Watching USC’s 116th commencement ceremony on Friday, May 14, often felt like watching history in human form – from speaker Warren M. Christopher, who played a large role in recent events in Iran, Serbia and the Middle East, to civil rights symbol Rosa Parks and a pair of philanthropists who have broken records for giving.
Even the valedictorian, Alaina K. Kipps, was a trailblazer: She is the first female varsity athlete at USC to earn the top academic honor.
Christopher, who served three presidents, most recently as secretary of state from 1993 to 1997, urged students to consider careers in public service, even at a time when the news from Washington “is disappointing or downright depressing.”
“Today, more than ever, America needs people of character and competence to carry out the vital tasks of running this huge and complex mechanism we’ve designed for ourselves,” he said.
“If the very best minds in society regard government as beneath them – it will be.”
Christopher’s speech to the 8,200 graduates was followed minutes later by Rosa Parks’ touching acceptance of an honorary doctorate of humane letters. Parks, who is 86 and frail, broke into a joyous smile when Barbara Solomon, vice provost for minority affairs, began the presentation. After receiving a standing ovation, Parks reached for the microphone and told the crowd of 50,000: “Thank you and God bless you very much. Thank you for this degree.”
Parks made history in 1955 by refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Ala., bus , touching off a year-long bus boycott that culminated in a Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation. On May 14, she was helped to the commencement platform in a wheelchair.
But Solomon said Parks hasn’t lost a step in her interest in the issues. In a Webcast interview that day with broadcast journalist and USC professor Terry Anzur, Solomon said Parks “wanted me to make the point that she was the mother of the modern-day civil rights movement – that there had been others prior to that, and that she did not want to take away from those who preceded her.”
Solomon said the privilege of introducing Parks made commencement “a very exciting day for me.”
Other honorary degrees were awarded to entrepreneur Jon M. Huntsman Sr. and philanthropist and arts patron Flora L. Thornton. Huntsman made the largest contribution ever – $100 million to the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah – by an individual to cancer research in the United States. Thornton, in turn, made what is believed to be the largest donation to a school of music at an American college or university: $25 million to USC’s Thornton School of Music.
Earlier, President Steven B. Sample spoke about the importance of the Trojan Family as a lifetime haven for graduates to find “enjoyment, inspiration and fellowship.”
“My exhortation to you is simply to do what will probably come naturally: Stay in touch with your fellow graduates, your friends and your favorite faculty members; take advantage of the connections you made during your on-campus years; and build new Trojan connections in the coming years,” Sample said.
ONE GRADUATING member of the Class of 1999 is the matriarch of a literal Trojan family. Marie Reyes finally earned a degree in American studies after putting six of her children through USC (a seventh is enrolled in Whittier College) – five of them by herself after her husband died.
When Morton Owen Schapiro, dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, hired Reyes 13 years ago as undergraduate adviser and assistant to the chair of the economics department, “He told me that he thought the position really required a degree,” Reyes said. “But he gave me a chance.”
On May 14, Schapiro gave her a diploma – and a hug.
Reyes’ oldest son, the first in the family to get a college degree, graduated more than two decades ago. Now the Reyes clan includes a lawyer and two holders of master’s degrees.
RELIEF AND PRIDE were reflected in the faces and conversations of many new graduates.
“It has been a long haul since August of 1995, and I am proud to say that my brown 1964 Schwinn has survived all four years,” valedictorian Kipps said in her speech. Kipps, a psychobiology major and co-captain of the USC women’s volleyball team, will enter Harvard Medical School in the fall.
The wife of another graduate said she was looking forward to seeing more of her husband now that he has completed a Ph.D. program in civil engineering. “We’re very proud of him,” Armineh Bedrossian said about Herand Bedrossian, who juggled a full-time job as a Lockheed aerospace engineer while earning his Ph.D. With a toddler and a baby on the way, Armineh “probably wants to burn my books,” Herand Bedrossian joked.
Journalism graduate Nichole Torres had a special guest in the audience: her La Mirada High School journalism teacher, Darryl Adams.
“I try to keep up with all my students’ graduations,” said Adams, a USC alumnus. “It’s my way of telling my current students that I know what it took for them to get through grade school. I know what it will take to get through high school. And I tell them that I will gladly take a day off to be there when they graduate from college.”
Some new graduates barely savored the familiar commencement rituals – the family gatherings, picture-taking in front of Tommy Trojan, speeches and diploma ceremonies – before starting new jobs or other commitments.
Andrea Seals, surrounded by 15 family members at commencement, was graduating with a bachelor’s in economics and a minor in business. She had already lined up a marketing job and hopes to apply for medical school eventually. “I’m excited,” she said. “There’s a lot of opportunity out there; I can go anywhere from here.”
Second Lt. Brett Rubio was among the 13 cadets who took an oath of service at the Army ROTC ceremony in the Doheny Library courtyard. Rubio was due to arrive at Fort Sill, Okla., the following Monday for 20 weeks of advanced classes in his specialty, field artillery. Then he’ll be stationed in Germany, only a few hundred miles from the Balkans.
Rubio, a veteran of the Gulf War as a Navy enlisted man, was calm about the possibility of being in harm’s way: “That’s part of the deal,” he said.
FOR MUCH OF THE DAY, the NATO-Yugoslavia conflict was not far away, from Christopher’s comments, to the awarding of the Annenberg Dean’s Medal for Courage in Journalism. At the School of Journalism’s satellite ceremony, the Dean’s Medal was presented in absentia to Veran Matic, editor in chief of Serbian Radio B92.
In March, Radio B92 – the only locally run, non-government controlled news and information station in the region – was shut down and Matic imprisoned. After his release, B92 continued to broadcast over the Internet at its Website, but was stopped in early April by Yugoslav authorities.
No one was more deserving of the award, journalism professor Edward B. Cray told graduates. “Veran Matic has stood for 10 years against a harsh, authoritarian government at no little personal risk,” said Cray.
Cray read a portion of a statement from Matic, who was unable to leave Serbia for the event.
“The Serbian regime has taken over not only Radio B92 but also a large number of independent local radio and TV stations,” Matic said in his statement.
“They have taken away from us our publishing house, our music and video production departments, our Internet service provider, our cultural center. Yet we have not surrendered. We shall start from scratch. Again and again. No one can take away from us as many radio and TV stations as we can create.”
At the satellite ceremonies for individual academic units, USC graduates got advice from a wealth of accomplished professionals, many of them alumni:
• Henry Winkler, actor and producer, speaking at the School of Theatre satellite ceremony: “Listen to your inner voice. Your instinct knows more than your head. Your instinct will put you with the right people. Your instinct will allow you to live a wonderful and fruitful life.”
• Bob Graziano, president and CEO, Los Angeles Dodgers, at the Leventhal School of Accounting ceremony: “When I was graduating under the blue skies of Dedeaux Field back in 1980 … I must admit I had no idea at the time that graduating in a baseball stadium would have such significance in my life. … Let me explain how you know you’ve graduated from college. Your salary will be less than your current tuition. You’ll go from having 130 days of vacation to seven. You’ll have to start waking up at 6 a.m. instead of going to bed at that time. Your parents will start charging you rent, and then they’ll start dropping subtle hints about grandchildren.”
• George Bekey, associate dean for research, School of Engineering, and robot expert, at the graduate engineering ceremony: “A person with access to information and no wisdom is just a search engine. … We are more stressed than ever. …We can’t escape e-mails, faxes or cell phones … but are our lives more meaningful?”
• Kenneth Clarke, member of the British Parliament and former chancellor of the exchequer, at one of the four College of Letters, Arts and Sciences satellite ceremonies: “Our two countries – the U.K. and the United States, the European Union and the United States – must be irreversibly committed to democracy, freedom of speech, liberal economics and open borders. If we do not defend these values, these values will not be progressed [in the world].”
• Barbara Rossier, USC trustee and benefactor, at the Rossier School of Education satellite ceremony: “The future is not a place we’re going – it’s a place we’re creating.”
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