From teen mom to triple Trojan: a journey through higher education

30 years and 3 degrees later, a student reflects on her relationship with USC

Nicole Vick, wearing a USC sweatshirt, holds her young daughter.

“I think you should take a leave of absence,” the school counselor said. I was taken aback. I was a pregnant teen, the first in my family to attend college and not sure how I would navigate school, work and my personal life. I came seeking help and resources. but was instead told that maybe time away was best.

I was confused. Not because I didn’t understand what a leave of absence meant; I was confused because the thought of leaving school hadn’t crossed my mind as a possibility. I didn’t know much, but I knew if I left school I would certainly never make my way back – sealing my fate as an economically unstable young mother.

When I walked out of that building, I was more determined than ever to graduate. That determination led me from teen mom to (almost) triple Trojan.

USC has always been a formidable force in my life. I grew up less than two miles away in Jefferson Park and spent many weekends grocery shopping with my family across the street at the 32nd Street Market. As close as I was to the university, there was an impenetrable wall around it. To me, USC was an ivory tower only for the elite, which I was not. Even when I found myself on campus for the first time at my junior high school graduation in 1993, the campus felt so formidable and beyond my reach.

Perhaps my curiosity about the formidable ivory tower got the best of me. In 1995, I was a senior in high school and USC was the only school I applied to. It was a risky decision, but it paid off. I was accepted as a biomedical engineer major. The running joke is that to this day, I have no clue what biomedical engineering is. Despite that, I was so excited to start college. My excitement quickly turned to confusion and dismay. I realized almost immediately that I was NOT prepared academically for the coursework. Many of my classmates had learned some of the coursework in high school and I had never seen any of it before. I also did not fit in culturally. I was a commuter student from South Los Angeles who struggled to create relationships with other students. I had more in common with the workers at Café 84 that I worked with than my classmates. And of course, I was pregnant, which brought its own challenges.

After four changes in my major, a scary labor and delivery (my daughter was born eight weeks early and weighed a little over three pounds), custody disputes that caused me to miss class, and a ton of support from my family– I graduated in the summer of 2000 with a degree in Public Policy and Management. I distinctly remember walking out of Black Grad at Bovard auditorium in tears and meeting up with my family. My daughter, seeing me in tears, began to cry. As far as I was concerned, we both earned that degree.

Nicole Vick poses with her daughter in front of a fountain, holding a flower

Three years later I had fallen in love with public health, a profession I had never heard of until I became a student worker at the local health department right before graduation. The people I worked with were amazing. They got to go into the community and educate people about sexually transmitted infections. They created presentations, flyers and helped people get tested or treated via the STI hotline. Everyone on the team had Master’s Degrees in Public Health. A colleague would always encourage me to go back to school. I always complained about spending two more years at school. She gently reminded me that those two years would go by anyway and that an advanced degree would double my salary. So once again, I applied to only one school and was admitted. This time was different. I had a full-time job and a school aged child, but managing it all was much easier because the subject area was of great interest to me. I also had the advantage of taking what I learned at school and using it at work and tackling work issues at school.

I graduated and began a rewarding career in public health that has spanned two decades. I spent my first decade working on public health issues in the very community I was born and raised in. I considered it an honor and a privilege to be able to make a difference in the health status of my neighbors. One of the biggest lessons I learned during that time was how communities can be shaped by the physical and social environment. I worked with non profit organizations along the South Figueroa Corridor and learned how displacement, gentrification and economic disinvestment harms communities. I learned about residents in the University Park area having to move because of high rents and how some organizations were not happy with USC’s actions in the neighboring community. The irony of it all was that my USC education gave me the skills to take a critical look at USC’s role as a community partner.

Nicole Vick poses in her graduation robes.

I’ve taught undergraduates about health and public health for almost 15 years at colleges such as Cal State Los

Angeles and Occidental College. I’ve participated in fellowships, chaired a City Commission and sat on Boards, including the inaugural Alumni Council of the Keck School of Medicine Department of Population and Public Health Sciences. I’ve written two books and currently host a weekly video podcast. But I wanted more. So 18 years after receiving my MPH degree and 25 years after setting foot on the campus of USC for the first time, I decided to pursue a doctoral degree. I am currently a student at the Rossier School of Education in the EdD Program. In May 2024, I will finally be Dr. Vick, just like my great grandmother said I would be when she asked me over 30 years ago if I was going to go to college. My great grandmother was only one generation removed from slavery, so to fulfill this goal means so much to me and my family.

USC and I have had an interesting relationship over the last thirty or so years. On the one hand, USC has provided me with an education that made it possible to have gainful employment and raise my daughter, who is now 26 years old. I was able to be a living example of self determination and grit for her. My hope is that she is as proud of me as I am of her. My success did not come easy. If I had listened to that advisor all those years ago, my life would be completely different. I have made it my personal responsibility to do what I can to educate, inform and uplift younger Black students and early career professionals, so they have some sense of what’s ahead.

On the other hand, USC is not perfect. I no longer see USC as an inaccessible ivory tower. Its presence has impacted the surrounding community in ways that are helpful and incredibly harmful. Many students have no idea of the impact USC has had on the low-income Black and Brown residents who used to live in the area. Because I grew up and worked nearby and have extensive public health knowledge, I understand the negative impact of the university’s presence and the added responsibility USC has to be a good and welcoming neighbor. I have learned to always be critical of powerful institutions like USC and to push for social justice whenever and however I can.

I will always cherish the relationships I have made over the years, from the women working at Café 84 that checked on me after I had my baby, to professors like Dr. Lavonna Lewis, Dr. Rita Burke, Dr. Michael Cousineau and Dr. Jane Steinberg who I consider colleagues and friends. They have reached out to me to share my knowledge and expertise with current students and I am always happy to do so.

Most importantly, I finally feel like my voice, my presence and my perspective has value to the USC community. I think back to those early days when I wasn’t sure I even belonged at USC, when I would come to campus with my daughter in her stroller, wondering what all this was for.

Almost 3 degrees and a lifetime of experience later, I am sure I belong here.