Earlier this academic year, USC’s press office released an article headlined: “USC’s freshman class sets record: More first-generation students than ever.” My immediate response was, “This is great, but where are the resources to ensure these students are successful?”
As an advocate for first-generation college students, I believe there is strength in numbers, and it is admirable for an elite institution like USC to offer these students a chance that their parents never received. But recruitment is only one piece of the puzzle. Retainment and long-term success is where USC needs to improve by providing academic support and resources that help these students to be successful both inside and outside of the classroom.
USC administrators don’t seem to understand this. On Jan. 5, Provost Michael Quick announced an effort to increase support for more first-generation students by expanding the Norman Topping Student Aid Fund. The memo failed to mention that with said expansion, USC would cut the Director position and instead have the scholarship overseen at a higher level by Dr. Andrea Hodge, USC’s Vice Provost of Undergraduate Programs. It is a classic and misguided attempt by USC trying to increase numbers while simultaneously decreasing support.
In his memo, Quick notes the Topping scholarship, “has helped scores of underrepresented, low-income and first-generation students attend and thrive at USC. It provides a community for scholars who receive mentoring, special programming and advising — all aimed at supporting academic success.” I question if the same will be said of the scholarship in the future.
During my first semester at USC, I struggled with impostor syndrome. I constantly felt like the only person in the classroom who didn’t understand the material and wondered if I deserved to be there. I struggled with grades and my self-esteem. But Christina Yokoyama, NTSAF Director, didn’t let me fall through the cracks. I received an email from Christina after I failed my first midterm. I was ashamed to tell anyone, but Christina understood what I was going through.
It was this support from NTSAF that helped me thrive thereafter. From visiting Japan with NTSAF my freshman year to becoming Undergraduate Student Government President, nothing I have accomplished during my tenure at USC would have been possible without the support I received from NTSAF. Most recently, I was named a Schwarzman Scholar, giving me a full-ride at Tsinghua University in Beijing. One of the first people I called was Christina, whom I thanked for supporting me when I was at my lowest point academically.
I worry the future of NTSAF will not support its students in the same way. While the scholarship is completely student-funded and mostly student-run, USC administration failed to consult the NTSAF Governing Board —composed of students, staff and alumni — or any student that is currently part of the program.
NTSAF is not just another scholarship — it’s a support system and network with experienced staff aiming to help first-generation low-income college students excel academically and professionally. Topping Scholars have been featured in the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times. They have been named Truman Scholars, Schwarzman Scholars, Rhodes Scholars and Fulbright Recipients. And they have shown their involvement across campus by becoming presidents of Greek life organizations, holding executive board positions in USG, writing for the Daily Trojan and participating in a wide range of community service organizations.
If administration is truly committed to growing the support and success of this scholarship to more students, they would start by investing more resources into the program instead of chipping away at what students have left. In 2014, administration moved NTSAF from a large office space to a smaller, more cramped space. In 2016, they cut key programming such as the annual “Eggster” community service event, an Easter egg hunt for children living around USC. In 2017, administration cut the Japan Summer Immersion Program, the program that opened my eyes to the world. And in 2018, they are cutting the NTSAF Director position halfway through the school year.
I fail to see the administration’s commitment to “better coordinate our support for the Topping program, financially and academically.” Students should be concerned not only for their fellow Topping Scholars, but also for what these changes can mean for the future of our University. In these times of turmoil and uncertainty at the national level, administration is stripping away support from those who need it most. USC’s goal of enrolling more first-generation and minority students is being undermined by the cuts in funding and support. USC needs to realize they can’t have their cake and eat it too.
Norman Topping Scholar pursuing a master’s in public administration and former USG president.