Varun Soni to deliver dentistry commencement speech


Hope Hamashige


20 Apr 17

The dean of the USC Office of Religious Life hopes to inspire dental students to lead their best lives after graduation.


Varun Soni, dean of USC’s Office of Religious Life, has been chosen to deliver the address at Ostrow’s commencement ceremony, taking place Friday, May 12 at 1 p.m. in McAlister Field.

Soni is something of a Renaissance man, with a list of accomplishments, spanning several disciplines.

Not only does he hold a doctorate in religious studies, he is also a lawyer and a member of the California Bar Association. He is a prolific writer, having authored Natural Mystics: The Prophetic Lives of Bob Marley and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan as well as a critically acclaimed graphic novel that is currently being adapted into a feature-length film. His writings have been published in the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, the Jewish Journal and the Harvard Divinity Bulletin. For several years, he produced and hosted a radio show for KPFK-Pacifica that featured the music of South Asian artists.

Soni also served as a consultant to the Obama administration as well as noted religious scholars like Reza Azlan and media outlets, including Showtime, ESPN, CW Television Network, Biography Channel and the Oprah Winfrey Network.

In his role as dean of religious life, Soni brings together USC’s spiritual and scholarly resources, provides moral and ethical leadership and oversees nearly 90 student religious groups, including atheists and agnostics.

While he might seem an unlikely choice for a dentistry commencement speaker, it’s his message of mutual respect and inclusivity, particularly to a diverse group of professionals that will ultimately be practicing in all of the globe’s four corners, that inspired Ostrow to invite him to deliver the keynote at its ceremony.

“I was deeply honored when they asked me to be the commencement speaker at their graduation for the dentistry students,” Soni said. “I don’t think I am an obvious choice.”

When the students of the Class of 2017 gather for the last time at their commencement ceremony, Soni said he plans to give them advice, grounded in spiritual teachings from the world’s great religions, about how to become great human beings.

“Every religion has a lot to tell people about seeking meaning in their lives,” Soni explained. “There are many spiritual lessons from different religions that help us develop the tools to live an extraordinary life.”

Soni, the first Hindu to hold the position of chief spiritual leader at any university in the United States, added that college and graduate school are intense times for most students. There is a thirst for knowledge and, at the same time, he noted, many students go through a period of deep soul-searching during their college days.

Yet, when students leave school to begin their career, they can easily become consumed with their jobs and their career trajectories, leaving behind some of the introspection that is so much a part of the college experience.

Soni said that he hopes to inspire Ostrow graduates to commit just as intently to a lifelong journey of reflection and contemplation and to finding a way to intertwine their professional lives with whatever their higher purpose is. He added that one of the unique characteristics of this generation is that they are more likely than previous generations to list purpose and meaning as important components of their future careers.

“Committing to a lifelong journey inward is a process of self-discovery that empowers people to define what really matters to them and what authenticity means to them,” he said.

It is also important for new graduates to embrace those things that make them unique and different. People, who are able to bring together their talents and interests in a way that only they can, add value to the world by being unlike any other person. These are the people who change the world because innovation happens when people see things and do things differently, Soni said.

For more information on Ostrow’s commencement ceremony, visit

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