When the COVID-19 pandemic struck and social distancing went into effect, Janette Brown — assistant vice provost of USC’s Emeriti Center — became concerned about Trojans who might be feeling lonely or isolated.
That marked the start of Trojan Connections. Begun in March, Trojan Connections randomly matches USC retirees, students, faculty, staff, alumni or friends to one another. Participants sign up to contact a Trojan or to be contacted by one.
It fits the mission of the USC Emeriti Center, Brown explained. For more than 40 years, the USC Emeriti Center has helped the university’s retirees and pre-retirees live healthy and purposeful lives by providing essential information, resources, services, advocacy, privileges and support.
“Our motto is ‘colleagues for life,’ so I felt it was important to reach out,” Brown said. “Trojan Connections enables us to do that.”
As Brown explains, Trojan Connections is like having a pen pal, but instead of writing letters, “you connect through calls and email.” Brown said. The program has matched more than 65 Trojans so far, and Brown is hopeful it will continue after the pandemic eases.
Trojan Connections brings together retired faculty and international master’s student
Who makes and receives the calls? And is it awkward to reach out to someone you don’t know?
Jerome Walker, who retired as associate provost in 2008, signed up to make phone calls. “It’s a nice thing to do, especially for retired Trojans who want to stay in touch with young people,” he said.
Walker was matched with an international student from Beijing. “He was here to improve his English prior to starting a master’s program in financial engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, and we chatted weekly,” said Walker.
At first, their conversations were about each other’s background and daily activities. Walker learned his new “pen pal” had studied financial mathematics, was drawn to USC because his cousin had graduated from the university and is a runner who jogs at dawn to limit his exposure to others and avoid contracting the coronavirus.
”When I mentioned I enjoy the Chinese Garden at The Huntington Library, we really bonded,” Walker said. “He told me about his love for the Imperial Gardens at Beijing’s Summer Palace — the beauty of the egrets, geese and blooming peach trees — and his more than 20 visits there.”
After that, their conversations became more personal and friendly. “His grandfather is a famous master woodcarver known throughout China, and his mom and uncle have followed in his footsteps,” Walker said. “We plan to stay connected. I want to have him over for dinner when it’s safe to do so.”
Trojans form unexpected bonds during pandemic
When alumna Gigi Miller received the email asking for volunteers, she jumped at the chance to help.
“I wanted to be a part of something, especially right now,” she said. “So many of the things I’m involved in are on hold due to social distancing.”
Miller is a yoga teacher and a harpist. Prior to COVID-19, she played weekly for patients at Cedars-Sinai Marina del Rey Hospital.
I signed up with Trojan Connections to be of help, but it’s really my new friend that helps me along.
Paired with a female graduate student from Seoul, South Korea, Miller sent an email introducing herself. When the reply was, “Yes, please do contact me,” Miller was delighted.
Since then, they’ve talked a couple of times each week and found they share similar coping mechanisms. Atop their list of activities that ease the feeling of isolation are watching movies, cooking and especially going out for a drive. “I didn’t think anyone else liked doing that,” Miller said.
“We have a nice bond and it’s very sweet. I signed up with Trojan Connections to be of help, but it’s really my new friend that helps me along,” she said.
Emeriti Center’s new program aims to help everyone
Another Trojan Connections volunteer is Karen Koblitz, a former ceramics professor who retired from the USC Roski School of Art and Design in 2017 and promptly joined the board of the Retired Faculty Association in order to stay connected to USC and young people.
“I’m a connector and, as retired faculty, we have so much to give,” she said.
Trojan Connections matched her to two people: a retired professor of comparative literature and gender studies and an international student from Shanghai.
“I emailed asking when they’d like to be contacted and how they’d like to communicate,” Koblitz said. “I wasn’t given a script or any guidelines. I was just hoping to share on the same wavelength.”
The first call with the fellow retiree lasted two hours; now she and Koblitz speak weekly. They’ve learned about each other’s careers, families and interests and have connected over their love of the arts.
“She’s brilliant and — despite ‘safer-at-home’ orders — stays busy reading, keeping up with lots of friends and her daughters who live on the East Coast,” Koblitz said. “Her interests never seem to die.”
I’ve found that reaching out to others helps puts things into perspective.
Koblitz has fostered a friendship with the Chinese international student via email. Not knowing anyone in Los Angeles and determined to improve her English before starting a master’s in economics, her first response to Koblitz was, “It is inspiring to receive your email!”
Since that initial exchange, Koblitz has found out she’s punctual, likes fried chicken from Panda Express and wants to earn her PhD and work with developing nations.
“Mainly we talk about her progress learning English, but I also make sure she has what she needs and assure her she has a lifeline here,” Koblitz said. When social distancing ends, Koblitz wants to introduce her to some of her former students. “I know they’d have a lot in common,” she said.
“People are feeling a bit disconnected right now,” Koblitz added. “I’ve found that reaching out to others helps puts things into perspective, and that’s made me feel better.”
Walker, president of the Retired Faculty Association, can’t say enough good things about what the center does to keep faculty, students and alumni connected.
“Trojan Connections helps everyone, especially retirees,” he said.
Miller concurs: “I’m grateful to be a Trojan. USC cares about its community, and that’s important during times like this.”