Two years ago, I never expected to get into half the schools that granted me admission. When I was 16 I was mired in a self-imposed and perpetual Catch-22 — exceptionally high expectations of myself paired with exceptionally low confidence in my own abilities. I got into USC. They offered me a scholarship, and I took it. It wasn’t the best school I got into. But I had a deep love for this university, and it demonstrated how much it valued me. I related to this school’s underdog success story. It had grit. It had ambition. And it went the extra mile.
I threw myself into university life with aggression and persistence. Call it the old college try, maybe, but it was an adrenaline rush you can only experience when you feel like you’re on the edge of the world, at the beginning of your future. I still remember a line from Elton John’s Broadway hit Aida: “If you don’t like your life, change it.”
It was slow and it was sudden: I excelled in my classes. I was on the editorial board of the Daily Trojan. I was shaking hands with Sen. Kamala Harris on the Executive Board of the College Democrats. I was doing political panels for the University, airing on local TV, speaking at events. I was producing TrojanVision’s flagship political talk and debate show, I was going to work at the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics — a dream come true. I was receiving internship offers. I grew up, came into myself. I never knew the doors that could be opened if only one sought to try. I felt impactful, involved and alive.
And then the halls didn’t feel the same. After a couple of years I was capable of different things, and I had bigger goals. It was as though I had grown up here, and then grown out of it. I was questioning whether I ended up at a place that could really offer me everything I wanted. I started playing around with the idea of transferring to the East Coast. The University felt smaller. I remembered, again, that this wasn’t the best school I got into. Did I settle?
Yesterday, I got a call at work. It was the mother of an admitted student, desperately wanting to know what the Unruh Institute could offer. Did I enjoy the political science department? Did I think it was helpful, and had I made connections? What had USC done for me, what was possible at the University? She knew USC had everything her daughter needed — and wanted — to get to the places she wanted to go, but tuition was steep. How did anyone ever come up with it? She was desperate for solutions and very, very sad.
I found myself selling the University. Explaining the sudden swath of opportunities that had become available to me after laying down roots in University Park. This was the best school for me — and for prospective students like this high schooler — because it was a university made up of ambitious people. The Wall Street Journal recently ranked USC 15th in the nation, and this was mostly due to the determination of the administration, faculty and student body. When we got off the phone, I hoped I had helped her. I realized she had helped me, too.
The ability to materialize nearly $70,000 out of thin air should not be the deciding factor in whether a qualified student attends a university. That price tag may well be the reason we lose that particular student’s talent and potential to another school. If we are determined to continue that rise to the top, we should also remember that we can’t only be selecting students from the very small pool of American families who can afford such a steep tuition cost. Merit scholarships and various meticulous grants are not enough, and often do not add up to a reasonable level of support. But that’s another conversation altogether.
For now, as our annual Admitted Students Reception approaches, I’ll offer the lesson I recently learned: It pays to remember how lucky we all are to be here. More than 84 percent of students who applied were not as fortunate, nor were the countless others who achieved admission but couldn’t meet the costs. Honor that good fortune by contributing to the success story. We can all make USC what we want it to be. If you don’t like your University — change it.
Lily Vaughan is a sophomore majoring in history and political science. “Trojan Talk” is a guest column that typically ran every other week.