Dean Yannis C. Yortsos addressed a Galen Center in which the area often occupied by a basketball court was instead completely filled with students wearing caps and gowns. Behind the court, a spectator section held still more. The attentive audience included many recipients of 2012 Viterbi School M.S. and Ph.D. degrees, along with friends, family and well wishers.
But to begin the proceedings, the packed center filled not with applause but with silence when the dean evoked the memory of the senseless deaths of graduate students Ying Wu and Ming Qu exactly one month before, asking for a moment to mourn their memory.
Feng Deng: Qualities needed — wanting to learn, abiliity to adapt, embracing diversity, decisiveness. (photos by Victor Leung)
On the platform with the dean were department chairs and the Viterbi School’s 2012 commencement speaker, alumnus Feng Deng. And also one – an extraordinary one – of the 2012 degree winners.
Before Deng spoke, the dean proudly related recent Viterbi honors in addition to the diplomas.
First, the Viterbi Graduate Student Association had been singled out as the 2012 outstanding USC student organization. And the dean singled out nine Ph.D. recipients, one in each department for best Ph.D. thesis honors.
Yortsos also repeated a message he had delivered at the undergraduate commencement earlier in the day about “moral imagination." He said, "Now, more than ever before, society has a great need for your integrity and compassion, in addition to your knowledge and ability to find solutions.”
The dean then turned the podium over to Feng Deng, founding managing director of Northern Light Venture Capital, who delivered a rousing call to excellence, drawing lessons from his remarkable career both before and after his studies at USC.
He focused his remarks on four elements that he said his experience had taught him — taught him so well that his parents abruptly stopped worrying about him.
The first element, he said, is a prime mission of the Viterbi School: learning. But Deng emphasized the importance of learning as a continuing enterprise, rather than mastery of a set syllabus. “Why? Because you will operate in a world that is faster moving and smaller than ever, given the pace of information exchange. Today, one year feels like three years did, in your parents’ generation. The only way you will stay at the forefront of technology and thrive… is to never stop learning.”
Deng then offered a case in point. “When I graduated from this engineering school, nobody even knew words like ‘Internet firewall.’ Never mind how to build one. A few years later, at Netscreen we built the best firewall in the world – simply by continuously learning. Because learning is the engine that drives innovation. “
The effect of the acceleration of change owed to applied learning – innovation – led directly to the next Deng priority: adaptability. He began with his personal resolution to not fear or fall behind, even though he moved continuosly from school to school as a child – to no less than 12 total.
CEMS Department namesake John Mork studied for and earned an M.S. degree via Viterbi's Distance Education Network (DEN).
“Only years later, did I see how this taught me to quickly adapt to new environments and made me more resilient. For 20 years I’ve worked in different companies, industries, countries and cultures. Developing your ability to adapt will be a big competitive advantage. And it will make you happier – with more friends.”
And a key to adaptability, Deng said, was knowledge of and comfort with other cultures, “embracing diversity.” His businesses, he said, had been united nations of talent: “Americans, Australians, Chinese, Indians, Koreans and many others.” Not only had pooling talent pushed innovation forward, but it also accelerated market penetration – Netscreen's into more than 100 countries, for example.
And Deng said in this respect the students were in the right place. “Since USC is one of the most culturally-diverse universities in the world . . . and 75 percent of you are international students . . . you leave here with an amazing gift.”
But beside these three qualities, one more personal attribute is necessary, he said: the ability to decide. “You can’t be afraid of making mistakes and taking risks. Make the best decisions you can with the information you have – and just move.”
His parents had worried about the decisions in launching a startup, he recollected with a smile. “They said I should save money for my wedding.” But a year later, “I started supporting the family. And as you might imagine… my parents stopped worrying.”
The bottom line: “I have all of the confidence in the world that what I have done, you can do. The world is yours. Go get it!”
Then came the distribution of diplomas. The first one went to a surprise recipient. John Mork, an alumnus (B.S. ‘70) is a namesake of the Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science. He is also the chief executive of Denver-based Energy Corporation of America. Last year, he and his wife, Julie, gave $110 million to USC for scholarships.
Mork has recently been a student in the USC Distance Education Network (celebrating its 40th anniversary this year) and there completed the work for his M.S. in petroleum engineering,
And then many others received their degrees. It was a large and happy crowd.
Faces of future leaders