USC’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative comes back to campus in style

NAI graduate Ricky Ramiro Jr. and USC President Carol L. Folt enjoy the USC Leslie and William McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative Annual gala Tuesday. (Photo/Michael Owen Baker)


USC’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative comes back to campus in style

The university’s signature college prep program celebrates its graduates in person for the first time since 2019.

May 18, 2022 By Saúl García

USC’s premiere college access program celebrated its graduating class in style Tuesday at the annual USC Leslie and William McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative Gala.

“It’s been three years since we have been able to get together,” said William McMorrow, whose 2018 naming gift enabled the expansion of the program to include the east area of Los Angeles as well as the University Park Neighborhood.

“I can assure you that it’s one of the great nights of the year, and the emotions that we feel talking to the parents and the kids is honestly mind blowing.”

The Neighborhood Academic Initiative, known as NAI, honored its 87 graduating scholars. The Class of 2022 features 43 scholars who will be freshmen at USC; all have earned full-tuition scholarships through the program.

“You all began this journey as sixth graders, with one beautiful, shared dream — going to college,” USC President Carol L. Folt said. “Your families, your teachers, your mentors, your friends were right there with you.”

The gala — the first in-person NAI celebration since 2019, because of the pandemic — also included scholars and families of the classes of 2020 and 2021.

“This marks the culmination of a seven-year journey — one that has inspired all of us with your determination and resilience,” said Sam Garrison, USC senior vice president, university relations. “The world shut down, and you pivoted to learning online — hybrid and away from your friends. You persevered through the pandemic’s unimaginable impacts, especially those closest to home. You never lost sight of your dreams, and nothing could stand in your way.”

Neighborhood Academic Initiative honors fundraiser organizers

The event also honored the father-daughter duo of Richard and Demi Weitz, whose 2021 “May the 4th Be with You” virtual event raised over $1 million dollars for NAI. The donations helped NAI provide additional resources including scholarships to cover funding gaps for scholars in undergraduate and graduate programs.

“It’s not only [about] wanting it — people say, you got to want it,” said Cristela Alonzo, the event’s emcee. “That’s not enough. You need opportunity, you need a chance and with that chance we need access. That’s what this program is about — giving access.”

McMorrow summed it up: “You give us optimism and hope that there really is a bright future for all of us.”