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The Dalai Lama Inspires USC Dornsife Students

An enthusiastic USC Student Interfaith Council discusses the Dalai Lama's first visit to USC at a meeting shortly before his appearance on May 3. Photo by Pamela J. Johnson.
An enthusiastic USC Student Interfaith Council discusses the Dalai Lama's first visit to USC at a meeting shortly before his appearance on May 3. Photo by Pamela J. Johnson.

After years of reading the enlightening words of His Holiness, Mary Ellen “Jem” Jebbia listened to the powerful words spoken by the Dalai Lama.

“It was fantastic,” the USC Dornsife junior said after the Tuesday morning talk at the Galen Center.  “I think so many people were inspired.”

Jebbia is vice president of the USC Student Interfaith Council, which hosted the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet’s visit. In a gentle voice, His Holiness spoke about global ethics and universal responsibility to an audience of 4,800. During his lecture, “Sacred Ethics, Human Values and Society,” the spiritual leader imparted his messages of compassion and patience.

The Dalai Lama’s words on secularism resonated with Jebbia, a Buddhist. She attended both sessions, bringing her mom along for the morning lecture.

“He really touched on important points,” she said. “One being that it’s important we realize secularists can be ethical and also that people who are secular and people who are religious need to work together to create an ethical community.”

Jebbia was introduced to the Dalai Lama’s teachings while taking a high school class on Buddhism and Hinduism.

“For many, the Dalai Lama represents a universal symbol of peace and a lot of people follow his teachings and can associate with what he talks about even if they’re not Buddhists,” said Jebbia, who is majoring in religion and East Asian languages and cultures in USC Dornsife and business administration at the USC Marshall School of Business. 

Raised Catholic, Jebbia began practicing Buddhism in high school after a spending a semester studying abroad in Japan. Her fascination with how harmoniously Japan’s various religious traditions complement one another ignited an interest in studying different religions as well as her devotion to Buddhism.

“Much of the teachings of the Dalai Lama and other Buddhist scholars center on the concept of socially engaged Buddhism that seeks to help others through social action and I really relate to that,” she said.


Members of the USC Student Interfaith Council chat about the Dalai Lama's appearance at USC, with Varun Soni, dean of the USC Office of Religious Life, in the background. Photo by Pamela J. Johnson.

Hearing His Holiness speak affected Natanya Dauster, an anthropology major in USC Dornsife and interfaith council member, in several ways. His message of compassion resonated with the sophomore, however, it was his demeanor — his serenity coupled with spontaneous joyful laughter — that captured her the most.

Dauster has followed the Dalai Lama’s teachings since high school after participating in an event focused on Tibet.

“On the one hand His Holiness is this spiritual leader and on the other hand he reminds me of my grandpa and I wanted to give him a hug,” said Dauster who is Jewish. “He’s telling stories essentially of what he thinks of the world and what he wants us to take away and my opa used to do that.”

Sarrah Shahawy, president of the interfaith council, said the group invited the Dalai Lama to USC because he is a world figure who represents the true meaning of interfaith.

“The Dalai Lama represents religious pluralism, compassion, tolerance, and beyond tolerance,” Shahawy said. “We felt that the Dalai Lama really embodies what the Student Interfaith Council is all about. We wanted USC to have the opportunity to host such an amazing figure. And we were honored that he accepted our invitation.”

Shahawy, a biological sciences and French major in USC Dornsife who has been selected as valedictorian of the Class of 2011, brought her devout Muslim family to the Dalai Lama’s morning lecture.

“The Dalai Lama appeals to everyone,” she said. “He has a spirit of openness to people of different faiths. He’s beyond one single label. That’s why so many people can relate to his story and what he has to say.”

The experience proved beneficial for Nathan Gonzalez, a junior majoring in sociology, psychology and philosophy in USC Dornsife with a minor in photography. He started following the Dalai Lama in high school after reading his autobiography for an English assignment. 

“Since then I’ve thought of him as a great spiritual leader,” Gonzalez said. He continued to follow his teachings as he rediscovered Catholicism at USC. The more Gonzalez began to question his own identity the clearer the path became to his traditions and roots.

“Religion says a lot about who you are,” he said. “How you relate to what you can’t see is a big part of life.”

After listening to His Holiness speak on secularism, Gonzalez has a lot more to ponder. “It’s helping me think about different ways we can deal with interreligious cooperation and interreligious conflict,” he said. 

“There’s certainly a similarity across all different religions and that comes from the very fact that we all are human beings,” Gonzalez said. “He believes that we should use this secular ethics as a way to educate future generations through a secular ethical system and I think that could work.”

For more information on the USC Student Interfaith Council, visit

Read more about the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet’s visit to USC.