After her morning shift at the Chick-fil-A near Marina Del Rey, Calif., Kymia Freeman often takes the number 3 bus down Lincoln Boulevard to Venice Boulevard before the 12-minute walk to the apartment she shares with her mother in the Oakwood neighborhood of Venice. This summer, she put that travel time to good use, logging into Zoom from her phone to participate in the Annenberg Youth Academy (AYA). “It was really important to me to show up every day because I really wanted to experience every minute of it,” said Freeman, a rising senior at Venice High School.
AYA started four years ago as an in-person, on-campus program for four weeks each summer for local high school students that teaches them how media, journalism and communication can create civic-minded thought leaders and innovators. With the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for social distancing, AYA went online and was reduced to two-weeks. “At first I was hesitant to go online as I had never run a virtual program before,” said Jaime Carias, civic engagement coordinator and director of the program. “However, I quickly realized that with all the support from our faculty and alumni, we could still schedule an amazing course for the students.”
Freeman had been considering joining AYA since her sophomore year. She had seen a flier for the program in her counselor’s office but didn’t feel she had the experience needed to apply. During her junior year, Freeman set her sights on her school’s newspaper, the Oarsman, enrolling in the class that was responsible for running the paper. “I was so excited to use my voice and realize what I had to say, my opinions, and what I wanted to write about were important,” she said. “And also, that my voice was valued by students at my school and our administrators.”
Freeman started out as the assistant entertainment editor; in her senior year, she will be the editor-in-chief, a promotion she says gave her the confidence she needed to apply to AYA. “I applied because I thought AYA was something that is going to help me for the rest of my life,” she said. “I knew that I'd be with a group of students who were really going to go places.”
Freeman was one of 26 students chosen for this current cohort, 16 of whom are enrolled in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). Instead of sitting in college classrooms and working together in USC Annenberg’s Media Center, the students met for 90 minutes each weekday on Zoom from June 17 to July 1. They learned from USC Annenberg faculty, interacted with college advisors and networked with alumni who shared their career journeys — and tips for success.
On day one of the program, Dean Willow Bay greeted the students. AYA participants also had the chance to meet two USC Annenberg faculty members: Taj Frazier, associate professor of communication, who also the faculty advisor for the AYA, and Amara Aguilar, associate professor of professional practice.
Four alumni also met with students via Zoom, including: Nick Valencia, CNN correspondent (BA, broadcast journalism, ’05); Callie Schweitzer, senior editor at LinkedIn (BA, print and digital journalism, ’11); Rachel Scott, multiplatform reporter at ABC News (BA, broadcast journalism, ’15); and Elex Michaelson, co-anchor of Fox 11 News with Christine Devine (BA, broadcast journalism, ’08). A highlight, for Freeman, was talking to Michaelson.
“I was so excited to talk to him because a couple of weeks prior, I had been watching him on Fox 11 when he was covering the protests in Santa Monica and Long Beach and I saw how passionate he was about his work and how he was willing to be on the anchor desk for 12 days straight,” she said. “I had the chance to ask him a personal question about burn-out. It was really awesome to be able to communicate with people who I only thought I'd ever see on TV.” While Michaelson acknowledged his exhaustion, he also said that he was driven by the fact that they were doing something important.
Another highlight for Freeman was a session on Third Space Thinking and Youth, which is run by former USC Annenberg Dean Ernest Wilson. In the session, students paired up and were asked to answer questions about their partner based on their appearance. “You kind of make assumptions about people solely on what they look like,” she said. “It was really telling how you have to be very cautious about how you perceive people. That was really a valuable activity and it will be the mindset that I learned that I take into the real world when I'm meeting new people, regardless of where I am. That was really, really cool.”
Carias said that the feedback from the students and the families for this unusual session was very positive, and as soon as it is safe to do so, will bring the AYA participants to campus to meet with faculty in person. “We are so glad the students took a chance on this; we were able to build a community and bond on Zoom,” he said. “It was a bonus, also, that we were able to bring in so many alumni to talk to the students. This year will definitely be remembered.”