Ambassador Blog: Getting Involved at USC

By Madeline Cheng, Tanner Dodt & Celine Chen

USC Thornton Student Ambassadors Madeline Cheng, Tanner Dodt and Celine Chen discuss the extracurricular opportunities on campus.

A group of students smiling indoors.
Photo courtesy of Madeline Cheng

What drew me the most to USC was the opportunity to explore any and all of my interests, be it in a professional development program or a niche hobbyist club. USC is unique in that it is incredibly strong in a variety of academic and artistic disciplines; it is rare to find a university that is both academically prestigious and houses a robust music school like Thornton.

Boasting over 1,000 registered student organizations, USC truly has something for everyone. While I will be focusing on the Performing Arts Committee and Escape SC in this segment, I’d love to shout out some other fantastic clubs which I am currently or have previously been involved in: Society of Women in Law (female pre-law group), OWN IT (organizes an annual leadership summit/speaker series), Musical Theatre Repertory (student-produced musicals), Dungeons and Trojans (tabletop roleplaying), Trojan Scholars Society and Alpha Lambda Delta Honor Society (both academic honor societies), The FAM Music (Music Industry club), and of course, Thornton Student Ambassadors.

The Performing Arts Committee (PAC) is a part of the Undergraduate Student Government. I discovered PAC while browsing EngageSC and applied as soon as they opened executive board applications during the spring semester of my freshman year. I began as an operations coordinator, then director of operations, and I now manage the organization’s finances as PAC’s assistant director.

 PAC’s mission is to provide students collaboration opportunities to create interdisciplinary art, which often comes in the form of performances, concerts, exhibitions, multimedia presentations and workshops. My absolute favorite event we’ve put on is “Artscape: Arts Around the World,” which is a massive outdoor arts exhibition featuring unexpected collaborations between all kinds of arts disciplines and cultures—think taiko drumming combined with a stunt team performance! The audience favorite of the night was our final guest speaker panel, featuring USC alumni Patrick J. Adams (Mike Ross, Suits) and Troian Bellisario (Spencer Hastings, Pretty Little Liars).

Something I never thought I’d get to explore in college is my lifelong affinity for puzzles. When I came across Escape SC, a club that designs and builds escape rooms on campus, I knew this was the perfect community for me. Most people learn about this club at the university involvement fair held each semester, though I happened to encounter them via their riddle-laden Instagram page at the end of my first semester. Their escape room concepts are just plain fun, from a pyramid scheme where you spray your gamemaster with essential oils to a breakfast diner acting as a front for a cult.

Throughout my experience joining as a general member all the way to serving on the executive board, my favorite part has always been the people, who are some of the best collaborators and team players you’ll ever meet. Everyone brings something different to the table, be it a technical skill like circuitry or an artistic skill like narrative writing, and this organization does a fantastic job of bringing all these talents together. Joining this community of puzzle enthusiasts was undoubtedly one of the best choices I’ve made during my time at USC, and I look forward to spending the rest of college creating with them.

Extracurricular involvement has been an integral part of my college experience, and I truly couldn’t imagine living life at USC without taking advantage of these incredible opportunities. So, take a stroll through the involvement fair tables each semester, explore EngageSC, and make the most of your precious few years as a student! I promise you won’t regret it.

As someone who enjoys staying busy and being involved in the community, I appreciate that there are a multitude of extracurricular activities and opportunities to get involved in, both at Thornton and USC.

My favorite extracurricular activity that I have been a part of is the Thornton Community Engagement Program (TCEP). TCEP is a community service program that gives Thornton students the opportunity to serve the communities around USC’s University Park and Health Sciences Campuses through a variety of musical programs. Thornton students involved in TCEP are also paid for their work. Many of the TCEP programs engage underprivileged students at elementary and high schools in Los Angeles neighborhoods who often receive little to no music education in the classroom. These programs include classroom concerts, beginner guitar classes, world music classes, and so much more.

A student pianist plays their instrument on stage.
Photo courtesy of Tanner Dodt

I began working with TCEP during my freshman year. During this first year, I worked as a mentor for the Beat the Odds program. Beat the Odds is a circle drumming program designed for elementary school students that seeks to uplift students as well as give them a positive and creative outlet to release their emotions. As a mentor, I taught weekly Beat the Odds classes to third through fifth grade students at Vermont Avenue Elementary School with another Thornton student. Most of the students we were working with had no prior musical instruction. It was an incredibly rewarding experience to see the kids’ faces light up whenever they played their drums. My teaching partner and I looked forward to teaching the classes each week as much as the kids looked forward to attending them. It was so awesome to see the students getting better at drumming and being so excited when we arrived at the school every week. The ability to make an impact on these kids by bringing them so much happiness and teaching them music was an experience I will always carry with me and hope to have again during my remaining time at USC.

During my second year with TCEP, I have worked as an accompanist for the choir at Manual Arts High School. It had been quite a while since they last had an accompanist; most of the students in the choir had never worked with one and were very excited to have me accompanying them. I accompanied the choir for rehearsals and even got to go with them to a choral festival where they competed. While I had figured that the high schoolers would not be nearly as excited to work with me as the kids at Vermont Avenue Elementary School, they were still very grateful and excited to have me accompanying them. Even though many of them did not know how to read music, they were so passionate about singing, which was really inspiring. I really enjoyed the opportunity to work with this choir.

My time working with TCEP has been so rewarding and easily one of the highlights of my Thornton experience so far. I hope that my experience with TCEP gives you a glimpse into the many extracurricular activities and opportunities to serve the community available to students at Thornton and USC!

Before coming to USC, I knew that once I got to college, I wanted to be part of a research lab. One of the biggest reasons why I chose USC was because of the research opportunities offered here. Currently, I’m a research assistant at the USC Brain & Music Lab working on the Music & Nostalgia Project, which seeks to understand how personally meaningful music elicits nostalgia and autobiographical memory in younger and older adults, with future applications for individuals with Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias. We utilize functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), behavioral memory assessments and machine-learning music-personalization tools to assess the neural and behavioral basis of how music elicits nostalgia. 

A student musician smiles wearing a blue concert dress with a bouquet of flowers on the stage of a classical theater.
Student musicians smile wearing black concert dress on the stage of a classical theater.

Photos courtesy of Celine Chen

My favorite experience in the lab definitely has to be working on my own independent research project on music and neurodevelopmental disorders, specifically Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Currently, I’m conducting a literature review on past research that has been done on the subject so that I can brainstorm a research question and hypothesis, then conduct a research project that I can ultimately turn into my Young Artist Project. One key aspect of our education at USC Thornton is the Young Artist Project. The project can basically take any shape and encourages us to specialize and collaborate, to create and explore, and use our unique passions and talents to design our futures as artists. 

Being involved in research takes a lot of time. Most research labs require you to work for a set number of hours each week (for me, it’s 10 hours per week). However, you get to be surrounded by people who are doing amazing work that can further science and help so many. Also, you gain a lot of experience and skills through research, even if you’re not pre-med or planning to pursue research after you graduate! The Brain & Music Lab hosts monthly workshops. We’ve had a resume workshop and even a workshop on R Studio, a programming language many researchers use to analyze data. And of course, you get to meet many cool people and work with graduate students and professors who eventually become your close mentors.

My advice for getting involved on campus is put yourself forward! I was able to start my work as a research assistant only because I let my piano professor know I was interested in doing research! She was the one who referred me to the head of the Brain & Music Lab and allowed me to start as soon as I got into USC.


Featured Spotlight photo by Loreen Sarkis/Capture Imaging Inc.

TAGS: Composition, Keyboard Studies, Winds and Percussion,

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