For the class of 2020, COVID-19 has cut our journey short without warning. The last semester of senior year - normally a time for emotional closure - is gone. It’s when you would finally grab a drink with that friend, snap some graduation photos on Traveler the Horse and maybe even do the famous fountain run. Secretly, of course.

This year, while there will still be an online ceremony, graduation will certainly be and feel very different. It is all of the celebration, culmination of emotions and symbolism of a graduation ceremony that helps us feel that one chapter of life is officially closing as another chapter begins.

The last date in my USC Google calendar has been set for graduation since the beginning of senior year.
The last date in my USC Google calendar has been set for graduation since the beginning of senior year.

So, instead of waiting for emotional closure to be given to us, I thought it would be helpful to ask fellow graduates to reflect on some of the most important lessons that they have learned during their time at USC:

On the spontaneity of friendship
“Don’t be afraid to meet new people. Even when you think you’ve met everyone you need, you’ll be surprised by all the new friends you’ll make.” - Nillani Anandakugan, a senior studying global health and environmental science and health

This text is from Nillani Anandakugan, a senior studying global health and environmental science and health who also happens to be one of my best friends since freshman year.

Her advice rings true. In fact, Anandakugan met another one of our friends, Paulo Dela Cruz, during a fire drill that same year. They both were in line for the printer at our dorm, struggling to make the machine work, when the fire alarm started blaring and they were forced to evacuate. As we all walked out of the building, Anandakugan introduced me to Dela Cruz and the rest is history.

Our friendship is a testament to how chance encounters, even the shortest interactions, with anyone at USC can completely change your college experience. “Be spontaneous! Some of the best things happen when you are,” Anandakugan said. Even if it’s the middle of a fire drill, you might just meet one of your best friends.

On the joy of the present moment
“Always look at the glass half full...just [remember] to sit back sometimes and enjoy what’s around. Sure, the future is scary but that’s what makes it so exciting.” - Paulo Dela Cruz, a senior studying global health
Wharariki Beach in New Zealand, captured by USC student Paulo Dela Cruz where he studied abroad and contemplated the bigger picture.
Wharariki Beach in New Zealand, captured by USC student Paulo Dela Cruz where he studied abroad and contemplated the bigger picture.

Being driven, hardworking and prepared for the future are certainly admirable qualities. However, as Dela Cruz reminds us, balance is key. We won’t always be able to control the outcome of our future.

As a result, we should focus on living in the present and enjoying each moment to the fullest. This means practicing mindfulness, which can help us improve our overall happiness and wellbeing. In fact, improved emotional and mental health through mindfulness can even translate to improved physical health, such as with sleep or blood pressure.

How can we enjoy the moment and stop stressing over the small stuff? There’s no quick and easy solution, but it helps to realize that there is a bigger picture.

“When I studied abroad in New Zealand, I visited this beach called Wharariki Beach,” Dela Cruz shared with me over text. “Seeing how vast spaces like that exist made me realize how small we really are in comparison to the rest of the world.”

“In a way, feeling so small helped me see a bigger picture,” he said.

Above all, keep focusing on the bigger picture. It matters less which student organizations you join or fancy companies you get to work at; it matters more what impact you would like to leave on the USC community and, eventually, the world.

On the insignificance of comparison
"Everybody has a different timeline...Eventually, I realized that comparing myself and my experiences to those of other people wasn’t making me any better.” - Lance Azusada, a senior studying choral music

Comparison is the thief of joy. It’s a waste of time and energy to try to be anyone but ourselves as we learn and grow, as Lance Azusada, a senior studying choral music, reflected.

When Azusada first entered competitions as a music major, he felt far behind his peers in experience and knowledge. Azusada also observed that it took him a lot longer to learn how to sing his part comfortably. This came up again recently when he and his friends were preparing to perform an arrangement of “True Colors.”

“I sing in [a] choir at USC, but I’m not the best vocalist,” Azusada told me. “I was struggling with learning my part, so I asked my roommate, Mary [Pettygrove], for help.”

“She ended up helping me sing one line for an hour and a half, ” he said.

As Azusada has come to realize, trying to attain perfection without asking for help wasn’t making him any better - it only made his own journey more difficult and discouraging. Rather than competing with others, collaboration allowed him to improve in a way that he couldn’t have on his own.

“When I first met [Mary], I was scared that I would never be able to sing as well as she does,” Azusada added. “Frankly, I still don’t, but that’s not my goal anymore. I’d rather reach out to her for help than compare my voice to hers.”

On the lasting impact of the Trojan Family
"I am forever grateful for all of the phenomenal people USC has connected me with…Whether they be with my friends, classmates or professors, these bonds are what turned USC from a school into a family for me.” - Pooja Goel, a senior studying political science, public relations, and law
Pooja Goel, pictured with a Tommy Trojan face sticker and holding up a ‘fight on’ hand sign, poses with other USC students, including her best friend, Kirsten Briggs, pictured in the front with a silver necklace.
Pooja Goel, pictured with a Tommy Trojan face sticker and holding up a ‘fight on’ hand sign, poses with other USC students, including her best friend, Kirsten Briggs, pictured in the front with a silver necklace.

When you first visited USC, you may remember feeling astounded by how people all over campus popped up just to say, “Fight on!” to your tour guide and throw up a ‘fight on’ hand sign. Now, as seasoned Trojans, we know that it’s all in good fun, but the meaning of Trojan Family behind these corny greetings is real. Pooja Goel, a senior studying political science, public relations and law, alluded to how tight-knit the community can be.

“The campus feels so small because almost every single one of my classmates says ‘hi’ to me,” Goel shared. “[They] ask me how my day is going when I see them around, whether or not we are close!”

Goel emphasizes how she has learned to cherish her relationships during her time at USC. For Goel, the education may be amazing but, without the people she met, the Trojan Family is nonexistent.

“My first friend at college was my suite mate at Parkside and, to this day, she is still my best friend,” Goel told me. “We will be on opposite ends of the country in the fall, but I know we will remain friends despite the distance.”

This notion of Trojan Family has been echoed throughout this last week of undergrad as we wave final goodbyes to classmates and professors on Zoom. As I process that graduation is fast approaching, I hope for the day that I can wave to Ông Bà Nội, my grandparents, in the audience as I accept my diploma with a huge grin on my face. All of us Trojans will get to celebrate how we made it together. And, whatever life has in store for us next, we’ll remember these lessons about staying open to friendship, enjoying the moment, focusing on the bigger picture and not comparing our unique journey to others.’

But, again, we don’t have to wait for an in-person graduation ceremony to validate our college journeys. Life moves on, so reach out to friends now and take a moment to reflect on how far we’ve come. I hope this gives the emotional closure we need for the next chapter of our lives.

Until we meet again, my friends, fight on.