LOS ANGELES — Ethan Ward peered through the glass doors of the University of Southern California’s journalism school, Annenberg — pressing his face up to the glass.

The doors to the state of the art building were locked, like many of the USC academic buildings on campus, due to the pandemic. 

Ward, who graduated with a bachelor’s of arts degree from Annenberg last year, was on campus to wrap up his graduate degree in public diplomacy.

What You Need To Know

  • For the first time since 1950 USC will hold graduation ceremonies in the USC Memorial Coliseum

  • From May 14th to May 20th, USC will be hosting in person graduation for the class of 2020 and 2021

  • Each graduate was permitted o invite two guests to the socially distanced ceremony

  • Full information on all USC commencement events and livestreams can be found at https://commencement.usc.edu/

“So many memories, now I’m actually sad, because I don’t have to register for any more classes,” he said.

Ward has concluded his studies at a strange moment, after a year of lockdown. Schools are finally beginning to open up, but since March of last year, Ward has completed his work virtually.

However, the unusual conclusion is perhaps most fitting for this non-traditional student.

Ward, who is 38, had a circuitous journey to USC, but one he said he would not change.

The Maryland native spent his twenties living in DC working different jobs, partying and even had a scrape with the law. Eventually, he decided to leave DC and headed west to pursue acting in Los Angeles.

“I did stand in work and background work,” he said.

After trying to make it in entertainment, Ward realized he just did not feel passionate about acting. Instead, he decided to go back to school and get his bachelor’s degree.

“All I knew when I moved to LA were acting classes and where the studios were,” he said.

Ward had never heard of USC or any LA colleges. After doing some research and setting an intention to pursue a degree, he realized he would need to attend community college first, and then work on transferring after a few years.

“I found Los Angeles City College (LACC), and I applied because it was down the street from USC,” he said. “I knew I wanted to go to USC.”

By staying close to the USC campus, Ward remained focused on his goals, but when he returned to school, he was left with making a hard decision, enroll full-time or pay rent.

Ward chose to move into his car for a year.

“I remember Googling ‘how do you live in your car?’ I don’t think I thought it through until the first night and I realized, ‘oh, you’re actually homeless now,’” he said.

Ward said there were challenges that came along with living an unsettled life. His days revolved around meeting basic needs like charging his phone, showering, eating food, parking in the shade and avoiding tickets.

Despite the extremely challenging circumstances, Ward was able to continue with his work at LACC and eventually was admitted to USC Annenberg’s journalism program — his dream school.

He received a scholarship from USC that included housing, which allowed him to focus on his studies. By then, Ward was 36 years old.

“I still remember the first time I came to campus and I was just taking pictures of everything, and taking the campus in,” he reflects. “I felt like this was where I was supposed to go to school.”

Ward had initially planned to focus on entertainment reporting — a vestige of his interest in the film industry. One of his professors, Gabriel Kahn, who runs Crosstown — a data driven news organization — encouraged him to look into other areas, specifically homelessness and data.

“I said, I don’t know, crime is not really my vibe you know, but I ended up liking it a lot,” said Ward.

One story he worked on left a lasting impression. 

He wrote about the people who had died on the streets of Los Angeles in one year.  

“I was looking at a spread sheet with all of these names and their cause of death and where they died. I got emotional because I thought, ‘this could have been me,’” he said.

Kahn said he was impressed by Ward’s work.

“He went through the list [of people who had died] and brought them back to life through his reporting and gave some humanity to these people. Through that reporting, people found out about next of kin that they had lost contact with and the story had a tremendous impact,” said Khan.

After working with Ward for three years at USC, Kahn said he is sad to see him go, but excited about his former student’s next steps.

“He showed us that there is a pathway for people who come from these non-traditional backgrounds or decide to undertake college not in the linear timeline,” he said.  

Ward said there have been many eras of his life, some more challenging than others, but he’s looking forward to the next one.

“I am honestly just really proud of myself, just the journey to get here. I know for a lot of people it’s sad, that everything is coming to an end, but I’m excited. I’m ready and eager for the next chapter and the next step,” he said.