New Student Convocation: Spring 2024

January 5, 2024

Hello and welcome to the 2024 New Student Convocation at the University of Southern California!

This beautiful morning, we’re celebrating 2,390 outstanding incoming undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. Congratulations! You’re a beautiful sight.

We’re honored you’ve chosen to continue your education at USC. This is an exciting moment.

Take a deep breath. Look around at your fellow students – all flexing your new academic swag! You won’t see this much brainpower, creative talent, or “rizz” in a single place again until your graduation.

Now, let’s take a moment, to think about the people you love – everyone who supported you on your way here – and be deeply, deeply, grateful. Think next about the people you’re going to meet – and everyone who will become part of your college experience – and be grateful.

You’re joining a community that, like Taylor Swift says, “can’t stop, won’t stop.” USC is a community of people who are just as curious, excited, and ambitious as you are. And you all worked hard to earn your seats here, at one of the world’s great research universities.

But don’t get too comfortable sitting in it. Because you’re here to learn – a lot – and to master new fields, discover the unknown, and build and start and fail and start again. And you’re here to listen to all views – to debate with civility, respect, and empathy. 

Who knows, you might end up changing other people’s minds. But most importantly, you might just end up changing your own minds. In your new home with its multiverse of possibilities, I’m confident that with the help of friends, faculty, and other mentors, you’ll hone what will become your best selves.  

Convocation marks the start of your academic journey, and our academic regalia symbolizes its significance. New students, your simple black robes symbolize that this is your beginning. By Commencement, you’ll add cool hats and embellished robes with colorful sashes and embroidered symbols reflecting your experiences here.

USC is highly unusual in that we start formally, with our newest students wearing academic regalia. And we do this because convocation is both joyful and serious.

Our gowns continue an ancient custom that links us back to scholars from the Middle Ages. Our dedication to understanding humanity, to searching for the deepest answers, also links us to them in an unbroken chain.

By accepting your place at USC today, you’re making an important commitment to uphold the principled citizenship we expect of each of you – to act with integrity, treat others with respect, and be a responsible neighbor.

Your start begins at a beautiful time of year in Southern California. The natural world is about to become resplendent with colorful blooms – and migrating animals.

One of my favorite seasonal migrants are the monarch butterflies, who spend their winters up and down the California coastline. These familiar, humble yet miraculous creatures migrate west from the Rocky Mountains to seek refuge in Southern California’s temperate climate.

If you pay attention, you can see trees filled with large tangles of seemingly drab-looking brown insects. The monarchs close their wings all at once, to hide from predators. Then, all of a sudden – one, two, fifty, a hundred will arch their prismatic wings wide open in a riot of iridescent blacks and oranges.

One of the miracles is that every migrating monarch is a newbie – they’ve never made the long journey before. Their map is written in their DNA. Each individual butterfly is a link in a beautiful chain of lineage that began generations ago.

I hope you’ll smile with the environmental biologist in me when I say that I see you alighting here at USC as similarly momentous. Your time here will be marked by your own intense transformation: you’ll learn to turn germs of ideas into breakthroughs – small steps into leaps – but to do all this, you’ll need to replace first impressions with deeper understanding.

I’ll give you an example from my own life. I’m 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 to a swirl of stormy seas in an instant.

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 – which was lots of fun, by the way – to capture rapid changes in the 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 – at the dynamic processes linking sediments to waves, and in the record of change that only can be seen over years and centuries.

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

If, starting today, you commit to remembering that your first impressions are rarely your next ones, you’ve already come a long way. You’ll be open-minded. You’ll learn faster. You’ll find more ways to innovate and create, and you’ll be prepared to seize opportunities and solve big issues ahead. And most importantly, you’ll make better decisions.

Decisions based on impulse – on simple categories of them vs. us; right vs. wrong; we disagree, therefore you must be bad – are splitting the world. We can do better, and you will lead that charge.

When you commit to true understanding, you cultivate “a beginner’s mind,” to seeing optimism and possibility – instead of fear – in the unknown. And we have plenty of unknowns for your beginner’s mind to confront: new technologies, AI, a revolution in medical treatments, accelerating climate change, new methods for artistic expression, communication and business as a global marketplace – it’s limitless.

USC is a fantastic learning sandbox. Your ideas will evolve with the help of thought leaders, award-winning creators and performers, writers, economists, policymakers, and game changers in every field. It’s all here, and our ambition for you is that you’ll leave here with an education that gives you the skills and tools you’ll need to be citizens of tomorrow.

I was like many of you when I left home for university in Ohio – excited, a bit fearful, determined. And 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. In fact, many of my “best” decisions followed my biggest mistakes.

You’ll hear soon from some amazing people about their journeys. They’ll describe how their passions were often ignited in unexpected places and in difficult times.

For me, serving endless cups of clam chowder to sometimes angry patrons on the pier, while looking out at the Pacific Ocean, ignited my lifelong awe and love for oceans. You’ll have moments like that, too.

So, students, your grand experimentstarts today – here at USC. You’re joining an incredible group of students. Many of you are already leaders in the classroom and winners on the athletic field. Some of you star in performances, show your work in galleries, build nonprofits, and make your case on the debate stage.

A hundred of you served honorably in our military forces – thank you. Thirty-six percent of you come from countries across the globe – and you speak dozens of languages. More than a quarter of you are first-gen students and 10 percent already have Trojans in the family.

The good news is that you’re now formally part of the Trojan Family. It’s lifelong and worldwide. Compassion, caring, and building community are at the heart of the Trojan spirit.

So, now, as presidents like to do – I’ll offer five small pieces of advice.

Number one is a recap, but I think it bears repeating: a “first impression” is just that. When new information presents itself – and it always does – be ready, and willing, to evolve your thinking.

Second, movement is medicine.Studies done right here at USC confirm that the best way to think creatively on a problem – or just to get yourself out of the inevitable ruts we all face – is to move your body. Work at a standing desk or join a club sport. LA is a unique place where you can quickly get out in nature for a hike – my favorite way to decompress – or just walk around our beautiful campuses. Bottom line: you have to keep moving to keep growing.

Third, play your own game. Social media is a wonderful way we connect with others. But it can also encourage us to compare ourselves to our peers – or even celebrities – in sometimes unhealthy ways. When you play your own game, you measure progress against your own timetable and values. We each face struggles – some seen, and many unseen. I encourage you to give grace to those whose journeys you can’t fully understand while figuring out what works for you, what lifts you up, and what inspires you and you alone – every step of the way.

Fourth, when you get knocked down – get right back up! Again and again and again. And again some more.

And finally, savor each and every moment. As the saying goes, how we spend our days is quite literally how we spend our lives. My hope for you is that your days at USC are filled with wonder, excitement, and curiosity so you can create the most joyful – and the most fulfilling – journey possible.

I look out at your smiling faces, and I know you’re on the cusp of something wonderful. So let’s get on with the show.  


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

Thank you, Andrew, for your warm welcome to our newest students, and thank you to all our amazing speakers – you were fantastic and inspirational.

Now, everyone, let’s offer a huge thank you to all the people who’ve helped you get here: parents, teachers, mentors, faculty, staff, coaches, and alumni. They’ve been the bedrock of your support for years, and they are going to love watching your journey. Thank you!

We also owe tremendous appreciation to our events, facilities, and maintenance teams who have worked hard to make this a moment to remember. Let’s thank them for making this day so special and for keeping our campuses so beautiful every day.  

And to everyone here supporting our newest Trojans: we’re grateful for everything you do, and for giving our students the chance to realize their promise, while being open to building new opportunities for themselves – and others around them.

New students: congratulations again and welcome to your new home! Not to be too heavy, but we need you, society needs you – and your beginner’s minds – because you’re the ones who will build a new future, a sustainable and peaceful world that we need.

I want you to leave here this morning with three things. First, a feeling of wonder and excitement. Second, a deep sense of gratitude for the people who have helped you personally, as well as the generations of Trojans whose generosity has created the resources, scholarships, and opportunities you’ll fully enjoy. And third, an understanding of the responsibility you now have to care for others here with you, and for the communities who surround our campuses – and to uphold the ethical standards we expect.

And I, and our talented faculty and staff, can’t wait to see what you’ll do next. Congratulations new Trojans and together let’s give it a good – Fight On!