Logo: University of Southern California

Commencement 05

1,676 Engineering Graduates Take One Giant Leap Forward

May 16, 2005 —

Rising to the occasion, 1,676 radiant engineering students accepted their USC diplomas on May 13, 2005 and stepped into the future, just as the morning’s commencement speaker, Trojan alumnus Neil Armstrong, stepped onto the moon 35 years before.

Archimedes Plaza swelled to near capacity as the recessional march of students, wearing the traditional academic regalia, headed from Alumni Park in the heart of the campus to the steps of Vivian Hall on the southwest side of campus.  Approximately 30,000 people were on hand for this year’s 122nd Commencement celebration, which coincides with the 125th anniversary of USC’s founding this fall and the centennial of engineering.    

Parents, siblings and friends cheered the newly minted graduates as they followed flag bearers Brianna Ranney and Leah Turner to the stage. Dean C. L. Max Nikias, department chairs and key administrators led the recession, along with Andrew J. Viterbi, for whom the school is named, and Yannis Yortsos, who will serve as dean for an interim period.  


The school’s colorful banner stood on one side of the stage, while its heraldic orange flag – bearing interlinked rings to symbolize the interaction of the profession with science and society – stood nearby.

“Today is a celebration of your hard work and your accomplishments,” said Dean Nikias. “We salute everyone who played a part.”

Nikias embraced the theme of this year’s university-wide anniversary, “Inventing the Future, Honoring the Past.” He talked of engineering’s critical role in society and of the future that awaited 439 who earned bachelor’s degrees, 1,150 master’s degree recipients, two engineering advanced degree awardees and 85 new Ph.Ds.   


Serving Society

“The desire to serve society is at the very core of an engineer’s work,” he said. “We are all surrounded by the fruits of other engineers’ remarkable work.  Some are tiny, while others are enormous. Some are buried in our pockets, while others announce themselves majestically in far-off lands.  Some are ancient, while others arrived only yesterday,” he said.
“One day, some of you may examine new ways to protect a skyscraper’s occupants during an earthquake, while others might imagine a device that will prolong a person’s life,” Nikias went on. “Some of you may write code that artists use to create work that was unimaginable until now.

“Some of you may teach,” he added.  “What calling could be higher?”

A record number of undergraduate students achieved academic grade point averages of 3.9 or higher this year. Recalling the words of a well-known motivational leader, Nikias told them all to “shoot for the moon. Even if you miss it, you’ll land among the stars.”

But one student – Zeeshan Ahmed – stood out among all of those high achievers.

Named this year’s Viterbi School valedictorian, Ahmed was a Trustee Scholar, a member of Phi Kappa Phi, the Mortar Boards, the W.V.T. Rusch Honors Program and other scholastic organizations.  He earned a perfect 4.0 grade point average in aerospace and astronautics and led a team of student researchers in the development of a microsatellite, Traveler 1, which will be launched into space next year.

Ahmed said his engineering writing class, in which he helped the African Millennium Foundation develop an elementary school computer lab, was his most “profound educational life experience.”

Those Less Fortunate
“Working with the African Millennium Foundation reminded me that we are truly fortunate today to be getting engineering degrees, but that there are between two-to-three billon people in the world who will never get an education,” he said.  “And there are millions of people who will never see the impact of engineering in their lives.” 

Ahmed, who will pursue graduate work in physics at the California Institute of Technology, urged his fellow graduates to make a commitment to “lifelong learning,” to become informed, active leaders and to “spread the light of knowledge” every step of the way.

Brent Nash, who received degrees in computer engineering/computer science and in classics, was also recognized for his outstanding achievements in engineering. Nash was chosen from among the highest undergraduate achievers in all of the schools to represent the university as salutatorian.  (See  - Combining Computers and the Classics)

One by one, the students marched up to shake hands with the commencement marshals as their names were called out by Louise Yates,  associate dean of Engineering Admission and Student Affairs, and Tom Katsouleas, professor of electrical engineering. Family members popped out of their chairs momentarily to wave and shoot videotape of their children, spouses and siblings.


Graduate Ceremony
In the afternoon, graduate students convened for their satellite ceremony, which took twice as long for twice as many graduates. In all, 1,237 advanced degrees were conferred in more than 20 disciplines, including 171 master’s degrees to students enrolled in the Viterbi School’s world-renowned Distance Education Network.  (See - Mortarboards and Circuitboards)

Incoming Dean Yannis Yortsos congratulated the graduate and Ph.D students for earning their degrees in the centennial year of engineering at USC.

“As technology’s presence and importance increases with each passing second – or should I say with each passing nanosecond  – your work will become increasingly important,” he said. “The reliance on dedicated and well-educated engineers will only increase as our society’s reliance on technology increases.    

“Our age is your age now, and it is the best of times for engineering,” Yortsos continued. “At no other point in human history has technology played such an important role in shaping society, culture and even life itself.” 

Light Years Ahead of Many
The students, their families and friends applauded Yortsos. Most felt privileged to have their degrees; they knew they were light years ahead of
many people their age. At the conclusion of the ceremony, the graduates scattered to pose for one last Kodak moment in their caps and flowing gowns.    

“I can see where robotics is taking us,” said Carolyn Shacklett, clutching her electrical engineering diploma tightly in one hand.  “We’ll see it in health care and other fields…right now it’s mostly in defense and the military, but I want to pursue it because it’s the future.”

Riki Lee, a budding spacecraft hardware engineer, had set his sights on a job at Lockheed Martin.  

“For the past few years, I’ve been developing a micro-thruster about the size of a quarter that will change the spin rate on a small satellite,” he said confidently, while posing for pictures with mom, dad, sis and grandma. “I’m going into the master’s degree program here in the fall, but it’s going to fly on a Texas A&M satellite in 2008 or beyond. By then, I hope I’m at a place like Lockheed Martin.”

--Diane Ainsworth
Photos by Irene Fertik