May 12, 2023
Welcome to the 2023 Commencement at the University of Southern California.
What a perfect day to celebrate the world’s most historic academic pageant – graduation!
Just look around – it’s so colorful! Pink trumpet trees, evergreen pear trees with small white flowers, and glorious crape myrtle trees with frilly blooms in pink, purple, red, and white.
And what about all the people here, sparkling in cardinal and gold and sashes and medals? Students – your “fit” is fly!
To our soon-to-be graduates, congratulations! Your years of study and mastery culminate today with the conferring of something very precious – your USC degree. It’s your moment in the sun – literally.
To our platform party, faculty, staff, and guests: this is your day too, and we thank you for leading with character and distinction, for caring and supporting these graduates, and for keeping the historic traditions of scholarship, enlightenment, and educational opportunity alive in our nation.
Southern California is blooming too, but not just with the perennial freshness of springtime. We’re in the middle of an epic “superbloom” – California’s fields of scarlet, purple, and pink are so vivid and extensive that they can be seen from space.
In her evocative poem “Perpetual Spring,” LA writer and former USC professor Amy Gerstler celebrates the enduring power of nature to bring us together around hope and healing.
Suddenly the archetypal
human desire for peace
with every other species
wells up in you. The lion
and the lamb cuddling up.
The snake and the snail, kissing.
Even the prick of the thistle,
queen of the weeds, revives
your secret belief
in perpetual spring,
your faith that for every hurt
there is a leaf to cure it.
Here we are in a moment of perpetual spring – and even more, a blockbuster superbloom. As you probably know, superblooms are intermittent, usually spread apart by a decade. But this one is truly special because of the unprecedented conditions that occurred since the last one just four years ago.
That’s a wonderful coincidence, because your last four years have been anything but normal too, and yet, here you are. I hope you’ll smile with the biologist in me when I say that I see you as a stunning superbloom – matured in times both difficult and sweet, facing this day burnished with achievement and promise.
I feel a special connection with you because I started my own journey here in 2019, as did many of you. I was just as excited as you, filled with Trojan spirit, a bit nervous, and raring to go!
While we were all getting oriented to our new lives, the nation was gearing up for a tumultuous presidential election. We were worrying about the government closing, wowing over the first image of a black hole in space, and crying at the end of Avengers: Endgame. (Thank you, Kevin Feige.)
Then, in a snap of the fingers, the world changed. A major pandemic swept the globe. Our democracy came under assault. Cities, including ours, rocked with unrest. War broke out in Europe. Universities reeled – stay, go, open, close – it was wild, and for so many, frightening and tragic.
But that’s not the whole story of the last four years. It also was a time of extraordinary progress, fortitude, and innovation. Consider this: the COVID vaccine was developed and put into arms in record time due to scientists, including some here at USC. Investments in AI and Web3 more than tripled between 2018 and 2021. Ninety percent of all digital data was created in just the last two years. Ways of thinking, learning, and working changed radically, everywhere.
Here at USC, Kaufman students held virtual dance classes for elementary school kids, and Thornton musicians recorded messages and songs for Keck Medicine frontline workers. Our incredible athletes competed in empty stadiums after being COVID tested almost daily for months. And who can forget the adorable disinfection robot, LASER-D, created by Viterbi graduate students?
As I marvel at the distance we’ve traveled together, I’m reminded of the power of the unexpected, of nature’s capricious turns, and of events outside our control to alter our best-laid plans.
One of my closest friends in graduate school lost a couple years of work when a windstorm blew away the carefully constructed plots he’d made to follow individual seedlings in a fragile protected wetland.
For me, it was when I pulled up next to a small reservoir in New Hampshire in my orange pickup carrying my waders and sampling gear, only to find the reservoir completely dry, and with it my experiments and measurements – poof, gone. Turns out it was an act of vandalism overnight that resulted in the draining of the lake into the Connecticut River.
The Dalai Lama reminds us that “sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck.” As I sat on a hill looking over that empty muddy lake bottom, I found myself thinking of the natural cycles of water, the lakes and streams that dry and then refill over millennia. And I found my way back. Ultimately, I decided to study the rebirth of that little ecosystem, which was quite wonderful in the end.
These unexpected times have in many ways been transformational for USC – and you’ve been a critical part of it. You led the way to expand and improve USC cultural centers. You kept sustainability front and center by helping to develop the Sustainability Course Finder, by pushing to accelerate our divestment from fossil fuels, and by launching Assignment: Earth.
In spring 2021, the USC Black Student Assembly started Trojan Shop Local to support small businesses around USC. Today, the network includes over 90 diverse coffee houses, bookstores, and boutiques across the city.
Some of you pushed even further – all the way into the cosmos, in the case of one Price School student – to begin planning the “urban future” of life in space.
And in another case – you designed, built, and launched the first student rocket that passed the boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and space!
It’s been a privilege to watch you – and the entire class – glow up.
There won’t be a four-year period in life when you won’t feel “the prick of the thistle,” as Gerstler’s poem put it. But those times prepare you for what’s ahead. Discomfort with ideas and lack of certainty are critical to learning. Turmoil and hardship often spur innovation.
Over the last four years, you learned from that thistle, and made choices about what is truly important – friends and family, strong values, resiliency, and compassion.
I also hope you learned to feel deep gratitude for the privilege of being part of this place, for the faculty and staff, for your coaches and mentors, and for the Trojan Family.
Someone once called USC the new “multi-(uni)versity,” and I think that perfectly captures what we are.
And last year when you returned in person, you were amazing! You weren’t going to waste a second before diving into the opportunities of our very own multi-verse.
You became pioneers of the new – explorers, influencers, questioners, impatient ones, changers, and includers.
You’re already looking for new cures, and starting new businesses like Student Capital DAO, Pickle, and Remedy. You’re fighting for social justice and change all across society. You’re singing, dancing, and creating new media; curating museum exhibitions; and broadcasting during elections.
You brought mariachi back to USC after 30 years and won a huge number of athletic championships and other awards. You started the Trojans Esports League in 2019, and already USC has top-ranked teams in Riot’s League of Legends, Valorant, Super Smash Bros., and more.
Five of you are even joining the newest branch of the U.S. Armed Forces – the U.S. Space Force.
I call you the graduates of “everything everywhere all at once” – after the fascinating film that just won Oscars for Best Picture, and for USC Cinematic Arts alum Ke Huy Quan.
Life is changing at warp speed, but you’ve got this. Rely on yourself and your USC education: question, test, see things from various perspectives – accept when you’re wrong and pick yourself up when you’ve fallen.
Now, before we get about the business of the day, I want to leave you with three thoughts.
First, whatever path you choose, keep service in your life. Your privilege demands service to a greater good.
Second, take a personal interest in protecting our democracy. Social media, AI, and deepfakes are sowing public doubt and mistrust on a level never seen.
I think back to the Amy Gerstler poem and the “human desire of peace among all creatures” – the image of lion and the lamb cuddling up, and the snake and snail kissing. It feels like we may never get to this point in our politics, but we must keep pushing for civil discourse and more compromise, empathy, and working together.
Finally, remember to slow down and breathe, show compassion, and let humility and gratitude be your guide.
You’ve learned the power of friendship, graduates – the warmth and security of community – and you’ll return to them throughout life.
But you’re ready to go out on your own, just like Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” says:
“I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
(Henceforth) I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing…
Strong and content I travel the open road.”
And with that, let’s get on with your graduation!
Following the conferral of degrees, President Folt delivered these closing remarks.
Graduates, you’re now officially USC alumni – congratulations!
This has been a beautiful and stirring ceremony, full of pageantry and celebration marking one of the most important days in your life so far.
Take a mental selfie of this day. Hold on to the wonderful energy, hope, and enthusiasm for the future that you’re feeling right now, and carry it with you.
You leave here today forever a part of this magical or some might say “marvelous” university – and this Trojan Family. And we promise you will always be welcome back, valued, and heard.
We’re so grateful to have Kevin Feige as our commencement speaker – and it was a privilege to present honorary degrees to Kevin along with Frances Arnold and Dolores Huerta. Words feel inadequate to express just how inspirational these three visionaries are, and they honor our university by accepting our degrees.
Now, before closing, I would like to call for another Trojan tradition and ask all the families of our graduates, and our faculty and staff, to please rise.
Graduates, it’s your turn to say thank you to them – and to all the important people in your life – for the love and support that’s helped bring you to this moment.
And by the way, Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers in the audience!
Let’s also thank the hundreds and hundreds of people who worked so hard to create this wonderful celebration and the other graduation festivities this week, as well as the many USC employees who make our campuses so beautiful, our days so smooth, our lives so pleasant, and who care deeply about you.
To all of you now: savor this moment. Go hug a family member, tell a friend how much you love them, say “thank you” to a favorite teacher or mentor, smile at a stranger, take a selfie in front of your favorite USC landmark or in our beautiful Nisei peace garden. There are so many ways you can express your joy – and best of all, joy is infectious!
One thought to carry away today – every time you pick up your cell phone; go to a movie; watch a debate; count medals at the Olympics, the Grammys, the Emmys, or the Oscars; learn about new things happening in space; read about new treatments for blindness, Alzheimer’s, or cancer; look for the sustainability symbol on a package; and so much more – one of your fellow Trojans made that possible.
This is your family, your legacy, and your future.
And as you leave, I also hope you’ll keep the perpetual spring and wildflower images in your heart. The thing about superblooms is that each one is different – and each one provides the seeds of the next. It’s a powerful symbol of this occasion and of the blooming of world you will create.
It’s also a reminder of the urgent imperative we all share to protect and nurture our planet. There’s a Native American proverb that says: “We don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”
Graduates of 2023, treat our planet well. Our children, your children are counting on us.
Congratulations, and Fight On!