New Student Convocation: Fall 2019

August 22, 2019

Hello, and welcome to the University of Southern California’s 2019 Convocation.

And welcome new Trojans, members of the Class of 2023, families, friends, esteemed guests, and platform party!

Students, today we begin our USC journey together.

I’m new too, as president. You are my very first entering class, and you’ll always be special to me.

I was thinking about you as I woke up this morning – imagining that like me on my very first visit, you felt something very special here. Just walking across this beautiful campus, you can feel the spirit of the place.

It’s alive with possibility and promise and milling with people, who are smiling and busy and look determined to be part of something grand and meaningful.

Well, you’re here now and leading this celebration of your start is both an honor and a privilege.

Convocations are all about fresh starts, renewals, and opening up.

It’s a special moment. You’re standing at the edge of a new adventure, anticipating all that is to come. And I know your families are excited for you too. In fact, everyone you see here today – the people who set up this stage, guided your families from the parking lots; the gardeners; the facility workers; and the Trojan Marching Band; and of course, the faculty, staff, and the other students – is working to welcome you and help you on your voyage of discovery and learning.

I’ve been president of USC for just 53 days, but after talking with so many people, I’ve learned a few things. I want to share a couple with you.

First, you are now a member of the Trojan Family, and Trojans share a passion for USC that is legendary. This is the most important thing I’ll say to you today. Being part of this family comes with great responsibility – responsibility for integrity, for treating each other with respect and gratitude for all that is given to you and to the generations of Trojans who have done so much so that you could thrive today.

You have a responsibility to use your talents for the good of others. The passion of this community and responsibility you now carry pulls on the heart and inspires a strength that drives the entire Trojan Family. It’s why whenever challenges come our way – and they do – we also see opportunities to rise.

Second, it’s impossible not to get passionate about USC if you spend your summer the way I did. I immersed myself in USC history.

My biggest takeaway?

I learned that USC’s founders did something extraordinary, right at the start. It was 1880, and women could not yet vote in America – that would take another 40 years – but they could attend USC on an equal footing with men.  

And those women were smart.

Four years later, USC’s first valedictorian would be a woman – Minnie C. Miltimore. 

From the start, USC also had no boundaries of race, creed, or country of origin.

In 1903, Jamaican-born John Somerville became the first black student in the Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC and graduated top of his class. 

He had to put up with a lot, but he persevered and went on to become one of Los Angeles’ leading civic activists.

And in 1914, a group of international students launched the USC Cosmopolitan Club to “promote friendship” among students from Asia, Latin America, and Europe.

Yes, USC has been ahead of history, and it’s humbling to think of all the trojans who have come before us. 

The world celebrated one of them last month with the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s moon landing – Neil Armstrong.

Did you know he earned his master’s at USC, just one year after setting foot on the moon?

And in 2005, he was our commencement speaker.

He told the graduates: Develop strong values and principles because they are your most important possession. Those are words to live by.

I met a lot of you yesterday on Move-In Day, and we are now officially in Welcome Week. Meeting friends and families, new roommates, faculty-in-residence, RAs, and volunteers was a treat, but I’m glad I wasn’t carrying those giant suitcases!

You’re all moved in now and ready to make a new life.

You join a rich tradition of people who set big goals and made them happen.

Take a moment to look around at your talented classmates. These will be the people who are with you, who spur you on. Treat each other with respect, and some of them will become lifelong friends. Some will challenge you and help you change and grow.

They will pick you up when you fall and celebrate your victories.

Let me share a little bit about who you are, Class of 2023.

You are one of the most diverse classes in the history of this university. 

Your differences are a strength because they will challenge you to think critically about stereotypes and preconceptions you might have – and they help you think through problems with new perspectives and viewpoints.

There are 3,200 of you. 

Sixty-seven percent of you are students of color, and nearly 900 of you are underrepresented minorities. That’s a USC record!

Your class has an average high school GPA of 3.75.

You are from almost every state in America, 1,800 different high schools, and while some of you live close by, others of you come from all across the U.S. and from more than 60 countries.

Many of you have family members who went to USC, while many others of you are the first in your families to attend college.

And more than 1,400 of you are transfer students, including three dozen military veterans. In fact, I was also a transfer student. I moved to California from Ohio and enrolled part-time at Santa Barbara City College while I worked, eventually transferring to UCSB.

While you all worked hard to get here – and we believe in you – the paths that you have taken can be very different.

For example, Elizabeth turned down an Ivy League school to train with the Joffrey Ballet. She is retired now from dance and is entering the USC School of Cinematic Arts to share the voices of women of color with the world.

Richard, a Navy veteran, is a transfer student from Moorpark College. In his application, he wrote that his favorite place is “with my son,” who is 10. Richard will double-major in Economics and East Asian Languages and Culture. 

Three thousand two hundred different backgrounds and paths, yet we are all Trojans.

And here’s something else to think about: The next time you’re going to be back together as a group – right here in Alumni Park – will be at graduation. 

Four years goes by very quickly, so I’m going to give you a few bits of advice to help you make the most of this incredible time in your lives.

First, from my experience, both as a student and a professor, the most important thing you can do is to get to know your professors. Get in the habit of approaching them right from the start. They will challenge you, nurture you, and help you succeed. 

USC’s faculty includes Nobel laureates and National Medal winners. USC also has five professors from four different schools who’ve received a MacArthur “genius” grant.

That’s pretty special, but all of our faculty members are remarkable in their own ways. They are making history every day with their work.

Professor Doris Sung started asking questions about architecture when she was your age. One was: Why can’t architecture be animated to help humans?

Today, she is changing architecture. Her window-shading system uses rows of thermo-bimetals sandwiched between panes of glass. The very thin metal shapes come alive with the sun. They curl and close with the heat, cooling, and reducing energy needs. It’s like watching a work of art move.

Another is Dornsife Professor Travis Williams, who joined forces with postdoctoral scholar Zhiyao Lu. They are the first to develop a molecule that turns glycerol, a biofuel waste byproduct, into environmentally friendly sodium lactate. Their new business, Catapower, is part of the USC Viterbi Startup Garage.

In both examples, USC professors and students in their labs are putting innovation and sustainability into practice.

Our future as a global society depends on sustainability. I am very proud USC supports green efforts across our campuses, and you will be hearing a lot more about this in the coming days and years.

Now, my last bits of advice.

First, don’t be afraid to fail or to change your mind and change it again. Taking risks and learning from them is vital. Most of the creative and successful people I know say that if anything, they wish they explored more options, made a few more changes, and taken a few more risks.

Second, as you know, success takes work.

Shonda Rhimes, who earned her MFA at our School of Cinematic Arts, put it this way: “Dreams are lovely. But dreams do not come true just because you dream them. It’s hard work that creates change.”

Finally, no matter what you want to accomplish, the best thing you can ever learn is to know who you are.

All my best decisions have come when I listened to that inner voice – the voice of principle, integrity, and courage – that each of us has. You just have to tune into it, trust it, and then bring it to action.

J.K. Rowling once said, “We do not need magic to transform our world. We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already.”

With that power, our internal power, there is no limit to what you can accomplish. 

Today, with the start of your academic life here, you begin your own path as have generations of Trojans before who went on to make their mark in the world.

I am proud to stand with you as we embark on this together. Four years (or so) from now, I’ll be greeting you again at your graduation, and I expect to be even more proud of you then.

So, Class of 2023, let’s Fight On! and get started!