More than two decades after it was founded, the USC Neighborhood Academic Initiative continues to aid students throughout South Los Angeles, and has recently expanded to two more schools.
The program, designed to prepare low-income students for the rigors of university education, has graduated over 700 students since its inception in 1989.
The program is spread out over seven years starting in sixth grade, and students involved must participate in both after-school tutoring and Saturday classes.
“It’s tremendous,” NAI Executive Director Kim Thomas-Barrios said. “It’s a seven-year commitment. You’re investing time into your future. You are actually holding onto the particles of your future in your present and that’s a beautiful thing to be able to say and do.”
If the students stay in the program from sixth grade until 12th grade and meet USC admission requirements, they receive a four and a half year scholarship to attend the university.
According to Thomas-Barrios, 41 percent of NAI graduates have attended USC, and 99 percent of all students have attended either a two-year or four-year university.
Tristan Baizar, a freshman majoring in accounting who went through the program, considers himself lucky to have had the opportunity to participate.
“They push us up to a status of being privileged. It’s just enriching all over,” Baizar said. “I guess you can say it’s a powerful thing to be able to go from what is called underprivileged to going to college debt-free for four years. “
Krystal Chavez, a freshman majoring in health and humanities and an NAI graduate, said she agrees with Baizar.
“The greatest part of the program is the resources that it gives us,” Chavez said. “Not many students, especially where we come from, are able to see the kind of atmosphere of this campus and experience the things we see.”
Graduation was an emotional transition for the NAI students, who had been attending school and working together since sixth grade.
“To make it to high school graduation and seeing the places that all of us get into is just amazing,” Baizar said.
Thomas-Barrios recalls the immense pride she felt in watching her students graduate.
“I had all the students stand up, turn to their parents, and say, ‘I can go to college.’”
Both graduates anticipate that they will give back to NAI in the future.
“Once you make it to a certain level,” Baizar said, “you should turn back and help people, you know, to pull them up to your level also.”
Currently, NAI is preparing to expand outside the South Los Angeles area. Just this past month, the program added two new schools, Murchison Street Elementary School and El Sereno Middle School. The additions increased the total amount of middle school students in the program by more than 100.
In regards to the program’s future, NAI hopes to double its number of graduates with its expansion to other neighborhoods.
“We have ripe opportunity with these children, especially the children coming from housing projects who do not have a program like NAI, who will come to them and say ‘here you go, you just have to work hard,’” Thomas-Barrios said. “I think that this will be a huge lift for that neighborhood.”
Thomas-Barrios encourages current USC students to get involved in the program, whether it be through after-school tutoring or serving as mentors to kids in NAI.
“It’s big enough where anything you would want to do, you can do. Any help that anyone would love to give, we’d love to take it.”
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