When Jerome Rucker, a student in USC Rossier’s Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership online program (EDL online), looks back on his entry into the program in 2019, one thing stands out. Patricia Brent-Sanco EdD ’16, who spoke to students at a kickoff event at the Galen Center, advised them to “drink the Kool-Aid.” She was urging students, Rucker says, “to get USC and utilize it.”
Rucker, a 2020 recipient of the Dean's Superintendents Advisory Group Endowed Scholarship, had applied only to USC Rossier in his search for doctoral programs. Two of his sisters had attended USC, and for him, USC was “the Holy Grail.” He cried when he received his letter of admission. His wife asked him why he was so emotional. Rucker’s reply: “This is over with now. They let me in.”
That fall, Rucker, who also works full time as assistant principal at Los Osos High School in Rancho Cucamonga, California, joined the inaugural class in USC Rossier’s EDL online program. Students were divided into cohorts, with Rucker placed in Cohort A. Brent-Sanco not only told the cohort to drink the Kool-Aid, she gave them an identity they could rally and organize around: the Avengers. Their mandate: “To create revolutionary change in education,” Rucker says. Similar to the Marvel Comics superheroes that inspired the name, Rucker says, each member has their own talents.
Rucker’s classmate Marie Martin, CEO of education media company Alexandria’s World, echoes his sentiment. Some Avengers work in mental health or special education; some run nonprofits. Others are administrators and curriculum specialists. The thing that brings the group together, Martin says, is that they all desire to incite change, and each brings their own “superpower” to the table. Martin most closely identifies with Tony Stark, and his superhero alter ego, Iron Man.
For David Smith, chief technology officer at Tustin Unified School District, the Avengers moniker is akin to a shiny breastplate each member wears under their shirts. Smith identifies with the Hulk: While Smith is angry with “what this world has become,” he is intent on using that anger to propel change. He stresses that the members of the Avengers student group would have “done amazing things with or without USC” but that USC brought them together. And not only will the USC network help them create change together, they, in turn, will help make USC a better place.
Before enrolling at USC Rossier, Michelle Williams, a former classroom teacher and assistant principal, created the Foundation for Black Excellence, a nonprofit that seeks to empower Black families and communities. Rucker affectionately likens the reserved Williams—who works tirelessly behind the scenes to make things happen—to Doctor Strange. However, Williams identifies more closely with the Black Widow. A product of the Los Angeles Unified School District, Williams—like the Black Widow—wants to change the system in which she was raised, and she chooses to use her superpowers strategically.
The Avengers’ efforts have not stopped in the classroom. Together, members have launched the “Brothers from the 818” podcast (hosted by Smith), the “Follow the Leader” online journal and the Educational Truth conferences. The conferences, which focus on issues concerning education and social justice, are fast-paced Rucker says, which is a better fit for busy educators. In 2020, the Avengers and USC Rossier faculty members shared their expertise at the conference, but in 2021, the group passed the mic to teenagers, who addressed topics including their struggles through the COVID-19 pandemic. The sessions were around 20 minutes each and are available on YouTube.
Rucker, or Captain America (as Smith likes to think of him), was inspired to create educational change well before he set foot on campus. But when he arrived at USC Rossier and met his “dynamic professors” and the Avengers, he thought, “This is going to be life-changing.”