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USC transformed the first wave of Chinese engineering students who came here. They, in turn, changed USC.

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The house at 1175 29th St. in Los Angeles served as ground zero for scores of Chinese engineering students who came to USC seeking a better future.

The house at 1175 29th St., a two-story Craftsman lightly shaded by trees, looks like many in this neighborhood near the University of Southern California: attractive but largely nondescript.

But this unexceptional dwelling has an exceptional past. More than 30 years ago, in 1984 and 1985, this home on 29th Street served as ground zero for scores of students from China who had come to America with the hopes of parlaying a USC degree into a passport for success. Most studied engineering and went on to have distinguished careers in business and academia. Through a combination of hard work, intellectual prowess, a warming of relations between China and the United States and just plain old luck, they found themselves in a brave new world on this side of the Pacific.

The students occupied the 800-square-foot second floor: two bedrooms, a bathroom, a living room and a tiny kitchen. Despite the home’s decided lack of amenities, it seemed like the height of luxury to many of the budding engineers, coming as they did from rural Chinese villages and even cities often with no indoor plumbing or running water.

Officially, Ming Hsieh, B.S. EE ’83, M.S. EE ’84, and An Yin, a graduate geology student who earned his USC Ph.D. in 1987, shared one room, while Bailey Zheng, M.S. EE ’85, had the other. Jincai Chang, M.S. PE ’86, Ph.D. PE ’91, resided in the living room and later moved into one of the bedrooms.

Unofficially, as many as eight students sometimes crammed into the place during the summer. Looking back, Hsieh, the namesake of USC Viterbi’s Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering, jokingly described the house a “refugee camp” for Chinese students. Eventually, the landlord asked them to leave.

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Memories of a Lifetime

Before he did, though, the Chinese students forged friendships and memories that have long endured.

On a typical Friday night, a group of them would shop at a local supermarket and then feast on homemade fried rice, pork dumplings and salads. Other times, Yin and Chang would watch episodes of the sitcom “Three’s Company,” teasingly calling each other “Stanley” and “Jack” after the show’s intrusive landlord and main character played by Norman Fell and John Ritter, respectively. For non-native speakers Yin and Chang, as well as other Chinese students, the show, especially its simple and repetitive theme song, proved a good way to learn English.

“Come and knock on our door… (Come and knock on our door)
We’ve been waiting for you…. (We’ve been waiting for you)
Where the kisses are hers and hers and his,
Three’s company too.”

Occasionally, Hsieh, Yin, Cheng and others played poker. For a competitive edge, Hsieh would sit next to a mirror, the better to peek at Cheng’s hand. Hsieh won a lot, all the while complaining about the game’s difficulty.

“Ming is very creative, very clever, but in a funny way,” Yin recalled with a laugh.

Yin himself was quite clever.

Once, he recorded Hsieh snoring loudly and played it for his friend’s girlfriend. They both laughed. Yin later turned on the tape recorder for Hsieh and asked him to listen to “some cool music.” Unbeknownst to Yin, Hsieh had erased the tape.

Instead of the sounds of snoring, there were the sounds of silence.

“Ming looked at me and smiled,” Yin said. “We were playing tricks on each other all the time.”

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Titans of Industry and Academia

The Chinese students at the 29th Street house and elsewhere near campus went on to become titans of industry, billionaires and renowned researchers. Their impact reverberates to this day.

Hsieh went on to found Pasadena, California-based Cogent Inc., which revolutionized automated fingerprint identification. A 2015 National Academy of Engineering inductee, the billionaire now heads Fulgent Therapeutics LLC, which focuses on cancer drug research and personalized cancer treatments. Entrepreneur Jeff Zhao, M.S. CE ’87, became a successful real estate developer and the president of High Power Holdings Ltd. and Shanghai Tianziang Industrial Inc.

Yin joined UCLA’s geology faculty and made international headlines a few years ago when he discovered plate tectonics on Mars. Chang developed GasPal, a gas reservoir simulator used by Total Indonesia, EBN Netherlands and INPEX Japan that integrates underground reservoirs, tubing and surface pipes to develop a more realistic forecast of gas production.

Others in that early cohort included Xiaofan “Simon” Cao, M.S. EE ’87, chairman of the Taiwanese-based investment fund Tripine Capital and the holder of 38 U.S. and international patents, with an additional 64 pending.  “Forbes” once called him the “Godfather” of WDM technology. USC Viterbi Professor Shang-Hua Teng, M.S. CS ’88, went on to twice win the prestigious Gödel Prize, an annual award for outstanding papers in the area of theoretical computer science. Chengyu Fu, M.S. PE ’86, who did not speak a word of English when he came the U.S., rose to become chairman of Sinopec Group, Asia’s biggest oil refinery and petrochemical company. “Harvard Business Review” once named him one of its 50 “Best-Performing CEOs in the World.”

Attending USC a bit later than the others, Feng Deng, M.S. CENG ’93, made no less of an impact. In recent years, he became founding managing director of Beijing-based Northern Light Venture Capital. A few years earlier, Deng co-founded Netscreen Technologies Inc., which Juniper Networks acquired for $4.2 billion.

“When we came here, we saw how you could build your own life, a better life, if you really worked hard and studied hard,” Hsieh said. “We had incredible drive and a strong work ethic from our upbringing.”

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The First Wave

The first wave of Chinese students moved halfway around the world for the opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to attend a topflight American university in sunny Southern California to learn from some of the world’s leading engineering researchers. “The Daily Trojan” even ran a big headline announcing “13 Students Coming from Red China.” The pioneering students, among the first Chinese to come to USC, blazed a trail for thousands who would follow. Today, there are nearly 4,400 Chinese students at USC.

The newly minted USC students represented China’s best and brightest. Those who won government scholarships needed to score at the top of competitive state exams and receive permission to go overseas. The few students lucky enough to have affluent relatives pay their way felt intense pressure to make every penny count.

“I believe every unit cost $230, and most classes were four units, or more than $900,” said Yin, whose uncle, a businessman in Indonesia, covered his tuition. “My father earned about $25 a month in China.”

“I felt like I had no choice,” Yin added. “I had to study really hard and do something spectacular.”

The engineering students toiled 12 to 14 hours a day to master their material. They studied, studied and studied some more.

They also struggled to understand and speak English, which initially proved a great handicap. To avoid falling behind, some had to read and reread textbooks because they couldn’t comprehend their professors’ lectures. Many, including Yin, had to enroll in remedial English classes, which gobbled up valuable time they would have otherwise spent in the library.

They had few complaints, though. The students felt fortunate for the chance to remake their lives in a country that for many symbolized scientific advancement and cutting-edge technology. At USC, they acquired the knowledge, gained the confidence and forged the connections that would later propel them to the top of their respective professions.

“USC has all this talent from all over the world, the professors, the students,” Chang, the petroleum engineer, said. “It provides a good place to study and all the hardware and software to get ahead. USC changed my life.”

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A US–China Thaw

That first group of students would likely never have come to USC if not for a dramatic improvement in the U.S.-China relationship and the end of the China’s Cultural Revolution. Historical forces seemed to favor them.

Until President Richard Nixon’s trip to China in 1972, U.S.-Sino relations were marred by mutual suspicion and hostility. Nixon’s visit, preceded by a secret trip by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, set into motion a thaw, embodied by the Shanghai Communiqué, in which both nations pledged to work toward full normalization of diplomatic relations. That restoration happened in late 1978 under President Jimmy Carter, ending nearly three decades of official estrangement. Those warming ties made it possible for many of China’s brightest young minds to pursue degrees at USC and elsewhere in America.

Back home in China, many of the future USC students and their families endured a turbulent decade during the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976.

Yin, the UCLA geology professor, said his family “had quite a bit of problems.” His parents, both university professors, were sent to the countryside for “reeducation” to a farm with no running water or electricity. In 1969, their 9-year-old son joined them. A year later, authorities sent the severely malnourished Yin back to his parents’ university apartment in the city of Harbin, in northeastern China, to recuperate. For a while, he lived alone and ate meals at the university café; older residents watched out for him.

When the Cultural Revolution came to an end, universities reopened and Yin’s parents resumed teaching. Two years later, Yin gained admission to Beijing University.

Explained Teng, the USC Viterbi computer science professor: “Chinese universities were shut for 10 years. All of us who went to university within a few years of the reopening had an opportunity that no one had just five years before. We were in college, while my neighbor who was just a few years older worked on a farm.”

For the future USC students, their individual journeys reflect the ambition, tenacity and desire to give back that have made them special.

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Ming Hsieh

The self-made entrepreneur with homes around the world came from humble beginnings. Born in Shenyang, an industrial city in northern China, Hsieh grew up in a loving, upper-middle-class household. His mother, Sunny, worked as a teacher and his father, Baoyan, was an electrical engineer research scientist. For fun, Hsieh and his father would take apart radios to examine their circuitry.

His idyllic childhood came to an abrupt end with the advent of the Cultural Revolution. In 1970, Hsieh’s family was forced to leave Shenyang and go to a small village near Panjing. The younger Hsieh’s formal education ended for several years.

In the village, Hsieh helped his father construct a crude power system that brought electricity. The pair also installed lights in all the ramshackle homes. Through their collaboration, Hsieh learned the rudiments of electrical engineering.

Hsieh resumed his studies after the Cultural Revolution, and in 1978 enrolled at the South China Institute of Technology, now known as the South China University of Technology, in Guangzhou.

In the back of his mind, though, he dreamed of USC, where in 1952 his uncle, P.Y. Hsieh, had earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering. P.Y. Hsieh went on to have a successful career at TRW, and credited USC for much of his success. The university’s location on the Pacific Rim heightened its appeal to Ming Hsieh.

So when his uncle offered to pay for his tuition, Hsieh wasted little time. He came to USC in 1980 as a 24-year-old transfer student — one of five students from China at the time. Although he had a relatively smooth transition, Hsieh remembers feeling overwhelmed by America’s material abundance and technology.

“When I left China, parts of the country were rationing food, but when I came to the United States food was everywhere,” he said. “In China, there were no supermarkets and freeways and only a limited number of cars. Everybody rode a bicycle. But in the United States I saw the freeways, the cars and the supermarkets. And then I came to USC and saw this beautiful campus. And computers. I had never seen a computer before.”

At USC, Hsieh stretched himself intellectually, laying the foundation for his extraordinary professional success. He learned about VLSI design and microprocessor-based circuit design. A class on semiconductor processing taught him how to build resistors and integrated circuits.

Like other Chinese students, Hsieh struggled with English. However, he added, one of his favorite engineering teachers also had linguistic challenges of his own.

Professor John Choma, former chair of the electrophysics side of the electrical engineering department, had great difficulty pronouncing Hsieh’s last name. Rather than risk mangling it, Choma would simply spell it out. “When he called on me, he would call me Mr. H-S-I-E-H,” Hsieh recalled with a laugh.

Hsieh also remembers his former professor pushing and prodding him academically as nobody had before. On the first exam he ever took at USC, Hsieh could only answer one and a half of Choma’s five questions. He went home and cried the entire weekend, he said. The following week, Hsieh learned that Choma graded the test on a curve and that he had scored the highest in the class.

Choma died in 2014.

Hsieh has many fond USC memories, especially the good times with friends. To decompress after hours of study, they would gather around a TV and watch USC football games and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Years later, Hsieh met Magic Johnson, his all-time favorite player, when the Laker great licensed Cogent technology for one of his business ventures. Hsieh was in awe of his idol. “He’s such a tall person,” Hsieh quipped.

USC, Hsieh said, gave him an incomparable education and lifelong friendships. Most importantly, his experiences at the university helped put him on the path to entrepreneurship.

“I never thought about owning my own company because I grew up in China — there were no private businesses,” Hsieh said. “But at USC, whenever my classmates and I worked on a project we would ask ourselves whether it had any commercial value.”

Hsieh found something of value, indeed. Cogent became one of the world’s premier providers of automated fingerprint identification systems for law enforcement, government agencies and commercial applications. “Business Week” ranked it No. 1 in its “Best Small Companies of 2005.” Five years later, 3M acquired Cogent for $943 million.

Always moving forward, Hsieh founded Fulgent Therapeutics just a year later. The Temple City, California-based company provides clinical molecular genetic testing services. It also is developing drugs to treat a range of cancers, including breast, lung, ovarian, colon and pancreatic cancers.

“I definitely had success based on my education, but when opportunity came I also was able to take advantage of it,” Hsieh said.

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Shang-Hua Teng

Teng, the Seeley G. Mudd Professor of Computer Science and Mathematics, came to USC in 1985 as a student on a World Bank Scholarship. A graduate of Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Teng studied theoretical computer science with Gary Miller, whom he followed to Carnegie Mellon in 1988 after earning his master’s degree at USC.

Despite his abbreviated tenure, Teng said his three years as a graduate student at USC changed his life. Academically, he thrived under the direction of professors who demanded excellence and inspired him to new intellectual heights. Personally, he made lifelong friends and memories.

Teng feels especially grateful to Professor Len Adleman, the Turing Award winner who taught his cryptography class. In one course, Teng said, he asked “a really stupid question.” Instead of shutting him down, Adleman reframed the query and called it a really good one. Teng wrote it down and spent a week working on it.

He visited Adleman the following week during office hours and showed him his partial answer. Adleman complimented Teng on his “remarkable” work and then gave him 10 more questions. Teng returned the following week with a few answers, which elicited more compliments and questions from Adleman. This back-and-forth went on for months, deepening Teng’s understanding of the material and boosting his confidence.

Eventually, Adleman introduced Teng to Ming Deh Huang, then a new faculty member, and encouraged them to collaborate. They did, writing a paper about cryptosystems and multiparty computations, including elections. Even though Adleman had provided Teng with a great deal of assistance, he declined a co-authorship credit.

“Professor Adleman was so gracious. He said, ‘It’s all your work. I was just here to ask you a few questions,’” Teng recalled. “He helped my career and gave me a wonderful framework about how research should be done and how to approach a problem.”

Adleman, now 70, continues to teach at USC Viterbi. The Distinguished Henry Salvatori Professor of Computer Science, said he is “delighted to see Shang-Hua’s success.”

Teng counts several of those first-wave Chinese students among his friends, including Yin and Cao, whom he called “a great soccer player and an even better cook.”

Cao, Teng’s closest friend at USC, taught him how to cook lobster with ginger and scallions and how to present it beautifully on a garnished platter. Teng often came over to watch Cao work his culinary magic. Cao described every step in minute detail to ensure that Teng could master the dish himself.

“I learned several dishes from him, like making lobster, shrimp and crab, Chinese style,” Teng said. “I actually have continued to use his recipes to impress many people since then.”

Earning his doctorate from Carnegie Mellon in 1991, Teng went on to teach at the University of Minnesota, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Boston University. In 2009, he returned to USC as the chair of the Department of Computer Science, a position he held for three years. Teng remains a student favorite.

“Looking back, Teng believes USC changed his life.”

Along the way, he picked up a raft of prestigious awards. Teng and his Yale University collaborator, Daniel Spielman, won the 2015 Gödel Prize for their work in improving the efficiency of graph algorithms, and the 2008 award for their work on the smoothed analysis of algorithms. The Simons Foundation, citing him as “one of the most original theoretical computer scientists in the world,” named Teng a 2014 Simons Investigator.

Looking back, Teng believes USC changed his life.

“We had wonderful professors. I loved their open-mindedness, creativity and ability to make remarkable connections, which inspired me,” he said. “It’s such an honor being here again.”

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Jincai Chang

For Chang, one of the biggest challenges he faced at USC was simply applying. After taking several grueling state-administered exams and scoring near the top nationally, the Chinese government offered him a one-year scholarship, including room and board, to study at an American university. However, it declined to pay any application fees. With hard currency difficult to come by, this presented a monumental problem.

What to do? Chang wrote to several U.S. institutions explaining his situation. Only USC waived its $35 application fee. Good thing. USC “changed my life,” Chang said.

Working with “brilliant” professors such as Yannis Yortsos, now dean of USC Viterbi, and Iraj Ershaghi, a renowned petroleum expert and 2014 inductee into the National Academy of Engineering, Chang said he “received world-class training” at the university.

Although his Chinese government scholarship ended after a year, the ever-resourceful Chang extended his stay — significantly — by landing a USC Ph.D. fellowship and a teaching assistant position.

As a graduate student, Chang had a reputation among his Chinese friends for persistence, extreme intelligence and a generous spirit, said Yin, who roomed with him at 1175 29th St.

“He was so smart that he helped everybody with their homework,” Yin said.

When not toiling in the library, Chang relaxed by watching “Nightline,” “Three’s Company” and “The Three Stooges,” which helped his English. He became such a “Three Stooges” fan that his second-ever credit card purchase was an autobiography of Curly. (His first was a computer book.)

With money tight, Chang and his friends rarely went to restaurants or to the movies. However, when they did go out, they watched out for one another, he said.

Chang singled out Fu, the now-retired chairman of Sinopec, for his kindness. The future USC trustee once dropped off Chang and a friend at Universal Studios and later picked them up, with nary a complaint. Fu did the same thing with Chinese students going back and forth to LAX. “That’s something extraordinary to me,” Chang said. “He’s a very special person.”

Chang’s route to USC was as unlikely as it was circuitous.

Born in 1961, he grew up in the central Chinese village of Xi Zhong Dao, which had no running water, muddy roads and no indoor plumbing. Electricity was rarely available. Chang used to study by the light of a homemade kerosene lamp.

Still, Chang excelled in school, and his teachers adored the precocious student. Chang’s father worked as a high school math teacher, while his mother labored in the fields. The Changs didn’t have much — cornbread was a frequent meal — but they were happy, he said.

Then the Cultural Revolution happened. Chang’s father was placed in confinement for making an off-handed remark about dust that local party officials interpreted as critical of Mao. His jailers kept him in solitary confinement for a month. Chang’s grandfather had to close down his handicrafts business because the authorities had labeled his business as “capitalist.”

“I say to my wife sometimes, ‘This is like a dream. I can’t believe it’s all true. I don’t want to wake up.’” — JINCAI CHANG

Fortunately, Chang’s village high school remained open. Inexplicably, officials allowed him to continue his education. “I was really lucky,” he said. “School was my sanctuary.”

Chang later attended Southwestern Petroleum Institute, now Petroleum University, in Nanchong, more than 1,200 miles from home. He graduated near the top of his class and excelled in his national exams. His stellar academic performance, along with China’s newfound Open Door policy, allowed Chang to come to USC.

These days, he serves as part owner and senior petroleum engineer of Maraco Inc., consulting about his gas reservoir simulator, GasPal, with some of the biggest international energy companies. Chang lives the American Dream with his wife and three children in their Cerritos, California, home.

“I say to my wife sometimes, ‘This is like a dream. I can’t believe it’s all true. I don’t want to wake up, ’” he said.

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Feng Deng
“I’m the end of the first wave,” said Feng Deng, M.S. EE ’93, who came to USC Viterbi in 1991.

Because of that, his USC Viterbi experiences differ from the group of Chinese students who preceded him.

First, the China in which Deng grew up was more open to the West. That meant he had more exposure to American music, movies and culture when he arrived, making it easier for him to acclimate to his new home. Second, Deng’s relative mastery of English allowed him to make friends not just with his fellow Chinese students but also with “people from all over the world, whether it was Asian friends, American friends, European friends or African friends,” he said.

Deng lived in Westwood with his wife, Birong Hu, a UCLA graduate student in microbiology. Such a “mixed marriage” had its challenges, Deng quipped.

“I sat with her in the UCLA student section at the USC-UCLA game in 1992,” he said. “I couldn’t cheer too loudly because nearby were all these UCLA students.” (UCLA eked out a 38-37 victory.)

Despite his wife’s academic pedigree, Deng was and remains a diehard Trojan. At USC, his professors’ brilliance and accessibility inspired him. Deng also said going to school in Los Angeles, one of the most creative, vibrant and entrepreneurial places anywhere, planted the seed of one day starting his own business.

Admitted to USC as a Ph.D. student, Deng found himself drawn more to commerce than to academics. He even took some time off during his graduate studies to work at chipmaker Intel, which he joined full time in 1993.

After a few years at Intel, Deng made his way to Silicon Valley to pursue his entrepreneurial dreams, co-founding Netscreen Technologies, the first firewall manufacturer to develop a gigabit-speed firewall. He stayed on with the company for a year after its acquisition by Juniper Networks.

Deng left in 2005 to start Northern Light Venture Capital, a Beijing-based firm that invests in early-stage, high-tech companies, mostly in China. Northern Light has invested in around 200 companies and manages nearly $1.7 billion in assets.

Although Deng’s time at USC didn’t overlap with the earlier generation of students, Deng met them and other distinguished USC Viterbi graduates through the university’s global alumni network.

“In China, USC probably has the largest alumni circle among all U.S. universities, and we alumni help each other,” Deng said. “Today, USC has become one of the top brands in China for American universities.”

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Giving Back

For the Chinese students who came to USC in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, the university forever changed their lives and expanded their horizons intellectually, culturally and commercially. As a group, they look back fondly at the years they spent here, the friendships they made, the skills and knowledge they acquired.

Though the decades have passed, their connection to their alma mater has only strengthened. This relatively small cohort of engineering students has made outsized contributions to USC, helping the university in general and USC Viterbi in particular to join the ranks of world-class institutions of higher learning.

In 2006, Ming Hsieh made a $35 million gift to the electrical engineering department, the largest ever to name an engineering department in the United States. Hsieh’s generosity helped transformed the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering into one of the strongest EE departments in the country.

Six years ago, Hsieh made a $50 million gift establishing the USC Ming Hsieh Institute for Research on Engineering-Medicine for Cancer. The institute promises to make USC a national and international leader in translational cancer research that bridges basic science, engineered devices, synthesized molecules and materials, and medicine.

Hsieh, a USC Trustee and member of the USC Viterbi’s China & East Asia Advisory Board, said he gives back because of all the school has done for him.

“The best way to give back is to the place where you were educated,” Hsieh said. “Giving back to USC will continue to make it strong and one of the world’s top research institutes.”

Feng Deng created the USC Viterbi–Tsinghua University (THU) research symposium, now in its 10th year. The annual meeting has resulted in some strong research collaborations and a student exchange program. This fall, USC Viterbi and Tsinghua will launch a dual-degree Master of Science program.

“I’m an alumnus of both schools,” said Deng, who earned bachelor ‘s and master’s degrees from THU, one of China’s most prestigious universities. “I think both schools can benefit a lot from the partnership.” Deng also chairs the China & East Asia Advisory Board.

Chengyu Fu has remained quite active in the USC community. Like Hsieh, Fu serves as a USC Trustee is a and member of the China & East Asia Advisory Board.

Jeff Zhao, the successful Shanghai real estate developer, and Simon Cao of Tripine Capital both serve on the China & East Asia Advisory Board.

Shang-Hua Teng, the USC Viterbi computer science professor and former department chair, said his USC professors made an indelible impression on him, inspiring him to have a similar influence on his Trojan students. Teng emulates his beloved former professor Len Adleman’s teaching style by asking students lots of questions and encouraging them to push themselves.

Like Teng, Jincai Chang has come home to USC Viterbi. After earning his doctorate, he worked as a USC postdoc research associate for three years and pursued a successful career as a petroleum-engineer consultant. After 25 years in the petroleum industry, Chang became an associate professor of engineering in the Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science. He enjoys teaching students from all backgrounds, and marvels at how life has come full circle.

“I’ve never left USC,” Chang said with a laugh. “I can still remember the lessons my former mentor, Professor Lyman Handy, taught me many years ago. It has been truly rewarding to pass on that knowledge to the next generation of engineers and scientists.

“As a former international student myself, I understand that by sending their children to USC parents are placing a high degree of trust and confidence in our faculty,” he added.  “I feel that I have a responsibility to ensure that all of my students receive the best education possible.”

Allison Engel contributed to this report.