L.A. sixth-graders start their path to college on a red carpet at USC

Sixth-graders begin their journey as scholars in the USC McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative kickoff. (USC Photo/David Sprague)


L.A. sixth-graders start their path to college on a red carpet at USC

The USC McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative’s newest participants take the first steps on their demanding seven-year trek toward higher education

September 14, 2018 Sa?l Garc?a

More than 100 sixth-graders — the 28th class of the USC Leslie and William McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative scholars — walked the red carpet in grand style, their first step as part of the seven-year college prep program at USC. Accompanied by cheers from previous NAI scholars, who will soon be their peers and mentors, they started down a literal pathway to college that the program provides.

“It’s setting the tone for the rest of the time they are going to be here,” said Kim Thomas-Barrios, associate senior vice president of educational partnerships, at the Saturday event. “It allows the other students that have been here already to feel they are an indelible part of this program because they can welcome the next class in.”

Hailed as USC’s signature college prep program, NAI has seen more than a thousand students graduate from its rigorous program in the last 27 years. All NAI students have graduated from high school, and 99 percent have gone on to colleges including USC, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, West Point and Harvard, Yale and Stanford universities. Those who choose to attend USC are eligible for a full scholarship.

Scholars must commit to after-school tutoring sessions and extra assignments, as well as Saturday study-and-advisory sessions. A unique component of the program is parent involvement — not with monetary contribution but with time, as NAI parents are required to attend workshops on Saturdays while their children are on the USC University Park Campus.

The additional workload can be burdensome for many first-time NAI families preparing their child to attend college. It’s what makes the first day crucial.

Cultivating the sense of belonging right from the first day is important.

Lizette Zárate

“Cultivating the sense of belonging right from the first day is important,” said Lizette Zárate, NAI curriculum and instruction specialist. “It helps them see we celebrate school; we celebrate doing extra, we celebrate this pathway.”

USC Neighborhood Academic Initiative scholars and their families

The pathway is one Alma Cáceres knows and trusts very well, as all four of her daughters have been a part of the program.

“We know from the first day we have to work together to make this happen. It gave me pride to know she was on campus. She wasn’t a USC student in the sixth grade, but I knew she was going to USC. It kept us from giving up.”

Now Cáceres has one daughter who is a USC alumna, one currently attending USC and two younger daughters who are high school scholars in the NAI program.

The program creates a path to a place that is foreign to many low-income families, and it provides guidance to future first-generation college students. It provides an external network to answer all the questions to which the family at home simply doesn’t have the answers. The byproduct of the program: a strong support system and a sense of belonging.

At the welcome assembly, “Dr. Z,” as Zárate is known within the NAI program, said, “You belong here, you deserve to be here, this is for you. USC is opening its doors for you because they believe in where you are headed.”

As the program prepares its scholars for life on a college campus, it also preps parents for the day their child embarks on that journey. The Saturday workshops  cover everything from being a parent of a college student to financial aid. The program recently added a health and wellness workshop. According to Zárate, “For our families, they really trust the program. They really trust that we are doing right by their children.”

While the additional workload on students and parents during their seven-year journey leads to sacrifices, Cáceres said, “It is a sacrifice, but it becomes a routine. It’s hard work, but the results are worth it. We appreciate what the program has done for our family.”