New Student Convocation: Fall 2021

August 19, 2021

Good morning and welcome to the University of Southern California’s 2021 Convocation! 

And a special shout out to all our new Trojans! It’s wonderful to be together, in person, after so long.

More than 20,000 students, faculty, staff, and family members are here for this important and special academic celebration to welcome and celebrate students from three USC classes in 2021 and 2020.

They’re joined by more than 6,000 students in graduate, master’s, Ph.D., and professional programs from our 22 schools. This is a really big group – and it’s exciting to begin our USC journey together.

I thought about you as I woke up this morning. I imagined you felt something very special when you came here, like I did on my first day. You probably felt the spirit of the place just walking across this beautiful campus – I always do.

Getting to this point, after 18 challenging months of shutdowns and restrictions, hasn’t been easy for any of us. The pandemic caused enormous challenges, and you faced them with courage and compassion. But now you’re here and officially Trojans thanks to your hard work, your incredible dedication, and the promise of what you’ll achieve ahead.

You are the fresh faces of tomorrow. You’ll take the first-rate education you receive here to become inspirational doers, thinkers, and leaders across the world – just like legions of Trojans before you.

Of course, no one gets here, even to this ceremony, alone – and I’d like to start with some words of gratitude.

We’re here today thanks to a lot of very special people, including our dedicated landscapers, custodial, and essential service colleagues who prepared our gorgeous campus for your return; the amazing medical, healthcare, student services, and administrative staff who helped us reopen, safely and securely; our extraordinary faculty, academic, and technical staff who have adapted almost daily over these long months and can’t wait to greet you; and of course, the family, friends, mentors, and others who helped each of you along the way.

In fact, there are many, many people who deserve our thanks today – I just wish we could recognize them all.

Of course, even as we feel the joy of being together, we know the pandemic isn’t over. We need to be vigilant and careful. That’s why earlier this month, I announced rules on testing, vaccination, and wearing face coverings to keep ourselves, our fellow Trojans, and our neighbors safe, and to comply with Los Angeles County public health mandates.

I know we’re tired of these measures, but they are keeping us open and safer – the benefits far outweigh the annoyances. So, I thank you in advance for your cooperation and understanding.

Now, I’d like to talk a little bit about you, our new students. You’re accomplished, motivated and passionate, with diverse experiences and backgrounds. Some of you are joining us straight from high school. Others are returning students or graduates pursuing advanced degrees. You include single parents, veterans, transfer students, and staff members seeking advanced degrees.

More than a fifth of you are the first in your family to attend college, and another 27 percent have family members who went to USC. You come from every state, and from 70 countries around the world. And you’re smart and determined as can be – the most diverse and academically talented entering classes in USC’s history. Congratulations!

All of this – and so much more – makes our university strong and a very special place. Someone once told me: “the kinetic energy here is extraordinary, it bounces off the people, and grows from the diverse centers of knowledge.”

I love that imagery. As a scientist, it makes me think of a beaker of water boiling like crazy on top of a Bunsen burner, fueled by energy and excitement. You see that kinetic energy everywhere. You’ll be surrounded by people alive with purpose, smiling and busy, determined to be part of something grand and meaningful.

Take a minute and look around you at your classmates – meet them, know them, support them. They will be your inspiration, and even more importantly, your support in times of need.

Let me tell you about some of the amazing Trojans from all schools and fields who are using that kinetic energy to make their mark on society.

There’s Allyson Felix, Class of 2008 – 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, including more gold medals than any U.S. university. For Allyson, winning isn’t defined by medals. It’s about grit, 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.

Trojans help shape our culture as well. Seventy-one alumni and faculty were recently nominated for Emmy awards in dozens of categories, including hit shows like Bridgerton, WandaVision, and The Queen’s Gambit that are watched around the world.

For more than 140 years, the people of USC have been serving the public good – in fact, that’s part of our mission. For instance, over a period of just a few months, we distributed more than 230,000 COVID vaccines, saving countless lives right here in Los Angeles.

I’m sure you already know that Trojans share a passion for USC that is legendary. It’s the real deal and it unites the entire Trojan Family. Being part of this family comes with great responsibility: for integrity, for treating each other with respect, for gratitude for all that is given to you, and for the generations of Trojans who have done so much so that you could thrive today. 

We never shy away from grand challenges – such as addressing climate change, promoting social justice, reducing educational disparities, and advancing equality and human rights. Trojans are fighting cancer, creating new industries, and leading arts and culture in new directions.

I’m so proud that USC faculty, staff, and students are right at the hub of vital discoveries and advances in all these areas and many others. My dream is for you to dive right in there with them.

Finally, I want to leave you with a few thoughts as you embark on your USC journey.

First, believe me when I say that getting to know your professors is the single most important step you can take. It’s rare to have access like this to people doing groundbreaking work that is changing the world. And even better, they’re ready and eager to help you, especially if you take the initiative to get to know them.

Second, I want you to reflect deeply on what it means to be a good neighbor. Please be sensitive about the footprint you leave in the community. By thinking of your neighbors as friends, you can help build the kind of society we all want to be part of – one that values respect and diversity; a community of good neighbors and kind, compassionate citizens.

Finally, I urge you to cultivate something called a beginner’s mind. I learned this term recently, when I listened to a fascinating audiobook by world-renowned musician Yo-Yo Ma.

As he says, a beginner’s mind is open to questions, to new connections and explorations, to unexpected answers. It’s a mindset that allows us to start fresh in life, all the time. Yo-Yo Ma approaches every concert as a new beginning, full of possibility.

Olympian Allyson Felix thinks about running one race at a time, not the arc of her career. “I refocus, regroup, and get back out there,” she says. “I just have to keep fighting.”

These are powerful words to remember, as you craft your life here at USC. Approach each new experience with wonder and excitement. Do what you need to refocus and get back out there when you hit a bump in the road.

Friends, family, and mentors will all help you, but your own mindset will make all the difference. The beginner’s mind will help you keep fighting for the things you believe in and the world you want to create – a more just, equitable, and sustainable world for all.

Where will your beginner’s mind take you? What will you stand for, discover, create? How will you stretch yourself and seek new answers to old questions? All that and more is ahead.

USC is a place of new beginnings and fresh starts – of big dreams and “kinetic energy bouncing off people” – a place where you belong, where you’re valued, and where you’ll make your mark. And I can’t wait to see what that will be!

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


[Following the other speakers, President Folt returned to close the event.]

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 to you along the way – some setbacks and detours, for sure, but many successes and victories as well. They help shape the person you are today – and who and what you will become 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. You have made an enormous difference – because you care.

Your Trojan family cares too. We’re here to guide you, inspire you, and help you realize your full potential. Surrounding you is an enormous infrastructure of support – not just buildings and facilities, but people and spirit too. It’s up to you to make full use of them all.

This is a momentous day – a new beginning, a fresh start, as I said earlier. Take a deep breath and think about this: the next time you see so many of your classmates, it will likely be your graduation. As you celebrate your new journey ahead, I want you to think about your responsibilities as well – to yourself and your loved ones, to your fellow Trojans, and to the bigger world around us.

I hope you wake up every day, like I do, full of gratitude for the opportunities you’ve been given to learn and grow and serve, and excited about being part of a place like USC, at the hub of so much kinetic energy, passion, creativity, and achievement.

We end our ceremony with our Alma Mater, performed by Armand Akbari, a junior studying musical theater at the School of Dramatic Arts. He’ll be accompanied by our fabulous Trojan Marching Band. Everyone, please stand and sing along!