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Salutatorian Ashwin Bhumbla wants to use his engineering and tech background to make an impact

Through student organizations like Code the Change and Engineers Without Borders, Bhumbla assists underserved communities at home and abroad. He’s also a proud member of the Trojan Marching Band.

2021 salutatorian Ashwin Bhumbla
Ashwin Bhumbla initially resisted studying computer science — his mother and brother studied it — but ended up with degrees in computer science and narrative studies. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

Ashwin Bhumbla may not have known exactly what he wanted to major in when he arrived at USC, but two things were crystal clear. One, he was going to be in the Trojan Marching Band. Two, whatever he pursued, he was going to use it to help others.

He made the band, eventually becoming an alto saxophone section leader. He also joined student organizations like Code the Change and Engineers Without Borders to put his passions and skills to use in environments that allowed him to work with underserved communities at home and abroad.

As far as his major, it didn’t take long to decide on computer science and narrative studies. This led to a goal he really hadn’t set when he entered college: being named a salutatorian for the Class of 2021.

The computer science degree paid off — Bhumbla has already accepted a job with Microsoft — but he initially wanted nothing to do with the major when he entered USC. His mother had studied computer science, as did his brother, so the two naturally encouraged him to adopt the same path. He was having none of it.

“I was like, ‘Just because you told me, I’m no longer going to do this,’” Bhumbla joked.

He entered USC as an industrial engineering major, but after a few semesters ended up in computer science, as both are in the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. Bhumbla then picked up narrative studies — similar to English — in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

“It’s a fantastic major,” he said. “I really think a lot of people, especially in engineering, should take more humanities courses. Engineering teaches us a lot of the how and the what we’re doing, but not so much the why.”

USC 2021 salutatorian motivated to end his Trojan Marching Band tenure the right way

This is the second year in a row that a member of the Trojan Marching Band has been named salutatorian, following the Class of 2020’s Thomas Kim.

“Hopefully, this starts a long tradition of band people doing well,” Bhumbla said with a smile. “I would definitely say that the marching band here at USC has probably been the defining experience for me.”

Bhumbla started in the alto saxophone section and was promoted to squad leader his junior year and section leader his senior year. Though he cited the USC-Texas game his freshman year and the 2017 Pac-12 Championship win over Stanford as highlights, he also mentioned how much of an impact his senior year had on him — a time when the band was not even allowed at sporting events. But Bhumbla didn’t see it as a time to pause so much as a time to adjust and keep going.

“It was definitely an interesting challenge. How do you rehearse with a band that is 300-strong, over Zoom?” he said. “The band decided from the beginning that we’re not just going to shut down for a year; we are going to do whatever we can to keep it going.”

One motivation for Bhumbla: the incoming freshmen. He knew what it was like that first year in band — the friendships made, the lasting memories — and he didn’t want the incoming class to miss out.

“We were trying to get a nice big freshman class and convince them that even though this is online, this is something they’ll love and something worth doing,” Bhumbla said. “As much as our senior class likes to complain about getting our last year taken away by COVID, it’s equally rough for freshmen coming into college because the first year is so important, so scary, and they don’t really have as many avenues to meet people.”

For Ashwin Bhumbla, giving back is everything

That “others first” attitude is exactly what got Bhumbla involved in organizations like Engineers Without Borders and Code the Change. The former focuses on engineering projects that empower communities to meet their basic human needs, as well as equip leaders to solve the world’s most pressing challenges, and the latter drives social impact through software projects for nonprofit organizations.

Bhumbla joined Engineers Without Borders his freshman year and was able to work on projects like building a water purification system in Guatemala and designing a school for underserved youth in San Bernardino, Calif. He joined Code the Change, or CTC, as a sophomore and served as a developer for various projects, such as developing an app for cancer patients to keep track of their medication dosages and times and an online forum for South L.A. residents to discuss housing issues.

“We have a bunch of computer science clubs that engage with the local community and have an impact, but with CTC, that’s its sole purpose,” Bhumbla said.

I haven’t done nearly enough in my life yet, and there’s a lot left to do going forward.

Ashwin Bhumbla

That’s something that Bhumbla keeps in mind as he prepares to graduate and start working full time with Microsoft. He understands the benefits of tech, but he’s also able to see how it can create inequality. The job is not simply a 9-to-5 for Bhumbla but perhaps a way to use the connections and resources for more philanthropic endeavors, even as an entry-level employee.

“We actually had a professor who teaches a course about using computer science for social good,” he said, “who came in and said that rather than trying to find a company that’s completely perfect, it’s better to understand where you’re at and what you’re trying to do and work from within to make that change.”

Thinking about how he entered USC versus where he is now, it’s easy for Bhumbla to smile, especially when he thinks about his major. He knows that as a freshman, he would’ve never believed where he’d be in four years. After early struggles with depression and anxiety, as well as the mental toll of finding his path and remaining focused during a pandemic, he now gets to walk across the stage at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in front of familiar faces, many of whom he hasn’t seen in over year. But perhaps the biggest reason for Bhumbla to smile is the anticipation of what the future holds.

“Ultimately, I think [my freshman self] would be proud of the person I’ve become, and at the same time, they’d probably also be yelling at me to get off my ass and continue to work and help other people,” he said. “I haven’t done nearly enough in my life yet, and there’s a lot left to do going forward.”

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Salutatorian Ashwin Bhumbla wants to use his engineering and tech background to make an impact

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