University of Southern California


Working with our neighbors to build a strong community

South LA student heads to med school

This story was featured in the Los Angeles Sentinel

by Jennifer Bihm, contributing writer

Twenty-nine-year-old Shaveonte Graham started medical school this summer, which makes her one of the most stand-out success stories of the the Leslie and William McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative (NAI) at USC. Graham hails from South Central Los Angeles, where growing up, she was instrumental in maintaining a stable household for herself and her family. And, she was determined she said, not to fall into the neighborhood traps that surrounded her.

“I didn’t really go outside to play,” said Graham during a recent interview with the Sentinel.

“I kept myself really busy and I’ve always loved school. I stayed on campus. I played sports all year round. I would get home, help take care of my family and then I would study.

“I had a goal and I knew that I wanted better for myself and better for my family. I knew that I didn’t want to be on the streets, I didn’t want to be on drugs or be homeless. I knew that doing well in school was going to get me to that goal.”

NAI, a university sponsored college prep program, enrolls close to 1,000 students annually. Program officials describe it as: “an academically rigorous and comprehensive, seven-year pre-college program designed to prepare students from South and East Los Angeles for admission to a college or university.

“We had math and English on USC’s campus,” Graham recalled.

“It was at an honors level. Then, after that we had to go back to our home campus (hers was Manual Arts). We would also have to go to school on Saturdays and during winter break. So, we never really had any time off….”

Under the program guidelines, students must commit to a seven-year plan of attending Saturday Academy classes along with weekday morning classes at USC, after-school tutoring and parent workshops. Parents are also required to attend a biweekly Family Development Institute program to create a 360 degree, hands-on approach to reinforce student academic goals and study habits and maximize a healthy home environment. Students who remain in the program in good standing from sixth grade until their high school graduation are eligible for a fully funded financial aid package- minus loans, to USC, provided they meet admission requirements. The USC McMorrow NAI program also provides support to all NAI Scholars through their first college degree.  Since its first graduating class in 1997, nearly 1,040 students have completed the program with 83 percent enrollment as freshman at four-year universities, and 42 percent enrollment at USC.

“There were times when I wanted to quit because I hated going to Saturday school. But, my mom made me stay in the program,” said Graham.

“And then, I had a lot of people in the program who supported me, so there was no getting out of the program for me.”

Graham was fortunate. Many of her friends, she said, didn’t make it through the rigor of NAI. But for her, it paid off in a full ride to USC. It also inspired her to give back.

“I started working for them at their Saturday Academy.”

Ironic, she said, since she hated Saturdays in the program.

Graham is the first person in her family to graduate from high school, ultimately becoming a first-generation college grad. After earning a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish, she enrolled in the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science Post-Baccalaureate Program to finish the prerequisites for medical school.

“The program is really good for getting you into colleges, helping you with applications and just getting you that mentorship and that support. If I hadn’t been in it, I don’t think I would have realized my potential and know that I could even get into USC.

“It helped me realize that I’m just as smart as anybody else and if I want it I can do it.”

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