New Student Convocation: Spring 2020

January 10, 2020

Hello, and Happy New Year!

New Trojans and Trojan parents, welcome to the University of Southern California’s New Student Convocation.

It’s both an honor and a privilege to be leading today’s celebration.

Students, today you begin your USC journey. Enjoy the anticipation and enjoyment that the start of a new adventure brings. 

There is a terrific line in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility that reads: Anticipation is the “expectation of happiness which is happiness itself.”

You can feel a sense of place here, a sense of possibility and promise, of something grand, of something meaningful. 

For more than 25 years, Emmy-winning acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton has explored the sounds of nature: inside spruce logs in Washington state, the American prairie from dawn to dusk, and thunder driving across the Kalahari Desert.

He defines the “quiet” in nature as presence.  

This kind of listening requires us to let our senses open up. But the payoff is big.

“When you become a better listener to nature,” he says, “you become a better listener to your community, your children, the people you work with.”

Listening will be very important on this journey you’re beginning because it’s in listening that we can truly hear our inner voice amid the noise. And we can more easily recognize our “sense of place.”

Today’s celebration, especially with the coming of spring, is 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 here is excited for you – the people who guided your families from the parking lots, the facility workers, and of course, the faculty, staff, and the other students who want to help you on your voyage of discovery and learning. 

Since becoming president six months ago, I too have been on a voyage of discovery and learning. 

I’ve learned what it means to be a member of the Trojan Family. It means our greatest strength comes as a community, where passion and compassion work together, inspired by a heart of strength and hope. It means being the best person you can be, and never forgetting the generations of Trojans whose achievements helped USC rise to extraordinary heights and whose generosity help you thrive today. 

We’ve always been pioneers, and it began with our founders, whose principles are grounded in innovation, community service, diversity, and inclusion.

Forty years before women could vote in America, these same founding principles allowed women to enroll at USC and compete on the same level as men.

Fifty years before Sandra Day O’Connor was named to the Supreme Court, a USC law school graduate because our state’s first female Superior Court judge. Her name was Georgia Bullock.

And 60 years before Martin Luther King delivered his speech, “The Other America,” an African American named John Somerville graduated at the top of his class at USC’s dental school and went on to become one of L.A.’s most respected civic activists.

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 summer 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.

Today, you begin the newest chapter of your life.

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 some will help you change and grow.

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

Let me tell you a little something about who you are – and those around you.

All together, there are 890 of you; 340 of you are first-year students; and 550 of you are transfers, including eight U.S. military veterans. 

Academically, the first-year students among you averaged a 3.72 GPA in high school.

Our newest transfer students averaged a 3.73 GPA in college.

About two-thirds of you are students of color, 22 percent under-represented minorities, 23 percent first-generation students, and another 23 percent have family members who attended USC.

We also have a lot of Californians among you: 62 percent.

And 124 of you are international students, representing 29 different countries.

Nearly 100 of you spent the fall studying abroad.

Learning to overcome the challenges of living abroad, especially if you had to learn a new language, gives you a much greater understanding of other cultures and of the world.

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.   

And now that you are Trojans, your lives will most certainly change.

Perhaps especially those of you who are transfer students.

I say this because I once was a transfer student.

I was enrolled part time at Santa Barbara City College and supported myself by working as a waitress. I thought I was going to be a studio artist and transferred to UCSB, not realizing the amazing opportunities that were suddenly in front of me.

It began with Introduction to Biology. I was struck by the instructor’s passion about science. The lab work was challenging, but it also excited me.

The idea that I could design an experiment that had the possibility of answering a question that no one – in the history of the world – had ever answered was thrilling. 

Right then, my future changed. 

It can happen to anyone.

Of the paths that brought all of you to USC, no two are alike.

Let me give you two examples.

Brenden is one of our incoming transfer students, and spent the fall studying abroad. He grew up in Los Angeles and was an avid and talented soccer player.

He began his college career at another private four-year university. But Brenden suddenly wanted to create a different future for himself, one where soccer was on the back burner.

“Now is the time where I get to take control of my own life and set my own path,” he says. “I knew USC would provide all the necessary tools to start the next chapter of my life.”

He will be studying Business Administration.

Another student, Dresden, who comes to us from Maryland, is a first-gen with a passion for computer science. 

His dad has MS, and his mom is his dad’s full-time caretaker, so Dresden worked at a restaurant to help support his family.

Somehow he found time to design computer science projects for fun. 

Among his creations: an LED light system, 3D model bee hives, and a weather station for a greenhouse. His goal is to use computer science for ecological purposes. 

These are just two of 890 stories, yet you share one thing: you will always be Trojans.

Now, because four years go by very quickly, do what I did.

Get to know your professors right away. Get in the habit of approaching them. They will challenge you, nurture you, and help you succeed. 

USC’s faculty includes Nobel laureates and National Medal winners. We 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. The real key to the future lies in interdisciplinary collaboration.  

Leading the way are two professors from different disciplines who are on the front lines in the battle against global warming.

Economist Antonio Bento from our Price School of Public Policy and Mahta Moghaddam of our Viterbi School of Engineering are working hard to try to find novel methods to address climate change. At the new USC Center for Sustainability Solutions, the urgency is understood.

Professor Moghaddam, an expert in electrical and computer engineering, envisions USC and its new Center as both a hub and a partner for agencies, governments, and corporations to develop solutions to our greatest environmental challenges.

Her pioneering work has been celebrated around the world. She monitors soil moisture to make changing climate patterns more visible.

“To be a successful scientist,” she says, “you need focus and persistence because science does not satisfy a results-now appetite. We need to… show students how science like this can change the world.”

Professor Bento agrees, and reminds us that the future is in our hands, in your hands.

“If we don’t do anything about climate change and temperatures continue to rise,” he says, “the quality of life in our region would quickly deteriorate from poor air quality, wildfires, and drought.”  

This is why sustainability is one of the areas in which USC will show its leadership over the next decade.

At every school, there will be opportunities for you to explore your passions and to shape your future. In the School of Architecture alone, there are countless student projects underway to try to relieve homelessness, one of the toughest problems our city faces. 

One third-year group is investigating new forms of collective housing for South L.A. – with a focus on the benefits of sharing space.

Another group is looking at building methods that use heavy timber, a sustainable, renewable resource that is recyclable.  

But 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.”

Hard work, though, sometimes needs an assist or two.  

So, let me leave you with eight simple pieces of advice – my dogma for life.

  1. Be open-minded.
  2. Be flexible.
  3. Be curious and listen.
  4. Look around you, anticipate, and try to see what lies ahead.
  5. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Surround yourself with great people who will support your success.
  6. Don’t fear failure. Taking risks, making mistakes, and learning from them is vital.
  7. When you fail, always try again. You never know when >this next experiment will work.
  8. Always be grateful.

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.”

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 them – and with you.

Fight On!