thrive,” she said in her speech. “We have learned to survive society’s expectations and also cultural restrictions. We have learned to walk a tightrope between two cultures.”

Escutia said that while walking such a tightrope is “inevitable,” she advised that it be done “with our head, spine and our values intact.”

“Though we are all strong advocates for the Latino community, that advocacy has never excluded others,” she said. “Success, to be truly meaningful, needs to be shared, not monopolized. By being here tonight, we are sharing that success and paying it forward.”

USC Latino Alumni Association Gala: Oscar Munox
Oscar Munoz received the Alumni Visionary Award. (Photo/Will Chiang)

Former United Airlines CEO and USC Trustee Oscar Munoz, presented with the Alumni Visionary Award, spoke movingly about his family and continuing his successful corporate career after suffering a heart attack and later undergoing a heart transplant.

“My Hispanic heritage is at the root of everything I’ve ever done,” he said in his speech. “It taught me so much about caring, kindness, principles, turning the other cheek and hard work.”

Munoz shared with the crowd how if it were not for an astute high school counselor, he might not have applied to USC or any other university. The counselor, after seeing his impressive PSAT scores, walked up to him in a hallway between classes and asked him about his college plans. Munoz replied, “What’s a college?”

“I didn’t know,” he told the crowd. “Do you know how many young people who come from diverse or disadvantaged backgrounds simply aren’t aware of the avenues open to them? It takes someone to tap you on the shoulder and find your hidden potential. Tonight is all about that concept.”

Standout student wants to help others

Three student finalists for the Dr. John R. Hubbard Award also shared personal stories. The alumni association gives the award to an outstanding undergraduate Latino student graduating in the upcoming academic year and is based on academic achievement, leadership and community service.

In the end, Karla Padilla Leon of the Keck School of Medicine of USC won the award over Cinthia Sanchez Alvarado of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and double major Evelyn Marquez, a student at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the USC Price School of Public Policy.

USC Latino Alumni Association gala: Karla Padilla Leon
Karla Padilla Leon of the Keck School of Medicine of USC received the Dr. John R. Hubbard Award. (Photo/Will Chiang)

“As the first of my family to pursue higher education in the U.S., I have to be resourceful and not scared to ask for help,” Leon said in her speech. “If it were not for all the mentors that I found along the way, I would not be standing in front of you tonight.”

Padilla Leon will graduate this year with a Bachelor of Science degree in health promotion and disease prevention and a Master of Science degree in global medicine. She shared with the crowd a memory from the first time she ever visited the association’s office, where four leaders from the organization showed her pictures of past Hubbard Award winners and told her, “Maybe this will be you when you’re a senior.”

“I remember thinking, ‘What could I possibly do to deserve such an award?’” Padilla Leon said. “I want to be a great advocate and pediatrician not only for my family and my community but to always keep opening more doors for those that will come after me.”

Becoming a ‘Hispanic-Serving Institution’

Several speakers highlighted a recent achievement for the university: Last year, a record 20% of first-year students enrolled in fall classes were Latino. Among all current undergrad students, 18% are Latino.

Gala Co-Chair Jules Buenabenta said that if the university can increase that number to 25%, USC can be federally classified as a Hispanic-Serving Institution. This status can result in grants to expand educational opportunities for, and improve the attainment of, Latino students.

“We are a force for the future,” he said. “We should look at this moment.”