USC Viterbi Freshman Fights On In Journey Towards Self-Discovery  

Savanna Mesch | October 21, 2019

First-year student finds strength in community

USC freshman Carlos Lao poses for a photograph for My USC story, September 11, 2019. (Photo/Gus Ruelas)

USC freshman Carlos Lao poses for a photograph for My USC story, September 11, 2019. (Photo/Gus Ruelas)

Carlos Lao is many things. He’s an international student at USC Viterbi studying computer science. He’s a freshman living in the McCarthy honors dorms. He’s a foreign language aficionado. He’s an entrepreneur.

Carlos has also experienced in the past a lot of pain and prejudice on his journey to self-discovery.

Lao was raised in a traditional Catholic Filipino family in the Philippines. Identifying as a queer man, he was led to live a closeted, inauthentic life for much of his youth.

“I couldn’t get to the point of coming out because I always denied myself,” he said.

The bullying started early on the playground using vulgar words, far too mature for a kindergartener to comprehend. His mother, a kindergarten teaching assistant, was shocked, but not surprised. But the malice was still all too plain.

Lao officially came out to friends as a high school freshman, but not to his parents.

“Finally, I could tell someone, and it was cool,” he said. “That attitude spurred me to think I can live my life like this, without needing people’s approval.”

But when he came out to his parents earlier this year, they confessed that they had heard him coming out to friends.

At first, his mother tried to convince her son it’s just a phase.

“I don’t think anybody has thought of this as much as I have,” he told her.

She came to accept her son’s sexual orientation, yet still the subject was taboo. “Every time something hinted at it, we’d avoid the topic,” he said.

While the Philippines has been deemed Asia’s most gay-friendly country, acceptance is highly conditional. “Everyone’s fine with you being gay as long as you’re not related,” Lao said.

Lao found acceptance in a supportive school environment. “In the international bubble I lived in, everybody was super open and accepting,” said Lao, who graduated from Shanghai American School, an international school, in Pudong, China. “Everybody kind of knew, but it was just waiting for me to come to terms with it, too.”

Lao’s high school experience certainly prepared him for USC. First, there was his stacked roster of Advanced Placement exam scores. Then there was his involvement with student life. Lao, ex-president of the international thespian society in his high school, took on lead roles in musicals, sang in the school choir, and organized a school-wide talent show. Outside of theater, Lao ran cross-country and coded a club’s website.

In his free time, Lao self-studied constructed languages such as Esperanto and Toki Pona. He also studied foreign languages such as Korean, Spanish, and Filipino Sign Language, even volunteering as an interpreter for a computer literacy course in Manila.

Lao was a high school freshman when he and his older sister began visiting colleges in the U.S.

They first went to California. “I just remember when I got to USC, and it was exactly what I expected college to be like,” he said. He recalled his tour guide boasting about the Trojan family network.

“I love being spiritual and that stuck with me,” he said. “I never forgot USC since freshman year.”

His sister, Isabelle, who studies chemistry and oceanography at the University of British Columbia, inspires him to advocate for the environment. “Hearing her passion,” he said, “taught me the importance of the situation.”

With computer science, he said, there are multiple potential applications for technology to protect Mother Nature, such as using drones to scan for biodiversity or analyze where soil is best for reforestation. “Even though it’s not the first thing you’d think of for everything, it’s always there,” he said.

“No matter what I do, I’ll find one way, shape or form to implement CS,” he said.

The combination of computer science and business courses sparks Lao’s entrepreneurial spirit.

What lies for Lao after graduation is unknown, except for one sure thing. “I just want to be doing something that makes a difference,” he said.

Lao said he will continue to pursue his interests in linguistics, the performing arts, and computer science at USC. He plans to audition for a cappella, join the student organization Undergraduate Students in Linguistics, and explore entrepreneurship at the USC Viterbi Startup Garage.

Lao is ready to start his collegiate journey at USC.

“I’m excited to be around so many like-minded people who want to grow and are willing to take chances,” he said. “I’m excited to live out my college dream.”

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