March 4, 2011
By C. L. Max Nikias

Good evening! Niki and I are thrilled to be here. We love being with so many Trojans and friends of USC.

How many of you have watched a sunset along the California coast? As it fires the waters and the skies in the twilight hour, it bleeds cardinal and gold. And it comes from heaven!

I want to thank you for supporting the students of USC. Over the years, you have awarded $14 million in scholarships to nearly 7,000 students! That’s more than an impressive achievement, it’s a transformative achievement.

Your generosity transforms lives. And it transforms USC. It’s support like yours that makes this university one of the great universities of the world.

In a few moments tonight’s awards will be presented. But I wanted to take this time to personally congratulate these outstanding honorees.

All of us owe a big thanks to Raúl Vargas and the alumni who founded the USC Mexican American Alumni Association.

One of these founders – Ed Zapanta – was USC’s first Latino trustee. I am deeply grateful to Ed and his wife Norene and to alumni leaders George Pla and Richard Zapanta, and their families. They are exemplary Trojans.

I also want to recognize Domenika Lynch. Her energetic and thoughtful leadership of the Latino Alumni Association is greatly expanding its reach.

And I applaud the association’s Board of Directors. Their new name for the association affirms the growing diversity of USC’s Latino community.

The Latino culture has had a tremendous influence on all of us in Southern California. It is a culture that drew many of its traditions from the different Mediterranean cultures that once dominated the Iberian Peninsula.
The Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes described thses influences in his book The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World.

Mirrors were often found in ancient Indian burial mounds, and Fuentes uses them as a metaphor. When held up, mirrors permit people to see where they have been, where they came from, and who they are.

Fuentes wrote about a Latino cultural heritage that stretches from the ancient caves of Spain to the streets and skyscrapers of modern-day Los Angeles.

From the beginning, the Latino culture has been an important part of the heritage of this city and this area.

And the Latino culture has long been an important part of USC’s heritage. We believe USC’s first Latino graduate earned his degree in 1909.

His name was Xavier Ramirez, and he studied in our dental school.

For many generations, USC has been a destination for talented, hard-working students from rising economies around the world. And they continue to come today – from all around the Pacific Rim, from the Carribean, and from Central and South America.

Today I am proud to lead a university that enrolls more Latino students than all but one other private American research university.

USC is second in the number of doctoral degrees awarded to Latinos – ahead of UCLA and UC Berkeley.

And in just six years the number of Latino students who have earned master’s degrees at USC has doubled.

I believe that education is society’s Greatest Equalizer. I have witnessed this throughout my own life’s journey. Education lifts up the weak from despair. It teaches humility to the mighty. Education inspires, gives hope, and puts impossible dreams within reach. Education takes the children of immigrants and the children of “have-nots” and integrates them into a larger, productive society.

Given the importance of Latin America and the Pacific Rim in this century and beyond, I believe we must recruit even more students from these regions of the world.

But we also must recruit more talented Latinos who are living right here in L.A. … and who are eager to become the first, second, or even third generation of their families to attend USC.

At USC we recognize that the future of our university and Los Angeles are intertwined. But did you know that USC and L.A. share the same birth date … although L.A. is older by 99 years?

It’s true! USC was founded on September 4, 1880. And 99 years before … on September 4, 1781 … a group of pioneers founded what would grow into the one of the world’s most creative, dynamic, and diverse cities.

Who were these founders of Los Angeles?

They were farmers and artisans and builders. Eleven families made up of 22 adults and 22 children.

Families with names such as Lara … Moreno … Navarro … Rodriquez … and Villavicencio.
They were Latino and African and European and Native American.

They were immigrants from somewhere else, much like the immigrants who journeyed to America before them and after them … nomads and settlers and dreamers who brought with them … across the continents and the oceans … their values and their hopes for a better life.

Some of their ancestors walked across the frozen backbone of the Bering Strait from Asia … or sailed across the choppy waters of the Atlantic from the Iberian Peninsula.

What the original Angelenos shared was a commitment to family and community and inclusiveness. These are the founding values of our great city…and also our great University of Southern California.

Social scientists have found that diverse, entrepreneurial communities such as L.A. tend to have far more economic and artistic innovation than small or isolated communities.
Building strong community requires moving far out of one’s comfort zone – being able to stand in the presence of unfamiliar ideas and cultures and people, and to reconsider old positions in this new light.

Sometimes this is mildly uncomfortable – and other times it shakes us to our core! Why? Because it is always easier to isolate ourselves from the unfamiliar.

In his book Carlos Fuentes warned of the perils of isolation…and emphasized the importance of interconnection. He wrote:

“We are Iberian and Greek, Roman and Jewish, Arabic, Gothic, and Gypsy. Spain and the New World are centers where multiple cultures meet—centers of incorporation, not of exclusion. When we exclude, we betray ourselves. When we include, we find ourselves.”

At USC, we exist to include, and in this way we help all the members of our community find the highest expression of themselves.

When people from many different backgrounds come together – whether we are talking about academic backgrounds or cultural backgrounds – the air crackles with life, and the imagination and the moral conscience are supercharged.

Nowhere is this more true than at a global university such as USC. Nowhere is this more true than in the values of family and community and philanthropy that Niki and I share with all of you.

So, again, thank you for supporting USC. And thank you for making the future brighter for our students.

And together, let us always “Fight On!”