New Student Convocation: Fall 2023

August 17, 2023

Good morning and welcome to the 2023 New Student Convocation at the University of Southern California.

This glorious morning we’re welcoming nearly 13,000 determined undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. Congratulations!  

You are a magnificent sight. Start by absorbing all of this, the beauty of our campus and thousands of fellow students all dressed up and ready to go. Remember it; be inspired by it. In fact, you won’t see so much brainpower and creative talent in a single place again until your graduation!

Next, think about the people you love, everyone who supported you on your way here, and everyone who will help you ahead – and be deeply, deeply, grateful.

And now, think about the people you’ll meet. You’re joining an incredible group from everywhere, doing everything, all at once! How cool is that?  

You’re surrounded by people who know how hard you worked to earn your seats here at one of the world’s leading research universities. But don’t get too comfortable sitting in that seat – you’re here to push yourselves, to learn, to think, to stand up for what you believe, and to grow beyond what you can imagine.   

Convocation marks the start your academic journey, and some of us are dripping with swag to symbolize the significance of this occasion.

New students, you’re wearing simple black robes to reflect that you’re newbies. But at Commencement, you’ll wear cool hats and embellished robes with colorful sashes and embroidered symbols reflecting your time here.

USC is perhaps the only major university that starts with our newest students wearing academic regalia. And we do it for a reason. Convocation is meant to be joyful, but it’s serious, too.

Your gowns represent the seriousness of your journey, and they continue an ancient custom linking students and scholars since the Middle Ages. Even now, we’re linked through history by our dedication to understanding humanity and searching for the deepest answers, quests passed down through time in an unbroken chain.

By accepting your place here today, you’re committing to uphold the principled citizenship we expect – to act with integrity, treat others with respect, and be a responsible neighbor. I know, we all know, you’re ready for the task. 

The scientist in me often thinks of USC as a beaker of roiling water, bubbling with kinetic energy, and filled with endless opportunity. So start off and just embrace that!
You’ll learn from your friends and professors how to turn ideas into breakthroughs, small steps into leaps, and art into inspiring performances. Embracing the unexpected starts by learning that deep understanding only comes when we shed first impressions.

As an environmental biologist who studies lakes, streams, and oceans, I’ve learned to be acutely aware that what I see on the surface is not the story. A quiet, pastoral scene can shift in an instant. I don’t have to tell any of you that global warming is a constant threat to humanity.  

Wildfires on the island of Maui are a tragic example of human impact on planet Earth. Our hearts are with USC’s many Hawaiian students and alumni, and everyone impacted by that devastating event.

For years, I conducted research at Lake Tahoe. I hauled gallons of water to the lab. I ran hundreds of experiments with tiny, squirming shrimp. I dashed around the lake in a speed boat (lots of fun, by the way) to capture the rapidly-changing chemistry of water flowing into the lake during flash floods.

What I learned was that the complexity of a lake is only understood when you look below the surface – in the dynamic processes linking sediments to waves, in the birth and rebirth of the lake’s fish and plankton occurring season to season, and in the record of change only seen between years and centuries.

As a university president, I’ve also learned how important it is to shed my own first impressions. People are nuanced. They can’t be categorized by simple stereotypes, and most importantly, their perspectives and dreams grow and change.

Opening our minds to the progression from the superficial to the deep is one of the most enlightening experiences we humans can have. If, starting today, you commit to remembering that your first impressions are rarely your next ones, you’ve already come a long way. It will keep you open-minded. You’ll learn faster and find more ways to innovate and create.

It might also remind you that much of what you see on social media isn’t even an accurate first impression, let alone a fact. It’s a manipulated impression. And when you make that commitment to go deep, it will help you cultivate something beautiful called “a beginner’s mind.”

A beginner’s mind is open, unbiased, ready to make novel connections, change entrenched opinions, and see possibility in the unknown.

Just the other day, I was reminded of the transformative power of a beginner’s mind in a most unexpected place. My daughter and I went to see Barbie – which stars USC alums America Ferrera and Will Ferrell. I bet many of you have seen it. It’s a cultural juggernaut!

Spoiler Alert: Margot Robbie’s “Stereotypical Barbie” – the first Barbie created – dives into the unknown. She leaves the familiarity of Barbieland on a quest to get answers about the purpose of her existence. In the “real” world, she has to shed her first and fixed impressions (even about Ken).

Barbie finds, as we all do at times, that without her preconceived notions, she doesn’t even feel like herself anymore. In the end, she starts fresh and chooses complexity – with its uncertainty, its mistakes, and its humanity.

Now, I’m not trying to say that Barbie is especially profound, but speaking of first impressions, it far exceeded mine. It’s fun, my daughter and I had a blast, and I really enjoyed America Ferrera’s rousing monologue.  

But I know you get the message. I hope every time you slip into believing your first impressions and preconceived notions, you’ll question, empathize, and discover instead. I know from experience – when you adopt a beginner’s mind, there’s no limit to where it can take you!

There’s an extraordinary world opening for you right now. We’re seeing the explosion of technology; medical knowledge on the cusp of becoming unimagined treatments; the untapped application of science, social science, and humanistic knowledge to solving complex problems – all need people with a beginner’s mind.

Now, looking out at you, I see a hopeful future, one that you will lead. I also see a sea of new students, who will ultimately join a network of “Fighting On” Trojans.

You’ll carry forward dreams and friendships started here, and make a difference in the world. You have ideas on tackling climate change, starting new industries, contributing new works of art, healing people, teaching people, and building a just society. And you’re here in a fantastic learning sandbox.

What’s special about your time ahead is that your ideas will evolve with the help of friends, faculty, and staff. They are thought leaders, award-winning creators and performers, writers, economists, policy makers, game changers – all there for you.

We’re social animals. We thrive together, so I always say: face to face, not Facebook, is what you’ll love the most.

I was once just like you, maybe even more uncertain, when I left home for university. Two years later, I dropped out and moved to California to find my future. I got a job as a waitress on the pier in Santa Barbara, studied at Santa Barbara Community College, and then transferred to UC Santa Barbara. I experimented with classes in many fields, and then, with a bit of serendipity, discovered my love of the natural world.

Even then, when I took my own leap, I couldn’t have predicted I would end up here with you today. The search never ends, and not every step proves successful either. In fact, many of my “best” decisions followed my biggest mistakes.

You’ll hear in a minute from some amazing people about their journeys that you’ll find inspiring and reassuring. They’ll describe how their passions were often ignited by unexpected places and in difficult times.

For me, serving endless cups of clam chowder to sometimes angry patrons, while looking out at the dreamy expanse of the Pacific Ocean, ignited my lifelong awe and love for oceans.

Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the moon – and a Trojan – knew about awe. He said, “Mystery creates wonder. And wonder is the basis of humanity’s desire to understand.”

A beginner’s mind is open to wonder, and USC is where it will happen next for you. Your experience will be shaped by your fellow students from 53 U.S. states and territories and 85 countries. 

You’re smart and driven. You come from every background and already have had fascinating and transformative experiences. You range in age from 15 to 69. Twenty-five percent of you are first-gen college-goers and 27 percent are transfer students. Many of you are already winners on athletic fields or stars in shows and galleries. And hundreds of you served honorably in our military forces – thank you.

Finally, here are five small pieces of advice for success.  First, Set an intention. I don’t mean a specific award or accomplishment. I mean set an intention to adopt a beginner’s mind and see beyond your first impressions. 

Second, Stay curious

Third, Stay hungry. As soon as you’re too comfortable, you know you’ve stopped growing. As Taylor Swift reminds millions in her blockbuster “Eras” tour: “Can’t stop, won’t stop.”

Fourth, as she also says, “Shake it off” and roll with the inevitable setbacks. They seem devastating at the time – and truly some may be. But you’ll have friends and a university of people here to help. And remember, setbacks often become setups, just what you need to push you where you were meant to go.

Finally, Savor the moment. How we spend our days is quite literally how we spend our lives.  

New students, today you’re entering your USC “Era.” It’s going to be more than “all right” – it is going to be spectacular!

Thank you, and now on with the show.   


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

Well, Trojans, we’re nearing the closing of Convocation, which is the opening of your next big door in life! You’ve had a glimpse at why we call ourselves the “school of schools,” and I hope you all have a chance to reach across the incredible breadth of learning, scholarship, and creative activity – it makes me want to start over again with all of you. 

It’s also almost time for you to shed your hot gowns for a more casual “fit.”

This morning you took your first steps down a path stretching back centuries, and now, you’re officially a member of the Trojan Family – 450,000-plus strong across the world.

Generations of past Trojans sat in these seats. Like you, they were probably a bit nervous and uncertain, yet they went on to find their path and to make contributions in so many fields. You’ll do the same. Your success and character are now intertwined with all of ours. We’re in it together.

I hope you’ll start each day by asking, “Where will my beginner’s mind take me?” Like Ted Lasso’s “Believe” sign, make a post-it for your computer saying: “Fresh start. Every day.”

Build a community of people who are there for you and make you laugh, help you when you cry, and aren’t afraid to disagree with you.

And one thing I really hope you’ll do is join in our fight for sustainability – what our students have called Assignment: Earth – and do your part (including not using single-use disposable water bottles) to help us move faster toward our green future every day.

I believe each of you can leave USC an even better place than it is today, and I simply can’t wait to see how you do it!

So, let’s end as we began by saying thank you, to your guests, to our orientation and move-in crews, and to our tireless events, facilities, and maintenance staff who make everything so beautiful here every day.

And now, as USC’s president, I have the distinct honor to welcome you with your first official Fight On!