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Virtual gala celebrates 2020 grads of USC Neighborhood Academic Initiative

This year’s graduates of USC Leslie and William McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative were recognized for their perseverance during uncertain times; all 94 scholars will be attending college in the fall.

Even a pandemic couldn’t stop the 2020 graduates of the USC Leslie and William McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative program, who were celebrated in a virtual ceremony on Saturday.

This year marked many milestones for the university’s premier college prep program, including graduating its first cohort from the eastern area of Los Angeles — namely Wilson and Lincoln high schools — as well as having the most scholars accepted to USC in its nearly three-decade history. This year, 39 of the 94 students received letters of admission to USC, with 36 accepting the offer for a full-tuition scholarship. The other three accepted offers to UCLA, the University of California, Berkeley and Stanford University.

“With the Class of 2020, NAI has now graduated 1,237 students,” said Sam Garrison, interim senior vice president of university relations. “Your success is fueled by the success of all those that came before you. It’s how we build community, strength, purpose and a better future.”

While the program takes pride in sending scholars to USC, its overarching goal is to introduce the pathway to college to children and families in the neighborhoods surrounding the USC campuses. In fact, all 94 NAI scholars will be attending college in the fall.

Past Neighborhood Academic Initiative graduates reminisce about the program

The NAI alumni network is strong, built on the bonds and connections made throughout the 7-year journey. It can change the social trajectory of its scholars. Terry Gray of the NAI Class of 2010 credits the program for introducing higher education to his family as a possibility.

“I grew up in a single-parent household with nine siblings and became the first in my family to attend college,” said Gray, who graduated from UCLA in 2015, attained his master’s from Ohio State University in 2017 and will begin law school at UCLA this fall. “I’m proud that my journey with NAI influenced my younger siblings to pursue higher education. Three of my sisters are now attending Cal Poly Pomona.”

Once NAI scholars graduate, it is important for them to continue supporting future generations. Gray himself extended mentorship to Candace Candler, who will be attending UCLA in the fall.

USC leaders, donors pay tribute to NAI grads

This monumental class was recognized by USC leadership for its resiliency during a very turbulent time.

“I know this has been a challenging journey so far, but you’re only starting to discover your own potential,” President Carol L. Folt said. “The fact that this comes in a pandemic certainly hasn’t slowed you down. In fact, I hear that you really dug in, and that inspires us all.”

The program also announced a generous gift from Leslie and William McMorrow; they have donated $150,000 toward funding the scholarships for NAI grads who will be attending USC in the fall.

The McMorrows have been instrumental in the success of the Class of 2020. When it was announced that the Los Angeles Unified School District would be closing its campuses due to the pandemic, the McMorrows donated laptops for each graduating senior, allowing them to finish high school remotely, finalize their college acceptance packets and apply for scholarships.

Of course, a gala wouldn’t be complete without a “formal dinner.” In an effort to support the community, families with graduating seniors were given dinner vouchers to local restaurants.

Full story on USC News

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