Valedictorian, salutatorians face uncertainty

Valedictorian Isabella Hauptman found a community with Camp Kesem, a camp for children whose parents have been diagnosed with cancer. (Photo courtesy of Isabella Hauptman)

The Class of 2020 is no ordinary graduating class. Its members have borne witness to major change at USC, such as the construction of USC Village, three different University presidents and a multitude of scandals. A virtual commencement ceremony is just one of the unexpected challenges thrown their way as they prepare for life after USC. 

With commencement being held online, students are missing out on the integral college experience of celebrating their success together and saying goodbye to their friends. 

Isabella Hauptman is one of these students. Since she was little,  she knew she wanted to be an epidemiologist. The graduating senior chose USC so she could pursue a progressive degree in applied biostatistics and epidemiology along with an undergraduate degree in cognitive science.

While her journey at USC will continue next year, Hauptman was selected as valedictorian for the Class of 2020 from a pool of qualified students.  Seniors Gavin Kress and Thomas Kim were selected as salutatorians. The online commencement ceremony will take place May 15, and Hauptman does not yet know if she will give the commencement address that valedictorians give each year.

While this wasn’t the graduation ceremony she envisioned, Hauptman remains positive and proud of what she has accomplished during her time at USC. 

“I think it’s really making us question our values and think about our priorities and put things into perspective,” Hauptman said. “While this isn’t necessarily what I had dreamed of [when] graduating college … just trying to stay positive and be proud of ourselves for getting this far is important.”

Being involved with Camp Kesem, a camp for children whose parents have cancer, defined a large part of Hauptman’s time at USC. She joined as a freshman who saw herself among the campers. 

“When I was about 6 years old, my mom was diagnosed with cancer, and I remember how scary that felt and how isolating it was for me,” Hauptman said. “I definitely wish [Camp Kesem] was something that I could have been a part of to know that I wasn’t alone and to see and hear the experiences of other kids.”

Much of Hauptman’s other free time has been spent in labs conducting research. She has been working at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles for the past two years in the Biobehavioral Pain Laboratory conducting research and has spent both summers after her sophomore and junior years looking into using virtual reality as a tool to help children undergoing operations manage pain. 

“When I was in middle school, I was diagnosed with a rare pain disorder and so I actually spent time at a children’s hospital up north seeking treatment for my condition,” Hauptman said. “This is also something that I think I could have really benefited from personally just because VR is a really effective tool … to mitigate some of the pain that children feel.”

For Kress, one of the two salutatorians, research has served a similarly integral part of his life during his time at the University. Kress found his home within the Lawrence J. Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine of USC where he worked on projects such as culturing and testing tissue from surgical samples. While he is currently finishing his undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering, he too will continue at USC for his progressive degree in mechanical engineering. 

“It’s really great because I can go around and I can learn about anything,” Kress said. “There’s biophysicists, chemists, data scientists, tons of people to learn from and I’ve really taken full advantage of that. I’ve learned a ton since I’ve been there.”

Kress believes that gaining this knowledge was the result of immersing himself directly in his subject material through his extracurriculars and research. He started the Vaccination Information Awareness Initiative, a nonprofit focused on vaccine awareness and accessibility, while in high school and wants to combine his engineering experience with the health care field.

“[I want to] bring engineering research and engineering applications directly to the medical profession because that’s kind of rare it happens,” Kress said. “It really takes a lot of time and a lot of difficult collaboration to actually get novel engineering innovation directly to the medical side. It’s important to expedite that process and bridge the gap that exists between engineering and medicine.”

Thomas Kim, the other salutatorian, is graduating with a degree in international relations. Entering USC undecided, Kim said he wasn’t sure what he wanted to study, but after spending fifth through eighth grade in South Korea, he knew he was interested in understanding how countries interact.

“When I came back [to the United States] for high school, I had this different mindset compared to my other peers in high school where the world didn’t just exist in San Diego or within the suburb or within Southern California,” Kim said. 

Kim said that although his focus in the beginning of his college experience was tangible success such as high grades, he has learned along the way that the friendships he has made along with becoming a part of the Trojan Family have truly defined his success. 

“Very honestly, my first two years here, I [believed] college was just high school round two where you just get the highest grades, participate in extracurriculars, just build your resume,” Kim said. “But after that summer [between sophomore and junior year], college became more of, ‘This should be about building relationships and building those support networks.’”

For Kim, finding a place as tenor saxophone in the Trojan Marching Band and taking on leadership positions in international relations fraternity Delta Phi Epsilon have provided him a community in which to thrive. Finding a sense of family helped Kim succeed and he wants to provide a similar environment to others in the Trojan community. 

“Being in leadership positions where I got to interact with far larger and wider groups of [DPE], I feel like I made my mark by keeping that spirit and familial integrity,” Kim said. “Even though the org, by the time I left presidency, grew to 100 people, it still felt as if we were a group of 40 people in terms of how close everyone was with each other.”

Despite facing the additional challenge of graduating amid a pandemic, Kim said he is certain that the entire Class of 2020 is united in shared experience and can tackle any trouble ahead.  

“I have the entire Class of 2020, not just at our school but across the country and the world, where we can rely on each other through these relationships that we build,” Kim said. “I think we will find a way through this. It’s completely unprecedented but if anyone’s going to find out a way to do it, it would be my class.”

With an in-person commencement ceremony to be held at a later date, the graduating seniors believe it is important to celebrate what they have achieved and to be proud of their accomplishments. 

“Our class has gone through so much in the last four years,” Hauptman said. “I really want everyone to still be proud of themselves and to celebrate all of our time here … Even though this isn’t what we expected, I think we should all share and celebrate our successes.”