When Raul Torres Jr. received an email informing him that he had landed a prestigious Russell L. Caldwell Neighborhood Scholarship, he thought somebody had made a mistake.
After all, the freshman mechanical engineering major hadn’t even applied for the award, which is given each year to two incoming USC students from area high schools. Winners receive mentoring and $3,000 per year for four years — money that can go toward books, computers and other school expenses.
“I thought they got the wrong person,” said Torres, a 2021 honors graduate and varsity athlete from Huntington Park High School. “I’m used to applying for scholarships, and this came out of nowhere. But I was so proud and honored when I found out it was real.”
So, too, was Jose M. Zarate Diaz, a freshman biomedical engineering student who recently graduated as the salutatorian from the Foshay Learning Center. A first-generation student with limited resources, Diaz said he appreciated the recognition and support. “My family can’t afford college, so any financial assistance really helps a lot. I feel really blessed.”
Launched in 1967 by Russell L. Caldwell, a human rights activist and a USC professor of history from 1945 to 1972, the Caldwell Scholarship has long supported talented neighborhood students who enroll at USC. To date, more than 450 students have received Caldwell Scholarships. (The university awarded more Caldwell Scholarships before the advent of the USC Good Neighbors Campaign.) The Retired Faculty Association, or RFA, has helped oversee and fund the program since Caldwell’s death in 1979.
“The Caldwell Scholarship really makes a difference in [recipients’] lives,” said Karen Koblitz, chair of the Caldwell Scholars program and former head of ceramics at the USC Roski School of Art and Design from 2002 until her retirement in 2017. “In addition to the financial support, we help them navigate issues that crop up during the year, whether academic or personal.”
The USC Admissions Office chooses award winners based on their leadership abilities, academic excellence and community service – qualities that Torres and Diaz possess in abundance. This year, said Kelsey K. Bradshaw Carroll, associate director of admissions, USC received 120 applications from prospective students at the 10 qualifying schools: Foshay, Huntington Park, Belmont, Crenshaw, Dorsey, Fremont, Jefferson, Los Angeles, Manual Arts and Roosevelt high schools.
“I want to give back”
To Torres, Huntington Park in East Los Angeles was the perfect place to grow up. Neighbors smiled whenever he passed them on the street and made him feel completely at home. When his Mexican immigrant parents opened a small business that rented tables and chairs, the community rallied around them, drumming up business through word of mouth.
Given his attachment to his neighborhood, Torres volunteered throughout high school on several beautification and other projects sponsored by Key Club International. He distributed toys to children during Christmas toy drives, planted trees in the community and participated in several cleanups. In between, he lettered in varsity soccer and tennis, placed in academic decathlons and graduated third in his high school class.
Torres hopes to earn a progressive degree – a joint USC Viterbi bachelor’s and master’s degree – in mechanical engineering. After graduating, he said he’d like to volunteer in his old neighborhood.
“I want to give back in some way,” Torres said. “I really love Huntington Park. The people there have been so good to me.”
A doctor in the house
As a little boy, Diaz injured his head in a playground fall and began having seizures. His and his family’s worries disappeared when they met the exceptional doctors who cared for him. Their compassion, kindness and empathy, along with their medical acumen, helped Diaz recover quickly.
That positive interaction inspired him to want to one day become a physician.
“It would be nice to be able to help people and make them suffer less,” Diaz said. “There’s always going to be health problems to solve, and I believe that the more people can help solve those problems, the better.”
As a 10th grader at Foshay, Diaz volunteered in the optometry department at a nearby Kaiser Permanente, fielding appointment calls and maintaining display cases for glasses and frames. Around the same time, he started taking health-related college courses at Los Angeles Trade Technical College, including anatomy, medical terminology and healthcare ethics and law. Somehow, Diaz also found time during high school to co-write and co-direct short films, including “Rootz,” which features several LA muralists talking about their art.
Not surprisingly, Diaz – who graduated second in a class of 170 – has decided to study biomedical engineering at USC Viterbi. “Technology is a huge portion of our lives and is always advancing and evolving,” he said. “I want to combine technology and healthcare together because I think that’s the key to improving our health. “
Diaz said he’s not exactly sure what he wants to do in the future, although becoming a surgeon holds some appeal. He is certain, though, that he chose the right university.
“USC has always been my dream school,” he said, “so it definitely feels unreal that I am really here.”