Toni Atieh – Fontana, California
UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
When Toni Atieh landed at the Los Angeles International Airport in October 2010, he was 10 years old and the only English he knew was “hi” and “bye.” His family had fled the impending civil war in Syria — leaving good jobs, family and the only community they knew to start life over again in the United States.
In Atieh’s valedictorian speech, 10 years later, he describes those early years as full of tears, hours of online English language tutorials, and finally, a breakthrough — academic success. Not only did he graduate at the top of his class at Jurupa Hills High School in Fontana, California, he became only the second student in the school’s eight-year history to attend an elite private school — the University of Southern California.
“When I started applying to colleges, I was doing what everybody else was doing — UCs, Cal States, and some community colleges as backup,” says Atieh. “No one really told us, Oh, maybe you should try to go to bigger private school.” Through his own research, and a tip from a counselor, he found the Bovard Scholars Program — and it broadened his horizons.
“I was a first-generation student. All you knew back then was get good grades and do extracurriculars,” he explains. “I learned that you have to try to do everything possible to further your education. For that, what comes to mind is more scholarships, practicing our tests — the ACT, SAT, building your networks with people. These are all things that, for me at the time, were all new.”
For students like Atieh, first generation students who are navigating the college application program mostly on their own, such information is vital.
“Without [the Bovard Scholars] program, I couldn’t imagine where I’d be right now. It opens you up to new opportunities, teaches you about the process of getting into college and what to do after,” Atieh says.
“For my parents, it’s difficult. They don’t know a lot of English or how college works in the US,” he explains. “Everything came down to me, in the end. They said, you know what‘s best for you and your education. You have to choose what’s right for you.”
And he chose to be a Trojan.
The oldest of three, his sister also went on to become a Bovard Scholar — following in his footsteps. “It all adds up to the responsibility of being first generation,” he says. “You really feel that.”
To future scholars: “No matter where you come from, there’s always a chance.”