New Student Convocation: Fall 2020

August 6, 2020

Congratulations students. You’re about to begin your USC journey, and it will last your entire life. And parents, you are now a part of our Trojan family, too!

I know the pandemic looms large right now. But it won’t define you or your USC experience, and it sure won’t hold you back. Because our entire university is focused squarely on your future. As always, your health and well-being are our top priorities.

We also must abide by County and State regulations. So we’ve had to postpone face-to-face interactions this term. But the day will come, sooner than we know – and our campus will burst back into life once again.

In my first weeks as president of USC, my husband and I took a hike in Griffith Park and witnessed the gorgeous wildflower superbloom of 2019. It was a breathtaking riot of colors – reds, yellows, purples.

That superbloom reminds me of you – and when we’re all back – we’ll bloom together again, and draw inspiration from the energy, passion, and commitment each of you carries in your hearts.

For 140 years, USC students have blazed new trails, made exciting discoveries, created glorious works of art, founded businesses, fought for justice and equality, and built a better world for all.

All that continues today – in fact, right now, many of our people are searching for treatments for COVID-19, and serving communities impacted by the pandemic.

Yesterday, Space News reported a great story about how USC Information Sciences Institute students are building satellites that will be used by Lockheed Martin’s SmartSat program – as a critical part of four upcoming space missions. How cool is that?

You’ll make your mark as well. Because what you bring to USC – is exactly what we, what the world, needs right now.

We need your passion for equality and opportunity; your dedication to sustainability; your embrace of technology; your commitment to hard work; and your ambition to achieve excellence.

We need your fresh perspectives and fearlessness, too; your calls to make our society fairer, create a bright future for everyone, and to question the status quo.

But we don’t teach the answers here – we teach you how to find answers for yourselves.

And in the course of finding them, exciting new opportunities – unimagined ones – will open up for you.

What a moment this is – a time of great change, and for a creative, learning community, that is fuel. It’s driving us to find new ways of working together – to collaborate at warp speed. We’re transforming the way we learn and communicate.

USC has always been a hotbed of technology-driven innovation and creativity – in science and medicine, in business and engineering, in arts and in culture.

And what flows from this can be – literally – life-changing.

For example, the USC Institute for Creative Technologies – an interdisciplinary team of computer scientists, psychologists, and students – is using virtual reality and simulated human characters to develop a new tool to support the mental health of people dealing with COVID-19.

How we teach, share critical perspectives, and listenalso are changing.

You’ll be a part of that change – whether it is by learning to perform online, harmonizing across computers, conducting experiments and critiques virtually, networking and acquiring skills for a different work world ahead.

Now I’d like to talk a bit about you, our entering classes – you’re amazing achievers. You’re smart and accomplished – many of you have overcome personal challenges to come here. And you are inspiring – for me and all your fellow Trojans.

You’re among the more than 60,000 talented high school seniors and nearly 9,000 transfer students who applied for admission. That’s among the largest three pools – in our history!

In the class of 2024, we have more than 3,600 first-year enrollment commitments, and we delighted in your videos, Tweets, and Facebook postings.

You’ve set some records. You have the highest average high school GPA of any entering class in USC history. Twenty-one percent of you are first-generation college students, another record. That’s a 57 percent increase over last year’s class.

The entering first-year undergraduate class includes nearly 1,100 under-represented minority students, 490 international students, and about 550 of you have a relative who attended USC.

Forty-one percent of you are from California, and a quarter of you are from the greater L.A. area. You come from more than 2,000 U.S. high schools, and you represent every state, plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands. Wow!

You are citizens of 56 countries, including the U.S. I know it’s been a particularly stressful time for our international students – and our DACA students – and I want to recognize their courage and steadfastness in the face of many difficulties. We will do all we can to help you have full access to your education at USC.

Of course, behind these amazing statistics, are your individual, compelling stories.

One student from L.A. was on the honor roll all four years of high school, and excelled at athletics. He also balanced significant challenges at home, including a parent’s serious illness, and bouts of homelessness.

“Working hard became second-nature to me,” he wrote in his application, “because that was my escape.” 

Another student finished high school in three years, with perfect As. In her essay, she poignantly compared the bigotry she’s experienced as a woman of color to the religious intolerance many people experience in other parts of the world. 

She wrote, “I have … overcome situations that I thought I never could.”

Our transfer students are extraordinary as well – there are more than 1,500 of you, coming from more than 300 colleges. You too have an outstanding GPA! Your average age is 21, and the most senior among you is 58.

Two-thirds of you are transferring from other California colleges, but the rest of you attended institutions in 38 other states and six other countries.

Fifty-six percent of you are transferring from a community college, and 29 percent of you are first-generation.

More than 450 of you are under-represented minority students. This year, more than 40 U.S. military veterans are in the transfer class.

One of them talked about being stationed in a remote base, where he saw a much different life than the one he knew growing up.

“In rural America,” he wrote, “I realized how fractured we are as a society.”

Another student is joining Cinematic Arts and hopes to be involved in the Women in Cinematic Arts and African American Cinema Society.

And lifelong learners, take note: this student is returning to finish her degree 35 years later, after a successful career in the entertainment industry.

I was a transfer student. I went from Santa Barbara City College to U.C. Santa Barbara. There, I discovered my passion for science, discovery, and the environment; the interplay between humans and nature and the need to sustain our planet that gave me purpose, and still drives me as a scientist, a university president, and a human.

My education changed my future, and this is what I want for all of you, too.

Now, based on my many years as a professor, I have a few bits of advice to help you make the most of your time at USC.

First, get to know your professors – and the sooner, the better.

They will challenge you, nurture you, and help you succeed, and it’s easy to connect with them online. Our faculty includes Nobel laureates, National Medal winners, and MacArthur “genius” grant recipients, and the people who will lead changes we haven’t even imagined.

Our faculty take their role as mentors very seriously. Just last week, I learned about a student at the USC Thornton School of Music who had a fascinating idea for enhancing the concert experience while social distancing.

She was put in touch with several of our Visual Music faculty who are going to help her pitch her idea and potentially see it through development. So exciting!

The late Professor David Andrus worked closely with Golden Globe and Emmy winning actress America Ferrera during her time as a USC student.

“[He] wanted me to understand… that my passion for acting and what I loved doing in the world had the power to be a tool,” she said.

Second, have respect for others, and lead with kindness and gratitude.

Get to know each other. Share your knowledge, your experience, your hopes – and your fears. Listen and learn from each other. Be that person who is known for being interested in others.

The poet Maya Angelou famously said that the people you meet will never forget how you made them feel. 

You can make people feel appreciated – respected – loved.

You can also do more: you can invest them with hope.

We saw this last March when the COVID-19 crisis first hit, causing so much suffering across our campuses and the LA area. Hundreds of USC students stepped up to help – volunteering in food banks, reaching out to the unhoused, assisting Keck medical personnel, and offering a shoulder to lean on.

They restored hope to so many.

Third, use your time here at USC to dream – and dream big.

You’re in the perfect place to experiment – to shift gears and change course – to keep asking “why not?”

USC is where big dreams are nurtured and incubated, and where these dreams can become impactful – even world-changing – achievements.

Astronaut Neil Armstong, who received his MS in Aerospace Engineering at USC 50 years ago, said the important achievement of the moon mission was demonstrating that “humanity is not forever chained to this planet” and “our opportunities are unlimited.”

He was right – your opportunities are unlimited. And, as he proved, the sky is no longer the limit.

Today, USC students are pushing the envelope in so many cutting-edge fields, like advanced robotics, artificial intelligence, health justice, and gaming. From this moment on, you are part of the legendary Trojan Family, more than 430,000 strong.

Now, I’d like to turn things over to our Vice President for Student Affairs, Winston Crisp, who’ll introduce some of the students who have joined our celebration today.

[President Folt returned later in the program to deliver closing remarks.]

I want to conclude our ceremony today by remembering someone who devoted his life to fighting on – for freedom, for justice, for a better America for all.

Many of us watched the moving tributes last week for the late Congressman and Civil Rights hero John Lewis.

We were reminded of the legacy he left – and the unfinished business still before us.

On the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, he said: “We all need to do our part to push and pull together, to make a difference in our society.”

In challenging times – like what Lewis lived through in the 1950s and 60s, and what we’re all experiencing right now – it’s not easy to heed those words.

But they’re more relevant – and urgent – than ever. You understand this, perhaps better than most, as I said earlier. You’ve already demonstrated – through your words and deeds – your commitment to making a difference in society.

You must also use your time here to learn what it means to be part of a community, to accept as your responsibility to be a neighbor, a friend, a voice for reason in service to others.

There are many wonderful examples of this spirit of service among our students – let me tell you about one.

Recently, as part of a class assignment, several USC students created a tool to help refugees learn new skills to prepare them for life after resettlement. They traveled to the largest refugee camp in Europe, and interviewed residents about their needs. They then developed a smartphone app that would teach important life skills through videos and interactive lessons. The app – called “Key Learning” – is available right now on Google Play.

Yet even beyond serving others, by becoming a member of our community, you are taking on the responsibility to be responsible, to hold the highest ethical and academic standards, and to follow rules designed to protect not only your own health and safety, but that of the broader USC and LA community.

Equally important, you are also expected to treat each other with respect, both physically and verbally – even as you face each other across great divides of experience, opinion, politics, religion, and culture.

Our job, while you are here at USC, is to equip you to achieve grand goals like these – to push and pull together, and build our future as one community. It takes courage, perseverance, and conviction. And that job starts right now.

Today, you begin your exciting journey. And we’re full of anticipation and hope for the things you’ll achieve – for yourselves and most importantly for others.

Please join me officially as Trojans to say, Fight On!