On March 23, 2019, I was a high school senior squealing so loudly that my neighbors got nervous.
These eruptions of pure joy were prompted by the cardinal and gold envelope resting on my doorstep. Between sobs, I read aloud to my parents the words inscribed in the letter: “Congratulations! I am pleased to offer you admission to the University of Southern California. Welcome to the Trojan Family.”
Fast forward two years: On March 23, 2021, I awoke for my 373rd day of online classes.
Still living at home, I robotically climbed out of bed, trudged 50 paces and sat down at our dining room table. I took a deep breath before logging on to my first three-hour lecture of the day.
I rushed home in spring 2020 like countless other college students after the initial outbreak of the coronavirus. I traded lively classrooms for a lonely computer screen. My campus life became a grainy, distant memory. Recollections of all-night study sessions, vibrant football games and roommate boba dates faded deep into the shadows.
Today I am a rising junior at USC. I’ve spent more time learning on Zoom than on campus.
As I finally prepare to return to my Los Angeles campus in the fall, my mind quakes at the crossroads of anxiety and excitement. Half of me is nervous about attending classes in person. The other half of me yearns to grab a quad-shot espresso from Starbucks and study with my friends until 2 a.m. at Leavey Library.
My road to USC was a long one.
I was born and raised in Knoxville, Tennessee. As the daughter of South Korean immigrants, I grew up valuing hard work and perseverance, especially in terms of my education. For as long as I can remember, I fantasized about attending a rigorous college — preferably one far from my hometown. My acceptance to USC seemed like a ticket to my dream.
So, it was particularly crushing when the pandemic forced me to board a plane back home after just a semester and a half at school. My classes as a journalism student continued on schedule, but solely through online instruction. Zoom imposed an entirely new set of challenges atop an already demanding course load. These struggles were compounded by the fact that USC shortened the fall 2020 semester by two weeks, forcing professors to cram their curriculum into a condensed period of time.
That fall, I enrolled in seven classes – the most I’ve ever taken at once. I was constantly on my laptop. I spent every spare second studying, reporting, writing or editing. Between lectures, labs and homework, my average daily screen time was between 12 and 14 hours. Time differences meant I was in class until 9 or 10 p.m. four days a week, and then homework kept me up until 4 or 5 a.m.
I was constantly overwhelmed with doubt as I sat in my childhood bedroom 2,000 miles from campus. The journalism school had me taking three reporting classes at once, and I was assigned to write news articles about Los Angeles and its people. As a small-town girl with almost no experience in the city, I relentlessly questioned myself: “How can I even begin to report on a community so far removed from my own?”
The temptation to give up always stared me blankly in the face.
Instead, I leaned into the struggle.
When a professor instructed me to find and interview Black South Central LA residents who had suffered from policing disparities, I took to the phones immediately. When a Media Center editor asked me to find students who had marched in President Joe Biden’s Silver Lake victory parades, I posted furiously on social media. When a class required me to produce socially distanced multimedia packages, I took to the streets fully masked with disinfectant in hand.
Through late nights and caffeinated mornings, the trials of this past year taught me that an education is truly what you make of it. My professors came to class eager to teach. I, in turn, was excited to learn. I tried to focus on how fortunate I was to be able to continue my education despite the pandemic, and I never wanted to waste that opportunity.
As excited as I am to reunite with my friends, sing with my a cappella group, Overflow, and finally learn the names of all the buildings on campus, I’m grateful for the lessons this year has taught me. I know they will stay with me back in the classroom.
I might not know what my next two years of college will look like, but I know what kind of student I plan to be – one who makes the absolute most of her education.
Emily Chung is a junior at the University of California studying journalism and a summer intern with EdSource’s California Student Journalism Corps.
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