“Lives, Not Grades” earns an Emmy nomination at the 74th Annual Los Angeles Area Emmy Awards – USC Viterbi


Life, Not Notes Cover Photo

The film Lives, Not Grades received an Emmy nomination for Best Independent Program the 74th Annual Los Angeles Area Emmy Awards.

Produced by a team from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, the film documents students from 2019 “Innovation in technology and design for global crises” class while they travel “the worst refugee camp in the world” with the hope of finding solutions.

Lives, Not Grades takes viewers behind the scenes as 36 students from seven different USC schools design and build innovations that can improve the lives of refugees fleeing wars and natural disasters on the Greek island of Lesvos. Throughout the film, USC students focused on issues with sanitation, shelter, electricity and education for the more than 20,000 refugees at Moria camp — a place locals have dubbed “hell on earth.” The inventions of the class still have an impact today. For example, Duet, a micro-philanthropy platform co-founded by Micheal Cesar ’19, started in class.

Cesar, a graduate of the USC Marshall School of Business, says he learned how to address the needs of refugees over the course of the film while working with his fellow engineers. “Top-down solutions don’t work. You have to work with and learn from those who face the problems,” he said. The web platform allows small donors to make a big philanthropic impact by donating items like cleaning supplies or shoes.

Micheal Cesar '19 watches as guides help students find their way around Moria refugee camp.

Micheal Cesar ’19 watches as guides help students find their way around Moria refugee camp.

Creating a film that focused on an evolving issue like a refugee crisis weighed heavily on the film’s creators. “I didn’t want this to be just another themed film that people would quickly forget,” said Dan Druhora ’14, the film’s director and USC Viterbi Instructor in Storytelling for Engineers, Innovators, and Makers. “Being an engineer is human while also accepting the possibility of failure,” he said while reflecting on some of the challenges faced by students in Greece. Druhora was joined on this journey to found the class and produce Lives Not Grades by Burcin Becerik-Gerber, Chair of the Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, David Gerber, Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Practice Environmental Engineering and Architecture, and Brad Cracchiola Lecturer in Product Development.

None of the film’s creators ever imagined that it would gain as much traction as it has in the world of television. “I wouldn’t have imagined that,” said Becerik-Gerber. Aside from the award itself, the Lives not Grades team believes the nomination will only draw more attention to the refugee cause. “From the beginning, our goal has been to bring this innovative way of teaching and learning to others… I really think this is the kind of effort that needs to be repeated,” she said when discussing future plans.

The film shows problem solving in line with The Grand Challenges Scholars program, a new educational model to prepare engineers to be world changers. During Lives, Not Grades, students were constantly pushed out of their comfort zones as they were shown how to apply problem-solving to real-world situations.

When you see these students in the documentary and they’re tasked with transforming the lives of refugees, it’s an almost absurd challenge,” said Adam Smith, a co-producer on the film. “But something very remarkable happened along the way – these students were clearly transformed by this experience. Many of them afterwards said it was the most memorable moment of their entire USC experience.”

Following Professor Jay Kuo’s Emmy Award last year, the film’s performance marks the second time a USC Viterbi team has received an Emmy nomination (and a potential second win). However, Cesar hopes the documentary will stand for something bigger and inspire people to unite: “There are no easy solutions to the global challenges of our time. With the right mindset, discipline and opportunity, it is possible to make a difference.”

Published on July 13, 2022

Last updated on July 13, 2022


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