For local students, USC works to break down barriers

When Nathalye Lopez was in high school, she was fascinated by science.

Her school, the James A. Foshay Learning Center, had too many people and too little funding for students to do experiments on their own. Teachers would demonstrate in front of the class, or sometimes just show pictures, but Lopez always wanted to do more.

For a large part of each weekday, Lopez studied at Foshay, where some students didn’t have a seat to sit in and many classes would only get through half the agenda because of disruptions and disciplinary actions.

But for two hours each morning and four hours each Saturday, Lopez headed to USC to take classes through the Neighborhood Academic Initiative, a program the University offers to help students from the local community receive a more intensive education.

“The teachers at Foshay were passionate, but they didn’t have the resources to provide each student with individual attention,” Lopez said. “At USC, we were in an actual laboratory and were doing experiments ourselves.”

Lopez is now a junior majoring in human biology and contemporary Latino and Latin American studies at USC, as well as a Gates Millennium Scholar. She’s one of around 60 students to graduate from NAI each year, all of whom come from South Central Los Angeles and spend middle and high school at the Foshay Learning Center.

Most are students from low-income families, members of a minority group and the first in their families to go to college — and all are offered the opportunity to attend USC on a 4.5-year scholarship if they graduate from the program and are accepted to the University.

As a result, Foshay sent 30 students to USC in 2016 — the most of any high school in the country. Graduates of the program who don’t attend USC go on to other colleges such as the University of California or numerous Ivy League schools, bringing NAI’s college attendance rate to 98 percent.

Parents who enroll their kids in the program — such as Ivonne Rodriguez, whose 14-year-old daughter is in NAI — credit the organization for helping their children develop the motivation to pursue a college education.

“My daughter came from an environment where she was one of the brightest kids in a class and moved into a program where she was with kids that thought the same way — they all want to work hard, they all want to encourage each other,” Rodriguez said. “Now she has a plan [for college], and she’s only in eighth grade. That changes the narrative for scholars in our community who see themselves as scholars, not just students — and that’s powerful.”

NAI has enrolled students each year since 1991, but Rodriguez — who also works as a project specialist for NAI — said that Executive Director Kim Thomas-Barrios has increased standards and changed the conversation in recent years. According to Rodriguez, students are no longer talking about whether they will even go to college, but about which selective college they will attend.

“This program transforms people’s lives,” Rodriguez said. “It becomes this equalizer in education … so when [these students] enter their senior year of high school, they are competitive candidates to go to college.”

Students typically enter the program in sixth grade through a selective application process and spend seven years taking extra classes at USC on weekday mornings and Saturdays, receiving extra after-school tutoring, attending workshops to develop study habits and participating in enrichment activities such as theater workshops.

NAI participants like Jessica Hernandez-Flores, a senior at the Foshay Learning Center who plans to attend USC in the fall, said that these rigorous lessons have helped her expand her academic abilities.

“It was different from middle school because they pushed you,” Hernandez-Flores said. “When I entered high school they told me that I had to be more independent, and they pushed me to … do things on my own.”

For Lopez, NAI was not just a means to achieve a more rigorous education or develop her interest in science. It was also a practical program that allowed her — and her parents — to understand how to apply to and attend college. As the child of immigrant parents who fled the civil war in Guatemala in the 1990s, Lopez never believed that a college education was possible for her — until she enrolled in NAI, which provided standardized test preparation, workshops on financial aid and special lessons for parents on the college application process.

“Whenever the talk came of applying to college, it was something foreign — I had never heard about it and didn’t know anything about it,” Lopez said. “My parents don’t know how to fill out an application, how to use a computer — they can’t even speak English that well. So it was reassuring that there were people [at NAI] to help you for something that seemed out of your reach.”