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An Upward Trajectory

Jairo Bonilla ’20 beat the odds and climbed from gangland to graduation, with a degree in accounting from Leventhal. He walked with his class at the Coliseum in May 2021.

June 10, 2021
Jay Bonilla is a Leventhal graduate
Jay Bonilla starts his career at KPMG in the fall.

By his own reckoning, Jairo (Jay) Bonilla '20 shouldn’t be where he is today, about to start his career with a Big Four accounting firm.

“I have to thank USC for taking a chance on someone with my background, and offering me the opportunity to change my life,” he said.

A Rough Start

Bonilla, now a USC Leventhal grad as well as an Army veteran, grew up in the rough part of San Diego. When gang violence got too close to home, his mother, an immigrant from El Salvador, packed up the family—three brothers and one sister—and relocated to Burbank.

But the change of neighborhood didn’t change things overnight for Bonilla. He still hated high school. He was angry, he recalled. And stubborn. He didn’t like being told what to do. He was kicked out of the school district at one point and had to attend classes at an alternative school. When he was allowed to return to in-district classes, his attitude hadn’t improved, and he barely graduated, finishing up his last classes at the adult high school center. His GPA was below 2%. “My work ethic wasn’t the best,” he admitted.

He joined the Army in 2006 because he had no other options.

But the discipline did him good, he said. “They broke down the person I was and slowly built back somebody better.” Bonilla became a sergeant and then a staff sergeant. “I had a lot of great mentors while I was in the military.”

In his fourth year, he was put in charge of other people, and that completely changed his outlook. “When you’re responsible for others, it changes your perspective,” he said.

Two tours in Afghanistan later he faced a decision. “I could re-up for a third time, but at that point I’d do the whole 20 years, and I wanted accomplish other things,” he said. So he took his honorable discharge after nine years, and, with his GI Bill, attended culinary school.

While he was adapting to a civilian life, he began taking classes at Pasadena City College, where he took his first accounting class. Something clicked.

“The numbers and math always made sense to me,” he said. “That other stuff? History, econ? Nah!” But here was a profession that appealed to him as a vet. “The firms, their structure is similar to the military—you start at the bottom, and when you prove yourself, you move up.”

He found a mentor in PCC Professor Michelle Lee, who helped him navigate the unfamiliar protocols of higher education. It was she who suggested USC Leventhal, because it was one of the best. He’d always been a Trojan fan, so that’s where he set his sights on transferring.

Getting In

Bonilla will be the first to say that his GPA isn’t the highest. But he’d also argue that his work ethic has improved dramatically. He applied to Leventhal, but was rejected the first time. Then again.

Here’s where his old stubbornness paid off. He refused to give up. On his third rejection, he wrote an appeal and laid out his argument about why he was worthy of a USC Leventhal education.

He pointed out that with his military leadership skills, he would step up to help other students reach for their goals. He pointed out that his VA support would ensure he could complete his classes and graduate. And finally, “I just wanted it more.”

His arguments were persuasive, and he matriculated at Leventhal as a junior. Right away he connected with Smrity Randhawa, associate professor of clinical accounting and assistant dean for Leventhal’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. “She was one of the first professors at Leventhal who understood PTSD,” he said. “She specifically made sure I got the help I needed.” He cited Professor Greg Kling as another valued mentor.

While at Leventhal, he became familiar with the recruiters and availed himself of the programs offering training and internships. He will be starting his career at KPMG as an audit associate in September.

Jay Bonilla and his mother, on commencement Day
Jay Bonilla and his mother outside the L.A. Memorial Coliseum on May 18, 2021.

While he formally graduated in 2020, Bonilla was able to walk to the stage during the 2021 commencement ceremony held at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in May.

“That was the graduation I invited my mom to,” he said. “A lot of the things I do, I do for her. It wasn’t easy raising five kids. And it wasn’t easy raising me.”

He credits his mother, the Army and USC for helping him identify and realize his goals.

“USC gave me the chance to elevate myself and my family” he said. “Now my kids will have an easier chance.”

Next up for Bonilla? A Ph.D.

“My time in the military showed me how fragile life can be," he said. "I want to be able to do what I want in the time I have left.”

For Bonilla, he's still that headstrong kid who's going to do what he wants. And now, nobody can tell him he can't.