Black female in white shirt stands in the middle of desks in u-shape formation giving lecture
Photo courtesy of AYA

USC Annenberg Youth Academy for Media and Civic Engagement inspires and changes lives of L.A. High Schoolers

When most high school students think of summer, the thought of attending class, writing papers and doing extra assignments can be daunting. But for the 26 students who take part in the Annenberg Youth Academy (AYA) free four-week summer program funded by Annenberg parents and alumni, the opportunity to study communication, journalism and public relations at USC Annenberg is a welcomed experience.  

A diverse cohort of participants from across Los Angeles County are taught by the school’s expert faculty and guided by industry professionals advancing diversity and inclusion in media. The demanding program encourages students to contemplate issues of race, gender, and ethnicity in communication and journalism and to produce videos, podcast episodes, articles, and essays that explore these complex topics.

“Our AYA students are eager to learn about media, challenge stereotypes, and develop skills to create a more just and equitable society,” said Brittany Hart Scholten, who began as the program’s director last summer. “They return to complete high school after the summer program with better critical thinking skills, self-confidence, and a media portfolio for their college applications. Our program touts a 100% acceptance rate to colleges and universities around the globe.”

Hart Scholten, a former high-school Spanish teacher and study abroad administrator, caught up with four alumni of the AYA program to see where they are now. Here is what she learned. 

Young hispanic women poses on street with camera strap around her neck
Yetnaleci Maya (photo courtesy of AYA).
Yetnaleci Maya

As participant in AYA’s first cohort in 2017, Yetnaleci Maya learned that she can write about Latinx culture, take photos, have fun, and get paid for it. She was inspired by guest speaker Walter Thompson Hernandez of @mychivas who creates videos on his own experience as a Blaxican.

“I thought it was cool that he incorporated his own culture into the work that he did,” Maya recalls, “AYA helped me see that I could focus on my community and write stories about my culture like the article I wrote about gentrification in Korea Town.”

Maya went on to attend Cal Poly Pomona, where she wrote for the Pomona Post. Her favorite pieces were about indigenous chef Chef Payt, winner of Gordon Ramsey’s Next Level Chef Season 1, and Violet Palmer, a Los Angeles native and the first woman to referee for the NBA. Now Maya works as a production assistant at Fox Sports, where she focuses on one of her other passions, sports.

If It hadn't been for getting that chance at AYA, my path would have been so different,” Maya said. “I don’t know what I would be doing now.”

Young asian woman takes selfie in front of outdoor landscape
Kailyn Huang (photo courtesy of AYA).
Kailyn Huang

Kailyn Huang, who completed the AYA program in 2018, now studies art history and ancient history at the University of Manchester in England. She describes her experience in the program as “life-changing.”

“Being someone who just finished my first year of high school then suddenly being able to interview high-profile people really changed the way that I wanted to grow as a person and professional,” Huang said. “I remember working with Professor Miki Turner who taught me not to be afraid to jump into things and ask questions; her confidence really inspired me to be the person that I am today.” 

Huang is currently interning for the Regional English Language Office which is part of the Public Diplomacy Section of the United States Embassy in Pakistan. She attributes her success at obtaining internships like this one, and her confidence to land a job in Asia after she graduates next Spring, to her time at AYA.

“Being from a small part of Los Angeles, I was always surrounded by the same type of people with similar backgrounds and Los Angeles is extremely diverse; AYA really exposed me to that for the first time,” Huang said. “The other AYA students, who had different economic, social and cultural backgrounds, came from all over L.A.”

young black woman in black sweater smiles in front of national building
Nia Holden (photo courtesy of AYA).
Nia Holden

Now a junior at Columbia majoring in sociology, Nia Holden was a member of AYA’s Class of 2019. She attributes her decision to major in sociology to the exploration of civic engagement during the program.

I want to study my community at large and apply my knowledge to how we use media today,” Holden said. “I hope to develop a plan of how we could use it to create stronger bonds between each other in a time where it can be isolating.”

Holden believes it is important to reinforce the ways media can be used to bring people together and bring society closer.

“AYA was the first time that I was in an environment with my peers that thought the same way as me and were as excited about the same things as me; that was really refreshing,” she said. “We all challenged each other and wanted each other to be the best versions of ourselves.”


young hispanic woman in white shirt in front of black background smiles for camera
Maimuna Chowdhry (photo courtesy of AYA).
Maimuna Chowdhury

Maimuna Chowdhury, who was a part of the 2020 AYA cohort, is now a first-year student studying human biology and society at UCLA. One of Chowdhury’s biggest takeaways from the program was her perspective shift; she was surrounded by peers who challenged her and had distinct points of view.

“AYA helped me realize that I did not have to pick just science and math or writing, but that I could combine my interests and become a more competitive applicant for pre-med programs and medical school later,” Chowdhury said.

She asserts that AYA inspired her to join her high-school newspaper after the program where she eventually became the editor-in-chief and wrote her own column, “Medicine with Maimuna.” 

“Most medical students or pre-meds have to publish at some point,” Chowdhury explained. “AYA gave me the upper hand in my writing ability from my experience of writing for AYA and writing for the school newspaper afterward.”

More information on AYA is available on the program’s website here.