'Definitely awkward': University freshmen get online welcome

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Sarah Showich, an 18-year-old theater major, was looking forward to joining tens of thousands of other students on Monday for a first day of classes on the campus of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

A man checks his phone on an empty University of Southern California (USC) campus, amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Los Angeles, California, U.S., August 17, 2020. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Instead, she is starting classes online from her home in Beverly Hills, Michigan, on the outskirts of Detroit. Instead of getting to know a roommate, she is sharing space with her younger brother and her parents, who are also studying or working from home. Instead of making friends with classmates in person, she is meeting them via Zoom.

“It’s definitely awkward,” said Showich by telephone. “I’m not going to lie, like making friends online is very awkward because it’s so hard to get past the small talk virtually.”

Welcome Week, held last week, in normal years has a carnival-like atmosphere. Hundreds of events are engineered to get students past the small talk. This year, all the receptions, movie nights, trivia meet-ups, concerts and the pomp and circumstance of the convocation ceremony for incoming students were held online.

The urban campus in Los Angeles’ University Park neighborhood adjacent to downtown is known for its red-brick buildings spanning over a century’s worth of architecture. Nationally, it is known as a college football powerhouse, and this week would normally unfold to the sound of the renowned Trojan marching band practicing in the track and field stadium on warm afternoons.

USC was one of the first universities in the country to start the fall semester on Monday and among the 32% conducting classes either primarily or fully online, according to data collected by the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College, which tracks how colleges are changing amid the pandemic.

Nearly a quarter of American universities will have classes either fully or primarily in person this fall, another quarter have not yet determined what they will do, while 15 percent will have a hybrid of in-person and online course work, and the rest plan some alternative form of instruction.

USC has not gotten permission from Los Angeles County health authorities to allow students into housing facilities because of the county’s high rate of COVID-19 infections. Last year, USC had nearly 50,000 students.

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Senior Delani Wolf, a student worker in the Campus Activities department, co-hosted one of the week’s trivia game sessions from her family home in Moorpark, California. The game would usually be held in one of the campus pubs. About a dozen students logged on from across the United States. Wolf said a typical group during Welcome Week on campus would have around 50 students show up, but she was happy just to see friends on screen.

“As a senior,” she said, “I’m not relying on these Welcome Week events to get to know people. I do feel much worse for the freshmen than I do for myself.”

USC President Carol L. Folt called this fall “a semester like no other,” adding in an online video to students, “but I’m certain you’ll settle in like students who came before you.”

In a nod to the stressors students may face studying and working from home, Folt highlighted the university’s online yoga and meditation classes in the video.

Showich, who joined the theater program’s virtual reception last week, said it turned out better than she expected. “For a minute there it was almost like, this is normal. We’re all just starting to accept it.”

For USC’s thousands of international students, the time difference was a formidable obstacle. In Hong Kong, junior Ronny Hu said she was preparing to wake up at 5 a.m. to join classes in real time.

She said she is thankful the classes will be recorded in case she oversleeps, but “not being able to interact with profs and classmates is like subscribing [to] the most expensive streaming service.”

International students pay full tuition, and the university is facing backlash for increasing that price by 3.5% this year to $59,260 a year.

Showich said she tries not to dwell on the milestones that the class of 2024 is missing right now, and is instead focused on “soaking it all in.”

“I think in some ways you know,” she said, “when we get to campus, we’ll all be bonded in a different way than past classes because this is such a weird situation.”

Editing by Bill Tarrant and Nick Zieminski