She stands just 5 foot 2, with a slight frame and soft voice, but to her family, Alfa Lopez is a giant. The Los Angeles teen lives in a low-income area where teenagers are tempted by drugs and the high school drop-out rate is 50 percent. As she matter-of-factly puts it, "It's not the best neighborhood." Alfa, though, has big plans and big dreams.
This 16-year-old has her sights set on becoming the first member of her family to go to college. "I try to get straight A's to make my family proud," she told ABC News, " and to show myself that I can do this and that I can work hard."
She is succeeding with the help of an innovative program run by the University of Southern California. Called the Neighborhood Academic Initiative (NAI), the program offers intensive classes and tutoring to hundreds of low-income children who live in the shadow of the university. "It's a long road, believe me," said Kim Thomas-Barrios, who is the program's executive director. "We start with them in the sixth grade."
Today Alfa came to Washington, D.C., to tell her story at a day-long summit on children and families. This first- generation American, whose mom works as a housekeeper and certified nurse's assistant, and whose father is a supervisor at a convalescent home, stood up before a crowd at the summit, to introduce Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
"It may be cliché to say "only in America," but I'm here to prove that it's true," said Alfa. "I'm so honored to be able to attend today's event and introduce the secretary of education."
Secretary Duncan applauded Alfa as an example of what students from poorer neighborhoods can accomplish with the right help, and he bemoaned "all of the talent of the country that we leave on the sidelines." Duncan touted the president's plan to help states expand preschool classes. "There is no better investment we can make than high quality early childhood education."
Programs like the one Alfa attends also provide critical support for older students. Participants, currently 721 middle and high school students, begin their day at USC, attending English and math classes taught by high school teachers. Then it's off to their regular high school for the rest of the day. It's back to USC for tutoring three nights a week, and Saturday morning classes for additional academic support and college prep work.
The experience opens up the students to a new world of possibilities. "Everyone in the University campus is about the business of learning," said Thomas-Barrios. "They are taking classes down the hall, down the hall from college students. I call it my college brainwashing."
Alfa has no illusions about how much this program means to her. "It's life-changing," she said, "without it I don't know where I'd be. I wouldn't have the same opportunities, and I don't think I would be able to face the hurdles that maybe college would bring to me."
The NAI program has an impressive record. "All of our students graduate from high school, that's a no brainer for them. Their goal is to go college, period," said Thomas-Barrios. Once they're at college, three-quarters go on to get a diploma.