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Viterbi School Commencement 2011

Elon Musk: "I've always thought that engineering is the closest thing to magic that exists in reality."

May 13, 2011 —

Craig Western
It was a magical day. 

Starting the day as degree candidates at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, young men and women turned into engineers with B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. degrees, and of course, also into brand new Viterbi alumni.

"I've always thought that engineering is the closest thing to magic that exists in reality," said Elon Musk, sole architect and CEO of Tesla Motors, founder and CEO of SpaceX, and the speaker at the undergraduate commencement ceremony.  "If you could go back in time 300 years with an airplane, you would be burned at the stake as a witch."

Colorfully attired from head (straw hats, floppy caps, baseball caps, head scarves, turbans, balloons, or nothing) to foot (flip flops, tennis shoes, tasseled loafers, spit-shined wing-tips, cowboy boots or insanely high heels), thousands of family members and friends clutching flowers, balloons and cameras, jammed Archimedes Plaza for the undergraduate ceremony to hear Musk, Valedictorian Craig Western and Dean Yannis Yortsos congratulate the new graduates.

"You have successfully completed the most rigorous, demanding and rewarding program in undergraduate education in the nation," said Yortsos who struck a chord with his fellow parents by noting he was the parent of a Viterbi senior who was graduating, with honors, at the ceremony. "She also made the dean's list although she's been on that list since she was born!"

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Claiming to have begun working on his valedictorian remarks the previous midnight fueled by energy drinks, Western displayed highly developed social skills by thanking his girlfriend, along with his parents "for backing my decision to venture 3000 miles from my hometown of Peachtree City, Georgia, to pursue a new life on the West Coast;" Associate Dean Louise Yates, Professors Milind Tambe and Gene Bickers; the RTH cafe "for providing an endless supply of coffee;" employees at Salvatori Computer Science Hall "for without you, we would have no place to work at 4:30 in the morning;" and his friends and roommates "for putting live chickens in my closet in the middle of midterms."

Dean Yortsos with William Wang
At the graduate commencement ceremony held at the Galen Center, William Wang, CEO and founder of Vizio, told graduates to learn from failure, treat everyone with respect and to never give up, advice that he said he had personally battle tested.

"Life is messy.  Things happen.  In life there is no such thing as a straight line between two points," he explained.  "Before starting Vizio, I made a million dollars before I turned 30 - and lost ten times that much before I turned 40.  None of that was in the plan."

Wang described how employees who weren't getting paid stuck with him and investors who had lost money with him continued to invest.  Then in 1998, when his businesses were failing, he was in a plane crash.

"Trust me.  It does not get much worse than being in a burning plane," he said. "I thought I was dead.  The plane was full of smoke and fire.  I could have given up right there.  Part of me really wanted to.  It would have been an easy way to avoid the creditors after me."

But he did not give up and went on to great success.

Describing engineering as the discipline that is empowering other disciplines, Yortsos, in both ceremonies, told the new graduates they would need "a new sense of moral imagination.

Dean Yortsos with Elon Musk
"It will be you who will devise the new alternative energy sources.  You will solve vexing climate problems.  You will master the miracles of biology to eradicate diseases.  You will educate and enlighten, and you will help lift millions from poverty by relighting the engine of economic development." 

At the beginning of the day at the main commencement ceremony, USC President and former Viterbi School Dean, C. L. Max Nikias cited Virgil as he said "to be a Trojan is to be an adventurer...you do not go forward alone, you go forward as a lifelong member of the Trojan Family."

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer told the graduates to face the world with tenacity and to find their passion.

But it was valedictorian Sarrah Shahawy who best captured the spirit of the 12,513 USC degree candidates assembled in Alumni Park who were minutes away from becoming graduates.

"We made it!" she shouted into the microphone igniting a cheer that rippled across the entire University Park Campus and through the magic of an Internet webcast, was heard around the world.