Newbies on Campus

Transfer student needs finally recognized, addressed

Transfer Student: Jared Bruggeman, Photographer: Zach Bielinski

Transfer Student: Jared Bruggeman, Photographer: Zach Bielinski

Like most students living in the residence halls, Alex Holecek was told to keep her door open to make friends. It wasn’t the September after welcome week, though; it was the spring of 2014, and she had just transferred in as a sophomore from Rochester Community and Technical College. With the door to her room in Centennial Hall propped open, she felt like a goldfish. But one of her new neighbors came by for a visit and a casual hello. But then came the question: “What was wrong with your old school?” For Holecek and other transfers who are trying to find their place at the University of Minnesota, those words seem to mean something else: “Why are you here?”

Holecek came to the University in fall 2014, the same semester that the University’s transfer initiatives started to gain momentum. Yet a pervading thought remained—transfers did not need as much academic or cultural support because they had already gone to college somewhere else. However, it soon dawned on faculty that the transfer population, which makes up 30 percent of the undergraduate student body, is not as happy at the University as non-transfers.

Neither the students nor the faculty are satisfied with that realization.

Everything for transfer students is on an accelerated timeline. Most of them don’t want to spend a whole four years at the University, nor should they. Factors like new academics and a new environment can make transfers feel behind their peers, according to stakeholder interviews conducted by the University.

However, it soon dawned on faculty that the transfer population, which makes up 30 percent of the undergraduate student body, is not as happy at the University as non-transfers.

Sarah Ihrig, the transfer student coordinator at the University, likened this tendency to Abraham Maslow’s psychological theory, the “hierarchy of needs.” At the bottom of the pyramid are the basics: How do we get textbooks? How do we register for classes? How are we going to pay?

Finances and academics are the top two worries for transfer students. Accordingly, transfers have better habits concerning class attendance, participation, and reading completion. They’re more likely to look for opportunities that line up directly with career advancement as opposed to becoming parts of student groups or exploring options like study abroad. Trying to be social and fitting into already-formed relationships isn’t easy, especially when bigger worries overshadow the “fun” side of college.

The Office of First Year Programs (OFYP) works hard to improve transfer welcome days each year to help transfer students start making connections. For fall 2015, they added local food sponsorships, a DJ, bouncy houses, and more to the tailgate, one of the activities over the four-day event. Because of the tight schedule over winter break and the smaller amount of spring transfer students (approximately 900 compared to fall’s 2000), spring’s welcome is a one-day event.

The spring welcome is after the first week of the semester, and by that point, Holecek was in hyper drive. “I basically went to every table asking, ‘What are you doing?’” She wanted to belong, an affirmation of her validity at the University.

Transfer Student: Alex Holecek, Photographer: Zach Bielinski

Transfer Student: Alex Holecek, Photographer: Zach Bielinski

Among the myriad of emails she subscribed to, she joined the University Student Transfer Board (UTSB) as a general member and, more importantly in the short term, she signed up as a mentee for the inaugural semester of the Transfer Student Network (TSN).

TSN pairs first-semester transfer students with mentors—former transfer students. The two meet on a monthly basis. For Holecek, joining TSN was the “single best thing” she had done for herself. She and her mentor didn’t become best friends, but the relationship helped Holecek meet other people, go to more events, and have someone to talk to.

This year, OFYP altered the program so that every transfer student is automatically paired with a mentor, so if students missed signing up or decided not to participate but later change their minds, they wouldn’t have to worry.

Renee Crume, a 2013 fall transfer and fall 2015 TSN mentor, said that not all of the mentees she had took advantage of the one-on-one meetings. However, she continuously sent monthly emails filled with reflections on her transfer experience (pictures with Gandalf included) and University “street smarts.” Crume, like all of the other mentors, wanted her transfers to know she was there if they needed her.

TSN used to be under the umbrella of the University Transfer Student Board (UTSB), as was Tau Sigma, the co-ed honors transfer fraternity. Holecek has been a part of all three groups and now, as a senior, is the UTSB vice president.

At UTSB’s biweekly advocacy committee meeting (scheduled in the afternoon to be more accessible for commuter students), Holecek took minutes. Jared Bruggeman, the committee chair, checked in with the five-person group working on projects like a Yelp-style housing resource, workshops, and more.

“If they want to do leadership roles, we have leadership roles,” Bruggeman said. “If they want to do community-based things, we have law, communication, advocacy.”

Obviously, though, not all transfer students become as involved with the transfer community as Holecek and Bruggeman.

“I think the transfer population is very dynamic,” Holecek said. “Half are very aware they’re transfer students—‘What do I do? Where do I find stuff?’—so they’re really easy to get involved in stuff. The other half that transferred think, ‘Big deal, I don’t need this particular community to be there for me.’”

Transfer Student: Alex Holecek, Photographer: Zach Bielinski

Transfer Student: Alex Holecek, Photographer: Zach Bielinski

One type isn’t better or worse than the other, Holecek said, but the struggle for UTSB is how to serve the community they have while trying to reach out to those who might find themselves wanting UTSB in the future.

“It’s hard to maintain students,” Bruggeman said, “which I think can actually be a good thing.” He said he loves when students make UTSB their own, but he doesn’t mind that sometimes the board is just “a stepping stone.” He and Holecek realize that because a transfer’s time at the University is only about two years, the board’s sustainability and momentum become more difficult. It’s a fact they can’t change, but they don’t mind as long as they can keep helping transfers feel like they belong.

“School, education, get a degree, find your passion, get a job,” Bruggeman said. “Community is the first part of that.”

Annie Lux, a 2014 sophomore transfer from St. Thomas, only went to the transfer orientation, where she said, “Everyone was so friendly and welcoming.” Then, she found her community in other places. “I think for me, because I had a uniquely terrible experience my first year, I just never felt a part of all of the St. Thomas campus,” she said. “When people ask me where I’ve gone to school, I don’t even mention it.”

While Lux cited a smaller major, friendly classmates, and social classes like choir as reasons for her smooth transition, she still faced a problem shared by almost all transfer students who want to live near campus: housing. Her off-campus experience was less than ideal, living with people she didn’t know previously didn’t work out.

Half are very aware they’re transfer students. The other half that transferred think, ‘Big deal, I don’t need this particular community to be there for me.

UTSB is working on making housing easier along with a multitude of other things, but Holecek wants it to narrow its focus in the future. “How do we utilize these people we do have to get stuff done, to do it all the way, not just half way?” she said.

Holecek will be graduating from the University this May and, inevitably, will leave behind the program she’s invested so much into. Looking back, she has realized that transferring, and the messy transition that accompanied it, became a large part of her identity.

“In high school, I wasn’t super involved,” she said. “But when I came here, I had to be because I wouldn’t have anything. I have found an identity in my school now.”