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Roy Choi to Grads: ‘You Can Bridge Inequities With the Choices You Make’

Kogi BBQ Truck Co-Founder Awarded Honorary Doctorate at CSUF Commencement
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“I think I finally have to grow up now that I have this honorary doctorate. I’ve been avoiding it for a very long time,” joked restaurateur Roy Choi during Cal State Fullerton’s College of Business and Economics commencement ceremony, where he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree for his achievements in the culinary world and his commitment to social justice.

Choi, who graduated from CSUF in 1994 with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, is known for co-founding the famous Korean-Mexican taco truck, Kogi BBQ, and for penning the New York Times best-selling autobiography, “L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food.” Also a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, he was named in Time magazine’s TIME 100 list of the most influential people in the world in 2011 and 2016.

Choi said he was humbled to receive the honorary doctorate on such a momentous occasion for the Class of 2024. Reflecting on his own journey as a Titan, Choi candidly shared the ups and downs of navigating college and what he learned from the experience.

Trustee Wenda Fong, Roy Choi, President Alva
Wenda Fong, immediate past chair of the California State University Board of Trustees; Roy Choi, Cal State Fullerton alumnus and restaurateur; CSUF President Sylvia Alva

“I went to this same school 30 years ago,” he said. “When I entered this school, I was in a very dark place in life. I was disillusioned with a lot of things, and I did not want to go to college.” 

But that started to change for Choi as he got involved on campus. He joined a variety of culture and dance clubs, and started to make friends.

Trading in his role as a “class clown,” he began listening more to professors and engaging in his classes. “I had some really great professors and they started to change the way that I looked at the world.

“I started to find my activist voice here on campus,” Choi continued, citing world events at the time like the abolishment of apartheid in South Africa and greater awareness of the effects of pollution on ocean life. 

“I started to figure out who I was, and I started to stand up for things. Those things became the building blocks of who I have become in life.

“I felt the inequities of life. I saw the disparities. I didn’t know what could be done about those things. I just knew there was a problem,” he said. “Luckily, we were able to use food as a bridge to change the world in our small way.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Choi and the Kogi BBQ food truck gave out free meals to families facing financial hardships. Today, Choi is the host of the Emmy Award-winning PBS SoCal series “Broken Bread,” which explores social justice issues in Los Angeles, including waste and sustainability. 

Choi implored Class of 2024 graduates to use their education and talents to make a positive impact: “You are the future. You can change the world. You can bridge some of the inequities with the choices that you make in the businesses that you build,” he said.

“Lead with kindness, love and generosity. I know businesses are about scale and growth and domination, but we can be rich without others having to be poor. There’s a world where that can exist — and you can lead that change.”

Lynn Juliano