USC junior Miriam Antonio was excited to bring her mother to the convocation ceremony when she transferred in 2017. Unfortunately, her mother, who speaks Spanish, couldn't understand what was being said because translating devices weren't available.
"That made me really sad because [my mother] works really hard to pay for my tuition and yet I feel like she is being excluded from the Trojan family," Antonio said.
Antonio, a member of USC First Generation Student Union, organized a solidarity rally on April 18 to call for better resources and guidance for the 17% of first generation students on campus. She says that she is constantly reminded that USC and other prestigious universities aren't created for students like her as a first generation student.
When the news of wealthy parents allegedly paying bribes to change their children's SAT scores and get into elite universities broke, many students from marginalized communities weren't surprised. It was a reminder that those who are low-income, first generation and/or students of color have to work twice as hard to get a seat at a table in a system where the deck is already stacked against them. While wealthy parents like actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer J. Mossimo Giannulli, allegedly paid $500,000 to get their two daughters admitted to USC, Antonio's mother cleans restaurants at night to help pay her daughter's tuition.
Quincy Nkwonta, a senior at USC, grew up in the suburbs of Minnesota where he said his family was one of two black families in his neighborhood. He went to North Dakota State University for a year and experienced a lot of discrimination.
"I was not able to thrive as a black person in that space," Nkwonta said. When he transferred to USC his sophomore year, he said: "It's just a higher level nuanced version of discrimination."
As part of the black community on campus, Nkwonta said he also sees the many ways that students of color and students of low-income communities are not protected. Conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro's visit in October of last year sparked controversy and protests on campus.
"You get to see it in your face like 'we're funding controversial speakers to come to campus who have anti-black, anti-Latinx, anti-Middle Eastern dialogue and rhetoric," Nkwonta said. "[USC] is actively funding and putting student dollars into it even when there's proof that that should not happen."
The recent varsity blues scandal only confirmed what Nkwonta already knew: "It does not surprise us because we're used to it. We have to work twice as hard to get twice as much. We're also used to people working half as hard and then paying the rest of the way through," he said.
USC enrolls more than 4,000 low-income undergraduate students who represent more than 21% of total enrollment, a USC spokesperson said in an email. Low-income students also graduate at rates comparable to the overall undergraduate population.
But even with pell grants and scholarships, many students struggle to pay the $55,320 it costs to attend the university for one year. Most recently, USC announced the 3.5% tuition increase for the 2019-2020 school year bringing it to $57,256.
Students from underserved communities will have a much different experience than a student of color who didn't come from a low-income background, said Dawn Person, director of the Center for Research on Educational Access and Leadership at California State University, Fullerton.
Educational institutions were not systematically designed to accommodate and provide support for low-income, first generation and/or students of color, Peron said. This can create problems that manifest in different ways. For example, when a student does not see themselves reflected in the classroom or amongst faculty, it can affect their college experience.
"You do well when you see people around that look like you doing well," Person said. Not everything is culturally-based, but it helps when students have the option to study and work with people who come from similar backgrounds, she said.
Nkwonta recalled when he went to class the day after his friend and USC student Victor McElhaney was shot and killed in March. McElhaney became the topic of discussion in Nkwonta's class and "they're talking about the statistics of South LA's violence and it's like why should I sit here and listen to you analyze this or put it under a microscope?" he said.
"This is a human being but you're allowed to have that degree of separation because you are a white man or a white woman and you don't have to think about these things."