On the evening of March 5, 2020, a ballroom at The Westin Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles was filled with uniformed guests for the first USC Veterans and ROTC Gala of President Carol L. Folt’s tenure. No one knew it would be the last presidential event before campus — and much of the world — closed due to COVID-19.
With hopes that the 2022 event will be in person, hundreds gathered in a virtual ballroom Tuesday night for a celebration of USC’s century-old military ties.
“Just after last year’s event, the pandemic swept in and changed all our lives,” said Chris Alora, president of the USC Veterans Association. “This year’s gala, although virtual, shows us the light at the end of a yearlong tunnel. This is a new beginning of community, service, and perseverance.”
With hundreds watching online, many in full dress uniform, Folt saluted the common commitments of two institutions.
“Building leaders is something USC and the military share,” Folt said. “Building community is why we’re paying tribute tonight. Our USC veterans are part of a long line of brave warriors who answered the call of duty.”
Motivational Air Force leader inspires at USC veterans gala
The event’s keynote speaker, retired Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright, focused on self-driven leadership in a time of pandemic and simmering international tensions.
“When your feet hit the floor every morning, ask yourself, ‘How can I be great today?’ If better is possible, then good isn’t good enough,” Wright said.
Wright works as a motivational speaker but admits drive doesn’t always come from inside — at least not easily.
“I wish I could say throughout my career I was motivated every day, but I wasn’t,” he said. “The thing you’ll need to fall back on is discipline. That means doing the small things well. Get 1% better at 100 small things every day.”
Wright was the second Black man to be named chief master sergeant, the top enlisted airman in the Air Force. After 32 years of service, he moved into a position as CEO of a nonprofit. He’s credited with helping to reconfigure the way military promotions are decided. He also supported greater mental health resources for active-duty military members and veterans.
“First and foremost, Chief Master Sergeant Wright understands people and our human nature,” said Lt. Col. Reid Wynans, commander of Air Force ROTC Detachment 060 at USC. “As a great leader, he is also a master communicator. His inspiring message tonight laced those two together for great effect. His words gave us an extra boost of resiliency — something we all needed to hear as we continue to ‘fight on’ during these challenging times.”
At the end of the evening, Wynans promised to send Wright an invitation for next year’s event right away.
“I can’t wait to come out to the campus when we get through the pandemic to meet everybody,” Wright said. “Hopefully we can do this in person next year.”