Under bright blue skies, thousands of USC Viterbi students, parents, faculty and friends filled Alumni Park on Friday, May 13, to celebrate the first in-person undergraduate commencement ceremony in three years.
The festive gathering, coming after years of COVID-19 darkness, commemorated the graduation of “the best [class] so far, the best educated, the most representative in our history,” Dean Yannis C. Yortsos said.
The graduates, resplendent in black robes accented with crimson-and-gold sashes, proudly walked across the stage to thunderous applause as they received their newly minted diplomas. They seemed particularly joyous this year after experiencing so much uncertainty, isolation and turmoil during the pandemic.
The dean congratulated them for “joining a pantheon of USC Viterbi alumni that are the envy of any university,” including Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the moon and who later earned a master’s degree in aerospace engineering.
“Rumor has it that after he returned to earth from the moon, Neil realized that he was missing something in his life, which was an engineering degree from USC,” Yortsos quipped. The dean added that Andrew Viterbi, USC Viterbi’s namesake and co-founder of tech giant Qualcomm, and Apple cofounder Mike Markkula are also alumni.
Yortsos said that graduates had acquired the skillsets and mindsets at USC Viterbi that would allow them to flourish in the future.
“Today, the proverbial ‘wavefunction’ is about to collapse yet again,” he said. “But this time, we will join what I call the ‘pre-post-COVID world,’ one we hope is full of promise and opportunity for endless innovation, one you are better equipped to shape than any graduating classes ever before.”
Keynote speaker Christina Smolke, CEO and co-founder of Antheia, Inc., an adjunct professor of bioengineering at Stanford University and a trailblazer in the fields of synthetic biology and metabolic engineering, encouraged graduates to “dream, survive, have courage and relate.”
“Firstly, focus on the what and why,” said Smolke, who earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering at USC in 1997. “Worry about the where and the how later. Martin Luther King’s most-famous speech wasn’t ‘I have a plan.’ He had a dream.”
Next, Smolke said graduates must not give up. In other words, they must “survive” to flourish. “Keep going,” she said. “The road to success is built from our failures as long as we learn and apply those lessons.”
Smolke added that we must have the “courage” to embrace change and ignore naysayers.
“We are each expert in the art of the status quo. To do the new thing you must become the champion, forging a practical connection between your dream and reality,” she said. “Decide when to stop listening to those who declare your dreams impossible.”
Finally, Smolke said graduates should focus on cultivating good relationships and jettisoning unsatisfactory ones. “Guard and garden your relationships. Weed out the bad ones. Mend the ill. Nourish and water their soils,” she said. “By doing so, your engineering powers will remain humane as your dreams grow into reality.”
Smolke ended her inspiring talk by drawing on her own personal experiences as a Trojan.
“Twenty-five years ago, I was a young USC engineering graduate like you. The path I have taken would have seemed highly improbable, impossible even to the young woman I was at 22; the way in which I saw myself in this world, and in turn, the way in which the world saw me,” she said. “But as engineers we must make the impossible, possible. And, while your journeys will be different, these four lessons will still apply.”
Student commencement speaker Florence Yang, a summa cum laude with a B.S. in computer science, talked of embracing the concept of Engineering+, or marrying engineering with other disciplines for the betterment of society.
During her four years at USC Viterbi, Yang – also a National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenge Scholar – spoke of searching for her “plus.” She quipped that she had taken meditation, sailing, surfing, finance and improv classes to find it. “After all this, if I’m being honest, I can’t say I figured out exactly what my ‘plus’ in Engineering+ is yet,” Yang said.
Still, through her journey of discovery she said she had myriad of enriching experiences and met a diverse group of interesting people.
“As an engineer, you are equipped with the technical skills you need to succeed, but I encourage you to take it one step further and do yourself a favor by embodying this mindset of Engineering+ much beyond your time here at USC,” said Yang, who will return to the Bay Area to work at Google as a software engineer.
“How you do this is by pursuing the things in life that spark curiosity. Your curiosity is like your built-in superpower, your unexplainable sixth sense. Trust that it will guide you to become the most interesting version of yourself. The possibilities are endless for what your plus is, and the power is in your hands to figure out what it is.”
Dean Yortsos ended his addresses by telling the graduates that USC Viterbi would always be there for them.
“And so as you leave today with our blessing, that of your parents and friends, and with the official Viterbi School seal of approval, this is my wish for you: Follow your heart and your intuition and you will reach for the stars!” he said.
“And when you reach there, take a moment to look back and you will see a caring and supporting institution that admires you, is proud of you and embraces you for all the wonders you are certain to accomplish!”
Published on May 14th, 2022
Last updated on November 9th, 2022