Phi Kappa Psi Scholarship Awards Dinner

October 28, 2013
By C. L. Max Nikias

Good evening everyone. It is a great pleasure to speak here at Phi Kappa Psi’s Scholarship Awards Dinner.

I would like to congratulate all of this evening’s award winners. In bringing great pride to your fraternity, you also bring great pride to the university.

As one of the oldest fraternities at USC, the California Delta chapter of Phi Kappa Psi has been a distinguished fixture of Greek life at this university for over 85 years. The scholarship award winners you honor tonight stand on the shoulders of previous chapter members, a long line of successful titans of business, sports, and service to the community.

I am delighted that one of your alumni, my good friend and USC Trustee Mark Stevens, has become such an inspiring role model for all of you, and such a great supporter of USC. In the midst of a challenging economic climate, the USC Stevens Center for Innovation continues unabated to unleash the full potential of startups based on our university’s research. And through generous support in establishing the Stevens Academic Center in the John McKay Center, Mark and his wife, Mary, enable our student-athletes to “Fight on” in the classroom, not just on the field.

I must confess, there are several I reasons I feel a special affinity for USC’s Greek community.

First, it’s because of my Greek heritage! I am also a member of Phi Kappa Phi and Tau Beta Pi, as well as an honorary member of Phi Beta Kappa, three of the country’s oldest Greek-letter honor societies.

But my commitment to USC’s Greek community stems from something much deeper, something much more inherent to the university and its mission. The 3,800 members of the Greek system embody the core values of USC: academic excellence, leadership, and service to the community.

More than 300 Greeks arrived at USC as distinguished recipients of Trustee Scholarships and Presidential Scholarships. For years, USC’s Greek students have collectively had higher GPA’s than their fellow students. And unsurprisingly, Greeks are more likely to leave with a USC diploma than their non-Greek counterparts. According to the latest figures, the six-year graduation rate for our Greek students is 95 percent! This is remarkable.

But what is equally impressive is what you do outside of the classroom. Nearly 600 Greeks hold a leadership position in an organization outside of their chapter, and more than 1,300 regularly perform community service. And nearly 1,200 of you have studied abroad or are planning to do so in the future.

Greek students are the bedrock of USC’s excellence, and the pursuit of excellence is a hallmark of the Phi Psi’s of USC! I’m certain that is why, for the past three years, you have won the annual “Best House Award.”

The brothers of Phi Psi achieve noteworthy success at USC and beyond. But what is the driving force for such accomplishment?
I believe the answer is quite simple: character.

Perhaps the most enduring definition of character comes from Aristotle, who declared, “Character is that which reveals moral purpose, exposing the class of things a man chooses and avoids.”

Yet 2,600 years ago, it was the great Greek philosopher Heraclitus who highlighted why choice, as a function of character, is so important when he observed that “Character is destiny.” In other words, a man or woman’s character is what inevitably shapes the course of his or her life.

Through the centuries, this timeless truth has been reaffirmed by figures from Pericles of Athens to George Washington to Abraham Lincoln to Albert Einstein. Einstein himself was particularly aware of the preeminent importance of character to one’s future. Often one to go against conventional thinking, he once noted, “Most people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: it is character.”

But character is not about being “nice.” Character is about having earned the trust and respect of your friends and your brothers when everything is on the line. Character is the discipline that allows you to make wise choices and wise investments—wise investments about how you will spend your time, wise choices about where you will go and where you will not go. What you will do and what you will not do. Who you will call a friend and who you will not.

Because character plays such a central role in your life, I would like to discuss five foundational traits that will ensure your future success. They are:

First, the commitment to developing the highest level of ethics and character.
Second, the ability to be persistent as you make your way forward.
Third, the willingness to be courageous and overcome your own anxieties about the future.
Fourth, the ability to infuse your life’s work with a spirit of adventure.
And fifth, the ability to develop and display solid judgment.
Ethics, persistence, courage, adventurousness, and sound judgment – these traits all build upon one another, and flow from one another.

Character also allows us to develop persistence. And persistence is essential to success in your chosen field of study and career, especially as we find ourselves in a world that is changing so rapidly. The difference between a person who succeeds and a person who fails oftentimes is not due to one person having more talent but having more persistence.

Persistence and courage go hand in hand. Some argue that fatigue turns bold men into cowards. And yet it could also be said that it is fear that makes us decide that we are tired, and makes us lose our willingness to persist. So your goal must be to be courageous. Your goal must be to never see a setback as the final word, and instead adjust your course.

If you are just beginning your USC career, you should know that we at USC take the legends of the Trojans seriously. Growing up reading the Greco-Roman classics, I was inspired by the image of the Trojans as warriors who never gave up. Persistence and courage were engraved in their ethos.

When they were knocked to the ground, they always rose back up. They persevered. And they conquered, even when the odds were against them, even when they were outnumbered.

Yes, even when the gods of Mount Olympus seemed to have forgotten them, they knew how to bend destiny back in their favor and to triumph. Destiny always favors the bold. Destiny always bends in the direction of those who take risks.

As you go forward this year and in successive years, you may find yourself outmatched, outclassed, or outnumbered. But it is all the more opportunity for you to show something amazing to yourselves, to your families, and to the world.

This allows you to nurture another trait, a spirit of adventure. And the one who can embrace this reality has an infinite edge over those who grow cautious in the face of uncertainty. What seems to be a dead end is frequently a passageway to the most breathtaking chapter yet in your journey.

Virgil wrote that the ancient Trojans ran into countless obstacles when they left the old city of Troy. But they engineered their own destiny, as they continued through the adventure and established the new City of Troy, which would become Rome – the heart of the mighty Roman Empire.

But to attain and retain the fruits of one’s life, the fifth trait is needed – sound judgment. Good judgment sustains and safeguards the four other pillars of good character. When an individual has solid character, the pillars of ethics, persistence, courage and adventurousness can help one reach the mountaintop. But it is sound judgment that will maintain an individual’s place there, securing all gains and fulfilling one’s destiny.

All of you here tonight personify the ethic of hard work, of determination, of wisdom, and good character. These serve as the foundation of anything great that can be achieved. And you, my fellow Trojans, can achieve anything that you set your minds to.

On the day you depart from the university to make your mark in the world, you will be leaving with two families. Your Phi Psi community has provided you a family away from family, launching lifelong friendships and a worldwide network of connections. But this family has promoted something else to ensure you thrive personally and professionally: character forged in the crucible of fraternity and companionship.

You will also depart with a lifetime membership in the Trojan Family, a worldwide family spanning generations and continents that is nourished by character. Together, these two families will help you build lives of service and leadership in which your character will only grow and be imparted to others. And for this, I am immensely proud.

So hail to the men of Phi Kappa Psi!

Thank you, and Fight On, Always!