Daily Trojan Magazine

Neighborhood Academic Initiative falls short in addressing systemic issues

Despite its impressive successes, NAI neglects large swaths of USC’s surrounding community.

(Vivienne Tran / Daily Trojan)

Ive always wanted to go to USC since I was young,” said Destiny Echeverria, a junior majoring in business administration who graduated from USC’s McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative in 2021. “Thanks to [the Neighborhood Academic Initiative], I got into USC, and now I’m at USC.”

From complaints about gentrification to volunteer outreach programs like Friends and Neighbors Day, Trojans often scrutinize how USC impacts its surrounding community. Graduates from arguably one of the most successful of USC’s community programs have some of the most informed criticisms of all.

NAI is an outreach program providing support for about 1,000 low-income sixth to 12th grade students each year. The program has incredible success rates, with a 100% high school graduation rate and a 99% college graduation rate. But for its many attributes, the program also fails to address systemic issues within the community and the Los Angeles Unified School District, as well as putting immense pressure on students as young as fifth grade.

The program also socially isolates these students from their fellow classmates, often encouraging a sense of assimilation into the elitist culture of USC. It is extremely rigorous, involving a huge six-year commitment for students and their parents, one that asks these students to go above and beyond their peers for support that should be accessible to all children.

Despite its flaws, NAI uniquely provides students with an invaluable opportunity, even offering full-tuition scholarships to any of its students who get into USC. NAI reports that 43% of its students have attended USC since its first graduating class in 1997.

This year, NAI had a record 95 scholars graduating from the program who plan to attend college and a record 65 admitted to USC, according to a statement from the University.

With the impact NAI has, we must look deeper to understand how USC can improve this program and create lasting, sustainable change in our community. After speaking with several current and former NAI scholars, we hope to give insight into the shortcomings of the program’s student experience.


NAI is, at its core, a college preparatory program. It pulls students from neighborhoods near USC, mainly in South Central and East L.A., who are assessed and interviewed for the program in fifth grade. Admitted students then participate in a “demanding regimen” of early morning and weekend classes on the USC campus, according to the program’s website.

“USC is deeply committed to expanding access for students of all backgrounds to attend a top-tier university,” the University wrote in a statement to the Daily Trojan. “This cornerstone priority includes the groundbreaking program … NAI is one of the nation’s most comprehensive college access and success programs.”

These students must apply to the program at the ages of 10 or 11 by obtaining a Student Criteria Sheet completed by one of their teachers. They are then interviewed for the program, a practice that is repeated in 8th grade when students are reevaluated to continue the program in high school.

If students are admitted to the program, they and their parents must agree to “attend all Saturday Academy sessions for seven years and parents must agree to attend the family development institute on Saturdays,” according to NAI’s website.

NAI’s commitment to helping parents as well as students is an admirable one, but one that is not feasible for all parents. However, NAI does offer the opportunity for parents who have work or other obligations to send an advocate in their place to these events.

Still, asking parents to commit to “meet[ing] on the University Park campus for three hours on Saturday mornings about 12 to 16 times a year” can be a large burden for these low-income families, who may not have the support of an advocate to fill in for them.

An agreement made by a fifth grader and their guardians — one they are expected to adhere to for the next seven years — seems like an immense decision for a child, and even their parents, to make when they have no idea what the next seven years will hold.

Students must also reapply for NAI in eighth grade, when the program typically cuts students who don’t meet the minimum GPA requirement. At a time when NAI could offer further support for students who did make that commitment but are struggling, the program instead allows them to slip through the cracks.


Students report facing difficult decisions between participating in sports and other extracurriculars that could take away their time, and therefore eligibility, for NAI. Others say they felt like they were walking on eggshells, afraid to get in any trouble or slip up in a way that would result in removal from NAI.

In exchange for the onerous requirements, NAI offers unmatched support for these students and their families, including a counselor in their junior year to guide them through college applications and financial aid. Even after graduation from NAI, students who attend USC have support on campus, and students who attend other colleges receive visits from NAI staff in their freshman year to ensure that their hard work results in a degree.

Students also have access to scholarships, internship opportunities and access to the NAI Alumni Network. This level of commitment is admirable and a testament to the positive intent and impact of the program — although students said they see the program as an investment into getting students to USC, rather than purely a way to give back to the community.

By drilling acceptance into USC as its main end goal, the program has established a culture that clearly differentiates academic expectations between NAI and non-NAI students.

Every single morning at Saturday Academy, NAI students have to recite a Scholars’ Code of Ethics. Until 2022, that code included an affirmation that they will work towards receiving a scholarship from USC, according to Echeverria, who also works as an NAI tutor and office assistant.

“NAl’s Saturday Academy gives students the rigorous academic immersion they need to compete on a national level by providing instruction in English, math and college preparation,” the University wrote in its statement.

However, Echeverria said that because matriculation into USC is presented as the primary purpose of NAI it has deepened the divide for students not participating in the program. The academic goals of non-NAI students are consequently undermined or glossed over.

Daniel Rios attended Foshay Learning Center, a South Central school that participates in NAI and is USC’s top feeder school. Rios was initially accepted into NAI in elementary school but was later taken out of the program after his first year when his grades fell short. He said that he attempted to reenter NAI in middle school, but was unsuccessful.

“They didn’t give me the resources to better my grade,” Rios said. “I didn’t really feel supported in wanting to come into the program.”

Rios also said he struggled with the college application process and faced a more difficult transition from high school to college.

“I felt very left out in terms of seeking college scholarships or talking to people who can help me with aid,” Rios said. “[NAI students] had specific NAI counselors that knew the ins and outs of the college system.”

In NAI’s mission to prepare a small group of students for a “top-tier” college education, they leave out a larger group who would also benefit from higher education. Even if they aren’t as prestigious as USC, helping a wider audience of students get into more affordable community colleges would have an invaluable impact.


The academic and social separation between NAI students and non-NAI students is apparent in their high schools. Along with the increased time and rigor of the program, the required curriculum for NAI scholars is vastly different from thaWt of students not in the program. Consequently, these students rarely share classes making it difficult for them to collaborate.

Echeverria said she had to “fight” to have classes with her friends while also taking higher-level classes. On the flip side, Echeverria said NAI students had an unspoken expectation to be role models for others.

“I felt like we had to make ourselves an example to [non-NAI students] that, you know, ‘We’re serious about it. You should step it up too,’” Echeverria said. “There was a silent superficiality.”   

Further, the program leaves behind non-NAI students, providing little to no support for the majority of students in local schools. By focusing on a select few who the program deems worthy of their time and effort, resources are redirected away from the larger student body that could benefit from them.

“There was some sort of isolation,” Rios said about his time after being removed from the program. “Because it was really separate, most of the resources went towards [NAI], and I don’t think students were able to get proper support because of that.”

The isolating culture of the NAI program does not stop once its alumni enter USC as college students. NAI students take countless classes on USC’s campuses, but many are unprepared for the elitist culture that permeates USC as a private, prestigious institution.

The annual NAI Gala and Awards Ceremony perfectly exemplifies this forced assimilation. The gala celebrates the graduating class of NAI students — though it seems to celebrate the donors of NAI more than anything else.

Along with holding a workshop for students to learn how to network and interact with donors, an auction-style event is held at the gala for donors to give money to the program. Some USC students who were in NAI said it was “awkward” to watch, since they and their families couldn’t afford to contribute a donation.

Kiana Amaya, a sophomore majoring in urban planning, graduated from NAI in 2022. She described how the gala announces the scholarships by having the NAI students stand up while presenting the amount of money they were rewarded.

“It kind of felt like we were being sold,” Amaya said. “I felt like I had to play up an act so USC could look better. It was really weird.”

Beginning from the separation of students in elementary school, social isolation extends to USC, where many NAI alumni said they felt impostor syndrome.

“Reality just hit me,” Echeverria said, referring to her first year at USC. “Seeing the reality of different socioeconomic levels and everything compared to me and these other students, it did hit my self-esteem for a bit.”


LAUSD is the second-largest public school district in the nation. But the way schools receive their funding disproportionately harms low-income neighborhoods, in comparison to higher-income neighborhoods. Ultimately, the area in which a school is located will impact students’ quality of education.


L.A. public schools in neighborhoods with high median incomes, where property taxes are on average higher, will receive higher funding. This impacts educational resources, from having a range of classes to providing advanced courses in preparation for testing and higher education. 

California Proposition 13, passed in 1978, is behind converting market-valued property into an income value-based system. The proposition cut and capped property taxes and prevented local counties from raising money for schools. Students in low-income neighborhoods have found difficulty in excelling in courses, and test scores are low on average in low-income areas.

This becomes apparent through NAI feeder schools sitting in low-income neighborhoods. The program has successfully provided students with college preparatory assistance; however, given the limited resources these schools have, even NAI students have a limited range of rigorous courses.

Amaya said the limited courses can impact students’ transition from high school to college.

“The AP [Calculus] teacher — I think he did a good job of explaining, but, he gave us a decision at the beginning of the year if you want to pass the AP exam or if you actually want to understand Calc,” Amaya said. “We had no other AP system as well, so then I actually never took biology.”

Quetzalli Vergara, a senior majoring in environmental studies, graduated from Foshay Learning Center as an NAI scholar. She also mentioned the lack of resources within her school.

“We didn’t have a lot of AP classes,” Vergara said. “I remember being an Associated Student Body student and being like ‘oh, hey, you guys have to go pick up these boxes of paper USC dropped off’ because we were running low on paper, the district hadn’t sent us paper and USC was so gracious enough to donate to us.’”

With limited funding, the course range for students was not enough to prepare them for their specific studies. With the few AP courses Amaya mentioned, teachers would offer students the opportunity to pass the exam or learn the material. Students often chose to understand the material because it was beneficial for them to go at a slower pace to make up for the lack of mathematical preparation from prior classes. 

“To be fair, [our AP Calculus teacher] had to teach us a lot of the basics,” Amaya said. “So it was a lot of back to basics.”

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics majors who graduated from Foshay Learning Center have found themselves having a very difficult transition from high school to college. Students had access to minimal STEM classes, and Amaya mentioned how she saw her friend, a former NAI and Foshay graduate, struggle with his civil engineering classes.

“If someone who has prep is struggling, imagine how much worse it is for someone who had nodid not have exposure to that field,” Amaya said. “We like [the program], it’s not to say the motivation is not there, but it definitely is way harder for us to kind of catch up and adapt to that environment.”

Given LAUSD’s large student population, these school districts in low-income areas need fair funding, so programs like NAI can push their students in various courses. NAI fights this issue — albeit only for a few select students — but it is a matter of LAUSD adjusting their funding guidelines and the California state legislature to make the change for fair educational funding.

However, NAI could help with this by investing in the success of all students of the school and not only selected students. Currently, NAI is making efforts to expand access to the program in other parts of L.A. and deepen connections to Crenshaw.

“In September 2023, NAI opened a new dedicated Eastside flagship classroom space. This state-of-the-art facility serves 400 scholars and is growing,” the University wrote. “In South Los Angeles, NAl is leading a two-year project to expand to the Crenshaw corridor to enroll more African American students.”


NAI has served as a stepping stone for the University’s collaboration with the South Central community. The area has long been impacted by the rapid gentrification caused by the expansion of student housing. Given the community’s low-income demographic, they cannot afford the effects of gentrification. Through the demolition of community housing and the former University Village, USC’s gentrification has been prevalent in the surrounding area.

NAI has served predominantly first-generation students. The University’s commitment to NAI is a path in the right direction; however, the University must recognize its harm to the local community.

Amaya also mentioned the change from community housing to student housing.

“What we noticed [is that] all the residential housing has become Tripalink,” Amaya said.

The changes caused by the expansion of student housing are visible. Ultimately, they have left small businesses and local residents negatively impacted by the development.

“There’s so many more community organizations and collectives that embody what South Central is. It is community, it is livelihood,”  Amaya said. “NAI is an academic program to get us into USC, it is not to say it is not valuable, but I don’t think that is where your knowledge about South Central should be.”

The University’s collaboration with the community should not end with its interactions with students but rather expand to community needs. Examples such as legal workshops for tenants in various language translations, community organizing events, small business outreach and more. As Amaya said, “NAI and its students would not be the end all, be all” of USC’s outreach.

Vergara mentioned how the University could expand programs to support the entirety of South Central.

“I think that could be really cool if the whole community could do that because then they can really see the impact that USC is doing,” Vergara said. “ I think that they have a better perspective for the community of USC’s impact, not just helping a select few but also just helping everyone in the area.”

NAI has served students with impactful resources; however, there is so much more USC can do to improve the lives of all South Central residents. Many NAI students come to USC from the neighboring community, and USC needs to acknowledge the homes of the students they are admitting.

“If there is a negative impact that has been seen throughout the community, with housing and poor education, stuff like that, I think it’s important for us to be heard, or at least acknowledged,” Rios said.

Perhaps the “Neighborhood” aspect of the initiative needs to be more heavily prioritized — not every neighbor is a potential USC student, but they all deserve reparations for how USC has affected their community. 

The Daily Trojan Editorial Board is a group of diverse editors and staffers from the print Opinion section. The views of the Editorial Board do not reflect the Daily Trojan staff as a whole.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated that the Leslie and William McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative is “binding for seven years.” The article has been updated July 10 at 11:01 p.m. to reflect that students may leave the program at any point without any binding obligations. The Daily Trojan regrets this error.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the NAI Scholars’ Code of Ethics included an affirmation that they will work towards receiving a scholarship from USC. This article was updated July 12 at 3:24 p.m. to reflect that this part of the code was removed after 2022. The Daily Trojan regrets this error.
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