USC students reflect on the pandemic after a year

Some travelled, others stayed home doing their best to make the most of quarantine.

A year ago, hand sanitizer and Lysol wipes became the new currency, masks the latest must-have accessory, and Zoom the main meeting room when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 as a global pandemic.

Just before spring break, on March 12, 2020, USC postponed all-person courses until April. Soon after, it became apparent that a return to campus would take much longer than previously expected. Still, many students and faculty have not stepped foot on campus since last March.

Over the last year, students have done their best to make the most of college in quarantine. USC Annenberg Media spoke with three USC students who shared their pandemic stories.

Rhondaya Fishburne, a junior international relations major at USC, intended to fly back to Los Angeles for spring break after spending the semester in Washington, D.C. through Dornsife’s DC Program. This program allows students to experience a semester-long opportunity to study and work in the nation’s capital. Instead, after Fishburne’s flight was cancelled due to COVID-19, she drove home to her parents in New York City.

Deaths were mounting in the city, which was among the United States’ first hot spots in the early days of the pandemic. Fishburne’s dad contracted COVID-19.

“I really experienced ample amounts of anxiety that I hadn’t before, due to my dad and the state of the city at that time,” Fishburne said.

Her father survived the virus, and Fishburne began to develop a stronger sense of community with her New York neighbors.

“Every day, at either 6 p.m. or 7 p.m., everyone would bang pans by the window to show camaraderie and acknowledge the first responders and health care workers at that time,” Fishburne said.

She lives with people who are immunocompromised. In the beginning of quarantine, she rarely went outside unless it was to the supermarket. She had signed a sublease agreement for an apartment in L.A. and returned to campus in the fall when she couldn’t get out of it.

Now, Fishburne gets tested weekly in Los Angeles and is happy to be back but does her best to be conscious of the community surrounding USC. Consideration for the community around her is what Fishburne said has guided her throughout the pandemic.

“How can I best love and serve my neighbors in this context that would be limiting my interaction with people so that I can slow the spread, and when I can get the vaccine, take that too,” Fishburne said, adding that “the importance of human interaction” is something she will be taking with her as the pandemic eventually subsides.

“When this is all said and done, I think I would never take for granted being able to gather safely,” Fishburne said.

Right before the WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, Timon Sun, 20, a business student at USC, won three intramural basketball semifinal games. He was one day away from reaching his goal of sweeping the intramural league.

“I never got to play those intramural championship games,” said Sun. “But we were so close this time.”

However, the Provost sent an email later that night, and the game was canceled.

When Sun returned home in the Bay Area, he was able to take advantage of the extra free time and studied for an online certification in personal training.

“I always wanted to become a personal trainer,” said Sun. “When COVID hit, I had time to study and become National Academy of Sports Medicine certified.”

With gyms closed, Sun said he hasn’t been able to use his certification in commercial gyms. Sun was forced to get creative.

“I invested in some gym equipment and opened my own at home gym,” said Sun. “With gyms closed, I made a safe alternative with an outdoor gym in my backyard to train my friends and was able to start personal training.”

While Sun has been unable to train in a traditional gym, he is optimistic about returning to gyms to help out fellow USC students.

“Before COVID, I signed up as a trainer with USC and can’t wait to get started,” said Sun. “At times, reading through the 720 page textbook was tiring, and I didn’t want to do it. However, I know once I get to train someone at USC, it will all be worth it.”

Most students have been homebound since the pandemic started. Not Rohan Kota, however. The USC junior is studying electrical engineering and has spent the last year traveling in an effort to make the most of his college experience.

Kota moved to Palm Springs for the fall semester with 13 other USC students, and has since travelled to Oregon, as well as Hawaii, where he now lives with a different group of seven students. In a year where many people felt confined to a routine-driven existence, Kota pushed himself to “shake things up” while still staying safe.

“Last fall, I figured we could rent out a mansion in Palm Springs … with ten or 12 kids,” said Kota. “We were paying less than almost anyone was paying [to live] by campus.”

Kota said the stressors of virtual learning have been made easier by living with his friends, “when you have to log in to Zoom every morning, it’s nice not to be super isolated and to be able to see people every morning. Because we were in a bubble, we could be super social.”

He also added that, from a cultural perspective, the year has enriched his education.

“To see so many different places, visiting different local restaurants and experiencing new environments has been incredible,” speaking on behalf of his bubble, he added that “we all feel like this is definitely a peak in our college careers.”

Before the pandemic, Kota says that “[he] used to be a creature of habit,” but has enjoyed “pushing [himself] outside his comfort zone. “Every day, every week, every month of my life looks pretty different… something I’ll take away from this is [that it’s] important to figure out how to make the best of any situation.”