Back to school: Navigating campus life during the coronavirus crisis

The once vibrant and active McCarthy Quad is instead now surrounded by overarching trees shadowing the courtyard. The red-bricked lined path leads to the multiple story Birnkrant Residential College with green grass following the walkway.
After a summer of planning for a hybrid semester, USC announced a mostly online fall. Now, the University is scrambling to give students the same academic rigor and vibrant experience they would get in person. (James Wolfe | Daily Trojan)

In a typical fall semester, USC welcomes 10,000 new and continuing students to its on- and near-campus housing facilities. First-year students move in a week before courses begin and kick off their college experience with a week of community-building activities and social events. 

The following Monday, campus is filled with students ready for a new semester of classes and extracurricular activities. Students sign up for clubs at the Involvement Fair on Parkway, make friends in the dining hall and throw up “Fight On” signs at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

This fall, the campus life experience will look different. Welcome Week, the quintessential period of freshmen’s acclimation to USC, will take place online. Campus and residential housing will stand nearly empty with limited residents. Many international students will be spared the jetlag of flying to Los Angeles, but their sleep schedules might be disrupted by the timing of their class meetings. To get to class, students won’t navigate campus, but rather Blackboard and Zoom.

The first-year experience

For incoming students like Maya Neuenschwander, an industrial systems engineering major from Wisconsin, this semester will take on a whole new look. Neuenschwander plans to attend classes from her bedroom, continuing to work as a barista and structuring her day with built-in study time and morning yoga. Her at-home schedule for the fall reminds her of the end of her senior year, she said. 

It’s the lack of the usual college experience that will make this semester so different for students like Neuenschwander, who would have spent the first month mingling with dorm-room neighbors and new friends at Welcome Week events. 

But for Neuenschwander, the welcome experience will happen at home alongside her mom, dad and younger sister — and her twin brother, who is also attending USC. She said her family is excited to stream the events on TV and watch them together. 

Instead of jumping along to music in swimsuits at Splash Bash or engaging in spontaneous 2 a.m. conversations with new dorm friends, much of the Fall 2020 incoming student experience will occur from students’ respective homes around the world. It goes without saying that this year’s incoming student experience will be like no other — with new possibilities for socialization that have never before been considered. 

Despite the change in circumstance, Student Affairs and campus partners are working to create a virtual Welcome Experience for incoming students. Many of these students — whether they plan to live near campus or at home — are hoping to connect with their peers.

Neuenschwander said she decided to stay home when USC announced July 1 that housing would be limited. Adapting to the new normal of increased virtual interactions, she met friends at ExploreUSC last spring who she still talks to online and posted on the USC2024 Instagram page to make connections. 

“I’m just curious to see how we’re going to meet more people and how they’re necessarily going to network us together,” Neuenschwander said. “I do think it’ll be unique, but I really don’t know any differently about college.”

While annual events like Splash Bash, a Residential College Cup opening at Galen Center, and day trips around L.A. won’t be recreated online, much of the usual Welcome Experience will be. Convocation, the SPARK! Visions & Voices kick-off event and the Welcome Back concert will be livestreamed. 

SPARK!, usually limited to USC students, will be open to anyone and will feature live performances and a virtual dance party. Attendees can choose to join a “backstage” Zoom where they will be allowed to turn on their video and the host will rotate spotlighting different participants. 

The Residential College Cup, a competition between freshman dorms that involves a 5k, a talent show and a spirit rally, will host an online event called Spirit and Tradition. Interim Residential Education Director Grant Burlew said that the event will still involve large-scale programming but may be open to more students and no longer include college points. 

Certain large events will be available to all incoming students; however, other smaller events, like virtual floor meetings and faculty meet and greets, are intended to help foster connections between incoming students living in USC Housing. These events are still being finalized as USC waits for Los Angeles County Department of Public Health to approve campus plans.

Beyond ResEd, there will be other opportunities for students to connect. Campus Activities will continue Late Night ‘SC events, such as virtual paint day and trivia nights. Asian Pacific American Student Services, the Center for Black Cultural Student Affairs, the Latinx/Chicanx Center for Advocacy and Student Affairs and the LGBT Resource Center all have online open houses and welcome events planned.

Experience USC, a virtual quad that Interim Associate Vice Provost for Student Affairs, Student Engagement Emily Sandoval described as a “one stop hub for all student activity” launched Aug. 10. Once students are in the quad they will be able to select keywords to search for events related to their interests and potentially chat with other students as if actually passing each other in McCarthy Quad, Sandoval said. 

For students tired of Zoom, Student Affairs is looking at other platforms such as Remo, a virtual immersive space that allows for engagement. She recently demoed a virtual Trojan TCC ballroom on Remo, which allowed users to see a ballroom floor plan and click on tables with conversation topics to engage with other users.

“You’re not going to meet people on large Zoom events,” Sandoval said. “So we’re really trying to focus on how can we make these smaller events more impactful and find the correct platforms that allow students to meet each other in this virtual world.” 

Some students have already started forming connections through social media. Incoming freshman Ashley Espinosa, who plans to major in urban planning, said she started using social media to connect with other students even before she knew her return to campus could be delayed. She said she had joined a Hispanic group chat on Snapchat and has been able to make new friends there.

“I’ve been reaching out, I’ve been communicating with other students, I’ve been trying to get involved,” Espinosa said. “A lot of us have been finding our own groups of people … so even though I might not be on campus, I’m still trying to form connections.”

However, some students are not putting as much stock in making online social connections this semester. Tyler Olsen, a sophomore transfer student majoring in business, said he opted out of USC Village housing and signed a lease for an off-campus apartment before the Marshall School of Business announced all of its classes would be online. 

“I’m not a fan of meeting people online — I don’t think it’s authentic,” Olsen said. “I’m hoping to surf a lot in the fall. I was originally not going to have a car, but now I’m bringing my truck down because we’re online. So I’m going to hopefully go to the beach and get into surfing a little bit.”

— Cari Spencer, staff writer

Studies from abroad

A partially gray-clouded sky overlooks the russet bricked buildings of Bovard Auditorium, the Student Union, Ronald Tutor Campus Center and the red and tan squared design of Hahn Plaza. A Department of Public Safety Cruiser sits in front of Bovard and the empty courtyard.
Students taking remote courses while abroad face unique challenges attending class meetings and office hours due to time differences. (James Wolfe | Daily Trojan)

With ongoing public health updates and changes from USC adjusting to the rising number of coronavirus cases, the situation remains uncertain for international students as they decide whether to return or take classes from their home country. Rachel Cai, a senior majoring in psychology and business administration, returned to campus July 30 to avoid attending her classes from the hours of 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. in Hong Kong.

Upon arrival at Los Angeles International Airport, Cai was taken to a separate room where an immigration officer told her she was not allowed to return to the United States and said immigration had sent back other returning students and canceled their visas. He ultimately allowed her to enter but noted in her file that if she did not have in-person classes, her visa would be canceled and she would have to return home. 

“I think it’s pretty ridiculous because I have to go through all this trouble of contacting an immigration lawyer, paying them … I have done nothing wrong,” Cai said. “I followed the rules, and I’ve done what I’m allowed to do. I didn’t go outside of those guidelines.”

Now, with the fall semester being held mostly online and issues of ongoing flight limitations, health risks of traveling and the rising number of cases in California and L.A. County, many international students are opting to remain at home. However, these students are facing various obstacles such as taking classes from drastically different time zones and awaiting updates from Immigration and Customs Enforcement regarding their visa status for those hoping to return to the United States in the near future. 

On July 6, ICE announced a since-rescinded international student policy that would only allow international students from institutions with in-person or hybrid classes to remain in the United States while canceling the visas of students taking online classes from their home countries. 

While the policy was reversed to allow international students the flexibility to stay at home or return to the United States for online classes, incoming first-year students will not be issued visas and must take classes from home.  

Alfonso Aguilar Vasquez, a freshman majoring in business administration, initially planned to travel to L.A. but following the ICE announcement preventing incoming freshmen from getting student visas, he decided to stay in Mexico. Vasquez said he believes remaining at his home residence is the best decision he could make with the many restrictions placed on campus life.

“I was kind of thinking ‘Well is this even worth it at this point to go to campus and just be locked up in a room the whole time,” Vasquez said, “when I could be in Mexico with my family when it’s not such a large time difference?’” 

Kabir Malhotra, a freshman majoring in industrial and systems engineering, will be unable to attend classes in L.A. following three postponements of his visa appointments due to embassy closures in Dubai because of the coronavirus and ICE guidelines that have stopped student visas from being issued. 

Although Malhotra initially planned to defer his enrollment to spring since he wished to experience his first semester as a freshman in person, he ultimately decided to begin in the fall and take advantage of online classes after talking to students in his department who experienced remote learning in the spring. 

“I’ve spoken to quite a few seniors and the feedback that I have gotten is that online classes — although it’s not as fun or you don’t learn as much compared to in-person class, especially because it’s engineering — they said that it’s a lot easier to score [well],” Malhotra said. “I’m taking 20 credits the first semester. ”

Nicole Pavlopoulou, a sophomore majoring in human biology, hoped to return to L.A. from her home in Greece to continue varsity swim team practices on campus. But with coronavirus cases surging in L.A. compared to Greece, where restrictions have eased, she’s wondering if she should return. In Greece, cases remain just above 5,000 compared to L.A. County’s 207,000 at the time of publication.  

“I’m really sad because we have such a great team and we are all so close together,” Pavlopoulou said. “I was really hoping I would go back to train because the facilities … and training are far better than here … [However,] I don’t want to go somewhere that there’s like a very high possibility that I may get infected.”

With limited and expensive flights available, Pavlopoulou said she would wait until September or October to return to campus, following the recommendation of her team’s coach to international students. 

For Krtin Jain, a junior majoring in electrical engineering, the more than 12-hour time difference between India and L.A. concerns him after his experience the previous spring semester staying up all night to attend his classes and sleeping during the day. 

On Aug. 7 Provost Charles Zukoski issued new guidelines for faculty to better accomodate international students. Under the new guidance, faculty are not permitted to require attendance in synchronous course components for students for whom the class meets outside of the 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. window in their time zone. Classes will also be recorded, automatically transcribed and posted to Blackboard for all students to view. Faculty are also encouraged to be mindful of time differences by incorporating multiple office hour sessions and examination dates.  

Jain also decided not to return to campus for the fall semester after his parents expressed concern at the rising cases in the United States and the lack of family support he would have if he contracted the virus. While he has accepted staying at home and attending his classes throughout the night, Jain worries that one of his classes, which requires external material, will not be able to send him the package in time for the start of class. 

Diya Mehta, a senior majoring in business administration, also considered taking a leave of absence. But her online production internship requires her to apply for curricular practical training, a temporary employment authorization needed by those on F-1 student visas to work off campus. Mehta said she hopes her visa status is not affected since that would impact future internship and job opportunities.

Programs like Opitional Practical Training and Curricular Practical Training that help international students get work experience in the United States are part of the reason Mehta and her family pay for an international education. If her eligibility were affected by changed rules due to the pandemic, she said she would be devastated.

While upset about not returning to campus for the fall semester of her senior year, Mehta is thankful to be safe at home. 

“There’s a lot of good experiences that I’m going to be missing out on, like the last game day,” Mehta said. “It’s definitely upsetting, but I think I’m kind of looking at it glass half full and just being grateful that I’m safe and with my family.”

— Twesha Dikshit, news assignments editor

Residential living

The University touts its residential experience, comprising monthly Residential Education programming and communal living, as an instrumental component of students’ first years of college. Ordinarily, most rooms in USC Housing facilities are double-occupancy. Residents share common spaces, including lounges, study areas and in-hall fitness centers.

The coronavirus pandemic has overhauled residential life, as USC-owned housing, originally set to begin move-in Aug. 10, is postponing new student residents’ move-in to an undetermined date.

An Aug. 5 email from Provost Charles Zukoski and Senior Vice President of Administration David Wright stated that the University did not have permission from L.A. County to house residents and asked students to delay their return to campus indefinitely.  

The change in policy means some students — like Genesis Guerra, a sophomore majoring in international relations and American studies — do not have reliable housing for the upcoming semester. Guerra had planned to stay at Cardinal Gardens but has spent the summer couch surfing while waiting for move-in to begin. With the latest announcement, she isn’t sure if she and her friends in similar circumstances will have a permanent home from which to take remote classes.

“Even with all of the restrictions that USC was imposing — like no guests, all of that — we were all OK if it meant that we would have a roof over our heads,” Guerra said. “My only source of living for the upcoming school year was going to be at USC housing.”

Zeina Badawl, a sophomore majoring in computer science, came to L.A. from Cairo ahead of the start of classes as part of a two week quarantine the L.A. County Department of Public Health required for international students. Now, she doesn’t know if or when she can move into her Cardinal Gardens apartment.

“It just feels like [USC Housing] told us that they were going to live up to their contracts, and they made it seem like that was a certainty,” Badawi said. “It just seems very inconvenient that everybody who’s here at the time they’re supposed to be here is now scrambling to find different housing.”

The announcement came nearly two months after Student Health confirmed that all rooms would be reduced to single-occupancy to better facilitate social distancing and reduce inter-resident contact. Fitness facilities also remain closed until further notice, and lounges — which typically serve as places to congregate for leisure and class projects — will now be reserved for use by individual students with telehealth appointments. 

An overpainted white 'STOP' lays in the cracked and worn road leading into Parkside Apartments and Parkside dining hall. A vibrant red stop sign to the side of the road reiterates the white lettering and a white cloud scatter blue sky overlooks the buildings.
USC Housing announced Aug. 5 that only students with extenuating circumstances will be approved to move into campus housing on the originally contracted date. (James Wolfe | Daily Trojan)

Under the new contract, which all students choosing to live in USC Housing this semester have agreed to, residents will be asked to maintain proper social distancing and wear face coverings in public areas of the residence hall. The agreement also prohibits all guests, including family members and fellow residents, although a petition created by Paige Raskin, a senior majoring in psychology, asking the University to reinstate guest privileges has amassed more than 200 signatures to date. 

According to the revised housing agreement, students who violate the new housing contract will be asked to vacate their rooms with no reimbursement.

Faced with the choice between a dramatically different on-campus experience with an unconfirmed move-in date or another semester of Zoom classes at home, some students selected a third option: off-campus housing. 

Maya Caselnova, a freshman majoring in international relations, knew she wanted to leave her Indianapolis home to start college and originally hoped to live in McCarthy Honors Hall or Birnkrant Residential College. However, growing increasingly frustrated with the frequently changing USC Housing communication, she decided to withdraw her housing application to live at the Colonel’s Mansion.

“I decided to come to L.A. in the end because I wanted to get situated and get to know the area in L.A. a lot more, and I wanted to participate a bit more in any activities that will be on campus — if there are any activities on campus,” Caselnova said. “I’m kind of hoping that the spring semester will have more on-campus and in-person activities.” 

Upperclassmen who had already signed on-campus housing contracts reselected spaces in mid-July, while incoming freshmen — who would normally confirm their housing assignments in May — were told in a July 2 email from USC Housing that they would be assigned to an available room without input on building or room type. A July email from USC Housing projected that only one-fourth of freshmen would receive fall housing. Both freshmen and upperclassmen were given the opportunity to withdraw their applications. Freshmen had not confirmed their housing assignments or paid their deposits at the time of the email, while upperclassmen who had put down deposits were fully refunded the cost if they chose not to continue with housing selection.

Resident assistants have been given the option to abdicate their roles and remain at their permanent residences for the duration of the semester, an offer that 36 of the original 201 RAs had accepted as of the end of July. For this year only, RAs who decide to remain at home during the fall may opt to return to campus and their RA positions in the spring semester. RAs who do not choose to defer or step down are subject to the same indefinite move-in delays as other residents.

RAs usually move into their housing assignments in early August to partake in two weeks of training preceding move-in and the start of Welcome Week. Before the announcement that students would not be able to move into housing at the start of the fall semester, RA move-in was postponed until Aug. 10 after first being pushed from Aug. 1 to Aug. 7. RAs were notified of the postponement nine days prior to the would-be RA move-in date, and several RAs expressed anxiety and frustration over their changing living situations. 

Rachel Holzer, a junior majoring in international relations, is part of a group of RAs who wrote and signed a letter to ResEd and the Office of Student Affairs following the July 29 announcement that RA move-in would be delayed five days. 

“I think a lot of RAs are really, really anxious and kind of panicking right now because we’re not sure if we’re going to have a place to live in the upcoming semester,” Holzer said. “We’ve all planned all of our finances and all of our travel plans and flights around guaranteed RA housing, and now with about nine days’ notice, all of those plans are kind of up in the air now.”

The RAs’ letter made several requests, including interim housing for RAs who had not made other arrangements for a later move-in date, compensation for preterm training, more transparent communication from ResEd and permission for RAs who withdrew from the position to receive priority as RAs in the spring. 

“We, the Resident Assistants of the University of Southern California, are frustrated by the lack of transparency on behalf of the university administration and Residential Education regarding our living accommodations for the academic year,” the letter read. “If this continues, how will we be able to take care of the health and wellbeing of our residents when the ResEd office has struggled to do so for us?”

Interim Residential Education Director Grant Burlew emailed all RAs July 31 to outline accommodations ResEd is making for RAs, including the option to defer to the spring semester and information about University-provided housing for RAs unable to live at home in the case that move-in and housing do not proceed as planned.

Other freshmen decided to stay at home for the fall semester following the memorandum recommending students not come to campus in August and reversing the University’s earlier announcement that most classes would be offered in a hybrid format. Senna Kolagotla, a rising freshman majoring in computer science and business administration, said she had been contemplating living in an apartment off campus until her single hybrid class switched to fully remote in late July. Kolagotla will now remain at her Gilroy, Calif. residence through the fall.

Kolagotla said she looks forward to beginning college but predicted that the social dynamic will be different without meeting her peers face to face in a residence hall.

“For a lot of freshmen, this is like the next chapter of our lives — we were going to live on campus, meet new people, make new friends,” Kolagotla said. “While the University is trying to do a lot for us to be able to meet new students, I feel like it won’t be the same because it won’t be that same connection you would have when you met your roommates or when you make new friends.”

— Sarah Yaacoub, staff writer

Rethinking instruction

Callie McAdams, a sophomore majoring in political science, worries about the continued virtual format of online classes that has transferred onto the fall semester. While she believes her professors did their best after the shift to remote instruction in spring, she is worried about how remote learning will affect her college experience.

McAdams is not alone in her uncertainty regarding online classes. When the University announced in early August that all classes except a few clinical education practica will be taught remotely, many faculty and students’ academic plans for the fall semester changed course.

While online classes have been deemed the most viable substitute for in-person instruction, they do not come without complications. 

In addition to working around the time difference, students and faculty have to find ways to remain engaged in class without in-person conversations. Communication professor Jillian Pierson said she worries in-class involvement will be a daunting task this semester. She hopes that by grading participation instead of attendance, students will be more motivated to contribute to class conversations.  

“I think it’s hard as a faculty member to read the room when we’re online — unlike face-to-face, where I can see if people are engaged or not,” Pierson said. “I’m going to personally be working on soliciting engagement probably even more than I do ordinarily. I think it is hard to sit alone in a room and look at a screen and stay engaged.” 

Another complication students face is the lack of “hands-on” labs this semester. Serena Yi, a junior majoring in health promotion and disease prevention studies, said she usually takes classes with in-person labs and demonstrations, but all her courses have moved online in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m interested to see how USC will adapt and kind of still keep the curriculum the same and the education quality the same,” Yi said. “With physics … we can do a lot of online simulations, but with biology I feel like it should be a lot more hands-on.”

Jessie Landes, a sophomore majoring in theatre, found that for some of her required theatre courses, it is difficult to adapt to the online platform. Many students in her classes, she said, have never acted on camera before, and have to learn a new format on top of the course content.

“There really is just no way to make an acting performance movement style class as effective when it’s through a screen,” Landes said. “Theatre is meant to be live, and to do it through a screen is definitely challenging.”

While many students do not find remote classes ideal, administrators and faculty members said they have been working to ensure this semester’s classes will continue to offer a range of new experiences, innovative learning opportunities and teaching strategies adapted to the distance-learning model. 

The USC Center for Excellence in Teaching has been holding virtual workshops and training for faculty members to improve their fluency with online instructional platforms. The center provides resources to assist faculty with obstacles like online troubleshooting, reconfiguring course content and implementing active learning techniques into virtual classes. 

Theatre professor Rodney To said he believes the shift to online learning will provide a valuable template for future remote education. To said that in his own classes this semester, he will emphasize the importance of taking breaks during instruction so that students can remain engaged while looking at a computer screen. 

“I think this has forced us into rethinking education,” To said. “It’s challenging, to say the least — but it’s also exciting, you know, when you can teach an old dog new tricks.”

— Emma Weiner, staff writer