USC Student Voices Defining Home

Editor’s Note:

Where do you live? Where are you from? Where do you call home? For some people, the answers to all three of those questions will be the same. For many, they will be different. USC students come from different places across the country and around the globe. As young people trying to establish our place in the world, we are constantly searching for a place to call home. Everyone has a unique view of what home means to them, and below four different USC students come together to provide their own interpretation of home. You will hear from Grace (Yuan) Gao, an international student encountering the trials and tribulations of moving during a pandemic, Nathan Smith, a Masters student reflecting on his undergraduate abroad experience in Glasgow, Samhitha Saiba, coming to terms with her surprising homesickness after coming to L.A., and Leona Tafaghodi, a student in the World Bachelor in Business program learning to adjust to a new city every year. All of these students have come to USC under different circumstances, and all are still discovering what it means to feel at home somewhere. Perhaps you will find some similarities between your experiences and theirs, or perhaps simply a friendly reminder that you have had many homes and have many more to come.

-Natalie Grace Sipula, Editor

Moving During a Pandemic: How I Moved Into My New Apartment 

By Grace Yuan Gao

[4 minute read]

This summer, I moved by myself to a new apartment for the very first time. Before moving, I had no idea how tiring but also eye-opening this experience would be. As an international student, I had never moved anywhere alone until coming to the United States. I grew up in a small city in the middle of China (Shanxi province, famous for its coal production), and when I first came to California I moved with the help of my parents. They assisted me in making lists of what I would need to bring to the United States and helped to package my belongings. The first time I moved to L.A., I felt fearful of the unknown, but at the same time, thrilled to come to a new and exotic place; I was able to plan and prepare for my move. However, I did not anticipate moving again in 2020 at the beginning of the summer. Moving to a new apartment during a pandemic was an utterly unforeseen experience for me, even though it was not a long distance from the place I had lived before.

Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash

Moving by myself came with a whole new set of challenges.

The most challenging part of this process for me was transportation. After being in a pandemic for nearly half a year, California has become the leading state of COVID-19 cases in the US. I had to move during the summer when the COVID-19 cases were still high since my current lease was about to expire and I did not renew it in order to save money. Neither I nor my friends (most of whom had already gone back home to their native countries) have a car, and hiring someone to help us move during this unprecedented time seemed to be an unnecessary risk. Thus, the new apartments and houses that I and my other international friends chose were really close to our original ones, so that we could move our belongings more easily. Some of my friends even moved all of their belongings by foot over multiple trips. They rented some small carts and walked to their new houses several times a day over the span of a week. It was pretty exhausting, but ultimately safe for all involved.

At first I thought it would be a huge project, and had no idea where to start.

But I was lucky enough to have a friend who gave me a hand with his new car. He carried all my stuff (about ten big boxes) downstairs and moved them to his car over several trips and greatly helped me. However, life is always full of unexpected experiences. The first day of moving, my friend was driving my things to my new apartment and a bike hit his car, which ended up shocking everyone involved. Moving is a journey full of new experiences and uncertain events, even occurrences such as a car accident, which you do not anticipate but will likely experience sooner or later.

Photo by Tim Trad on Unsplash

I did not realize that I would miss my original apartment until the day before I left.

Since I just came to the United States a year ago, I usually feel like a rootless plant which prepares to be moved anywhere at any time. It was surprising for me to find that I felt an attachment to the first place I lived in when I came here and I was pretty sad to say goodbye to that place, which was tiny and messy but full of memories. As I prepared to move, I noticed that every corner of that house seemed to be filled with personal stories all of a sudden and everywhere I looked seemed both familiar and strange. Neighbors used to gather together and cook for each other in the tiny kitchen. Outside of my window was a small garden which was my only view in quarantine. There was a platform upstairs which was my secret corner for reading. I realized that time will pass no matter how much you hate or enjoy each moment, things will change no matter how hard you try to keep them the same, and people will leave no matter how special they are to you. Parting is the normal state of life. Just like the seeds of a dandelion, which fly away and grow wherever they land, over time you will find you have new friends and fresh dreams. You cannot always stay in the same place but have to change somehow.

Photo by HiveBoxx on Unsplash

Moving is both an end and a beginning.

After the unexpected but fairly smooth transportation of my things, I finally moved to my current apartment energetically and excitedly. The moment I opened the new room’s door, I felt a sense of independence and freshness. The structure of my new apartment is fairly similar to my former one, and the mattress is just the same. When I laid on the new bed the first night, I did not even realize that I had moved. A new room means a unique start, and you can chat with different neighbors, make new friends, and explore novel communities, a treasure in this pandemic since I have forgotten how long it was since I last talked to a stranger face to face. Also, it is always fun to decorate your new room  and to make it a private utopia of sorts. Moving was especially tiring in this unusual time; however, that transition, just like this time, will come to pass.


By Nathan Smith

[5 minute read]

Going off to university can be daunting. It’s even more daunting to go off to study in another country, far away from your mental and emotional safety nets and the warm embrace of friends and family. For many people, this is a deterrent, a “yea, it sounds good, but I don’t think I could do it.” For me, however, it wasn’t just an idea. It was a tangible goal. 

It’s a rainy November evening in Lexington, Kentucky. I’m up to my neck in boredom, anxiety and stress. I’ve just about had it with the mundane routine of waking up, going to class, coming back and doing nothing else. I speak aloud, “I’m tired of this, I’m supposed to be doing something bigger, something greater than sitting in a dorm in Lexington, Kentucky.” I had a lot of ambition and hunger for something more, but I did not quite know what that “more” was. So a few weeks go by and I keep thinking over what I can do to get out of the University of Kentucky. I tell my mother that I want to transfer, and of course she isn’t pleased, thinking my living set up is perfect and that the school is nice, but I explain to her that I want more, that I’m supposed to be doing bigger things. 

Fast forward to the end of the semester, and I’ve decided. I’m going to Europe. The casual reader’s probably going, “Kentucky to Europe? How the hell does one even reach that line of thinking?” Besides getting an immense chuckle from me, you’d also get a pretty intense breakdown of the situation. Truth is, Europe was not something that just came out of nowhere. I had applied to European universities out of high school, most notably Glasgow, Edinburgh, Richmond American University of London, Oxford and American University of Paris, receiving admits to Glasgow, Richmond and Edinburgh. So in many ways, I saw switching institutions as a simple act of finishing something which I had held a propensity for already.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

After a tumultuous summer, many applications, arguments with my mum, being dissuaded by other family members, and lots of prayer, I ended up on a Delta flight to Glasgow to study at THE University of Glasgow in October- a full 2 weeks after the semester had started. Initially, I was scared senseless. Truthfully, I went through a period of time where I was so anxious, homesick, scared and lonely that I didn’t go to any classes for a month. I would go stretches of weeks without attending classes. The combined 2 mile walk to campus up Glaswegian hills every day, the loneliness, and simply being scared kept me from going to my lectures. 

It wasn’t until the very end of my first semester at Glasgow that I truly began to settle in. I began to become more active in class discussions, meeting with professors, going to events and truly feeling like I was a student at the university. How? Truthfully, it was a combination of things. One thing that helped me to adjust was getting active in the dating scene on Tinder and actually talking to other people. I began hanging out with people, going to the cinema, clubs, and truly integrating into student life.

Fast forward to June of 2018, nearly 2 years after my arrival to Glasgow University and it is a completely different story. While I used to countdown the days to leave Glasgow and get home, I had began to give my mum wrong dates so that I could stay in the UK longer and have more time to hang out with my girlfriend. I began to enjoy my student accommodation more than my actual room at home. I would go out even on Saturdays and just walk to campus because of the otherworldly views of the city that you could get from Glasgow Uni’s vista. I had become accustomed to this place. It took a while, but I learned a valuable lesson from my time in Britain. Home is not some tangible place that you can touch, grab or sense. Home is a feeling within. It’s where and when you feel the most alive, the most like you. That’s something we all carry with us, wherever we go. It doesn’t matter if it’s in another state, province or prefecture, or if it is an ocean away on an entirely different continent with no family or friends. 

 All of this leads to the following point: I’ve been where many of you are. Scared, alone, nervous, anxious and homesick. I’ve overcome it, and I know you all will too. We’ll get through this together. To that end, I issue you all a challenge. Find your home. Once you do, you’ll never have to leave it again. That’s something that no visa reduction, no graduation or any other event can take away from you.


By Samhitha Saiba

[5 Minute Read]

The hardest thing about packing your bags, kissing your mom good-bye, and leaving the place you’ve called home for the last 15 years isn’t the fear of what you’re getting yourself into; it’s the fear of what you’re leaving behind.

Last year, I left my hometown of Edison, New Jersey and flew over 2,000 miles to attend USC, the school of my dreams. I was undeniably excited for the adventure I anticipated college to be–I imagined the new friends I would make, the classes I would fall in love with, and the thriving city I would soon find myself in. But as excited as I was, I couldn’t help but realize the uncertainty granted with such a dramatic shift; I knew that my life was changing in new and exciting ways, but also in nerve-wracking ones.

The thing about living in the same town for most of your life is that you don’t realize what you love about it until you’re ready to leave. Growing up, it was hard to see the positives of Edison: it was big, but crowded; it had shopping malls and Dunkins, but practically nothing else; and it had an overflowing Asian-American population, something which comforted me at the same time as it made me feel incredibly stifled.

But in the months leading up to my flight to LAX, I began to see these flaws for what they were: the quirks of a thriving, diverse community not unlike any other in the country. Sure, Edison was crowded–but it was crowded with the people I had grown up with and come to love. And sure, Edison lacked a big-city social scene–but it was also a train-ride away from New York, keeping me in constant contact with the Big Apple nearly my entire life. And yes, being Asian-American in an overwhelmingly Asian community can be stifling to the point that you start to notice the flaws in your community more than the merits… but it allowed me to embrace and enjoy my culture in a way that many Asian-Americans in this country struggle to do.

So it still surprises me, sometimes, when I realize that I’ve become homesick for the same place I once wanted so desperately to get out of. The fact that I crave homemade Indian food and being able to drive down the street to buy coffee without putting a huge dent in my wallet (thanks, L.A.) baffles me when I consider how 17-year-old me would cringe at hearing it. She’d remind me that I’m in one of the most exciting cities in the world, and that Dunkin coffee is mediocre anyway. She certainly wouldn’t be able to understand the fear of losing your friends, your family, and your roots.

The hardest thing about moving isn’t anxiety about the future, but rather the nostalgia you will unexpectedly feel for the past. It’s in our nature to miss the things that we’ve historically called home, even if those things weren’t quite as pretty as our rose-tinted memories persuade us to believe. It is normal for us to fear that through moving, we are leaving behind everything we loved–our identities, our roots–forever and always.

Six months and a healthy amount of reflection later, I have realized that every time I get homesick, it’s not necessarily Edison I’m longing for–it’s the comfort and security I so closely associate with that town and its people. Edison is just a place in which I learned to grow. And if Edison is just a place, so is Los Angeles. Who says I can’t still feel tethered to my roots on the West Coast? Who says I can’t Facetime my best friend, cook Indian food, and scour L.A. for cheaper coffee, inflation be damned?

And most importantly, who says my roots stopped growing the moment I left Jersey? Who says I can’t plant new seedlings here, in the city I want to live and grow and thrive in for the next four years of my life?

So much of the moving process preys on our nit-picky fears and anxieties, both of the future and of the past. I encourage people to approach this process with more excitement–the excitement that you are about to plant your roots in a new city, along with millions of other folks breathing the same air of anticipation and hope that you are. And if you are joyful enough, this can be the city in which your new roots thrive.


By Leona Tafaghodi

[4 minute read]

As I near the end of my undergraduate career at USC, I find myself getting sentimental about leaving Los Angeles and closing this chapter in my life. I look out at the DTLA skyline and think to myself How could I ever leave all of this behind? The irony of this question is that this is not the first time I have asked this question. I have left behind many skylines over the past four years and have continued to do just fine in the shadows of another. 

As a World Bachelor in Business (WBB) student, I have spent these past four years all over the globe: freshman year here on the USC campus, sophomore year at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and junior year at Bocconi University in Milan, Italy. I chose to return to California for senior year to round out this global adventure in the place where it all began, and this semester I am confronted with the familiar feeling of nostalgia for a place that I have yet to leave but that I know I will have to move on from in the coming months. 

Instead of counting out my time in college by semester or year—freshman year, spring semester, etc— I remember it by city— first semester Hong Kong, winter break Milan, summer before LA. Each city has become synonymous with a unique phase in my life, imbuing the nostalgia I have for my fading college years with homesickness for each city. Though I only spent about ten months in each place before packing up and leaving once again, in each of those phases I had found a home that was difficult to leave. How could I ever leave all of this behind? I thought to myself as I walked around the bay in Tseung Kwan O and looked up at the iconic, pastel colored high rises of the city. 

Photo is author’s own

A year later: How could I ever leave all of this behind? I thought as I strolled down my block in Porta Romana and tried to take a mental picture of every storefront and monument. 

Photo is author’s own

And yet another year later: How can I ever leave all of this behind? I think as I walk through the USC campus, drive through downtown, or simply spend time with a friend who lives across the country but calls Los Angeles her home the same way that I do. After spending all this time curating a life in a city that I have come to love, how can I leave it all behind?

Photo is author’s own

The truth of the matter is that when life in one city comes to a close, a new life in a new place begins. Over the years, I have come to view these moves less like I’m losing a home in one city, but gaining a home in another. The twinges of nostalgia and homesickness are always tempered with the excitement and anticipation of a new challenge. Exploring new streets, learning new transit systems, picking up new languages, and making a diet of new foods are all such time-consuming building blocks of an expatriate’s life that they leave little time for grieving the past. Looking forward is always better than gazing back, and it is this eagerness to make a home in a new city every year that made college so much fun in the long run. Even better than looking forward, however, is living in the present. 

Instead of looking longingly to the DTLA skyline and counting down the days until I will no longer see it every morning, I want to maximize the three months I have left living in the city with friends, food, and exploration that I cannot replicate anywhere else. When this phase of my life ends in May and I inevitably move onto the next city, Los Angeles will still be my home—along with Hong Kong and Milan. 

Featured Image by Breno Assis on Unsplash

Born and raised in mainland China, Yuan Gao (Grace) is a graduate student at Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism majoring in Journalism. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Marketing from the Communication University of China in Beijing. Grace came to L.A. one year ago, hoping to explore and learn more about American culture. She is an active member of her community and volunteered for Teach for L.A. last semester, a service organization that tutors local K-12 students on campus at USC. Their work is similar to other volunteer work she has done in China.

Nathan is a graduate of the Master’s of International Public Policy and Management at Sol Price School of Public Policy program. Upon graduation, he will be beginning his PhD studies in Political Science. Nathan is fascinated by travelling and learning about new cultures and languages. He has an MA in Linguistics from the University of Glasgow in Glasgow, Scotland and has travelled all over the world, having visited more than 25 countries and 6 continents, most recently Japan and Korea. 

Samhitha is an undergraduate student studying English with an emphasis in Creative Writing. She is Indian-American but lived most of her life in New Jersey before recently making the transition to the west coast to attend USC. As an avid writer, she loves exploring different creative outlets through film, literature, and comedy. Aside from writing, she also loves exploring L.A., trying new boba places, and being around nature, whether that means hiking or simply visiting the beach with friends. Samhitha has basic understandings of Telugu and Spanish but is open to meeting with anyone who wants to improve their English. She is happy to help you in any way she can–whether that means going over essays, preparing for interviews, or simply practicing your conversation skills!

Leona graduated from the USC Marshall School of Business’ World Bachelor in Business program (WBB). Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she has always had an interest in life beyond her small town, as she grew up in an Iranian-American household and travelled frequently with her family to destinations across the globe. As a student in WBB, Leona has spent extensive time studying business in Hong Kong and Italy, learning how to acclimate to these new cultures and understand the local languages and customs along the way. Back in California for her final year of undergrad, Leona is looking forward to adding to her global experiences by meeting international students on campus and sharing with them her passion for learning new languages. With Farsi, French, Italian, and a bit of Mandarin under her belt, she is committed to helping students work through the English language and share their stories from life around the world!