Flush with excitement, Tristan Baizar showed up on his USC move-in day even before the official 8 a.m. check-in time.
His mom and girlfriend helped him unpack. It was a quick process -- from past camps and programs, the 18-year-old South Los Angeles resident knew how to move into USC’s dorms. Except this was the real deal, the first step into his freshman year of college. Baizar met his new roommates, bought textbooks and soaked in the experience.
But later in the day, a few hours before his first dorm meeting, Baizar slipped away from campus. He drove across town to a small elementary school in Boyle Heights and an auditorium full of sixth-graders and their parents.
Baizar stood at the front of the room and flashed a smile. He hoped his presence would help pitch the program he credits for his new Trojan education.
More than two decades ago, USC designed a way to give low-income students in South Los Angeles a chance to attend the private university, free of charge, if they met several conditions.
Currently, students commit to a seven-year regimen of after-school tutoring and classes on Saturdays. Beginning in ninth grade, students also have to take weekday morning classes at USC. Parents must attend Saturday seminars.
Those who stay with the program from sixth grade through their senior year of high school and meet USC admission requirements receive a 41/2-year tuition scholarship to the university. The scholarship money applies only to USC, but officials say the program motivates students to attend four-year schools.
The first class of students graduated from the program in 1997. Of those original 43 graduates, 20 went to USC.
Today, the Neighborhood Academic Initiative boasts 745 graduates and a 99% graduation rate from the program, with 83% enrolling as freshmen at four-year colleges and universities and 35% as freshmen at USC.
About five years ago, officials began looking to move the program beyond South Los Angeles for the first time.
To the northeast sits USC’s 79-acre Health Sciences Campus. USC already had long-standing relationships with several neighborhood schools, said Kim Thomas-Barrios, executive director of USC Educational Partnerships.
“Logically, that was the best place for us to expand,” Thomas-Barrios said.
When USC officials approached the principals of Murchison and El Sereno elementary schools to determine interest in the program, they quickly agreed.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for our community,” said Margarita Gutierrez, the principal of Murchison.
Most families in the area live at or below the poverty line, and almost all of the students qualify for free- or reduced-priced lunch. Gutierrez said parent participation is low -- so she was thrilled when two-thirds of sixth-grade parents showed up for an informational meeting last month.
Program manager Isabel Duenas, who took attendance at the meeting, entered the program as a sixth-grader at Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. Middle School in L.A.'s Mid-City neighborhood.
When she was in high school, her family moved to Lynwood, and she commuted to classes at USC to keep her spot.
It paid off: She earned the scholarship to USC and graduated in 2010. She’s among the growing pool of graduates who return as teachers, mentors or coordinators.
Duenas will be busy the next few months. The East L.A. branch of the program is slated to launch Jan. 25, and before that, she’ll spend her time convincing students and parents to sign up, as she and eight other program graduates did at the meeting.
Baizar, the tallest, stood in the middle of the line of graduates. It seemed as if time had barely passed since he heard the same presentation as an overly talkative fifth-grader.
At the time, he had some taste of what to expect. His older sister also graduated from the program, falling short of the USC scholarship but doing well enough to attend Loyola Marymount. His mother, Malva Yorke, a single parent, had attended the years of Saturday seminars.
Baizar battled a lack of motivation at first. He got a few D’s and F’s midway through sixth grade and barely clung to his spot in the program.
After that, he vowed he’d never get anything below a C.
When Baizar graduated from James A. Foshay Learning Center in South L.A. in the spring, he had a 3.7 GPA and a 1650 SAT score -- good enough for admission to USC.
Baizar said the program gave him a shot at a campus that was probably otherwise out of reach.
“I feel like I would have been at a good university, like UC Irvine or Cal State Long Beach, but not as well-funded,” Baizar said.
“I don’t believe USC would have been a possibility.”
His girlfriend, fellow program graduate Jessica Alcazar, wasn’t accepted to USC. But she described the process as a “win-win,” saying the classes and mentoring kept her grades high enough to earn admission to UC Irvine.
After the presentation at Murchison, excited chatter bounced around the auditorium as parents and students filled out applications. All 66 sixth-graders at Murchison will be able to participate, as well as 35 more from El Sereno Elementary. Officials said the program will eventually expand to about 600 students in East L.A.
Parent Morena Gonzales was all smiles.
She said her oldest child finished only high school, and she didn’t pressure her to continue out of concern about costs.
“As a single parent, I wouldn’t even begin to figure out how to pay for my child’s education,” she said in Spanish. “My whole perspective has changed -- I’m looking forward to learning more.”
After the meeting, her daughter Lilia, 11, said she wants to go to USC.