Meet The Team

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Aris Mangasarian, Managing Director

Aris Mangasarian manages USC's Underground Trojans and is a Juris Doctorate candidate at USC's Gould School of Law, where he also serves as a staff editor on the Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice. Aris and a group of student allies founded the organization in 2018 before he completed his undergraduate program at USC's Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences. Aris graduated with the highest honors (BA Psych, Class of 2020) and a glass plaque bears his name on the Wall of Scholars in USC's Leavey Library, the University's tribute to scholastic excellence created by the Skull & Dagger Society.

Before coming to USC, Aris earned his GED while incarcerated and can testify to the value of prison education and continuing education after incarceration. He is a Certified Addiction Treatment Counselor and has held a research position at USC's Center for Research on Crime, doing program evaluation for the City of Los Angeles Mayor's Office of Gang Reduction & Youth Development (GRYD). Aris has also worked with USC's Prison Education Project to engage and educate the campus community about the "Prison-to-College Pipeline." 

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Maritza Salazar, Co-Director

Maritza is a second-year, Educational Counseling graduate student from El Monte, California. Prior to enrolling at USC’s Rossier School of Education, she attended the University of California, Riverside where she received a bachelor’s in sociology with a minor in education. 

 

On campus, Maritza is a research assistant at the Pullias Center for Higher Education and volunteers with the Prison Education Project (PEP). Through PEP Maritza has volunteered at an all-male correctional facility in Norco and is currently volunteering at an all-female facility in Santa Fe Springs. In the Fall of 2020, Maritza will begin a Ph.D. program at USC in Education where she will study college access issues. 

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Breece Phipps, Co-Director 

Breece is a first-generation college student majoring in astronautical engineering at USC's Viterbi School of Engineering. Growing up, Breece did not take the usual route to higher education. As a young man, a series of poor choices landed him in prison. While incarcerated, he realized the power of education and used it as a catalyst to change his life for the better.

 

After his release, Breece enrolled in Sacramento City College where he served as Vice President of Mentoring and developed the Scholar-to-Scholar Mentorship Program and the High School Outreach Initiative. Both focused on mentoring formerly incarcerated students and troubled youth. He also worked with Re-Emerging Scholars to provide support, programming, and classes for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students as they transition into college.

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Gurasees Bajaj, Co-Director

Gurasees is a first-year undergraduate majoring in Health and Human Sciences on the Pre-Health track. After attending a national conference in Chicago on de-incarceration initiatives, he was inspired by the work being done by the California public school system to support formerly incarcerated individuals. Gurasees joined the Underground Trojans team to help create a prison-to-school pipeline at USC. Gurasees believes in the power of outreach and education to serve as a rehabilitative pathway for those impacted by the prison system.

 

On campus, Gurasees is a Dornsife Ambassador, leads workshops for Imagining America, participates in stem cell research, and volunteers with Share a Meal, the Prison Education Project, and Trojan Health Volunteers. Gurasees also enjoys watching the latest Oscar nominees, and eating the finest street food LA has to offer.

Jack Mangikyan, Advocate 

Jack is a junior undergraduate, studying Music Industry at the USC Thornton School of Music. He has focused extensively on building a successful career in the music industry, working with professional recording studios and record labels as an artist manager and much more. On campus, Jack is involved with Concerts Committee and the FAM, USC's professional and social community for aspiring music professionals.

 

Before transferring to USC, Jack helped support himself through school as a writing tutor. During that time, he developed an appreciation for helping people with all different personalities and backgrounds. He believes in the power of music as a tool to protest injustice and sees Underground Trojans as an opportunity to amplify voices that have long been unheard.

GRADUATED MEMBERS

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Blake Ackerman, Associate Director

Blake is a junior majoring in Business Administration with a minor in Social Entrepreneurship. He currently serves as the Vice President of USC's Undergraduate Student Government, and in that role, he has learned about many student issues that often reflect community and global issues, such as food insecurity, intolerance, and the importance of well-being. In researching the applied marketing tactics of Project Rebound and the Underground Scholars Initiative, two successful prison-to-school pipeline programs, Blake came to realize the rehabilitative power of education and its significance on personal growth. He has made it his mission to bring the success of those projects to USC.

 

Last summer, Blake completed an internship at NBCUniversal to develop his professional career path into the legal field. When not on campus, Blake loves traveling, reading, and spending time at the beach.

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Araksya Nordikyan, Co-Director

Araksya is a senior pursuing a major in Philosophy, Politics and Law, and a progressive degree in Master of Public Administration. In the past, her ambition and commitment to civil liberties led her to join the Student Senate for California Community Colleges, where she served as a voice for students by engaging in legislative and policy advocacy at the local, regional and state level. Currently, Araksya is a panelist for a sentencing alternative program and a director of a non-profit organization that supports Teen Court, both of which are diversion programs for first-time juvenile and adult offenders to avoid criminal convictions. With her diverse background, academic discipline and political engagement, Araksya hopes to continue her work on social issues and contribute to shaping a more socially inclusive world.

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Maria F. Manjarrez, Advocate 

Maria is a junior, double-majoring in Political Science and Public Policy and Law. In Spring 2017, Maria was appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown to the California Student Aid Commission, the agency charged with supplying aid to vocational schools and public and private universities across the state. Manjarrez was nominated after going to Sacramento to lobby for Cal Grants with USC’s Office of Financial Aid. Maria also serves as Unruh Associates President, the premier political group at USC for students interested in engaging in politics. Aside from her advocacy work to increase access to higher education, in her spare time you can find Maria hanging out with friends or fangirling it over congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

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Diana Greer, Advocate 

Diana is a first-generation, graduate student in the Master of Education in Educational Counseling program at USC. She attended Cal State Fullerton where she received her B.A in English with a minor in Chicano Studies. Diana is a research assistant at The Pullias Center for Higher Education and USC Race and Equity Center and interns at Project Rebound at Cal State LA, assisting formerly incarcerated students with technology and writing. She also serves as President of The Latina/o Graduate Student Association at USC.

 

Diana's father attends college after serving more than half of his life in prison. She helped him gain his freedom back by advocating for Prop 57 and opposing the "3 strikes" laws. She will continue to fight recidivism through higher education and is passionate about improving equal access to college, building the prison-to-school pipeline, and creating college resources for student parents.