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COMMUNITY SERVICE : Clinton Plan Has Familiar Ring at USC : University Launched Topping Fund After Watts Riots to Aid Cash-Strapped Scholars

March 07, 1993|DAVID DORION

Last week, President Clinton--following through on a campaign promise--unveiled a proposal for a national service plan that he said would foster a new civic spirit and help pay for the cost of college education. If approved by Congress, the program would begin this summer with a $15-million pilot project. The Administration expects the price tag to grow to $7.4 billion after its first four years. But for 23 years, one version of Clinton's plan has been field-tested at the University of Southern California. The Norman Topping Student Aid Fund provides partial scholarship money to undergraduates and graduates who face economic hardship. In return, the students are required to perform a minimum of 20 hours of community service per semester. USC students Ron McDuffie and Dan Smith conceived the idea for the Topping Fund after the 1965 Watts Riots. Students approved the plan, with funding coming from a $4--now $5--fee charged to all full-time USC registrants. Backing the plan was then-USC President Norman Topping, who announced a onetime, 2-for-1 financial backing from the USC Associates, bringing the original endowment to $600,000. Since 1970, 500 students have received $3.5 million in aid from the Topping fund. A board, consisting mostly of Topping scholars, selects 25 students each year from a field of about 250. In the fall of 1991, the fund's participants boasted a graduation rate of 78%, compared to USC's overall rate of 59.4%. These Topping students were interviewed by David Dorion.

Boris Ricks: 27, Ph.D . candidate in political science "With Norman Topping, we get an opportunity to bridge that gap and tear down the stereotype between the university and the community. The students involved in the program are some of the highest-regarded scholars on campus through both their grades and extracurricular activities.

"My community service work is at the Challengers Boys Club at 52nd and Vermont, where I coach flag football and tutor in history and social science. It is truly a family situation. I went to a rural black college in Mississippi. You get a real appreciation for Los Angeles being there.

"Chris, a senior at Fairfax High School, who was on the football team with the student killed in the recent shooting, is one young man I've worked with at the Boys Club. He wanted to transfer. I gave him counseling, telling him to think positively, to just stick it out--which he has done--by staying at Fairfax. But that's just one of the examples, which are multifaceted. The payback overall is that you are volunteering services to a sector that has not been served.

"I wouldn't trade my experience with the fund for the world. I could have received a scholarship to Harvard, but Norman Topping at USC, I think, is equivalent as far as having me involved with the community. This diversity is what America is going to look like in the future."

Thao Dang: 20, junior, bio science "The Topping Fund is helpful with money, but I also benefit from it in the sense of the fund having a family environment. It helps (offset) with how impersonal USC can be.

"I do my community service with the Asian Pacific Immigration Center in Monterey Park, where I help Asian immigrants adjust to life in America. I assist them in filling out applications, help them with family counseling and alleviation of some of the negatives and common disillusionment that is associated with achieving the American Dream.

"One person I've helped at the Asian Pacific Immigration Center came to the United States alone as a 16-year-old Vietnamese boat person. We assisted her in finding a foster family, who in turn, not only helped her learn English, but helped her become accustomed to life in America. Now she is 19 and in pharmacy school.

"The benefit of this is helping someone like this woman become self-reliant. With the assistance I have provided, she doesn't have to rely on any social services.

"I hope to study either dentistry or medicine after receiving my undergraduate degree from USC. Through the foundation, which gives me the opportunity to meet people from the community, I utilize my knowledge of Vietnamese. I believe that although Spanish will be a common language in Los Angeles, one day soon, people will have to learn some sort of Asian language like Japanese or Vietnamese to communicate with the influx of Asian immigrants who come here."

Vivian Hernandez: 43, graduate student, sociology "I am a single parent who is regarded as one of the re-entry students involved in the Topping Student Aid Foundation. I know that if it weren't for the Topping Fund, I would not have the opportunity to attend USC.

"Last year, I graduated from Cal State Los Angeles. I knew then my plans involved graduate studies in social work. I found the Topping Fund to be (beneficial) to my studies, especially when taking into context the fact that USC has a well-regarded social studies program.

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