USC Rossier Professor of Clinical Education John Pascarella established College Access Day in 2013, in collaboration with Debra Solórzano-Madrid in the USC Rossier teacher education program and Shenora Plenty EdD ’14 in the USC Office of Residential Education. The event provides high school students from nearby Los Angeles neighborhoods the opportunity to visit campus for the day and expand their knowledge about the college admissions process and student life. Inspired by his path to college as a free-lunch kid who was raised by a single mom, Pascarella aims to help high school students who share his experience not knowing much about the unwritten rules of being on campus.
“When I became a professor at USC, I didn’t think that I belonged here even as a professor. To be in a place like USC wasn’t something that I expected in my own career trajectory. My entry into college was fraught with a lot of unknowns,” said Pascarella. “Although I had done well academically, I had gone to 13 different schools, three different high schools, I wasn’t sure that I belonged at a competitive institution like USC.”
In his third year of teaching at USC, Pascarella was appointed to the faculty in residence residence program, which has 22 faculty residents living in each residential hall at USC among the students. Being in the faculty in residence program gave Pascarella an opportunity to live among students and offer an academic program to first-year students.
“This opportunity to live among students allowed me to learn about the hurdles that these first-year students overcame to get into USC,” said Pascarella.
The idea for College Access Day came from Pascarella’s work in the faculty in residence program, his work in teacher education, interacting with student teachers in surrounding school communities and having connections to principals and school leaders. The idea was to create an opportunity for high school students to be fully immersed in the USC campus experience that was not just taking a tour, but was giving them the opportunity to be introduced to and to interact with first-year students who come from diverse backgrounds.
College Access Day requires extensive coordination to provide a ‘day in the life’ of a USC Trojan to over 220 high school students. Director of Fieldwork Debra Solózano Madrid began the organizing process for the fall event by meeting with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Black Student Achievement Plan (BSAP) coordinators and worked on the logistics for getting nine high schools on campus, which involved coordinating the arrival of each high school group and organizing USC student volunteers to help staff the event. When minor students visit campus, the Department of Public Safety and the Office of Youth Protection and Programming make sure that every adult participating has the proper background check to be able to work with children.
For 2023 College Access Day, USC Rossier School of Education deliberately partnered with the LAUSD BSAP schools. The following schools participated: Crenshaw High School, Dymally High School, GALA - Girls Academy, Gardena High School, Hamilton High School, King Drew Medical Magnet, San Pedro High School, Washington Prep High School and Westchester High School.
Keon Thomas Hill, a senior at Washington Prep High School, was excited to be on campus because he’s interested in USC’s top-ranked School of Cinematic Arts.
“My top choice is USC, followed by Howard University and NY Film Academy. USC is home. I would not mind going out of state, but as an actor, L.A. is where it’s at. This is a wonderful campus with wonderful people. I feel that I can create a name for myself in dramatic arts here,” Hill said.
Nylah Washington, a San Pedro High School senior, also selected USC as one of her top choices, in addition to cross-town rival UCLA. She wants to study chemical engineering. She would be the first in her family to attend a four-year college.
“College Access Day is a good way to get a feel for a campus that you would be attending in the future. I got to speak with a student whose major is one I’m interested in. Being here today made me feel like I belong,” said Washington.
The high school students were encouraged to ask a lot of questions about the application process, preparing for college entrance exams and applying for financial aid. The dining hall lunch provided a preview of what they would experience as a USC Trojan.
Braydon Griffin, a junior at San Pedro High School who would like to major in psychology, liked the immersive experience of College Access Day.
“I loved the dining hall. I can see why Freshman 15 is a thing because the food is good, and the ice cream is unlimited. The dining hall experience will probably stand out for me, even though I liked the tour and being able to meet USC students,” Griffin said.
James Mackey, a college counselor at Crenshaw High School, attended College Access Day with his students. He was pleased that his students were getting the opportunity to be on campus and to talk with students who were not too far removed from their own high school experience.
“Crenshaw High School has a strong class academically for the class of 2024, and we definitely will have students who are admitted to USC. I’m glad that some of my students get this opportunity today to be on campus and to ask questions from people who may end up being their peers or mentors,” Mackey said.
“While there is a lot of behind-the-scenes work to make College Access Day successful, I’m grateful to the MAT staff because they believe in the cause and in the importance of bringing high school youth to campus. We had a huge group of staff volunteers that only come to campus one day per week since most of them work remotely from home,” Solórzano Madrid said. “They chose to come to campus on a day when they would normally be working remotely because they are committed to College Access Day and providing a valuable program for high school students from our community.”
As the planning committee takes stock of the event’s success and opportunities for improvement, it has already begun efforts to offer a spring program to continue expanding its reach and impact.