Welcome to the 2022 Commencement at the University of Southern California.
Take a deep breath – we’re here in this glorious place, taking part in a university’s most historic pageant of celebration – graduation!
We’re fully in-person – proudly wearing our colors and marks of distinction.
And we’re together, after times none of us, ever imagined.
That deserves a resounding Fight On!
Commencement is a particularly special event on the academic calendar – it marks years of hard work and accomplishment – culminating in the completion of something very precious – your USC degree.
And it marks your passage, together with those around you, through ripples and rapids, over peaks and through valleys, to this moment, and to the start of your next voyage.
Thinking about the meaning of this day, I’ve been moved by a new piece of art on our campus – a vibrant, evocative mural called “Passage” by Californian artist Dave Young Kim.
It stretches 34 feet at the entrance of the USC Asia Pacific American Student Services center – and it’s a tribute to Asian American and Pacific Islander history and legacy – at USC, in LA, and across the country.
I spoke with Dave recently, and he described his long talks with our students, staff, and faculty as he worked on the mural. He explained its many symbols: flowers representing the diverse cultures and regions of Asia; red and white circles, denoting the rising and setting of the sun and moon, marking the cycles of life; and waves, evoking the constant movement of people pursuing dreams, and searching for safe harbors.
The mural tells a compelling story. And it raises deep questions like, what it means to belong, to fit in, to stand out, and, to take a stand – against stereotypes, inequities, and racism.
Today, as you accept your degree, you launch yourself into a new life.
Writer Tom Stoppard tells us to “look on every exit as being an entrance somewhere else.”
That’s the nature of passages: they’re exits, leading to new entrances.
Graduates, your time here has been full of significant, even unique, passages.
For all of us, some substantial part of our time has been shaped by COVID.
Many of you know someone – perhaps a loved one – who became ill or even passed away from the disease. We carry their memory in our hearts today.
You pitched in – you helped with food deliveries, vaccination and testing programs, tutoring, and you provided a helping hand however you could.
Even during the darkest moments, we witnessed Trojans at their best. And, you gave new meaning to the phrase, turn on a dime.
As a biologist, I often think of passages in terms of life cycles – cycles of birth and renewal that define existence on our planet.
Just the other day, I was filled with joy to read that California condors have returned to Northern California, for the first time, in more than 130 years!
Declared extinct in the wild in 1987, condors are giant birds, with wingspans that can reach 10 feet. And last week, biologists released four juveniles, and watched them stretch their wings and fly off.
Even with this encouraging news, we humans still have a lot of work to do.
As stewards, the only stewards of our natural world, we must facilitate more passages like the California condor’s – and advance sustainability and environmental responsibility wherever we can.
And we can’t wait.
Sustainability is all about our collective passage through this world.
These days, I see it even more about our collective will to sustain the wonders of our planet, for our children, our children’s children and all those to come – and I see it about our collective ability to make that happen.
At USC, sustainability is our Assignment: Earth. It’s a centerpiece of our research and teaching, and of our policies and mindsets.
And it’s being driven by students – many of you graduating today.
And I thank you and am very pleased to tell you that we’re conducting a much greener Commencement this year. We’re using fewer gas-powered generators, we’ve phased out single use water bottles, and printed fewer programs and banners.
Passages also are about achievement – and I see that in abundance this bright morning. On the stage and across the fields in front of me, I see leaders in their fields, scholars, doctors, teachers, entrepreneurs, lawyers, activists, filmmakers, dancers, researchers, engineers, writers.
I see people working on the critical issues of our time – including sustainability, global instability, social justice, and economic, health, and educational inequality.
I also see extraordinary athletes, like our phenomenal Commencement speaker, who is also a champion for the rights and needs of mothers and female athletes.
And I see so many people – like our healthcare workers; our volunteers; our custodial, safety, catering, and landscape staff; our veterans; our ROTC members, whose accomplishments, while unsung, make our campuses – and our world – a better place.
You have our admiration, respect, and deep gratitude.
Now, before you turn the tassel, I want to speak directly to our soon-to-be graduates of 2022.
And as university presidents across America are prone to do, I’m going to offer a few words of advice, based on my own life’s passages.
First, define your personal true north, and use it as your indispensable navigation guide.
Ornithologists study the remarkable directional sense of birds, whose internal compass keeps them on the right path toward their destination – often thousands of miles away.
Humans, too, have a built-in directional sense, led by our beliefs and values, that steer our decisions, and propel us toward our goals.
Relying on that true north you carry will help you navigate the many passages of your life.
It’s not a fixed thing – even the magnetic North Pole shifts by 45-55 kilometers every year.
Your true north evolves – it will develop with your experiences and the changing world, just as mine has over the years.
And if it remains firmly rooted in your core values, your principles, and your humanity, there’s no limit on how far you can go.
Second, navigating life’s passages successfully is hard work.
In his recent lecture, one of the great pioneers of engineering, legendary USC Professor John Brooks Slaughter, introduced me to the wise words of ancient Greek poet Hesiod. Hesiod said, God gave us a smooth, easy path to failure, but God made it hard, requiring sweat, to be excellent.
Well, it also takes curiosity – openness – flexibility – experience – and compassion. I like to think that your time here at USC has helped reinforce these stalwart qualities in you.
And excellence takes courage.
LA-born writer and activist Cherríe Moraga talks about passage as a process that takes us through life’s experiences – “not over, not by, not around but through” them, she writes.
She’s saying that life’s most difficult challenges must be confronted head-on, courageously.
Trust me in this, challenges, and how you face them, are essential parts of who you are.
I promise you that having courage and confidence in your abilities will enrich your life and strengthen you for the difficult times we all face.
Third, as Dave Young Kim’s mural beautifully illustrates, there are many kinds of passages – and you’ll take them all.
Some are spiritual – journeys of faith and purpose.
Some are horrific – like those of migrants, right now, in many countries, fleeing war and persecution in search of a better, safer home in a distant land.
Some are uplifting – journeys of service and sacrifice and generosity.
As you face your coming passages, I say, pick the path defined by purpose.
Your USC education, and relationships you formed here, are precious and will serve you brilliantly.
You’re not afraid of facing society’s challenges – I’ve seen you embrace them with confidence and optimism.
And your faculty, staff, family, and friends all know, you have the tools, the passion, the ability, and the commitment to dive in, and make a difference.
I also know your passages will include safe harbors.
These will be people whose opinions you trust; they’ll come from new experiences that broaden your perspectives.
And they’ll include physical places of refuge and reflection, where you can consider important questions like, Am I on the right path? Am I being truthful to myself, and to those closest to me? Do my goals in life reflect what is important to me?
My best advice is to not just seek out safe harbors – create them for yourself, and for others.
Finally, as we all know, the moment we’re in, is the only moment we have.
Yet, even as we pass in and out of the daily lives of others, I’ve learned the connections we create, endure.
So I say, treasure the beauty both in the fleeting nature of life’s moments – as well as in the unbreakable bonds of friendship and shared purpose. They will smooth your passage.
Now, before we get to the business of graduating, I want to paraphrase slightly the start to Walt Whitman’s poem, “Song of the Open Road” – they’re wonderful words to launch a new adventure:
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road…
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose…
I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing…
Strong and content I travel the open road.
Okay, soon-to-be graduates of the class of 2022 – we postpone no more – the open road awaits! Let’s get on with the show.
[Following the conferral of degrees, President Folt returned to deliver closing remarks.]
Graduates, you’re now officially USC alumni, and you’re slaying it!
Take a mental selfie of this day. Hold on to the wonderful energy, hope, and enthusiasm for the future you’re feeling right now, and carry it with you wherever you go.
You leave here today, forever a part of this magical university – and of this Trojan Family. And we promise you will always be welcome back, valued, and heard.
Now, before closing, I would like to call for another Trojan tradition and ask all the families of our graduates, and our faculty and staff, to please rise.
Graduates, it’s your turn to say thank you to them – and to all the important people in your life – for the love and support that’s helped bring you to this moment.
Let’s also thank everyone who worked so hard to create this wonderful celebration and the other graduation festivities – as well as the many USC employees who make our campuses so beautiful, our traffic so smooth, our lives so pleasant, and who care deeply about you.
I want to send you off with one last thought about passages.
I know you’re excited to be moving to your next adventure, and yet anxious and sad, too, about the loss of daily contact with so many friends and people who have encouraged your spirit and built your safe harbor here.
The funny thing is – friendship warps the space-time continuum.
Whether a day, a week, a month, or years pass, friendships stay fresh in our hearts.
Another funny thing – friendship doesn’t age – it’s always there, waiting to be rekindled.
Poet Robinson Jeffers – who attended USC in the early 1900s and became a leading voice for conservation – wrote poignantly about how connections last, even over time and space.
I’ve changed my ways a little; I cannot now
Run with you in the evenings along the shore,
Except in a kind of dream; and you, if you dream a moment,
You see me there.
Thank you again, take care everyone, congratulations new graduates, and Fight On!