Eesen Sivapalan has surmounted more than his share of obstacles to get to Commencement on May 10 at USC. And he did a lot more than just squeak by. He managed to complete a double major in business and accounting and launch a startup with another Trojan.
For his efforts, he was chosen to carry the USC Marshall banner as the class of 2019 marched into the Galen Center.
Sivapalan, a native of Reading, Mass., spent the better part of high school in India when his father, a software engineer, was laid off during the financial crisis. When he came back to the States, it was to Huntsville, Ala., for Sivapalan’s senior year. “Yeah, it was a big culture shock,” he says. He went to a nearby community college and applied to transfer to a leading private research university. Although he was accepted, his dad was laid off again, and the tuition was too expensive.
He stayed home for the fall semester, tutoring and reading books, and applied to the same school for the spring. He wasn’t accepted this time so he went to the nearby University of Alabama, Huntsville.
"When you truly desire something, the whole universe conspires to help you achieve it."—Eesen Sivapalan
“I knew I only had one more shot to transfer to a top business school,” he says. Luckily, his brother who was a high school senior, got a letter from USC asking him to apply. He told Sivapalan to look at USC. He applied and was accepted.
“I had to wait for the financial aid offer because the financial situation at home was very unsteady,” he says. “With scholarships and financial aid, I would only have to pay $8,000 for my first year at USC. I was in tears because now I could go.”
Sivapalan’s brother got accepted at Berkeley, and meanwhile, their dad was laid off again. They convinced the whole family to move to California. Coincidentally, Sivapalan had an internship as a quality assurance test engineer, and the company had a branch in Fremont, Calif. “All the chips were lined up,” he says. The family made a four-day road trip to the West Coast and his dad found a job.
His first semester, Sivapalan was feeling he had it made. “I was at USC, one of the best schools in the country,” he says.
Then in October, a fire destroyed his apartment. He stayed at the Radisson with his smoky belongings for two weeks. Five days before he was supposed to move back in, he was told he needed to find a new place to live. As a result, he dropped two classes and, consequently, his computer science minor.
His second year at USC wasn’t any easier. “My mom had appendicitis, and I had to go home often to care for her.”
After completing his second year, he took a year’s leave of absence, during which he cared for his mother and worked full-time as an accountant “to help the family financially and gain some experience.” He also drove Lyft on the weekends, 12 hours each day, to earn more. Sivapalan got a summer internship near home with Workday that paid him well and gave him free housing.
Then he returned to USC for his third year and made the most of it. He became president of the Hindu student organization (his parents are Sri Lankan), lead student intern with the Marshall Undergraduate Program Office, a member of Society 53 and Undergraduate Student Government, and a volunteer with Volunteer Income Tax Assistance.
He also met Rob Luo, with whom he started Mi Terro, a green fashion company with a social mission where he’ll continue to work part-time after graduation. [Read more about Mi Terro here.] Mi Terro was one of the winners of the 2019 New Venture Seed Competition sponsored by the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies.
“I never thought that I would have started a company with Rob. I never thought I’d be coming back to USC so soon either. But it all worked out, and I have a full-time job with Workday consultants that I’ll start in September,” he says.
The most important thing he learned was: Never get too complacent. But his favorite quote comes from the book The Alchemist. “When you truly desire something, the whole universe conspires to help you achieve it,” Sivapalan says.
Not that you sit back and let the universe do the work for you, he added. “If you really want something, you have to put yourself in position to get it. You have to make the most of the opportunities around you, make connections and stay in touch with those you care about.”