Logo: University of Southern California

"The minds and hands behind the next generation of everything."

Joy reigned supreme at the 2015 USC Viterbi undergraduate commencement, where students were encouraged to reach for the stars.
By: Marc Ballon
May 15, 2015 —

USC Viterbi undergraduate students line up before the main commencement ceremony. (Photo by Victor Leung)
Gloomy skies and a light rain gave way to bright smiles and high spirits at the 87th Annual Engineering Commencement Ceremony on Friday, May 15.

Newly minted graduates warmly embraced loved ones. Parents beamed with pride.

USC Dean Yannis Yortsos congratulated the 575 graduates – 30 percent of whom are women – on their accomplishments. He told them that they would shape the future for humanity’s benefit.

“Today, thanks to engineering and technology the world is being re-created and re-imagined like never before, at an astonishing speed, at an exponential pace and in front of our very eyes,” he said. “And it is engineers and visionaries like you that drive this re-imagination.

Paraphrasing an observation made decades ago by legendary aerospace engineer and mathematician Theodore von Kármán, Yortsos told the assembled they would “create the world that never was.”

Valedictorian Sam Kushner-Lenhoff gave a well-received speech about how engineers are "movers." (Photo by Victor Leung)
Near the end of his remarks, the dean proudly acknowledged his own son, Stephen Yortsos.

“Three years ago, we couldn’t even think that Stevie would be a functioning person, let alone finish college, having suffered a serious injury while playing soccer for the USC team,” the elder Yortsos said. “Today he is graduating, having even made the dean’s list!”

USC Viterbi valedictorian Sam Kushner-Lenhoff, in a well-received address, called his fellow graduates “movers” who would make a difference. He noted that one classmate had landed a job at NASA to help design the next lunar spacecraft, while another would work on Tesla’s next generation car.

“We will be the minds and hands behind the next generation of everything," said Kushner-Lenhoff, a Trustee Scholar, member of the SC Racing Team and recipient of the Viterbi Merit Research Award and the Vice Provost Rose Hills Research Award. 

Keynote speaker Mike Abbott told graduates to dive into "scary" endeavors. (Photo by Victor Leung)
Keynote speaker Mike Abbott of venture capital behemoth Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers followed. Abbott, who focuses on investments in the firm’s digital practice, encouraged graduates “to dive into endeavors you find scary, maybe even terrifying.”

Abbott said that “complacency is the enemy of achievement” and that taking on new challenges leads to personal and professional growth. As an example, he spoke about his time at Twitter, where Abbott served as vice president of engineering.

Joining the firm in 2010, he immediately set about trying to fix the service, which constantly went down and displayed, as Abbot noted, the “infamous Fail Whale." Under his direction, Twitter’s engineering team grew significantly in less than a year and a half. In that time, the engineers scaled Twitter’s architecture to support hundreds of million of daily tweets.

“Believe me when I say we were all out of our comfort zone,” said Abbott, who also serves on the board of councilors of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. “And we were all very afraid.”

Dean Yannis Yortsos with his son, Stephen Yortsos. (Photo by Victor Leung)
Based on any number of criteria, USC Viterbi has never been stronger.

In the past decade, 10 members of the school's faculty were elected to the National Academy of Engineering, among the highest honors in the engineering profession. Similarly, USC Games, a unique collaboration with the School of Cinematic Arts, was named the No. 1 games program by The Princeton Review for the sixth consecutive year.

As a reflection of the school’s growing presence in region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, USC Viterbi recently became home to a new hub of innovation funded by the National Science Foundation – one of only seven in the nation – aimed at taking high-tech research from the lab to the market.

Yortsos ended his address to members of the Class of 2015 on a philosophical note.

"In adversity, try to control the things that you can," he said. "But choose hope and faith over fear and despair for things that you cannot."

Click here to view all images from the Undergraduate Ceremony