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2019 Commencement Address

USC Commencement Address
Delivered by Karen Bass
May 10, 2019


Good morning soon to be graduates.

I am so honored to be here with you today. And thank you for including me among the distinguished individuals receiving honorary degrees.

Dr. Arthur Bartner leading the famous USC band. We know he embodies the spirit of Troy.

Mikhail Baryshnikov. For years, I watched you dance with amazement. Each time your artistry and mastery reminded me how powerfully dance transcends nations and language.

Dr. Emery Brown, whose pioneering scholarship reveals more and more about the deepest workings of the human mind.

And Cindy McCain, with who I am honored to work on human trafficking, and who is a business leader and philanthropist. Cindy McCain, you have taught us all what it looks like to show strength in difficult times.

I am proud and humbled to join you as the honorary doctorates of the Class of 2019. To all the family, friends, and guests who are here today, thank you for the support that you have provided that has been critical to your graduate’s success. For those of you who are graduating today without that kind of support, please know and remember that your success is a sign of strength and power, as well as academic achievement. And, of course, we are all thankful for the faculty and staff whose work in front of the classroom and behind the scenes has helped us arrive at this moment. For the leaders we honor today, and for the families, friends, faculty, and staff that helped you achieve this milestone, please show your appreciation with another round of applause.

So, this year, my former colleagues in Sacramento are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first African American to serve in the California State Assembly. His name was Frederick Madison Roberts. He was a USC graduate at the beginning of the last century. But the piece of legislation he is probably best remembered for is the bill that established that school on the other side of town. That name that cannot be spoken at a Trojan graduation. So when you encounter someone from that other school, you remind them that their school only exists because a Trojan made it happen!

More seriously, I mentioned Assemblymember Roberts because he was one of many Trojans who have graduated as you are today. And then went on to create meaningful lives that brought well-deserved esteem and acclaim. Let me list just a few of the people who exemplify the best of USC.

Fifty years ago, Trojan Neil Armstrong became the first human being to set foot on the moon. His achievement was very fitting for the university, whose alumni also included Gene Roddenberry, who took us on a Star Trek, and George Lucas, who drafted us into Star Wars. Trojan musicians crossed the boundaries of style and the jazz of Lionel Hampton to the rhythm and blues of Macy Gray. Lillian Copeland was a pioneer; she won every track event she entered USC, set a world record of the discus throw at the Olympic trials, was the first Trojan woman in the Olympics. And after all that went on to earn a JD at USC in 1934. Regina King, a much more recent graduate, took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress this year. Regina King was one of seven Trojans who were nominated. And four Trojans who won Oscars.

All of these individuals grew up in vastly different times and came from wildly diverse backgrounds. But they had two important things in common. They graduated at USC, and they dreamed. Of course, they studied, worked, sacrificed, and maybe even suffered to get where they did. But it all started with a dream, and now it’s your turn to dream.

The truth is the nation needs you to dream. We need you to dream big about how you will tackle the world’s greatest challenges and the challenges we face right here and now in the U.S. I hope you don’t think these words or rhetoric. I do come from Washington DC. We need you to dream and to lead! The future of our world in this century will be determined by the choices made by the graduates seated here today. How is that for pressure graduates? It’s positive pressure because we have confidence in you.

Here at USC, you receive the education and the tools that you need to change the world. The four academic pillars that served as the foundation of your educational experience can guide you as you embark on the next phase of life’s journey. Learning, accountability, diversity, and leadership. These are the pillars that can guide you forward.

At USC, you learn to be a critical thinker, not to skim the surface of an issue or a problem, but to look below the surface to explore and understand the root causes and conditions of a problem, to respond not only with emotion but instead to respond having thought deeply and analyze thoroughly.

At USC, you learned accountability. Whatever you do after you leave here today no matter who you become or what roles you play in the future, it is my hope that you will always set high ethical standards and moral standards for yourself that will hold yourself accountable to those high standards.

At USC learned about the meaning of diversity. It is my hope that you make a lifelong commitment to diversity. Diversity in thought, diversity in experience and diversity in the communities you create for yourself and for your families.

Perhaps the most important in our world today is leadership. Leadership skills, leadership qualities, and commitments have perhaps never been so needed in the world as they are right now. USC educates and prepares the next generation of leaders. And today, we graduate thousands of those leaders. So graduates now is the time for you to lead.

As Trojans, we share the spirit of Troy, and we fight on until we win. We raise our two fingers whenever and wherever we see another Trojan. But I ask you today when you claim your Trojan identity, what does it truly mean to you? Is it a symbol of our victorious athletic teams? Or is it a fun way to greet and take a selfie with someone who went to the same school as you? Or does the fight on slogan and greeting have a deeper meaning?

It is my hope that it represents a spirit and energy, a commitment, that Trojans bring to the world. A spirit that rejects passive participation in our society, a spirit that believes Trojans must not be content to sit in the passenger seat when urgent problems call. Trojans stepped forward to drive because Trojans lead. I believe in lifelong learning, accountability to high ethical and moral standards, commitment to diversity, and having skills and knowledge to lead. I believe this is what Trojans are made of. I believe this is what the Trojan spirit is about. And our call to fight on is about more than teams and selfies. It’s about how we approach the challenges of life.

For example, in a short while, you will all be Trojan alum. Now we need you to fight on until we understand why with growing frequency the world experiences extreme changes in weather.

We need you to fight on until we understand why the world is experiencing one of the greatest migrations in history. Millions of people taking perilous journeys over land and by sea.

We need you to fight on until we create the next generation of technological advancements and wealth-generating businesses for all people.

And we need you to fight on until our nation, the richest nation in the history of the world, can find the way to provide health care, eliminate the achievement gap, and ensure justice is truly experienced by all of our citizens.

Graduates, if you are lucky enough to achieve great individual wealth as many Trojans do, first and foremost, remember where you got your education. And then identify a problem in the community and set out to solve it. Build wealth for yourself and for your community. But never forget that you are from a community.

And if all is well with your community, remember that so many other communities face challenges that need your expertise and treasure. There are infinite number of ways you can become involved and take responsibility for our collective world. Hopefully, we now all understand that it is our responsibility to vote in every single election. But I do hope that we’ve also learned that just voting is not enough.

We must be consistently involved in neighborhood associations and our city and state, and federal governments. Sometimes we complain about government, but too often, we don’t think it’s our responsibility to participate in government. We all lead busy lives. But with technology, there are many ways to participate. Emails, text messages, phone calls. You may think these don’t matter, but trust me, it all counts. I promise you that your representatives pay attention. We log and tally the calls, emails, and text messages, and all of them influence our decision-making.

Become leaders in your profession in the professional organizations that ensure quality and ethics in your chosen field, and use technology to better the world. And always remember that technology can bring us together, but it can also isolate us and sharpen divisions and exacerbate the problems we face.

As yourself these questions: What will you make of the world? What will be your purpose? Your life can be created, celebrated, and remembered. Which course will you choose?

Seeking creativity? If you choose to seek creativity, the nurture an idea, give birth to your dreams led by an enduring hope to build a better world. Apply math to calculate the measure of success. Use science to engineer the path to success. Always recall history to tap the wisdom of the ages, and find the beauty and art and give of your own soul with your best performance.

Seeking celebrity? If you wish to be celebrated, seek a charitable cause and give of yourself more than others do. Grow above and beyond the daily demands of selfishness. Delight in the virtues of teamwork. Take an oath to heal the sick through your knowledge of medicine. Use physics and take the human race soaring to a new frontier. Search for courage and find your inner hero. These things are worthy of celebrity, and should you find them, they will last a lifetime.

We need you to dream and dream big. Don’t just think outside of the box. Join me in flat out rejecting the idea that the box exists at all. There are no limits, no boundaries to what you can imagine and what you can achieve. So, Class of 2019, we call on you to take the gifts you learned at USC. Use the four academic pillars of learning, accountability, diversity, and leadership to ask the questions and answers to the complex challenges facing our world and then use the Trojan spirits have fight on until victory!

So come on, graduates. I want to hear it all together now. USC Trojans do what?

Fight On!

USC Trojans fight on until we change the world.

Thank you and congratulations to you.