Siddhartha Mukherjee urges class of 2018 to practice empathy

Alumni Park was buzzing with excitement Friday morning, as the graduating class of 2018 celebrated its accomplishments with high-fives and selfies at the 135th Annual Commencement Ceremony.

USC President C. L. Max Nikias, class valedictorian Rosebud Campion and keynote speaker Siddhartha Mukherjee each delivered remarks to nearly 18,000 graduates at the main ceremony.

Nikias opened the event by recognizing the achievements of this year’s graduates, welcoming them as new alumni of the Trojan Family.

“Go forward as cherished members of our Trojan Family,” Nikias said. “We will always be with you to encourage you, to applaud you, to celebrate your extraordinary achievements.”

Mukherjee, a renowned physician and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, was awarded one of five honorary degrees at the ceremony. Other recipients included Charlie Beck, the Los Angeles police chief; Maj. Gen. Charles F. Bolden Jr., the first black person to serve as the administrator of  NASA; Jennifer A. Doudna, a distinguished biochemist; and Forest Whitaker, a filmmaker and international peace activist.

In his commencement address, Mukherjee spoke about playing chess with his 8-year-old daughter. While the game initially led to a stalemate, his daughter ultimately prevailed by putting herself in his shoes. Mukherjee used this anecdote to encourage students to hone the art of listening as a lifelong skill.

Mukherjee identified three kinds of listening — to empathy, to history and to nature — as fundamental skills that define graduates’ entry to adulthood. Emphasizing the power of listening, he reminded his listeners that mastering this skill would allow them to understand the perspectives of others.

“We are the only species that can learn to think like another of our own species,” Mukherjee said. “The only one that records and remembers its history — the only one that tries to decipher the nature and laws of the universe.”

Meanwhile, Mukherjee cautioned students against the dangers of being reticent and staying in their own minds. He identified the class of 2018 as “Generation L,” the listening generation that will soon transform the world.

“Unlike us, you will really, really defend the defenseless. Unlike us, you will really, really learn the lessons of history,” Mukherjee said. “You will discover the natural laws that we missed in the midst of our cacophony. You will be the listening generation, Generation L. Go get out of your heads. Go out into the world and listen to it. Most importantly, please make us listen to you.”

Aside from Mukherjee, Campion also delivered her valedictory address to the class of 2018.

Campion, who received a bachelor’s degree in history and music, was recognized for her academic and community service achievements. Shifting between humor and seriousness, she stressed the importance of human empathy in her speech. Campion also shared her experiences with overcoming language and cultural barriers when performing in a German symphony orchestra for a semester, and discussed problems happening around the world today.

“The ability to put ourselves in the shoes of someone else does not come easily,” she said. “That is why we practice empathy in our humanities, arts and GE classes, using text and works of art to get into the minds of people who live in different circumstances. Outside the classroom, USC pushes us to understand others from diverse backgrounds — in our clubs, in organizations, in group projects, and especially in the dorms.”

To conclude her speech, Campion explained how empathy is crucial to education and life, commending the University for helping its students practice empathy inside and outside the classroom. Finally, she urged the new graduates to overcome the barriers that have historically divided people, and to close these gaps to create a better future.

“We need empathy to repair these deep divides and create a unified and peaceful society,” Campion said. “… I call on us, the class of 2018, to build on our experiences as Trojans and find to a way to continue practicing empathy each and everyday after we leave this campus.”