137th and 138th Commencements Address

May 14-20, 2021

Greetings, everyone!

And welcome to the 2021 and 2020 Commencement at the University of Southern California.

Here we are in the historic LA Coliseum – the first class to graduate here in 70 years – and we even lit the torch in honor of you, our graduates.

I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to be with so many of you as we celebrate not one, but two graduating classes!

That’s more than 38,000 degrees going to individuals from every walk of life, every corner of the globe, and every background imaginable.

Thousands of hopes and dreams are here in person or joining us online from around the world today – each of you with stories of triumph and perseverance.

I know and am so sorry that many of you or your loved ones couldn’t be here in person and know how disappointing that is.

Please know you’re all in our hearts and thoughts today – and we look forward to welcoming you to campus sometime soon.

Two overwhelming factors shaped the past year for all of us – COVID-19 and the cries coming from across the nation to stop racism, hate, and social injustice.

We were tested in ways we could scarcely imagine just one year ago.

In some cases, the pandemic forced you to shift gears or pursue different paths.

Some of you, like so many across the world, endured unimaginable personal loss and hurt.

To our friends and colleagues in India, you are very much in our thoughts right now as you work to contain the shocking surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths in your country.

We also are thinking of our friends in the Middle East, who are coping with devastating violence there.

Here at USC, I am inspired daily by the courage and perseverance I see.

And I’ve been deeply moved as I’ve watched you discover new opportunities to contribute and grow – even during these difficult times.

Whatever its impact, COVID didn’t derail or defeat you.

And it certainly didn’t define you. You wouldn’t let it. And we wouldn’t either. 

Instead, faculty, staff, other students, and legions of generous alumni doubled down to do their all, to make sure you received a first-class education – whatever the circumstances.

And I believe we all benefited – by innovating; by finding new ways of thinking and operating; by unleashing the tremendous creative power we all carry; and by reaching deep into our personal reservoirs of service, fairness, and empathy to build bridges, heal wounds, rekindle hopes, and inspire excellence.

I want to call out for special mention and thanks all the caring doctors, nurses, essential workers, researchers, and others, including some of our graduates today, who bravely and selflessly joined the fight against COVID and helped to save and rebuild thousands of lives.

You are heroes of this time in history.

And I salute all our graduates who put public service at the center of their lives – in the military, the government, and elsewhere. You will make the difference we need ahead.

You did all of this – and much more – thanks to the deep foundation of scholarship and service that is the DNA of USC, a foundation beautifully captured in our mission, which is to develop “human beings and society as a whole through the cultivation and enrichment of the human mind and spirit.”

These are powerful words that you have lived every day here, and we’ve seen the strength of your minds and spirits as they took flight.

Whether you composed a hip-hop opera, argued successfully in moot court, engineered a robotic tool to help surgeons, vaccinated fellow Angelenos, organized for social justice, planned the growth of the urban forest right here, or any of the thousands of other remarkable achievements by USC students, you brought the USC mission to life, and you proved once more how important and relevant it is to today’s world and tomorrow’s. 

And now graduates, it’s your time to fly – to soar – to your next path; to make your mark; and create your legacy in places well beyond your home here. 

How you do this is up to you. With your USC degree, you have the tools – the grounding – to make it happen.

All you need is your vision, your blueprint for action. Maybe you already have one that you developed during your time at USC or maybe you’re not at a place yet where you can make out the contours of your future. That’s okay. Plans change and visions evolve. Yours will too.

As you think about navigating your future, I want to share five compass points that may be useful.

First, stay curious and always driven to learn, discover, and excel. Education is a lifelong process.

Second, wherever you go, work hard to expand the tent and to advance belonging, diversity, and equitability for all. It’s not just institutions like USC that need to make this a priority; individuals do as well. It starts with each of us as humans.

Third, be the one who is always reaching out to collaborate and come together, especially with people who don’t necessarily share your opinions. I promise this will enrich your life.

Fourth, please tread lightly on the planet. Don’t be afraid to take on the grand challenges of our times, like sustainability, social and racial justice, world peace, health and educational equity, and so many more.

You’re capable of contributing meaningfully to solutions in ways most people could only dream of doing.

It is your privilege and your responsibility.

And finally, a vision without strong values is only a hollow promise. So follow your north star and trust in yourselves.

What you’ve been through over the past year has prepared you to excel and lead. You’re dreamers and doers, pioneers and trailblazers, visionaries and change agents.

You make me optimistic about the future.

So now, before you take your final steps to graduating, I’d like to share a brief story with you.

As you may know, I’m a scientist and biologist, who’s inspired by the splendor of the natural world; the sounds, smells, animals, plants, and living world around us; as well as the unpredictability, loss, and rebirth that is everywhere.

A few years ago, I crouched on a rocky cliff high over a beach on the southern-most tip of New Zealand.

I was there – concealed behind my hideaway – to witness an ancient and magical event: the flight of a newly fledged giant albatross.

From just a few feet away, I watched one of the world’s largest seabirds with a wingspan of nearly 12 feet run forward with an ungainly, awkward stride; leap off the cliff; catch the currents of the wind; and soar far out over the sea at the start of its yearlong journey over water.

It was unforgettable – a biologist’s dream.

My memory of that bird’s leap into the unknown made me think of you. You are getting ready to take your next leap, your transition.

Think about the wild exuberance associated with taking flight and about the new perspective gained when soaring above the clouds.

Of course, the albatross is ready for it.

Millions of years of evolution have engineered them perfectly for flight; they will not even touch the land for another year.

Now, it is your turn, USC graduates. Your moment has arrived. You are ready.

Take the leap. Take flight. You are well-prepared to change the world.

[Following the conferral of degrees, President Folt returned to deliver closing remarks.]

What an amazing morning this has been!

Today, like the albatross, I am watching you take off.

Make a mental picture of this day. Remember the energy, hope, love, and enthusiasm for life you have, the feeling of opening up, and stretching your wings and carry it with you wherever you go.

You’ve learned how to finish stronger than you started, and you aren’t stopping.

As you leave today – forever a part of this magical university and Trojan family – we promise that you will always be welcome, valued, and heard.

And I would like to call for another Trojan tradition and ask all the families of our graduates to please rise.

Graduates, whether you are here in person or watching online, it is now your turn to say thank you to them.

Let’s also thank the 350 people who worked so hard to create this wonderful celebration and the other 13 ceremonies and day-long virtual experience 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.

In a minute, graduates, you will march down the Coliseum field to receive your diplomas. You’ll hear your name, and we’ll see your faces on the big screen.

But before that happens, I’d like to introduce a talented student from our Thornton school, Benjamin Cross, who will sing our Alma Mater, and I encourage you to sing along.

Take care. Congratulations, and Fight On!