The Faces
of USC

Salvadoran-American Karen Molina defied odds to become USC student

The aspiring veterinarian says her culture taught her hard work and resilience

On crisp Saturday mornings, Karen Molina can be found in a packed classroom at the USC Health Sciences Campus. Some students look enthused, others — understandably — tired as they begin their sixth straight day of school. Molina taps a marker rhythmically on her chin while glancing between the worksheet in her hand and the algebra problem she’s scribbling on a whiteboard. The 19-year-old human biology major doesn’t have the luxury of sleeping in: she’s been up since 5:30 a.m. preparing her lesson plan.

The topic at hand is vectors, and a student has encountered a question he can’t solve.

“You just have to make this equal to this, then you can find x,” Molina explains, drawing an emphatic arrow between the two sides of the equation.

Molina is a tutor and teaching assistant for the Neighborhood Academic Initiative, USC’s seven-year-long enrichment program created in 1989 to help low-income neighborhood students gain college admission. The program provides tutoring on Saturdays to 600 middle school and high school students at the University Park Campus, and to 300 at the Health Sciences Campus. All the students who complete the program must apply to USC; if accepted, they receive full-tuition scholarships.

Now a junior at USC, Molina herself is a graduate of the Neighborhood Academic Initiative. She began the program at Manual Arts High School, but transferred to Foshay Learning Center after her sophomore year.

During her time at Foshay, Molina excelled, collecting straight As and winning an essay competition, the Dickens Project. She wrote her winning essay on the characterization of Betty Higden in Our Mutual Friend.

Molina’s mentor and friend, Lizette Zarate, describes Molina as having an “unmatched” work ethic, which earned her a spot in a number of competitive institutions including UC Berkeley and the University of Chicago. She became the first in her family to attend college.

“USC gave me the best financial aid package, and for my family that was the most important thing,” Molina said.

Originally from El Salvador, Molina’s mother, Marlene Molina, worried about living in the country in the aftermath of a brutal civil war. After giving birth to Karen’s brother, Christian, and Karen in the city of Santa Ana, Marlene moved — with her children in tow — to California in 1998.

The journey wasn’t an easy one for Marlene, who knew little English and had only a couple relatives living in the United States. Karen’s father joined them eight months later. Molina’s parents divorced when she was 12; afterward, she and Christian continued living with their mother, who now manages a production line for California Baby.

“She used to clean houses, because that’s the only thing she could do,” Molina said. “My mom worked hard. And now I want to work hard, so that she doesn’t have to.”

For 16 years, Molina called an apartment on 54th Street and Vermont home. Her neighborhood, a hot spot for gang activity, can be dangerous for anyone not in tune with her surroundings. Molina heard drive-by shootings, saw drug paraphernalia and encountered the occasional catcaller; yet, none of it hindered her from going about her daily life.

“I never felt directly threatened. I never had a moment of, ‘Oh I can’t live here anymore!’” Molina said. “It’s obviously not a good place where you feel safe all the time, but if you’re smart and you stay out of trouble, you’ll be fine.”

In retrospect, she credits “the hood” for shaping her into the person she is now. It taught her the value of focusing on her studies, and opened her eyes to her community’s economic and social problems. She doesn’t intend to upgrade to a better neighborhood in the future; rather, she wants to become wise enough to improve hers from within.

Growing up, Molina knew her family was considered low-income. She received free lunches at school. Her family used Medi-Cal. But Molina herself viewed “low-income” more as a label than a state of being; she never felt like she had it worse than anybody else. It was in her freshman year at USC that she realized how different her resources had been from those of her peers. The aspiring veterinarian received a less-than-stellar science education in high school, and is now struggling in her organic chemistry classes.

“I feel like I’m playing catch up,” Molina said. “My friends and I are going through the same thing. We’re in science classes and we’re dealing with concepts we’ve never seen before, instruments we’ve never touched before. I feel like I’m at a disadvantage, but I’m glad that USC is helping me close that gap.”

In many ways, Molina embodies the ideals of the American dream: she arrived from a less-developed country, worked hard to secure a college education and is now on the path to fulfilling her career dreams. What motivates the Salvadoran-American is the goal of making her community back home proud. In the U.S., where immigrants are often stereotypically associated with menial labor, Molina wants to break the mold.

“My culture has taught me about ambition, hard work, resilience,” Molina said. “I want people to call me ‘Dr. Molina’ because it’s not just a representation of what I’ve done. It’s a representation of my culture’s values and how hard my people have to work to get what they want.”

Her friends know what drives Karen Molina.

“She understands the bigger picture,” said Gabi Lopez, a junior majoring in human development and aging. “She knows that becoming successful isn’t just going to help her, it’s going to help her community.”

Photo credit: Maral Tavitian