New Student Convocation: Spring 2021

January 8, 2021

Hello everyone, and welcome to our spring 2021 New Student Convocation. Congratulations to you all!

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I wanted to say to you today.

We’re here to celebrate and mark a new, exciting phase in your lives – the start of your time at USC. And that matters a lot.

At the same time, we all know this ceremony is taking place against a backdrop of historic significance – with the unprecedented and violent events that took place in Washington yesterday, and a global pandemic that is raging.

That’s a lot to take in, and I can only imagine that you are moving back and forth between excitement, concern, and reflection.

I was heartbroken to watch our Capitol come under siege on Wednesday. It reminded me of what Benjamin Franklin said, about our representative form of government – it’s ours, “if we can keep it.”

Watching all of these events only reinforced my belief that American universities are critical to a great democracy – we encourage people to vote, to protest peacefully, to question, to learn, to speak out, push boundaries of understanding, and to advance societal good.

Today, you are entering an amazing university, and the skills, the people and ideas you will experience, will provide you with the tools and knowledge to be part of the light and hope for our future.

I also understand the impact of COVID-19 on all of your lives.

It’s forced us to delay our in-person contacts. And it continues to devastate families and communities, including right here in Los Angeles.

In this difficult time, we’re still dedicated to pushing ahead – to helping you move forward in your studies, solve problems, find your niche, and to set you up for success – even under trying circumstances.

This may feel impossible, but it’s not. I’m seeing people, right here at USC, doing the impossible every day to help others – and in the process, finding a renewed sense of hope and optimism.

Dr. Nida Hamiduzzaman, professor at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, shared her story with me, so that I could share it with all of you.

She is one of the angels – health care workers on the front lines. When we spoke, she’d been working day and night in the intensive care unit of both Los Angeles County-USC Hospital and Keck, treating hundreds of patients struggling with – and, sadly, in too many cases, dying from – COVID.

At the start of the pandemic, she and her husband made the choice for her to remain in that front line role, even as a parent of two young kids – because she said it was her mission, her passion in life. Tragically, just a few days ago, her beloved father, passed away from COVID.

Nida herself – and her husband – also caught the disease and are recovering as they work at home. When I spoke with Nida, she was still smiling and told me that she wanted to share her story because she wanted you, our incoming students, to know that it’s okay to feel sad and fearful in difficult times. And in spite of it all, she feels it is a privilege to be a front line caregiver, because everyone matters.  

Nida’s story really touched me – she was calm, caring, and positive, even surrounded by so much suffering.

She talked about how the people of Keck, her family at work, are making such a huge difference – for her and the many patients they serve. “They help me stay optimistic and hopeful for the future,” she said.

What a story. For me, Nida’s words speak to what USC is all about – to our belief not just in academic excellence, but also in service and dedication, to causes much bigger than ourselves.

Thousands of people like Nida, all across our campuses, are fighting for us every day. They’re using their educations to bring good into the world – they are innovating, building, creating. You will do the same.

You’re joining a community. We’ve gotten quite good at operating virtually, but we can’t wait to get back to the face-to-face interactions that make campus life so vibrant and special.

It won’t be that long before you are meeting up with friends and classmates on our beautiful grounds, bicycling or skateboarding along the shaded paths – taking care to avoid pedestrians! Or maybe even joining me outside Bovard Hall to listen to our improvisational student group performing under the trees.

In the meantime, our talented faculty and staff will be there to help you thrive. For those who need assistance, we’ll provide laptops and internet hotspots through our equipment rental program. We’re also providing mental health services, well-being resources, and other campus support and interventions.

COVID-19 won’t define your journey here. We’re going to help you make the most of your USC experience. We’re going to help you shine. But the initiative – the spark – will come from you.

Like two Dornsife undergrads, Angelina Crittenden and Matthew Torres, who took the lead to create USC’s first-ever First Generation Student Leadership Program, already attracting hundreds of participants.

Or juniors, Joseph Wessig and Madeleine Tran, and sophomore Yusan Wong, sustainability champions, who won a national prize by figuring out a way to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – using a high altitude balloon.

Or Ricca Prasad, a third-year law student, who put together and distributed hygiene kits for the unhoused struggling with COVID. This became the basis for the Supply Skid Row initiative, actively serving a community in dire need.

Whatever your path to getting here, you’re now part of the Trojan Family. And as you start your USC journey, I have three pieces advice:

1. First, get to know your professors. They are truly remarkable scholars, who will go the extra mile to help you.

Chemistry graduate student Ryan McMullen found this out, when he wanted to conduct a difficult experiment, to determine what truly defines a metal. He looked for support at different research universities, and found only one person seriously interested in helping him: Dornsife Professor of Chemistry Stephen Bradforth.

Professor Bradforth didn’t just help secure funding for the experiment. He also cobbled together an international team of scientists, and arranged his sabbatical to oversee, and participate in, the main experiments.

McMullen’s project has changed our understanding of metals. And it’s opened a new window for chemists, to synthesize important new organic compounds. It also landed on the cover of Science magazine, as a potentially historic breakthrough, that could one day be part of chemistry textbooks.

2. Get involved and engage with people. Even online, you can be engaged. Since the start of the fall semester, USC has held more than 3,000 online events. That’s more than 40 to choose from every day.

They include our new Thrive series, featuring interviews with fascinating celebrities, like Deepak Chopra, Lisa Ling, and Valarie Kaur; and the immensely popular Visions and Voices for the arts and humanities, with dance, comedy, music, film festivals, readings, and fascinating conversations, like one with music legend Chuck D of Public Enemy.

And, best of all, you can start right away, joining student groups, learning how to interview, participating in discussions on big issues of the day, and so much more.

3. Finally: Stay true to yourself. This is not always easy to do. One of your most important tasks at USC is to grow, evolve, and develop your values.

You’re in the perfect place to do this. You can join some of the many on-campus groups and organizations that are committed to causes you believe in or that you want to know more about. And you’re also in the perfect place to test your beliefs – to meet people with different life experiences and points of views. You can question, try new things, follow different paths, and challenge prevailing opinions.

Every day, the people of USC are rising to the challenges of our time, and finding innovative solutions – not just with COVID, but also in social equity, racial justice, urban renewal, and sustainability.

For us at USC, sustainability is so important. I began conducting research on climate change before many of you were even born. And we’re working in multiple ways on campus to further sustainability right here – by reducing waste, lowering greenhouse gasses, promoting recycling, and going electric.

Many of you will pursue academic studies and careers in sustainability – and that makes me feel better about the future of our society and our planet.

Resiliency paves the way to success. Our democracy survived the violent attack on the Capitol on Wednesday, and Joe Biden’s win was certified. We’re making incredible progress developing and now distributing COVID vaccines. And we’ve learned exciting new ways to teach and communicate, using digital technologies.

This is what we do here – we stay focused, we stay optimistic, and we prevail.

Of course, with talent and opportunity comes great responsibility: to do the right thing; to act with academic integrity; to keep yourself, your fellow students, and our community members safe; to be kind and compassionate; and to be worthy stewards of the Trojan name and legacy.

Your time here will go quickly. Make the most of it. Have fun. Dream big. And most importantly: Be grateful for what you’ve been given, and humble about what you’ve earned.