“So why did you apply to USC?” As a student from Upstate New York, I was asked this question a lot throughout my senior year.  I was first introduced to the University of Southern California through QuestBridge, an organization that connects low-income students to top-tier schools. As a finalist for QB’s National College Match, I was able to apply to USC, a partner school of QB, for free.

What first caught my eye about USC was the fact that it had the most international students of any American university. As a prospective international relations major, I wanted to be in a diverse learning environment. I was also enticed by the beautiful pictures of campus and its prime location in Los Angeles. But, in truth, I was also a little intimidated by the sheer size of the university — 18,000 undergraduate students, 17 pre-professional schools, and a college of letters, arts, and sciences. I also knew that USC was very into sports, particularly football. A quick google image search of the school resulted in dozens of different football related pictures. To be clear, I have never been into sports. Was this school going to just be filled with jocks? The college I was looking for was one with plenty of extracurricular opportunities, a moderately sized and diverse student body, an artistic feel, and a suburban location. USC did not seem to fit most of these criteria.

Nevertheless, I ended up applying for their Merit Scholarship deadline. Two months passed, and no news came. I became anxious and stalked College Confidential to see if anyone had heard back about scholarships. On the third day of looking, I stumbled upon a thread with students commenting that they had received something in the mail that day. Unfortunately, it was only around noon at the time, and my mail would not be coming for another four or so hours. The mail always happened to come around the same time my mom got home from work. So at 4:30 that day when my mom entered the house, I quickly asked if something had come for me in the mail. She shook her head. For some reason, I didn’t believe her. I ran outside to check for myself. At the back of the mailbox was a thick white package. This had to be it, I thought to myself. But there was one problem — it was stuck! After tugging on it for a good three minutes, it finally came loose.

I ran back into the house with it and quickly ripped it open. Inside was a beautiful red folder with the USC emblem on the cover and a letter of admission to the university. I was shocked. I was even more shocked when I read all the papers I had received. I was a finalist for a full-tuition scholarship!  At this point, I felt like I was dreaming; however, there was one caveat to this — as a finalist for the Trustee Scholarship, I was required to attend an Explore USC event and have an interview on campus. At first, my parents were very hesitant to let me fly all the way out to California from New York, but after much protest, they relented.

Image from Alex Melnik.

So, on February 24th, after a lengthy plane ride, I landed in sunny Los Angeles. I couldn’t believe how beautiful the campus was. Less than 24 hours ago I had been wearing a heavy winter jacket. Now, I was walking around in a t-shirt and shorts.

Quickly, my impression of the school changed. Yes, USC has a very large student body, but it seems like every student is able to find their niche within its 800+ clubs and organizations. Yes, it is big on football, but it also has an amazing marching band as well as many opportunities in the arts. At Explore USC, the marching band actually made a surprise appearance. We also heard about Visions and Voices, USC’s campus-wide arts and humanities initiative that provides tons of free concerts and performances at USC and around L.A. I learned that USC has a music school, a film school, a fine arts school, a dance school, and a school of dramatic arts.

I also learned that although USC is a premier research university, it has a faculty to student ratio of 9:1, and many classes with fewer than thirty students. I even discovered that USC has an honors program known as the Thematic Option, which is essentially an honors alternative to USC’s general education requirement. Courses in T.O. are based on themes, rather than subjects, and are very reading and writing intensive. Classes are also much smaller. As the T.O. website states, students who participate in the program “get the benefits of a small liberal arts college in the heart of one of the world’s finest research universities.”

On the evening of the first day, I got to visit the Ground Zero Performance Cafe and watch an open mic night. I was even heckled by a comedian!

By the end of the program, I realized that all my preconceptions about USC were wrong. A school which I had once considered to be too big and too sports-centered ended up being the perfect school for me. With so many different performance opportunities, an incredibly diverse student body, a wonderful honors program, a breathtaking campus, and a focus on interdisciplinary learning, what more could I ask for?

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