A passing student may have seen a Troy Tones performance and dancing public safety officers at Tommy Trojan on Tuesday, but students and faculty weren't there just for show. They assembled in support of #TogetherUSC, an awareness program for diversity, inclusion and bias prevention that launched in October 2015.
Sarah Reyes, a junior public relations major and an artist, thinks #TogetherUSC has rallied the USC community since last fall.
"The staff and the faculty make great efforts to make everyone feel included and to make sure that everyone knows about the opportunities and the resources," she said. "I think they're very good at putting the word out there."
USC renewed its focus on race and diversity issues on campus after a fraternity member hurled a racially charged epithet at USC's student body president, Rini Sampath, in September 2015. Sampath graduated in May, but the challenges she faced as president drove her to lead the charge for heightened inclusivity for people of color and increased attention to how those people are treated.
"I hope that USC has woken up to see and sincerely hear the experiences of marginalized students on campus," Sampath said. "As the first woman student body president in a decade, and one of the very few people of color elected to that role, it was my duty to pass the mic to other students who have long been excluded from the decision making process."
The #TogetherUSC coalition of campus organizations was assembled to raise awareness of racial issues that exist on campus by creating dialogue between administrators, faculty and the student body. It also formed as a representation of the many racial identities at the university.
Lynette Merriman, the faculty spokesperson for #TogetherUSC, uses her position to encourage students to form support networks. She also spreads awareness of resources available on campus such as the bias reporter and Trojans Care for Trojans. She said a lot of students have come forward about problems they've seen in their communities since the campaign started.
"We're just getting a lot more students to let us know what issues either make them uncomfortable or when they're worried about another student," she said. "I really appreciate the fact that if a student is worried about someone else they want to come forward and try to help them."
But while some tout progress, Sampath notes that one one of the ongoing challenges for racial inclusion in the USC community lies in the faculty's makeup, even if the situation is improving.
"Although it may take some time for us to see the effects of our labors in goals such as increased faculty of color, during my term, I know we were able to change the culture of campus by encouraging students to speak out for real, tangible change," she said.
Current students acknowledge that their own races are not always represented by their instructors. Taya Lee, a student, feels welcome in the diverse student body but agrees with Sampath that the faculty should represent more ethnicities.
"Classes are not taught usually by people of color or people of other cultures," Lee said. "Even classes about African Americans are not always taught by people who have lived that life."
The students involved with #TogetherUSC worked with the administration to push for institutional change during the campaign's first year of existence. Merriman has used her position as an administrator to help students make that change.
"I challenge them to blend the communities they're a part of. We're one big family, we have a lot of talents, we're an impressive family," she said. "But if we stay in silos we're not going to benefit from that and I think there's an opportunity here to really make this an amazing inclusive society where we learn so much from one another."
Michael Gorse, an LGBT Resource Center Supervisor acknowledged that the university administration is making progress toward inclusivity but that their work is not done.
"Particularly for our transgender students there's been a lot of changes in terms of name policies and ID cards, " Gorse said. "We're working on all gender restrooms right now, but there's definitely still work to do. And that's why our offices exist and why this initiative exists."
Sampath remains hopeful that the USC administration will maintain its commitment to diversity and inclusion. However, she also sees students as the drivers of change on campus.
"I hope students will keep pushing forward on this advocacy work by thinking critically and challenging the status quo. Creating opportunity and access for students from marginalized communities doesn't happen overnight," she said. "It takes persistence but is so important. In addition to the now and in addition to giving thousands of students a real home at USC, it's going to impact generations to come."
Current students, like Reyes, agreed that change begins with the student body.
"We're all USC students, we're all here for education," Reyes said. "We're all here just to enjoy life and all students like inclusion. There's no separation anywhere."
During the event, Reyes painted an image of the heads of students from different ethnicities with their hair woven together as a reflection of the unity of USC's campus. The battle for inclusivity at the university is ongoing, but students like Reyes are continuing the fight Sampath started during her presidency.