On her first day of orientation, Sunniva Berg (first year) woke up in Minnesota.
“I’m in my house with my parents in the room that I’ve been in since I was 6 years old,” Berg said. “It’s purple.”
Berg is one of hundreds of Occidental students who have never lived in a dorm, never had a first-year roommate and never had a favorite Green Bean order. Ever since her senior year of high school was unexpectedly cut short, she’s lived between those familiar, purple walls. She remained in contact with her friends from high school over the summer, but most of them are now busy with classes.
“I get out of bed 20 minutes before class starts, have breakfast, get dressed and go sit in front of the computer,” Berg said.
Lily Carson (first year) said the absence of a tangible space has been disorienting.
“I don’t have grounds for, ‘Oh this is where this class would’ve been and this is where this class would’ve been,’” Carson said. “It’s like, okay, it’s on my computer. That’s where all my classes are.”
Carson, Berg and the exactly 400 other first years who matriculated this year applied to Occidental before the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in the United States Jan. 20. Berg said she was particularly drawn to the college’s location: after 18 years in Minnesota, she was ready to be somewhere warmer. Carson said it was her pre-coronavirus visit to campus that cemented her decision to attend Occidental. While Carson said she is disappointed that her first year of college has not been what she hoped for, she understands Occidental’s decision to close campus.
“I honestly was not crazy devastated when we found out that we were going online, mainly because we had been planning for it,” Carson said. “I didn’t really want to be in LA when there were so many cases.”
Rachel Iskanian (first year) was accepted to Occidental early decision. She said she was anticipating her first year before there were any warning signs that the pandemic would cause mass disruption. Iskanian lives in Los Angeles, and even as cases spiked, she said she was optimistic that school would be on campus in some capacity in the fall. When she received President Harry J. Elam’ Jr.’s update email July 15, she was disappointed.
“I mean obviously I was really sad because who doesn’t want to go to college?” Iskanian said.
Despite her disappointment, Iskanian said she never considered deferring. She had been out of school since February when her high school made the switch to remote learning, and she knew she couldn’t handle another semester sitting around without a clear plan.
Throughout the spring and summer, Iskanian said she had already been in touch with other students from the class of 2024, who she met through Instagram and Facebook groups. Iskanian said she had even agreed to room with another girl and was able to talk with her potential roommate about the announcement. Although her roommate eventually decided to defer, she said it was helpful to know there were other people in her situation.
According to Iskanian, the process of meeting peers remotely was surprisingly natural. She said that from the massive Facebook and Instagram clusters, smaller and smaller group chats started to form, until eventually she was able to have multiple one-on-one conversations. Carson said that the bios students included in their social media posts helped facilitate connections.
“I’m super interested in political and social activism and I saw a lot of other people who said the same thing,” Carson said.
Iskanian said the collective loss of their high school senior year was an early talking point that paved the way for more meaningful conversations.
“We’re still talking about it. People want to do a prom when we get on campus eventually,” Iskanian said. “That was a really big bonding factor. It turned out to be really nice — it’s obviously such a horrible situation, who knew it could have such a nice outcome.”
Carson said using social media as her sole platform for cultivating new friendships has been a double-edged sword. While it’s less intimidating to reach out to new people via text message or DM, Carson said she misses face-to-face interaction.
“It’s easier to form base level connections digitally but it’s harder to have those deep conversations without having that in-person connection,” Carson said.
Carson is a self-described extravert who was excited by the prospect of meeting new people. Berg and Iskanian also said they were looking forward to the social aspect of college, but Berg said she has had trouble forming close relationships online. According to Berg, interaction on social media is much more self-motivated. Without easy opportunities to connect in a dorm or on the quad, making initial contact is nerve-wracking. She said most of her friendships have formed through discussions in her classes, particularly her Cultural Studies Program (CSP) course, “Race and the Race for the White House.”
Yash Karandikar (first year) said he’s met fellow students through Oxy Open Source (OOS), a computer science club. According to Karandikar, OOS has hosted multiple virtual meetings where members can work through problems and discuss their shared interests. Karandikar said he’s had more trouble meeting peers outside of formal club settings, but that doesn’t concern him.
“It speaks volumes about Oxy that people are super welcoming and super happy to just sit down and chat with me,” Karandikar said. “Even though I haven’t physically met them it still feels as though we’re building at least a small, meaningful sense of community.”
Iskanian said that months of reaching out to potential friends have changed the way she approaches meeting people.
“I’m surprised at how many people I’ve become friends with since reaching out to them because I never thought I would,” Iskanian said. “Now that we’re virtual, that’s the only way to reach out to people. I don’t want to say I’m good at it, but I’ve gotten more confident.”
Serena Francisco (senior), president of Zeta Tau Zeta, Occidental’s gender-neutral Greek organization, said that increased focus on outreach has been a benefit of the remote semester.
“Ultimately we’ve been trying to reorient ourselves towards community and activism this semester,” Francisco said. “It’s different from our normal semesters where we’d be trying to recruit new members.”
One of Zeta’s community initiatives is a pen pal program. Francisco said the idea initially came from one of Zeta’s members, though Francisco herself carried it to fruition. The program, Francisco said, is an opportunity for Occidental students to foster the connections they would have been making on campus. Zeta chose a pen pal format in order to give students a break from technology and support the U.S. Postal Service (USPS).
“I would feel uncomfortable if I was a first year in this environment personally,” Francisco said. “That’s a big motivation for it. I’m really excited about it. I put myself into the pen pal program as well.”
Collin Nascimento (junior) said he had the idea for an algorithm that pairs Occidental students with like-minded peers for a long time. Over quarantine he and three of his friends realized his project in the form of Oxy TigerCatch. Students interested in the service fill out a Google form that Nascimento compares with other responses. Although it was not brainstormed in response to remote learning, Nascimento said TigerCatch can fill some of the gaps created in the absence of a tangible campus.
“Things like walking around on the quad, and noticing that someone is listening to the same music you like or overhearing a conversation about a game that you also watched — people really miss those things! And they’re great ways to meet new people,” Nascimento said via email.
Nascimento said TigerCatch can forge connections that may not have happened otherwise.
“It’s filled with niche interests like skiing, badminton, embroidery, etc,” Nascimento said via email. “It can be hard to find that person, especially if there’s no club for it on campus.”
According to Nascimento, 33.5 percent of the participants in TigerCatch are first years. Nascimento is grateful the limbo of quarantine provided him with adequate time to put TigerCatch together.
“Some people baked sourdough, we baked an Oxy matching service,” Nascimento said via email.
In some ways, the remote semester has been a blessing in disguise, according to Carson. She’s still able to spend physical time with friends she’s known since she moved to her hometown of Bend, OR in third grade. This takes the pressure off of new friendships, Carson said, easing the transition from one phase to the next. Berg said while she mourns the loss of a traditional first year at college, she has come to terms with her reality.
“I think going through the end of high school being like this and then the beginning of college almost makes it easier, because you just have to accept at that point that things are not going to be normal or what you had hoped would be normal,” Berg said.
Iskanian is also making the best out of her situation. She organized her desk and taped an Occidental pennant to her bedroom door. She lives close enough to campus to visit occasionally, but she said she has no real attachment to the space.
“It took me a second to realize, ‘Oh, I go here,’” Iskanian said. “It’s so weird.”
Karandikar said that while remote learning was not how he pictured his first semester of college, he recognizes that many people and communities around the world are suffering far worse consequences from COVID-19. He said the pandemic has changed the way he values certain experiences.
“I think when you run into a global event like this it changes how you see the everyday stuff,” Karandikar said. “The little things are things that I miss. But it hasn’t affected me in a profound way.”
Iskanian said she is grateful for her experience, which has helped her mature. She said she knows that when she is finally able to be on campus, she will be genuinely grateful for the opportunity. For now, she’s at home writing baking blog posts and staying sane. She said she’s grateful for the community that Occidental has proven to be, in spite of its new placeless-ness.
“There are people who want to be friends with me,” Iskanian said. “There are connections that we can make.”