When Eric Zúñiga came to USC to study engineering, he soon realized his education at a public school in Los Angeles had left lots of gaps that he had to fill.
Eric Zuñiga grew up in University Park near USC and came to the Viterbi School. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it anywhere else,” he said.
So Zúñiga, who will be graduating this May with a B.S. in Chemical Engineering, studied hard, many hours, to compensate for his academic shortcomings. Still, he found time to become involved with the Latino Student Assembly, where some of his duties were holding campus-wide events and distributing $48,000 in programming funds.
“It was very much time consuming, but it afforded me the ability to interact with students on campus. I personally wanted to interact with people at a different level.”
His involvement with the Latino community on campus earned Zúñiga the John Hubbard Award given by USC’s Mexican American Alumni Association.
""He's an exceptional student and representative of the talent that's nurtured at USC," said Domenika Lynch, executive director of USC's Mexican American Alumni Programs. "He represents not only the Latino community exceptionally well but he's the embodiment of this school."
Ever since Zúñiga was born at the LAC-USC Medical Center, the presence of the University has loomed large in his life. Zúñiga grew up a few blocks from his alma mater, and began attending James A. Foshay Learning Center, a participant in the USC Family of Schools, in the sixth grade. Through the MESA program, he learned to love math and science.
“We had a lot of fun experiments like dropping eggs from two stories to measure their velocity and making contraptions that prevented eggs from breaking. Things like that made me interested in sciences. I took calculus and I asked the teacher what type of career would allow me to have more math and engineering, and that’s the path I took. I really like math and an exposure to science made me want to learn more.”
When Zúñiga first came to USC, he intended to be a biomedical engineer. He was fascinated by biomedical tools, and participated in an innovative project to create an insulin-measuring device that would also deliver it when it detected low levels. But the lure of chemistry proved to be stronger, so at the end of his sophomore year he switched majors.
For the last two years, Zúñiga has passed on his passion for math and science to incoming students who have a hard time understanding organic chemistry and other challenging subjects.
“One of the biggest highlights was getting into a room with 400 students to give an exam,” he said. “It was pretty intimidating but it was a very good experience.”
When Zúñiga graduates on May 15, it will be as if his mother is graduating with him. An immigrant from Mexico, Ms. Zúñiga dreamed of attending university but had to drop out in middle school in order to work. Both his parents have been very supportive of his academic endeavors and his source of inspiration.
“My family is my biggest influence. Many times you question yourself whether you can to do this, it’s a lot of work. But whenever I began questioning, I thought of my family and how much they’ve struggled, and I thought my struggle is not that bad, I haven’t done anything like my parents had to do. I didn’t have to leave my country and start anew. All I had to do is study and do my best. They have always been my point of pride.”
Eventually, Zúñiga is planning to return to school to pursue a medical degree. But for now, the economic downturn is forcing him to join the workforce and help his family financially. He’s hoping to find a teaching position and inspire inner city youth to pursue careers in math and sciences, subjects that he considers “absolutely fundamental.”
Looking back at his five years at USC, Zúñiga feels pleased with his accomplishments both in the academic realm and in the social arena: they have given him a well-rounded view of the world and have prepared him for greater opportunities.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do it anywhere else,” he said. “I was able to do a lot of different things that I really enjoyed and that are unique to USC. I’m very grateful I came here.”
by Claudia Melendez