As one of the most well-known universities in the United States, USC boasts an impressive population of approximately 44,000. With students hailing from all over the world, the university’s demographics are quite diverse; however, the school’s public image has led to a very different stereotype. USC has earned the infamous nickname “University of Spoiled Children,” and it’s easy to see why: the stereotypical USC student is a member of an affluent upper-class family whose parents buy their way into college.
It doesn’t help that university organizations have done almost nothing to change this perception; an older post on the USC Memes Facebook page satirized one of the school’s sororities for promoting diversity in their organization when their cover photo consisted entirely of white members.
This image negatively affects students who do come from less privileged backgrounds, some of whom have noted that the school tends to flaunt their presence as diversity but otherwise keep them out of the general limelight. These students’ experiences generally are eschewed as unique cases, rather than being publicly embraced as a facet of the “Trojan experience.”
Below are three students who all hail from backgrounds vastly different than the stereotypical USC student. Their voices are but one of a larger sub-community at the university, a reminder that the Trojan experience is not one-size-fits-all.
Comments have been edited for clarity.
As a member of USC’s Undergraduate Student Government (USG), sophomore Kevin Gutierrez cuts a crisp figure on campus. Tack that onto his duties as a tour guide for the Admissions Center and a Dornsife Ambassador, and the fact that he’s running on the Pre-Med track, majoring in Neuroscience and minoring in Dance, and you’ve got yourself quite the impressive resume.
It’s even more impressive when you consider the fact he’s setting a family record. Hailing from the small city of Spanish Fork, Utah, and the oldest of four children, Kevin is the first member of his family to ever attend college.
Kevin’s father works at a construction company called Premiere Building Supply, while his mother stays home to attend to his three younger sisters. Neither of them attended an institute of higher education.
“My dad went to high school where they [my dad and mom] grew up, and then went to a school in Mexico…I think it’s called the seminary, if I translated that right, where you become a priest, but no college education,” Kevin said of his parents. “And then my mom, just because back in the day, in Mexico…I guess her parents weren’t really supportive of an education, so she literally went up to third grade and then had to stay home and help out there.”
Still, this lack of a collegiate education didn’t stop Kevin’s parents from placing heavy emphasis on the importance of academics. “I’m super lucky to have had that since I was young,” Kevin recalled. “It was always, ‘education is everything, take it very seriously,’ and they were really supportive of that… they sacrificed so much to move here and start a new life for me to have these opportunities that they didn’t have.”
Though receiving a higher education was always the plan, Kevin didn’t always plan on coming all the way out to California for school. Most of Kevin’s high school peers attended school in state, at institutions like the University of Utah, or Brigham Young University, so considering moving out to the West Coast was quite a jump.
“I wish I could say that USC was my dream school, growing up,” Kevin said, laughing as he recounted his college application process. “But it wasn’t, being 100% honest.
“I actually didn’t know USC was a school until the day I applied,” he further confessed. “I’d already filled out all the applications for all the other schools I was interested in, and it [my USC application] was just like last minute, looking online to see if there’s anything else I could throw my application into. And so I saw USC and I was like, ‘this looks like a good school, I’ll throw in an application. I already have everything [done].’”
So it was a pleasant surprise when he received his acceptance letter, and when he flew out to California for an orientation tour, he knew he’d found his place. “I remember I came a day early, and just walked around campus kind of giving myself my own little tour,” Kevin said. “I loved it. Everyone seemed super happy, and the campus is beautiful.”
Still, it wasn’t always a breeze. Hailing from a solid middle-class family with four children, tuition was a major hurdle for Kevin’s family. Fortunately he was able to secure financial assistance, which alleviated the monetary concern, but the disparity between him and the other students became clear once life as a student began.
“It’s very apparent, like seeing everyone walking around in Gucci and…driving Range Rovers and all that stuff,” Kevin said, reflecting on seeing the difference between himself and his USC peers for the first time. “You see all these beautiful buildings and it’s just not an environment that you grew up in, so it’s like, it’s very easy to to realize that USC wasn’t [originally] made for [people like] us.”
As a result, Kevin began to develop a sense of imposter syndrome, like he didn’t belong at the school he’d chosen. Nor was he alone. “”I know that imposter syndrome isn’t unique to first generation students, but it’s something very prominent in the first gen community,” Kevin explained. “USC’s full of a lot of very privileged individuals who [people like me] don’t grow up surrounded by.”
His first ventures into USC organizations didn’t exactly help either. “I got rejected from literally every [organization] I applied to,” Kevin recalled. “I got like seven rejection emails in like, a week, and it was just like, ‘What’s wrong with me? Do I really fit in here? Am I really as successful as all these other people who grew up with so many more resources than me?’”
Even a year later, Kevin still sees a distinct lack of support for incoming students like himself. “What bugs me about USC is that they love touting their numbers,” Kevin said. “Like, ‘[we have] this percentage of whatever population,’ but then the resources to support those populations don’t really exist… everything is very spread out, and there’s no real sense of community between first gen students.”
Now, however, as a member of USG, Kevin is in a position to address these issues. “I think a first generation student center honestly would be the biggest help,” Kevin said. “I know that’s something we’ve been working on in USG, because a lot of other cultural assemblies or groups on campus have a physical space where you can meet people who have the same background as you, or that same identity.”
With two years left of his college career, Kevin hopes to bring about greater change and provide a greater sense of support for his fellow first-generation students. “You were accepted for a reason,” Kevin said, addressing his first-gen peers. “You were accepted for a reason, and you are just as smart, just as capable, just as motivated, as any other student here, and the fact that, you know, we grew up not having all these resources that a lot of students here have, and still end up at the same place, that’s powerful. You deserve to be here.”
Most USC students associate the Coachella Valley with an annual festival filled with fun, music, and colorful face paints. But for Selene Castillo, the Valley- more specifically, the Eastern region- is where she grew up, and where her family still resides. The oldest of four siblings, Selene is the first in her community in many years to be admitted into an elite institution like USC.
“I think I was the only one in awhile that has gone to USC, or even been accepted,” Selene said of her acceptance. “This year, no one [from my community] got in, so in regards to academics, we are very low on the charts.”
Selene is currently a freshman double majoring in International Relations and Spanish, and attended a summer program at USC while in high school prior to her acceptance. Despite this impressive resume, however, attending USC, or any reputable college, once seemed more a dream than a certainty. The daughter of a granite fabricator and a hospitality worker at a resort, Selene’s family is poor, to say the least, and in an area like the Eastern Coachella Valley where the majority of its inhabitants are blue-collar laborers, money is scarce, and education takes a backseat to the day-to-day struggle of simply making ends meet.
“I lost countless friends to [the fact that] they just had to help out their family. [They] dropped out of school, started working as freshmen or sophomores [in high school],” Selene recalled of some of her peers. “[Others] became parents at a very young age and they had to drop out of school, so definitely there’s a lack for pursuing post-secondary education out here in the Valley. It’s sad.”
Selene was not exempt from this. Prior to moving to the hospitality business, her mother was a field laborer. Around her junior year in high school, Selene joined her mom, and the other laborers, to work in the fields.
“I felt that I had to know what they were undergoing. So I went out there,” Selene said, reflecting that her decision was borne out of a need to understand her community, rather than financial need- a small consolation. “Just being out there, it’s an eye-opening experience out here. It gets really hot, 120 degrees… humidity hits too, and so just going through that experience, I don’t wish it upon anyone.”
Even her acceptance to USC felt hollow; Selene remembers the day her acceptance letter came in the mail.
“I was speechless because I was like, ‘Dang I really got in, you know? What are the odds out here in the Valley that a child like me makes it in? [Then] I showed my parents and to be honest, I guess they weren’t as happy initially because you know, we are poor.’”
It was only after she received substantial financial aid in the form of a Norman Topping scholarship, which funds the entirety of her tuition payments while she is a student, that the emotions of jubilation and excitement really began to take hold. As Selene put it, “it was not necessarily the acceptance letter that hit, but it was the financial package that really got the best emotions out of us.”
Now, she is thriving at USC, though her journey is far from complete. Even before arriving at USC, Selene was aware of the school’s second, infamous epithet- the “University of Spoiled Children”- but it wasn’t until she arrived on campus that she really understood why.
“It is not until you’re in the classroom and you watch the students come in with their expensive designer clothes and just the way that they talk, and about the trips they talk about where they spent their summers,” she ruminated. “Definitely I could see that disparity between them and me, that world of a difference.”
She’s also, unfortunately, been subject to hostile behavior while on campus. “I lived at Fluor Tower on the Latino floor, so there was one night, midnight, the sprinklers went off, everyone was evacuated. Well, the flooding started on our floor, so there were definitely those racist, discriminatory memes going around, so that was the first time where we felt it as a community, like ‘dang, we are not really welcomed here.’” She also recalls experiencing microaggressions in class, where she- the only Latina and person of color in the room- was excluded from a class activity by her peers, “like they didn’t even bother.”
More recently, she’s noticed that the rise of the coronavirus, and the shutdown of the world, have exacerbated some of the disadvantages she faces in comparison to her peers. “In the era we live in, people may assume that everyone has access to a high-speed quality of Internet at their homes, just because, you know, the school majority [does],” stated Selene, who is currently (and literally) living on her parent’s couch back home. “I feel like they forgot there are poor kids that don’t have the money… you know, like, for example me. I live in the outskirts of the city, so I’m out here in the middle of the desert, our signal is very poor, and yes, there’s these programs where they offer like 30 days of free Internet, but even though when they come out here, there’s not enough satellites. So it’s not a good fix.”
She cites her struggle registering for classes in the upcoming fall as an example of the disparity. “I don’t have good Internet signal [at home]. I didn’t get any of the classes I wanted, and the disparity is like, what can I do? It’s not like I can go to a library or a Starbucks to try and get better signal. It’s COVID, you can’t go out.”
Nonetheless, Selene is determined to succeed at USC, not only for herself, but for the boys and girls back in her home community. “I’m at USC because of them and for them. I want to serve as an example, lead the way by action, not only by word.”
One memory in particular stands out to her. “I was helping out a high school student [back home]. He’s a DACA student, he came in a couple years ago, so… I’m sorry, but he’s not ready for a top-tier college yet. So he’s transitioning into community college, so he can practice English and whatnot, and those skills.
“But when he told me that he wanted to go to a community college in my company, that’s a big step, because oftentimes, fear controls us and people don’t want to go out because they’re scared. So I feel like I’m at USC trying to demonstrate to [those kids] that we can do it, like we belong there just as any other person.”
As far as USC clubs and organizations go, the Transfer Student Community is relatively new. Meeting every Thursday in a lecture hall of the Mark Taper Hall building, one student is a constant, familiar face, meeting after meeting.
Nicholas Chapman is not the founder of the TSC, but he has been with the organization from the time that its membership numbered a mere five to six students. Born in Brazil but moving to the US when he was fourteen, Nicholas‘s childhood abroad placed heavy emphasis on academics, and even after moving to a new country, higher education was still very much on the table.
“I was at a private school in Brazil, and academics are the big thing, a large thing in Brazil,” Nicholas said. “If you don’t go to college [there] you pretty much won’t go anywhere in your life. It’s not like America [where] you know, you see people without a college degree [that are] millionaires and stuff like that, it’s not like that in Brazil at all.”
Still, the move to a new country did have an effect on him. “When I moved out here to the United States, I went to a public high school which academics were not really that serious,” Nicholas recalled. “Actually, the United States kind of slowed me down in the sense of academia, meaning like [the people at my high school] weren’t really academia driven.”
Now a senior majoring in Neuroscience, Nicholas spent four years at Long Beach City College, and less than a quarter at UCLA, before transferring to USC. He found his years at Long Beach particularly refreshing: “It really set certain foundations on studying, for me and for many other [students] from what I noticed,” Nicholas stated. “Opportunity was vast when you wanted to transfer.”
It turned out, however, that transferring was much easier on paper. Upon arriving at USC, Nicholas immediately noticed a difference in the way that the school handled incoming transfer students, as opposed to other universities like UCLA.
“At [UCLA’s] orientation, you had a specific transfer student that was your co-advisor for your classes, and they’re in your major,” said Nicholas. “If somebody wanted to transfer as a business major, you would have a co-transfer student in your registration time slot, to help you register for your classes. They’d literally tell you, ‘don’t take this professor, take that professor, this is better,’ like they were helping the transfers. When you come to USC, not at all.”
Nicholas’s arrival at USC was an unmitigated disaster. The advisor working with him to register for classes and create a course plan didn’t know about his financial aid, completely derailing his course timeline in the process. “I didn’t realize that until now, my senior year, because I got to meet a lot of great transfers [at USC] that got their academics quite diluted,” Nicholas reflected. “That’s one of the biggest things that I noticed, that USC just wasn’t prepared for transfer students as much as UCLA.”
The disparity extends far beyond class registration. Nicholas noted that transfers are also subject to significant disadvantages over the course of their career at USC, both socially and academically. He cited the lack of an equivalent to the “freshman forgiveness” for transfers- the ability to retake a class with the grade of a D+ or lower and get it replaced on the transcript- something that has only recently been addressed.
There’s also the stereotype surrounding transfer students- “That they’re stupid, one hundred percent that they’re stupid,” said Nicholas, an edge of frustration creeping into his voice. “Honestly, I sometimes wish administration would just tell me that they felt the stereotype, and not filter it through politics… at the end of the day, even some administrators still believe that transfer students are less of.
“The big stigma [about community colleges] was like, ‘this is the second high school,’ or whatever, or another stigma is ‘you took the easy way around to get into USC. And I don’t agree with that…at all. ‘Easy route,’ what the hell does that mean? I’ve met thirty-six year olds that have been in the Army, and they’re a transfer student. And then you say ‘well no, but he’s a separate case.’ At the end of the day, stop cherry-picking.”
Many of these issues have since been addressed, mainly due to the shift in administration USC has experienced in recent years. Nicholas sees the administration of current USC President Carol Folt as much more welcoming and proactive than that of former USC President Max Nikias.
“Folt’s admin is 100% aware and provides support for the issue of transfer stigma to other schools at USC,” Nicholas said of the new leadership. “All of these things were tossed under the rug under Nikias. When we attempted to contact him when he was President, we got radio silence. We never really heard from them.
“When it was with Folt, her door was wide open… They are 100% focused on changing things that haven’t been changed in the past, such as transfer rights, transfer forgiveness (the freshman forgiveness equivalent), and transfer student housing.” He noted in particular the actions of Winston Crisp, the Vice Provost of Student Affairs. “He’s an amazing guy,” Nicholas said, a note of tenderness underlying his voice at the thought. “Very wholesome man.” Still, he reflected, the victory was bittersweet; while he’s glad at the changes being made to accommodate transfers, it’s also come at the expense of his own experiences as a student.
His personal experience drew him to the Transfer Student Community, of which he is now the President. Under his efforts, the organization has expanded vastly from a single-digit member count to over a thousand members, receiving immense support from a multitude of different USC schools- Dornsife, Annenberg, Viterbi, Price, SCA, and Marshall, among others, all donated capital to bolster the TSC’s efforts. Their next step is to attain recognition by USG as an official assembly; despite the group’s phenomenal growth, they are still hampered by a lack of funding, and assembly status would allow them to hold larger events to accommodate the increasing number of members.
One of TSC’s biggest milestones in recent years is the establishment of an exclusive mentor-mentee program, the Emerging Leaders Program. This program offers exclusive benefits, such as alumni networking, retreats, and a formal; however, it is currently limited to 25 participants, mentors and mentees, total. Membership is only attained by the completion of a double interview. Like the greater TSC organization, however, it is still young, and prepared to grow in scope.
Despite graduating this year, Nicholas remains committed to the organization, and says he plans to be one of the alumni connections that TSC offers in the future, to provide support for future generations of transfer Trojans.
“The race is only with yourself and nobody else,” Nicholas said. “It doesn’t matter the time that you get there. It matters if you’re going to get there.”