In 2021, a Commencement for the record books

May 19, 2021

USC Rossier honors two classes in an extraordinary time

By Ross Brenneman

Natalie Hart waves on her way out of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum during this year’s USC Commencement. Hart graduated with her EdD from USC Rossier’s Educational Leadership program. (USC Photo/David Sprague)

Conventional wisdom says that history runs in cycles.

The University of Southern California established its school of education in 1918, with the goal of providing a rapidly growing city with educational leadership. Even as the school’s first graduates arrived on campus, however, a particularly lethal strain of influenza was bringing the world to a halt.

More than a century later, another pandemic caused disruptions great and small, including a pause on the university celebrations that mark the completion of an academic program.

A new century, a new pandemic, but always the work goes on, and the school mission remains: Preparing leaders to handle the big problems.

In a graduation ceremony for the ages, the university recognized those new leaders this Sunday, returning Commencement to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the first time in 70 years. The ceremony recognized USC Rossier’s Class of 2021 and also the Class of 2020, fulfilling the promise of an in-person celebration after last year’s Commencement was postponed by the pandemic.

“Here at USC, I am inspired by the courage and perseverance I see in all of you,” said Carol L. Folt, president of the University of Southern California, in her remarks. “I have been deeply moved as I watch you discover new ways to grow in these difficult times. Whatever its impact, COVID didn’t derail or defeat you.”

“Education helps prepare us for the future even when we have no idea what the future holds,” said Lawrence O. Picus, associate dean for research and faculty affairs at USC Rossier and the Richard T. Cooper and Mary Catherine Cooper Chair in Public School Administration. “Education helps us adapt.”

Celebrating at last

In neat rows of seats spaced to public health standards and spanning the length of the field, students from the two classes celebrated with as much exuberance as ever—whooping, arms raised in celebration, scanning the stadium seating for their loved ones.

Graduates celebrate during USC’s Commencement Ceremony for the Rossier School of Education at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. (USC Photo/David Sprague)

Hayden Hunter, a new graduate of the Master of Marriage and Family Therapy program, called the ceremony “completely surreal.” But the pandemic, and a year that brought significant attention to race and social justice, also informed how she plans to apply her knowledge to a career she’s been dreaming of since being a teenager.

“Starting an internship virtually during the pandemic and the social justice movement forced me to really think about how I will be a change agent after completing this program,” she said. “Marginalized communities were so greatly impacted by forces outside of their control, and I have the privilege and responsibility to serve and support them during times of collective grief and strife in the years to come.”

For Branden Grimmett EdD ’20, the postponement of a 2020 ceremony ended up being a blessing. Grimmett has been working with his former classmates and dissertation adviser, Assistant Professor Briana Hinga, on a book over the past year. Being a year removed from his dissertation has allowed him time to better enjoy what he’s accomplished.

“The distance allowed me to really focus on celebrating and being with friends and family and loved ones,” he said, “instead of seeing it as the end of something laborious.”

Right place, right time

For others, Commencement was a culminating moment for relationships that started much earlier.

Isabel Brenes and Maria Romero-Morales have been friends for decades, their careers criss-crossing ever since they were working together in USC Undergraduate Admissions in the ’90s. Unbeknownst to either, USC Rossier accepted both of them into its Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership program at the same time.

L-R: Maria Luisa Garcia, Isabel Brenes and Maria Romero-Morales are all Triple Trojans, having graduated from USC Rossier’s Educational Leadership program. (Photo courtesy of Maria Romero-Morales)

Both women say that obtaining a doctorate had been a long-held dream, symbolic of hopes and opportunities, Brenes said, “to make a positive difference in the lives of others.”

“As a first generation college student and an immigrant from Mexico, I always felt I had a late start in the world of education and that I needed to catch up to everyone else,” Romero-Morales said. “During my graduation ceremony on Sunday, I felt I finally finished my race.”

The program also introduced them to Maria Luisa Garcia, with whom they had much in common: Latinas, first-generation college students and “passionate about making a difference in education,” Brenes said. The three of them managed to stay as close as they could during the pandemic, and reunited in April for a celebratory photoshoot on campus. They also managed to snag a photo with President Folt during Commencement.

“We all ended up in the same place at the same time,” said Garcia, who works for USC Upward Bound. “Call it serendipity or call it fate. Either way, I know that I was supposed to meet these wonderful ladies.”

They share something else, too: All are now Triple Trojans.

“Together we persevered,” Brenes said.

Solving problems of previous generations

While many USC Rossier students attended the in-person ceremony, the school also marked graduation with a virtual celebration, allowing for some of the more-specific touches that typify a school event, like dissertation awards, student speakers and remarks from faculty.

This year’s celebration honored 422 doctoral students and 685 master’s students.

“We know that education is the best way to create a more equitable future,” said Pedro A. Noguera, the Emery Stoops and Joyce King Stoops Dean of USC Rossier in his opening remarks to graduates. “We know that when we invest in educating future teachers, researchers, scholars, administrators [and] counselors, that we are also preparing those who will be able to solve problems previous generations struggled with.”

On the need to confront misinformation with scholarship and evidence, keynote speaker Gale Sinatra, the Stephen H. Crocker Professor of Education at USC Rossier, charged graduates with bringing the values of scholarship into their careers.

USC President Carol L. Folt takes a photo with graduates following the USC Rossier School of Education Commencement at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. (USC Photo/Michael Baker)

“As you enter your professional fields you have learned how to evaluate evidence, think critically, and be open to new information,” Sinatra said. “What can you do to support others to do the same?”

“If there is one thing that USC Rossier has done, it is remind me that there is solace in education and knowledge,” said Jessica Pereira, graduating with a master’s degree in Learning Design and Technology. “We have the power to meet uncertainty with knowledge, research and empathy. And more importantly, we have the power to spread it.”

And yet even as the celebration outlined the work ahead, it also reaffirmed the achievements of this year’s graduates, especially in such a uniquely trying time.

“The past year has taught us that it’s OK to slow down, breathe, and that it’s OK to be OK with just surviving,” said Shanéa Thomas, who earned her doctorate from the Organizational Change and Leadership program. “Not perfection, but just being able to show up and be present. … We answered the call.”

View all photos from the 2021 Commencement Ceremony.
Watch the 2021 Commencement Ceremony.
Watch USC Rossier’s 2021 Virtual Celebration.

These students received a Dissertation of Distinction:

  • Sy Stokes, PhD in Urban Education, “Into the Wildfire: Campus Racial Climate and the Trump Presidency” (Chair: Shaun R. Harper)
  • Wilmon A. Christian III, Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership, “Working While Black: Occupational Experiences, Hazards and Triumphs of Black Staff and Administrators in Higher Education” (Chair: Shaun R. Harper)
  • Susan Simpson, Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership, “Elementary Teachers’ Perceptions of Gender Identity and Sexuality and How They Are Revealed in Their Pedagogical and Curricular Choices: Two Case Studies” (Chair: Julie Slayton)
  • Kevin E. Cross, Doctor of Education in Organizational Change and Leadership, “Efficacy of Non-formal Education Programs in Educational Outcomes of Marginalized Filipino Children: An Evaluation Study” (Chair: Emmy Min)
  • Elia Inglis Lawatsch, Doctor of Education in Organizational Change and Leadership, “Uncovering Promising Practices for Providing Vocational Opportunities to Formerly Incarcerated Individuals” (Chair: Courtney Malloy)
  • Kiran Pai, Doctor of Education in Organizational Change and Leadership, “Bridging the Empathy Gap: A Mixed-Method Approach to Evaluating Teacher Support in Bullying Prevention and Intervention at an Urban Middle School in India” (Chair: Ekaterina Moore)

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