A photo of Isha Sangvi
Neuroscience major and 2023 USC valedictorian Isha Sangvi exemplifies the qualities of a USC Dornsife student. (Photo: Gus Ruelas.)

What sets the USC Dornsife experience apart?

USC’s 2023 valedictorian exemplifies how USC Dornsife’s diverse learning opportunities and supportive community cultivate well-rounded, high-achieving students.
ByDaniel P. Smith

Isha Sanghvi recently added her name to a distinguished list and, in the process, continued a remarkable legacy for the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. Sanghvi, a neuroscience major at USC Dornsife, was named this year’s university valedictorian. She joins an impressive list of USC Dornsife students who have held that title.

Emily Anderson, professor of English and college dean for undergraduate education at USC Dornsife, considers Sanghvi exemplary of the caliber of student who attends USC Dornsife. She says the dynamic learning environment at USC Dornsife, which is home to one in three undergraduates at the university, sets the stage for their success.

“The breadth of education that we provide in a liberal arts college is commensurate with students who succeed in all avenues, all walks of life,” Anderson says.

The USC valedictorian selection process recognizes the very highest levels of academic achievement, but also embraces a more holistic set of criteria. A candidate’s contributions to community and university life at USC, service, leadership and even the student’s ability to deliver an uplifting commencement address are also considered in valedictorian selection.

“It’s really about the whole package,” says Andrew McConnell Stott, vice provost for academic programs and dean of the Graduate School. “It’s about looking at the message they have and how their journey at USC has really shaped them.”

Given the high-achieving, well-rounded undergraduate that the valedictorian title aims to recognize, USC Dornsife students like Sanghvi often have a compelling case to make, thanks to the intellectual exploration, experiential learning and collaborative culture the College promotes.

A lively academic experience is engrained in the USC Dornsife experience. Empowered by access to courses from 37 academic departments and programs, dozens of centers and institutes and the opportunity to choose from 90 majors, USC Dornsife undergraduates are actively encouraged to study whatever interests them. This scholarly freedom expands their intellectual horizons, broadens their perspectives, and fosters connections between seemingly disparate fields.

As a result, Stott says, USC Dornsife students build unique pathways and fascinating personal portfolios.

A photo of Katie Trefz speaking at a podium in graduation regalia.
USC Dornsife history and political science double major Katie Trefz was USC’s 2005 valedictorian. (Photo: Courtesy of USC Digital Archives.)

During her undergraduate years, Katie Trefz, USC’s 2005 valedictorian, recalls being encouraged to challenge herself with diverse academic engagement to create a well-rounded educational experience. A double major in history and political science, Trefz embraced that mindset, taking classes beyond her majors on topics such as feminist literature and the arts and adventure of leadership that enriched her undergraduate years and informed her worldview.

“At Dornsife, students are able to be many things, not just one thing,” says Trefz, now a partner in a Washington, D.C.-based law firm. “I had the flexibility to pursue what I was interested in regardless of the department, which lends itself to real enthusiasm and passion about one’s USC experience and how one wants to take that experience into their future.”

USC Dornsife students also have opportunities to pair their classroom education with experiential and extracurricular opportunities. These can expand their knowledge base and sharpen their skills while strengthening USC’s culture and benefiting its communities. One in four USC Dornsife undergraduates are enrolled in service-learning courses each year while many others work at one of the College’s 47 research centers and institutes or participate in Joint Educational Project activities with community partners.

Sanghvi, for example, conducted research in the lab of Associate Professor of Neuroscience Dion Dickman, interned at a health care consulting company and co-founded Secure Remedy, a student startup developing a wearable pouch to improve medication adherence among the unhoused. The latter effort ignited Sanghvi’s collaboration with Keck School of Medicine of USC’s Street Medicine program and its spirited work with Los Angeles County’s homeless population.

“Being able to put my feet in all these different opportunities that Dornsife gave me access to made it easier for me to figure out what I liked, what I didn’t and how I could put those together to my future,” says Sanghvi, who also earned a minor in social entrepreneurship through the USC Marshall School of Business.

While such experiential opportunities enable USC Dornsife students to pursue passion projects, it also addresses valedictorian selection criteria calling for students to demonstrate leadership, service and an earnest commitment to use their USC education for good.

“Dornsife students don’t want to wait until they graduate in order to be professionals, activists, changemakers,” says Anderson, who isn’t surprised when USC Dornsife students are named valedictorian. “At Dornsife they can be all of those things and more — they don’t have to wait.”