USC Marshall: Building A Do-Gooder Brigade To Tackle Society’s Ills

A FOCUS ON FIRST GENERATION COLLEGE STUDENTS

As the class concludes and students begin to disperse, it’s clear while there are similarities, there really are no exact shared qualities of people Wertman and his team look for. They know they want to use a business education to make some lasting change to a current status quo.

“I’ve had students come to my desk in tears and explain to me that what they want to do is not what their parents want them to do,” Wertman says with sadness and compassion. “Their parents want them to make money and be happy but their paradigm for happiness and money is different.”

They come from immigrant families, suburbs, poverty, wealth and single parents. Wertman has made it a point to admit first generation college students. Currently, 30% are the first in their families to have an undergraduate degree. And now they’re getting a graduate degree from one of the best business schools in the United States. “And we’re going to keep focusing on that,” Wertman insists.

Alfonso Trujillo was a first generation college student and in the first cohort of the MSSE. Photo courtesy of USC Marshall School of Business

Alfonso Trujillo was a first generation college student and in the first cohort of the MSSE. Photo courtesy of USC Marshall School of Business

AN UNLIKELY PATH FOR ONE STUDENT

One of those first generation students is Alfonso Trujillo. Trujillo was born and and spent nearly the entire first decade of his life in the projects of the Boyle Heights neighborhood in East Los Angeles. The neighborhood is made up of working-class Mexican Americans. In the 2010 census, only 5% of the roughly 100,000 residents had four-year college degrees. When Trujillo was 10, his family moved 40 miles east to Pomona, California, but the living environment was much the same. Trujillo grew up in poverty around high gang activity.

College was never a discussion in Trujillo’s family. The expectation was for him to graduate high school and get a good paying job. “It was very tough for me growing up,” says Trujillo, 39, noting his parents only spoke Spanish. “When I went to school, English was my second language. It was difficult for me to get help with homework, so I was always struggling when it came to after-school lessons and homework.”

A LIFE-CHANGING FIRST READ

Trujillo spent elementary school with teachers pinning his homework to his back to make sure it made it home. “I used to pretend I was Superman,” Trujillo laughs. He spent middle school getting in trouble and being picked on in English classes as a second language student. During his senior year of high school, he got his girlfriend pregnant. “I obviously was not ready to be a father,” Trujillo admits. “Women mature much faster than men. But we were just kids.”

Trujillo spent much of his young adult life bouncing around from minimum wage job to minimum wage job. And then he read his first book. “I actually read the Bible,” an emotional Trujillo says. “And it was an awakening moment for me. At that point, I started to realize what life meant to me. I changed my life from that moment on.”

Trujillo’s daughter became his best friend. Education became valuable to him. And at 25 years of age, Trujillo enrolled himself in community college. He performed so well he was able to be accepted into USC for undergrad. Unfortunately, the USC schedule was not conducive for a full-time employee. And Trujillo could not give up his job. So he settled for California State Polytechnic University in Pomona. “That was really sad for me,” Trujillo says. “But I said hopefully I can come back to USC for a masters. This was definitely my dream school.”