New Student Convocation: Spring 2022

January 7, 2022

Good morning, Trojans, and welcome to our first Convocation at the University of Southern California, in 2022!

With me today on the platform are senior leaders of the university, deans of our schools, members of the Board of Trustees, and today’s speakers.

I hope you’re feeling the joy and excitement of the moment. It’s a fresh beginning – the start of something new and extraordinary – as you launch your education here at USC.

Today is about you – your achievements, your dreams, and your future.

These are complicated times with so much to be thankful for and excited about, even as we continue to face challenges.

But it’s a time of miracles too. To begin, we’re back in person!

And just think how fast scientists created the COVID vaccine – in a record 12 months – and even more, the millions of people cared for by our incredible health care workers.

You should know that USC researchers and health care staff played critical roles in the fight against COVID and that includes looking for new and better treatments to save lives every day.

Indeed, on so many levels, Trojans have been working hard to keep our students, patients, employees, and communities safe and our university vibrant.

Our students have been doing their part too – administering shots and tests; delivering meals on wheels; helping tutor kids; and performing music, dance, and theatre online.

It’s a good reminder to pursue things that add joy and meaning to life and to be grateful to the people who have helped you along the way.

It’s also a time to focus on your future.

It may be hard to believe today, but we’ve seen some cold and stormy weather in LA this winter.

While rain doesn’t always help our moods, it’s great news for our reservoirs. They are filling up again but still have a way to go.

It’s also great news for what we hope to see this spring, when an explosion of wildflowers will carpet the hills all around us.

The “great bloom,” as it’s called, blew me away the first time I saw it three springs ago.

That gorgeous burst of color and scent represents so vividly the hope and promise of new beginnings, of rejuvenation, and also perseverance – much like what we see today in university life. In fact, it feels a bit to me like the re-opening of our campuses and our city that you are part of today.

As a scientist, I know there is a logical explanation for the process of seeds germinating, which results from two opposing forces of nature – rain and sunshine.

But there’s much more to it than that – especially for all of us, who think about the process of teaching, learning, and exploring.

The spring bloom not only symbolizes the cyclical nature of life. It is emblematic of the hope we take from spring, and from each time, like today, when our community is replenished and invigorated by new life.

It also reminds me of the vital connection between those two seeming foes – the Janus faces – of rain and sunshine.

Neither is sufficient to spur the bloom without the other; it is when they are in balance that the flowers burst forth.

And this feels very similar – to me – to the push and pull, the ups and downs inherent, synergistic, and in fact, necessary to learning and discovery. 

During your time here at USC, your dreams and ambitions will take root and grow – thanks to the education you pursue, the relationships you forge, and the trials you face.

I hope you’ll capture the power, the freshness, of the bloom.

If you channel that feeling into your day-to-day experiences, soon enough you’ll see your own future flourish.

One way you can do this is to adopt something called a “beginners mind.”

Many have written and talked about this concept, including the renowned musician Yo-Yo Ma, who authored a wonderful audiobook on the subject – complete with musical interludes.

A beginner’s mind is an open mind – open to questions; to new connections and explorations; and to finding unexpected answers. It’s a mindset that allows each of us to start fresh in life all the time.

Yo-Yo Ma says that he makes it a point to approach every concert as a new beginning full of possibility.

I urge you too to approach each new experience with wonder and excitement – your sunshine – and to dig deep to embrace the periods of refocusing and getting back up when you hit a bump in the road – call this the rain we all experience in life.

Friends, family, and mentors will all help you, but your mindset, your attitude will make the biggest difference.

Now let me say a few words about you and the proud Trojan Family you’re formally joining today.

You’re accomplished, motivated, and passionate with diverse experiences and backgrounds.

You include 950 undergraduates, 45 percent of whom are transfer students.

Transfer students are close to my heart since I was one myself.

In fact, I love to tell parents about my journey. I started at The Ohio State University and was very uncertain about what I wanted and why I was there. So, I dropped out to move to California – which I saw as a place of innovation and new starts –  and got a job as a waitress on the pier in Santa Barbara.

I found my way back to university by studying at Santa Barbara Community College. I transferred to U.C. Santa Barbara, where I received my B.A. and M.A. degrees in biology, and then after finding my own passion was a love of the natural world, I was off to U.C. Davis for my Ph.D. And I’ve been a professor, scientist, and university leader at three great universities ever since.

I wouldn’t change any of it, and when I was in your shoes, I sure couldn’t have predicted it either!

That’s the mystery of life, and it’s unfolding for each of you right here.

Today, we have strong representation from many groups that have been historically underrepresented in higher education.

And nearly one in five of you are first-generation college-goers.

We have nearly 2,200 new graduate students joining us from 49 countries.

We also have 95 U.S. military veterans, members of the National Guard, and reservists as new graduate students. Thank you for your service.

Please take a minute and look around you, at your new classmates. Some will become your lifelong friends, your inspiration, and your support in times of need.

I’d like to share the stories of two of the amazing Trojans who started just like you once.

Luis Tun is a busy person. He’s a senior studying political science and Spanish, while also in a progressive degree program, which will get him a master’s degree in communication data science from Annenberg and Viterbi.

As a first-gen student from an immigrant family, he was inspired to come here after reading a LA Times profile of former USC student body president Edwin Saucedo, who came from a similar background.

Luis’ dream is to launch a company that provides financial advice for immigrant and low-income communities to help them build generational wealth and economic security.

Allyson Felix is another Trojan who merged her passion for winning with her commitment to making a difference.

Allyson – Class of 2008 – is the most decorated U.S. track and field athlete in history. She was part of USC’s amazing group of Olympians who won 21 medals in Tokyo last year, including more gold medals than any U.S. university.

For her, winning isn’t defined by medals. It’s about resilience, overcoming defeat, and not letting others impose their expectations on you.

It’s also about giving back. In her case, by speaking out on important issues like health inequities facing Black women.

You – like Luis and Allyson – will make your own mark here.

And all of us here – faculty, staff, fellow Trojans – will help you achieve your potential and realize your goals.

I’m sure you’ve already sensed Trojans share a passion for USC that is legendary.

And I can tell you Trojans don’t shy away from taking on grand challenges. In fact, USC faculty, staff, and students are right at the hub of finding solutions to many of the pressing issues of our day.

For example, USC is working hard on sustainability. We’re one of just a handful of universities aiming for carbon neutrality by 2025 – a very aggressive but achievable goal.

Sustainability also is a core part of our curriculum with the goal of fostering global citizens, who advance sustainability across a wide range of disciplines, and fields.

Social justice is another area where Trojans are working hard to right historic wrongs and embed diversity, equity, and inclusion across society.

This includes USC awarding posthumous degrees to more than 100 Japanese American students, who were forced into internment camps during World War II and never formally allowed to graduate from the university.

Even though the incident happened more than 80 years ago and most of the students are no longer with us, justice demands that we honor, recognize, and tell the truth about these Nisei students who were treated so unfairly.

Finally, I want to leave you with three thoughts as you get started.

First, my dream is to see each one of you dive right in and become part of the search for innovative answers – and solutions – to the issues that define our times.

Issues like climate change, social justice, medical advancement, economic and educational opportunity, and political reform – and so many other areas where Trojans are leading the way.

And also consider turning to the arts and humanities as they too provide essential tools in shaping and moving us forward as a society.

And it’s not just in your academic or professional pursuits where you can have an impact.

You can volunteer in the community, work with a child at risk, reach out to a lonely senior, or help a fellow student get through a difficult time.

Dr. Martin Luther King – whose birthday we celebrated – said, “The time is always right to do what is right.”

You all have the capacity to do what is right, to make a difference, to change a life. And when you change a life, you change the world.

Second, get to know your professors. Believe me when I say it’s the single most important step you can take at the beginning of your time here.

It’s a rare thing to have access to people doing groundbreaking work in so many fields. And even better, they’re ready and eager to help you; so please take the initiative and get to know them.

And third, I’d love you to reflect deeply on what it means to be a good neighbor. Our students are a very large presence in the neighborhoods around our campuses. Be sensitive about the impact you have on the people living and working in our community.

When you treat your neighbors as friends, you can help build the kind of society we all want – one that values respect and diversity, a community of good neighbors and kind, compassionate citizens.

I’m looking out today at USC’s very own special bloom, and I’m confident that you’ll use your education to become inspirational doers, thinkers, and leaders – and that you’ll use the great privilege your education provides to build a better world just like so many Trojans before you.

And I, for one, can’t wait to see what that will be!

Thank you very much and for the first time officially, Fight On!

[Following Provost Chip Zukoski’s official welcome to the incoming class, President Folt concluded the event.]

Thank you, Chip, for your warm welcome to our newest students. And to our fabulous alumni, students, and faculty, your words reflect our hopes and inspire us for the future.

Now, students, it’s up to you. It’s time to set out on your exciting journey at USC. There’s a lot that will happen along the way – both rain and sunshine – but they’ll help shape the person you become and what you will accomplish in the future.

So let me say one more time a special thanks to all the parents, teachers, mentors, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends – everyone who has touched our students’ lives and been their bedrock of support. Families, you too are now part of the Trojan Family.

Students, I hope you wake up every day – like I do – filled with gratitude for the opportunities we’ve been given and for the chance to work in service to humanity in this amazing place alive with energy, passion, creativity, and excitement.

We end our ceremony with our Alma Mater performed by Krishna Raman, a master’s student at the Thornton School of Music. He’ll be accompanied by our USC Thornton Brass Quintet.

Please stand and sing along! And Fight On, everyone!