Salutatorian Liam Tsao continues branching out of his comfort zone to take on new challenges

COMMENCEMENT: The USC Dornsife senior hopes to use his social policy experience in legislative work or community organizing before going to law school.

May 09, 2023 Grayson Schmidt

As much as he has loved his time at USC, Liam Tsao admits that it wasn’t always his dream school. Coming from Madison, Wis., Tsao said applying to a school in California was not the norm; USC wasn’t even on his radar. But at the urging of a neighbor — a Trojan alum — Tsao decided to apply.

Four years after leaving his family, friends and everything he had known behind, Tsao is graduating with a degree from the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, and as a salutatorian for the Class of 2023.

“It’s all still sinking in,” Tsao said. “I decided to leave home for the first time and give this a go, and I’m just so glad I did.”

USC salutatorian: Taking the risk and diving in

Tsao said that if he was going to pack up and go to school nearly 2,000 miles away, he was going to study everything that interested him and take full advantage of what the university has to offer. As a history and social sciences major with an emphasis in economics and a minor in marine biology, Tsao said that the interdisciplinary education at USC was the strongest selling point.

I’ve gotten to take classes all over the place. USC makes it really easy for that to happen.

Liam Tsao, USC salutatorian

“One thing that I really valued about my USC experience is that I’ve gotten to take classes all over the place,” Tsao said. “USC makes it really easy for that to happen.”

Much like others in the Class of 2023, Tsao saw the COVID-19 pandemic throw a wrench into his traditional college experience. He only had one full semester on campus before he was forced to head back to Wisconsin for roughly the next year and half.

Most might have felt disconnected from a school and classmates that were so far away, but Tsao made it a point to become familiar with organizations on campus as early as possible.

He knew he wanted to get involved with organizations that focus on policy, so he immediately joined the Roosevelt Network at USC, a progressive think tank on campus.

“That’s a really cool organization that helped me first define what policy was, but then I also learned how to approach these problems from a really structural perspective,” Tsao said.

He also joined the governing board of the USC Norman Topping Student Aid Fund, the student-funded and -administered scholarship for first-generation and low-income students.

“I came into college with no interest whatsoever in educational equity work,” Tsao said. “But it’s just been such a transformative experience for me that really reshaped how I think about equity, how I think about access and how I think about social policy.”

That experience furthered his interest in social policy, which ultimately led him to an internship in his home state with the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. That internship ultimately led to another with then-U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, now Los Angeles’ mayor.

“That was an incredible experience,” Tsao said. “It really did reinforce my passion for public service and policy that addresses these intersectional, systemic issues.”

Lessons learned and the road ahead for USC salutatorian

Perhaps most importantly, Tsao credits those internships, organizations and his time at USC with building confidence in himself. Without these elements, he’s not sure if he would have branched out of his comfort zone and taken on leadership roles or given public presentations.

“I did not come into USC being super confident in my public speaking ability — I was just a very nervous freshman,” Tsao said. “I really valued those experiences and valued all the support I received from people, because it gave me confidence moving forward.”

I’m going to miss Los Angeles, but I’m also very excited for what comes next.

Liam Tsao, USC salutatorian

Tsao said that once the dust from commencement settles, he’s going to take some time to relax before studying for the LSAT. He hopes to eventually attend law school — the USC Gould School of Law is on his short list — but his immediate plan is to return to the Midwest and enjoy some time with family and friends.

Tsao said he wants to continue along the path of policy, community organizing or legislative work in either Wisconsin or Washington, D.C., before applying to law school.

“The Midwest is where my family is; it’s been hard to be away from them,” said Tsao, who described graduating as bittersweet: “I’m going to miss Los Angeles, but I’m also very excited for what comes next and how these relationships I’ve made here evolve.”