New Student Convocation: Spring 2023

January 6, 2023

Good morning, everyone. And welcome to the University of Southern California’s New Student Convocation 2023.

You are a gorgeous sight – all decked out in your academic regalia. These robes aren’t just festive – they are part of a grand tradition, linking students and faculty since the Middle Ages. 

Even in these very different times, we remain linked to our past through our humanity and the legacy of curiosity and the quest for answers, passed down through the ages. Wearing these robes at the start of your studies marks the importance, and dignity, of this occasion. 

Oh, and here’s a fun fact: Academic gowns were, historically, meant to be highly functional. They kept out the elements in those cold, ancient, drafty university buildings – specifically so students could stay focused on their work. 

It’s good we’re cozy here inside the Galen Center today, with sustainable solar panels on the roof to warm us. And for a second fun fact: solar panels still work on cloudy days! 

Academic convocation is a time of coming together, celebration, and reflection. It is joyful, but it’s serious too. This is the official start of your academic journey here. 

By accepting your place as an official member of our community, you’re committing to uphold the principled citizenship we expect – acting with integrity, treating others with respect, and being a responsible neighbor where you live, study, work, and play. 

Your journeys are starting here – so welcome to Los Angeles. You’ve made a great choice. California and USC are wonderful places for innovation and new beginnings.  

And welcome to the Trojan Family. You’ve earned your place in this dynamic community. Trojans share your dreams of creating new things, boldly advancing knowledge, and taking on pressing societal challenges. 

Let’s also start by thanking your loved ones, mentors, friends, and others here with you today – or with you in your hearts – who’ve been your biggest supporters. 

To those important people: you too, are now members of the Trojan Family.

I’m joined on stage by some exceptional Trojans: university senior leaders, deans, our eminent Board of Trustees, and today’s fabulous speakers. They are united in a love of this place, and excited to welcome you and your loved ones to our community.

Before I put on this Presidential Medallion and regalia, I wore something much lighter but equally important, a lab coat – or oftentimes waders to go out into those rivers. 

As an undergraduate, I pretty much wanted to try everything. I jumped around studying and leaving many things – sorry parents, but it does work out in the end – until I found my love for the natural world. I became an environmental biologist, studying lakes, rivers, and oceans.

I know I share a commitment to sustaining the planet with so many of you. 

I also found the thrill of new discovery. It’s as exciting for me today as it was when I began doing my own research as an undergraduate. I want that joy for you too. 

The constant collision of big ideas and fresh minds creates a kinetic buzz of energy here that you will feel every day on our campuses. So getting outside to clear your head and refresh is a good trick to remember during a busy term. 

It may have been falsely attributed to author Kurt Vonnegut, but he’s alleged to have said that the key to a happy and successful life can be summed up in two words: “wear sunscreen” – and that’s important advice in SoCal too. 

Of course, the awesome influence of the sun goes far beyond lifting our spirits, and just this month, science, experimentation, learning, and the sun came together in a most astonishing way. It all comes down to fusion, the nuclear reaction that makes stars shine.   

Now, I checked this with my colleague Amber Miller, dean of the Dornsife College. Dr. Miller is also an astrophysicist, so what I’m telling you is obviously going to be true: at the high temperature inside stars, hydrogen atoms fuse into helium atoms, creating immense energy. The act of fusion is a volatile cocktail, but we feel it on Earth as the warmth surrounding us and in the precious sunlight that makes life possible. 

For decades, scientists have been seeking to use fusion to harness the power of the sun. Just a couple of weeks ago, using 192 enormous lasers and one tiny bit of hydrogen, scientists created the first nuclear fusion reaction in a laboratory. For the first time, they produced significantly more energy than the initial reaction required. 

The knowledge gained, and the ramifications for humanity, are stunning. The doors are now wide open for developing emissions-free energy sources. An end to fossil fuels, and nuclear energy, may take place in your lifetimes.

But as is often true with new discoveries, along with good, the possibilities for harm are profound, and will need our constant ethical attention as well.

What I want you to consider today is that the literally thousands of people who have worked for decades to get this result – they all once sat in a chair just like you at the start of their own academic journeys.

They dreamed big, took chances, and sharpened their critical thinking skills. They faced setbacks and took some wrong turns. Ultimately, they made thousands of discoveries along the path to this one, big discovery. 

And they’re people just like you.

The path to advancing human understanding never stops. And USC is a fantastic learning sandbox – a wonderful place for you to learn and discover who you are now, who you’re going to become, and the ways you’ll make your mark on the future. 

You’re already an accomplished, diverse group. More than a quarter of you are first generation college-goers, others of you are legacies with deep ties to USC, and many of you are transfer students.  

You’re smart, engaged, and ambitious. You have big ideas and big hearts. And you come from more than 40 different countries.  

Almost 100 of you are veterans, who have served our country with distinction. Your service means a great deal to us all.  

Look around. These people will have a huge influence on your life.

USC is filled with extraordinary people, with varied backgrounds and experiences, and you’ll have a level of proximity and access to some of the greatest thinkers that you’ll never find again. 

Like the scientists who learned to work so hard to achieve fusion in a lab, your faculty, staff, and I hope you will use your time here to hone your own skills, try new things, take intellectual chances, and find your own big moment.   

A scientist doesn’t know what she’ll discover when she starts. An artist, too, faces a blank canvas; an author, a blank page; and a journalist, a new set of stories every day. The unknown is always before us.

I’m reminded of something a true pioneer of computer programming once said. U.S. Navy Admiral Grace Hopper was a STEM trailblazer. She’s best known for the development of computer languages, and she was clearly brilliant. She was also known for her irreverence. 

“The only phrase I’ve ever disliked,” she said, “is the phrase: ‘We’ve always done it that way.’” 

Admiral Hopper was right: prudent risk-taking is part of all advances. To that end, it’s remarkable so many new undergraduates here today have chosen to transfer here. 

Your journey has been an indirect path, not without its own risks. I know because I was a transfer student myself.

I started at Ohio State, uncertain about what I wanted or why I was there. So, I dropped out. I moved to California – the place of opportunity – and became a waitress on the pier in Santa Barbara.

I found my way back to the university by studying at Santa Barbara Community College, eventually transferring to U.C. Santa Barbara, where I received my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology, and then to U.C. Davis, for my Ph.D. 

With trial and error, I discovered my own passion for nature. But when I took my own giant leap into the unknown, I could never have predicted I would have ended up right here with you today. Not every step I took proved to be successful, but I wouldn’t change a thing.

I know so many of us share similar experiences.  

We’ve all had setbacks that test us, and comebacks that define us. We’re here together at USC, determined to test ourselves, to discover our best selves, and to find our own answers.  

Now, as university presidents often do, I’d like to give you three quick pieces of advice. 

First, I was going to say: Don’t waste your time while you’re here. But I’ve changed my mind about that – and parents, don’t worry.

Instead, I’ll say: Do “waste” some of your time. Waste is probably not the right word. But it’s critical to relax hard, too. Spend time with friends. Curl up with a good show – preferably one by a USC School of Cinematic Arts graduate. And find time for quiet reflection.

Second, build community. People who are there for you and make you laugh, but aren’t afraid to disagree with you. Seek out people with different backgrounds and different views.

Living and learning in a diverse community could be the most important skill you learn. You will surely be required to work in diverse teams throughout your life.

Finally, cultivate something called a beginner’s mind. Make a post-it for your computer that says: “Fresh Start. Every Day.”

A beginner’s mind is open and unbiased. It’s ready to make new connections – your own fusions – and see possibility in the unknown.  

Thank you and congratulations. And welcome, once again, to USC.  

Now, officially, for the first time as members of the Trojan Family: Fight On!