Commencement ’01: Some reach this fork in life’s road against all odds

Benjamin Cone, Sourena Vasseghi, Rebeca Aguirre, left to right, gave it their best shot.

Photo by Irene Fertik

No one will ever be able to say that USC graduating seniors Sourena Vasseghi, Benjamin Cone and Rebeca Aguirre failed to use every ounce of their potential and then some.

Each of them turned their disabilities into assets by embarking on adventures that have changed not only their futures, but also the lives of those around them. All have in common a charming sense of humor and an indomitable will to succeed. They are representative of scores of other disabled students at USC who have refused to let anything stand in the way of achieving academic and personal excellence.

Here are their stories:

Sourena Vasseghi

Sourena Vasseghi’s air supply was cut off for 10 minutes at birth. Twelve months later, doctors declared that he had cerebral palsy, a condition that impaired his speech and left him with limited control over his muscles.

But Vasseghi’s mind and spirit were undamaged.

“For me there were only two choices,” Vasseghi, 23, said. “Sit down and feel sorry for myself, which would get me nowhere, or work as hard as I could to achieve my goals.”

He chose the second option. Vasseghi, who has a 3.3 GPA and who will be awarded a B.S. degree in business administration Friday, May 11, has big plans for his life.

“My first step will be to write my autobiography, describing in detail the obstacles I have faced and the triumphs that I have achieved. I also want to set up my own foundation to help other people in similar situations.”

In the meantime, Vasseghi intends to continue having fun.

“Although it’s not pretty, I don’t miss an opportunity to go out dancing with my friends,” Vasseghi joked. “I love hanging out with my friends and learning about other people’s lives and just joking around. I also like to go to Las Vegas for a few gambling rounds at the craps table.”

Vasseghi‘s outgoing personality and sharp mind captured the hearts of his classmates, said his marketing professor, James Ellis.

“He was one of the truly brightest kids in my sales force management and advertising and promotion classes,” Ellis said. “Another student once asked ‘Why is it that every time [Vasseghi] says something, he provides insight into what we’re talking about? He’s always right on point. What is it he knows about the world that we don’t?'”

Experience gained from working in his parents’ restaurant may partially answer that question. Zehrah and Behzad Vasseghi of Agoura Hills “involved me in the decision-making of the business,” Vasseghi said. “This fueled my interest in the real business world and certainly helped me in my career choice.”

Benjamin Cone

At age 10, Benjamin Cone was still struggling to learn how to read and write. “I remember being very anxious any time I had to read publicly and feeling very frustrated, especially with writing,” said the 22-year-old gender studies major, who in kindergarten was diagnosed as dyslexic and disgraphic – having problems with reading and writing. “I had difficulty following really complex instructions, and it was hard for me to grasp concepts of grammar, punctuation and things like that. It’s still very difficult for me to write cursive writing, so I still print for the most part.”

Luckily, Cone’s parents, Richard Cone, executive director of USC’s Joint Educational Project, and Jean Cone, principal of an adult school, recognized that their youngest child had learning difficulties and transferred him to an alternative school that allowed students to progress at their own pace.

Cone’s self-esteem was also boosted by his athletic ability, said his fifth- and sixth-grade teacher, Art Phiffer.

“When he was on campus, he never walked; he would hurdle all the benches and trash cans that he came to,” Phiffer said. “He ended up being an outstanding swimmer in high school.”

A sunny personality also helped Cone fit in with his fellow classmates, Phiffer said. “He always had a smile on his face. Ben never lost his belief that he could be just as good as any other person.”

Cone, who is graduating with a 3.8 GPA, didn’t limit his college activities to studying. He has followed in his father’s footsteps by donating hundreds of hours of community service to the University Park neighborhood. Upon graduation, Cone said he plans to become a teacher or work in the arena of education reform.

Rebeca Aguirre

When Rebeca Aguirre was about 11 or 12 years old, someone told her that she would always be a burden on her family.

“She told me that I would never amount to anything,” said Aguirre, whose slurred speech and uncoordinated gait was caused by cerebral palsy. “It’s very complex, but yes, I wanted to prove that person wrong. But since then, there has been a lot of forgiveness and healing.”

Aguirre, who couldn’t speak any English when she immigrated from Ecuador to the United States at age 6, will graduate with a 3.8 GPA as a communication major with a minor in film.

“It took me a long time to get my degree,” Aguirre, 28, said. ” I started at El Camino Community College in 1992, and I transferred to USC in 1998.”

Before going on for a master’s degree, Aguirre intends to do a little traveling.

“My first stop will be Ecuador, but my ultimate dream is to go to the Holy Land,” Aguirre said. “Eventually I want to do consulting with filmmakers regarding disability issues.”

Aguirre, the daughter of Marcia Noboa of Torrance, has the stuff of real leadership, said Robert Scheer, senior lecturer in the Annenberg School of Journalism and a Los Angeles Times syndicated columnist.

“She is cheerful, upbeat and very, very bright,” Scheer said. “She is certainly one of the smartest students I’ve had, whether here at USC, Berkeley, UCLA or UCI. She has been inducted into Phi Beta Kappa and is in the honor society at Annenberg. I expect her to have a very important impact on this country.”

Scheer is more than Aguirre’s instructor; he is her friend.

“I really like hanging out with her and so do my two sons,” he said. “It’s her sense of humor. I never feel down when I’m around her. I never feel like I’m doing her a favor.”