Greeting SoCal Through Zoom: Freshmen from around the world navigate the challenges of adjusting to college online

While some first-year students adjust to college from off-campus apartments, others are navigating censorship laws, visa uncertainty and limited internet freedom in their home countries.

USC now enters its ninth week of the fully remote fall semester. On August 6, USC made the official announcement that the University would begin the semester remotely — news that came just one week before incoming and returning students were set to move into on-campus housing, leaving some students upset.

Among those who could not make their way to campus this fall, incoming freshmen were adversely impacted. Members of the USC Class of 2024 were unable to start their college careers in-person — ultimately, choosing between starting their first year online or taking a gap year and declining their admission to USC. This summer, the University announced that incoming freshmen were unable to take gap semesters and hold their spot at the University. The University also announced that their plans to provide USC Housing for students were denied by the city — this fall, only select resident assistants currently live in university-provided housing.

As a result, while many freshmen choose to stay in their hometowns and learn from their childhood bedrooms, clusters of first-year students have moved into off-campus housing accommodations.

But first-year international students, in particular, have found it especially difficult to rely entirely on virtual platforms to adjust to a new learning environment that is widely different from their original expectations — especially as they navigate adjusting to USC from their home countries.

Recognizing such challenges, many U.S. universities have adopted new guidelines that accommodate the needs and expectations of students in different locations across the world. New York University, for instance, has satellite campuses in China and the United Arab Emirates and collaborates with universities in Vietnam, Japan, South Korea and Australia to allow international students to take in-person classes in their home countries. Similarly, Northwestern University has offered four different types of classes: in-person, hybrid, remote-synchronous, and remote-asynchronous to give students more flexibility.

In its own approach to asynchronous learning, the USC Office of the Provost announced on August 7 that all faculty are required to record their lectures and to maintain “normal attendance, participation, and assessment expectations” for students when class time falls within 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. in the student’s time zone.

With a 15-hour time difference, Edward Lin, a freshman majoring in computer science currently living in Beijing, has had to take classes asynchronously, watching recordings of live lectures at a time that better suits normal school hours in China. He explained his decision to take his first semester in Beijing as largely due to visa application and safety concerns.

“Being international, you have to get your visas and everything, which was really hard to do especially here in China because of the tension between China and the US,” Lin said. “I also have family in L.A. and the COVID situation [in China] doesn’t seem as bad as it is over there, so I wouldn’t want to risk traveling there.”

Although most of his classes are being recorded, Lin stated that he sometimes prefers to attend live lectures and has adjusted his sleeping schedule so that he could do so.

“If you’re attending during class time, you can participate, ask questions and so on,” Lin said, “Attending live lectures saves time for me because I’m always pausing recordings to take notes and then rewinding them, so watching an hour-long lecture recording might take an hour or two.”

Lin also talked about the unique learning experience he has with China’s internet censorship — which blocks Google Apps, western-based news media, various English-language social media sites and many more.

“A lot of websites are blocked in China, so I have to use VPN to access some websites for class,” said Lin, “My VPN isn’t that great, so sometimes [the connection] is a little slow but everything does work after a while.”

Knowing that they would not get the traditional college experience, many international freshmen have found innovative ways to still enjoy freshman year from remote settings all around the world. Yaya Yang, a freshman majoring in business administration, has been taking classes from her home in Saigon, Vietnam. Yang said that the key to staying connected this semester is by maintaining her social life amid virtual learning.

“I’ve set myself a goal to reach out to at least two or three friends from USC each week to get that social interaction in,” Yang said. “There’s this big fear that you’re alone, so my best advice is to reach out because you never know how checking in on someone could make their day in a time like this.”

Even though she enjoys staying in Vietnam to spend more time with her family, Yang recounted how overwhelming the time difference can be.

“There was one night where I stayed up the entire night just because I had a personal fear of missing out on class, so I wanted to attend all the lectures,” Yang said. “It was a lot, I got really tired and I was sleep-deprived.”

Regardless, Yang positively notes that she personally really enjoys Zoom as she can see her professors, lecture slides, and fellow students in close proximity — which she believes would not as easily happen during a large in-person lecture. Yang also appreciates the effort made by her professors in accommodating students participating in different time zones, as well as how enthusiastic and welcoming her fellow classmates are.

“I was really surprised at how outgoing students were,” Yang said. “I personally thought the students would be more reserved and attentive, but just based on the questions that they asked and the contributions they made in discussions, I thought, ‘Wow! this is such an intelligent community.’”

For freshman logging into classes from right off-campus or around the U.S., the challenges might not be as drastic as those facing international first-year students, but exist nonetheless. Popular apartments near campus, including University Gateway and The Lorenzo have become hubs for freshmen living away from home this semester. Phillip Inglis, a freshman majoring in business administration and environmental studies, recently moved from his hometown in New Jersey to an apartment a few blocks north of campus.

“I decided to come to L.A. since I wanted to get some remnants of the college experience and to meet other people,” Inglis said. “Being in L.A. is more fun than being at home, especially when my friends all went to their respective schools.”

Inglis added that while he wants to meet new people and other members of the freshman class, the pandemic — and especially the increasing COVID-19 cases in the University Park Campus — have made it very difficult to do so. Inglis also expressed that the unconventional model of online classes has prevented him from staying focused in class and from communicating with his classmates.

“I have a short attention span, so it’s harder for me to be engaged online because I get distracted very easily from the material,” Inglis said, “[Taking classes virtually] also inhibits my ability to form relationships with my professors and my peers because I won’t have that one to one interaction with them.”

Also residing in an off-campus apartment next to USC, Anna Kissel, a freshman majoring in biological science from Skaneateles, New York, shares her concern regarding her grades and the pandemic, as well as a number of difficulties she encounters in her major classes.

“The online labs for my chemistry and biology classes have been hard to navigate,” Kissel said. “There’s not very good communication on what assignments are due and how we get [to those materials] online. We have to navigate everything virtually, so that makes it extra hard.”

Nevertheless, she is optimistic about this semester and is looking forward to completing her classes and getting those first few course credits under her belt.

“The best thing we can do right now is to focus on the things we can control,” Kissel said. “We can’t control the situation with COVID and what USC is going to do, but we can control how hard we work.”

Though USC has yet to announce its plans for the spring semester, other universities and university systems have started rolling out their plans. Earlier this month, the California State University system announced that their classes would be held virtually through the spring semester. Shortly after UC Berkeley announced that the university would begin their spring semester online.

As 31 states continue to see growing rates of new COVID-19 cases and as cases begin to spike throughout the U.S., Europe and the rest of the world, students, professors and universities anticipate the coming of the virus' second wave, further exacerbated by colder temperatures and flu season. Though much is up in the air as the situation continues to develop daily, USC freshmen — some living in the U.S. and others living in their home countries — will continue to face challenges and adapt in light of an unprecedented start to their college careers.