Freshmen and transfer students reflect on their first year online

A dark purple image with a notepad, pencil and poster with words "welcome to USC." A laptop is open with a figure sitting in the middle.
(Shideh Ghandeharizadeh | Daily Trojan)

Noel Tessier hoped she would at least experience USC’s welcome week in person. She could vividly picture herself jumping into the pool and dancing with the rest of her class at the midnight pool party. With her first year coming to an end, Tessier has only stepped foot on campus once as a USC student. Like the rest of her first year, Tessier attended her welcome week from home. 

No move-in day, gamedays or late nights at Taco Zone.

“I asked for less and less and less [of the freshman experience] until I realized that I would just be at home,” said Tessier, a freshman majoring in theatre.

Last spring, freshmen received their admission decisions in late March, during the pandemic. A time when students cheerfully post video reactions and photos of their acceptance letters on social media turned out to also be a moment filled with uncertainty: When will students be allowed to attend college in person?

“I was really disappointed because you spend your whole life planning for this, dreaming about this,” Tessier said. “My entire freshman year of college looked totally different from what I expected it to be, and it took a while for me to come to terms with that.”

The Class of 2024 was not the only one missing the traditional welcome experience.

Lavender Billingsley, a sophomore majoring in international relations, cried when she received her acceptance letter. She graduated high school early and transferred out of Santa Monica College to go to USC, a school that she and her mother dreamed for her to attend.

Staying in New Mexico with her family, Billingsley was eager to move back to Los Angeles. That quickly faded when the University retracted its plan for an in-person semester. Being back at home in New Mexico has been mentally and emotionally challenging, especially during Fall 2020, she said.

“To be honest, I just had to numb out the anticipation,” Billingsley said. “I’ve been so excited to go on campus, meet people, but I’ve just been so secluded. [I’m] just managing my own little world with the pandemic still going.” 

Although the freshman and transfer experience differs during a typical school year, the pandemic has made both groups feel disconnected from the campus community. 

Tessier attended an arts high school that did not have sports teams, so she looked forward to USC game days and feeling a sense of school spirit.

“When I was choosing my college, what school I wanted to go to, I wanted to make sure they had good teams because sports are so important to my family, and they’re so important to me,” Tessier said.

But due to coronavirus regulations, traditional tailgates were not permitted this academic year.

Some freshmen and transfer students have joined clubs online to find their place within the USC community.

Allan Josiah Bexton, a junior majoring in cinema and media studies, transferred to USC this semester but got involved the moment he got in a year ago. He currently serves as the undergraduate president of Queer Students in Cinematic Arts, an organization he helped revive last fall.

Bexton and the other executive board members meet weekly to advocate for queer representation in media and host community spaces to connect the USC queer community — but their relationship only exists virtually.

“[It’s] going to be a little surreal to actually see all these people in person and to put a face and a figure to them as well,” Bexton said.

For other students like Kameran Mody, a freshman majoring in biomedical engineering, clubs were not enough to feel connected. 

After joining a Facebook housing group and connecting with a few students on Instagram, Mody moved into a student housing complex just north of campus halfway through the fall semester.

“I realized if I were to move out here, I’d be able to move in with a couple of my friends,” Mody said. “I would be able to definitely reach out and have a little bit of a normal social life, so I can be able to have friends going into my sophomore year.” 

Moving did bring Mody more opportunities. He once met a group of USC students while playing a game of pickup basketball at the park near his apartment building. Afterward, they got tacos together.

“It’s just one of those experiences that you don’t get anymore because of [the coronavirus],” Mody said.

Tessier also had success making friends in person. On one of her days off from work, she visited campus to meet up with someone she met online while working on a project.

“She gave me a little tour of [USC] Village, then we saw Greek row, and then we got food,” Tessier said. “We did not stop talking, and it was less awkward than I expected it to be.”

On top of starting at a new school during the pandemic, first-year students had to adjust to USC’s academic rigor.

Before transferring, Bexton took 20 to 24 credits a semester while working two jobs. At USC, Bexton has no job but spends most of his time balancing 19 credits.

“I have had to struggle more than I did back in community college,” Bexton said. “It has definitely been demanding to say the least.”

Aside from academic difficulty, Mody said his virtual classes at the Viterbi School of Engineering do not compare to hands-on learning.

“It’s kind of funny because you think of engineering, you think of building stuff,” Mody said. “We have virtual labs where you’re a fake person, and you direct them around the station. It’s weird to think about, but I guess it’s the best we can do.”

Zoom classes in general also bring other challenges.

Billingsley says she enjoys the content of her classes, particularly her environmental studies ones, but she dropped one of them early on in the semester due to its online requirements.

“[The professor] was like, ‘You have to have your cameras on, you have to be in the frame 24/7.’ Like some kids don’t want to do that, so I dropped it,” Billingsley said. 

Tessier said she has overcome Zoom fatigue by finding ways to stay optimistic.

“Instead of thinking about what could have been, I’ve been trying to focus on what is. And in that way, it’s been really exciting, and I found little things that make me happy, like a group chat, even if it’s only active sometimes, it’s fun,” Tessier said.

But she still anticipates the day she can walk on campus and finally feel like a student.

“To just hang out, build memories … and have that ‘college experience,” Tessier said. “Even if it’s different, just to be in somebody’s space is beautiful. Even if we’re just sitting in my apartment. That’s what I’m really looking forward to — that human connection.”