Student Life

This Trojan Family’s Love of Learning is All Relative

With eight USC degrees among them (and counting), the Shimadas make learning a family tradition.

March 11, 2021 Rachel Ng

When she was 11, Charlene Shimada ’91, EdD ’19 knew that she wanted to attend USC.

“My fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Stewart, was a graduate of USC. She was a Song Girl, and she married a Trojan,” she says. “Because of her, I wanted to go to USC, and I wanted to be a teacher.”

It was our dream to attend USC.

Thomas Shimada

Just like Mrs. Stewart, Charlene graduated from USC — the first in her family to complete a four-year degree. She also pursued a career in education and married a Trojan, Thomas Shimada ’88. The couple attended the same church and schools in the L.A. Unified School District, but they didn’t start dating until Thomas was a USC freshman. Both worked part-time jobs to pay for college, so they bonded as they carpooled to school together. “It was our dream to attend USC,” Thomas says. “It was a good investment in our lives and in ourselves, and the education paid off.”

Starting a Trojan Family Tradition

After graduating, Thomas went into accounting, working for Ernst & Young, Countrywide/Bank of America and others. Charlene taught at Glendale Unified for five years and was a substitute teacher while raising their children, Philip and Elisa.

Through the years, the family went to the occasional football game, and the siblings grew up hearing about their parents’ positive college experiences. But they made a vow: Don’t attend USC. “We promised ourselves we wouldn’t go because our parents went,” Philip says. “We wanted to rebel.”

That rebellious phase didn’t last long.

Philip received a full scholarship to USC and proudly graduated in 2017 with bachelor’s degrees in English and psychology. He returned two years later to earn a Master of Social Work. Elisa, who is a year younger than Philip, followed him with bachelor’s degrees in sociology and social sciences and is pursuing her PhD in sociology at USC. Charlene headed back to the university herself, earning a doctorate in education.

“It was very impactful to be there for her graduation ceremony,” Elisa says. “I’ve never seen someone who looks like me in academia with a doctoral degree. The fact that it was my mom was really special.”

From One Generation to the Next

Reflecting on the differences between her college experience and her children’s, Charlene marveled at how much the demographic has shifted in the last two decades. “Back then, we came from one of the most diverse high schools in L.A., and when we arrived at USC, we felt like a minority,” says Charlene, who is Native Hawaiian.

Today, more than 40% of the USC student body is from communities of color and more than 20% is international.

Today, more than 40% of the USC student body is from communities of color and more than 20% is international. “For students in our generation, we were accepting of diversity,” says Charlene, a principal at Alameda Elementary School in Downey, California, and member of the USC Alumni Association Board of Governors. “Now I think it’s more of an invitation where we’re not just accepting you, we’re inviting you. We want you.”

Elisa, who teaches undergraduate sociology courses, agrees. “What I like about our student body is that they’re advocating for their education,” she says. “They want more representation of people in color in research.”

For the Shimadas, that passion for education and pushing what’s possible isn’t just relatable — it’s a family tradition.