When I Attended USC, I was on Food Stamps

The latest admissions scandal is no surprise to disadvantaged students.

In casual conversation with colleagues, I may mention that I’m originally from South Alabama and that I received my undergraduate degree from the University of Southern California. After this admissions scandal, I don’t want anyone to ask how I was able to attend USC ever again.

For most of my career, I was made to feel that somehow my admission to USC was a fluke. It was my first choice school and I ended up attending both the film school and the art school there. When I received my admissions letter in February 2003, I cried for joy along with my mother the rest of the day. All I had to read was “You Got In!” written on the cover of my admissions packet.

Looks like USC was her top choice, too.

I previously discussed how I’m constantly asked how I attended USC and how mentally exhausting that question is, especially as a minority. The person who asks typically is a white person and given the difficult time I had as a student, I abhor the implication I got there by “affirmative action” or something. I was the type of student upper-echelon universities want: a student with an A-average from an underrepresented state who was a student leader with a breadth of extracurricular activities and extensive volunteer work both at a hospital and at a “inner-city” elementary school. And I brought college credit with me. I just happened to be black as well. Me being black was a very small part of my admission story.

When I was admitted to USC, the university successfully made the transition from the “University of Second Choice” to tier-1, Hidden Ivy status. And the film school is the top program in the country. The admission rate is about 18% and USC receives a record number of applications every year. Apparently, that came with a price. Because even with USC’s effort to steal quality students from Stanford and the Ivies, legacy admissions were king.

Rich people buying their way into college is nothing new. We all know that was the case for both President George W. Bush and President Donald Trump. And there were some immensely wealthy kids at USC when I attended. In fact, Walmart heiress Paige Laurie was caught paying her roommate to do all her school work for her. The heiress attended USC while I was there. Her lower-income minority roommate was paid $20,000.

For someone out there who doesn’t understand why a poorer or lower-income student would attend a private school over a public one, it’s because our education system in the US is broken. To a poor student, it is often cheaper to attend the private school with a large endowment, especially a tier-1 school like Yale or Stanford. Elite private schools can afford to meet 100% need for a lower-income student. Despite the fact I attended two private universities, my brother and I have the same amount of student loan debt. He attended the University of Alabama, our state school.

I started my freshman year at USC believing myself to be a mid-to-upper-middle class student of color. My parents were white-collar professionals and my father ran his own mental health facility. In fact, my father was comfortable enough in our status that we didn’t apply for financial aid. It was the biggest financial mistake of my life. Within a year, I was considered a low-income student. I had to sit out my sophomore year because I couldn’t afford to go back. Our financial situation was made worse by Hurricanes Ivan and Katrina. I nearly dropped out because I couldn’t keep up with the costs of being a student — until USC rewarded me a five-figure grant out of nowhere for being a student affected by Hurricane Katrina.

That’s why poorer students attend private universities. USC has an endowment worth billions. Just like Laurie’s roommate, $20,000 was life-changing for me. But it was just enough to cover my tuition. I still had to work two work-study jobs and pay for my groceries with food stamps. Also, did you know most college students who qualify for financial aid qualify for SNAP? Being on food stamps meant I could afford to pay for textbooks, supplies, and interview clothes.

While I wasn’t the first in my family to attend college (that honor goes to my father), I was first in attending a private white institution. I was groomed to attend a PWI from the start, so my parents thought they were giving me an advantage. But millionaires and billionaires operate on another level. For example, when I was looking for an internship, I was dismayed about the prospect of working for free as expected in the film, media, and entertainment industries. I didn’t own a car and couldn’t afford one and I was already working two work-study jobs. USC internship classes cost a little under $4000. So you will be paying the company for the privilege to hand some Hollywood executive some coffee and field calls (preferably sexual harassment-free). I already knew how to be an assistant. I just couldn’t afford to intern. I’m quoted saying as much in this Daily Trojan article.

I don’t regret my decision to attend USC, despite my student debt and its recent scandals. Has my degree paid off? It opens doors for me, but like many millennials, I imagined receiving an affordable tuition bill like my baby boomer father did and paying off my student loan debt at 25.

And I cannot ignore the difference between the wealthy white kids and the rest of us, especially the students of color. I once witnessed a white frat boy standing next to me snorting cocaine out in the open at a USC football game. In contrast, nearly every black male I knew at ‘SC had a story about how the campus police illegally searched their pockets for drugs and weapons, even after being presented a student ID. Wealthy white female students probably avoided Dr. Tyndall as well.

So, no, I am not surprised USC was included in this admission scandal. My only surprise is that other tier-1 universities haven’t been caught yet.

is a filmmaker, photographer, and digital media artist living a stereotypical artist life. She could have been a doctor or a scientist, but here we are.

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