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Community Blog: Transfer Student Transition Challenges, A Discussion led by Personal Narrative
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Transfer Student Transition Challenges: A Discussion
led by Personal Narrative

By: Tyler Vuillemot


As a first-year undergraduate student, I struggled to connect to the campus and build relationships with my peers at my original four-year institution. Seeking a better fit and stronger sense of community, I decided to start fresh and transfer to another school for my second year.  While I eventually found my home there, built lasting friendships, and developed a love for that university which I still carry to this day, the transition did not come without difficulty. 

When I first arrived on campus as a transfer student, I did not quickly find the sense of community and connection I was looking for. While I became friends with my roommate in the residence hall where I lived, I had difficulty developing other deep relationships and otherwise felt socially isolated during most of my first year at the institution. I did not find my orientation program over the summer to be especially helpful in building social connections, and there was no intentional programming on campus for transfer students that I was aware of during the academic year.  I soon realized it would be up to me to make the most of my experience, so I went looking for opportunities to get involved and hopefully make friends. As a result, I employed a shotgun trial-and-error approach to involvement opportunities.

As a sophomore student, I was also struggling with determining my academic area of interest and choosing a career path.  As a transfer student, I was unfamiliar with resources available on campus and not sure where to go for help.  Throughout the year, I pinballed from office to office on campus looking for guidance and trying to learn about different majors and career paths.  While trying different things to find something you like is part of the college experience, I often felt lost.

Unfortunately, I am not alone in my experience. Research has shown there to be multiple challenges that transfer students face. Personally, I found social adjustment and the lack of intentional support from the university to be the biggest barriers to my success.

A study on university attachment by France, Finney, and Swerdzewski (2010) showed transfer students to have significantly less attachment to other students at their university than traditional students. Utter and DeAngelo (2015) also found social integration to be a major challenge, even for transfer students living on campus.  Transfer students who had lived in a residence hall at their previous institution found building social networks more difficult than at their original institutions, as other returning students in the hall had already developed social networks and weren’t as open to making new friends. The results of this study parallel my experience.  I found students in the residence hall at my original institution to be sociable and open to making friends, but did not have the same ease in building connections in the residence hall at my new institution – even though there were other transfer students living there as well.

Along with social barriers, I experienced a lack of institutional support and guidance, which is another major challenge for transfer students discussed in literature. For example, Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh, & Whitt (2005) discuss how transfer students can be disregarded in efforts around retention, and Herman & Lewis (2004) point out that transfer students can even be overlooked in essential activities like orientation (as cited in Townsend & Wilson, 2006). Tobolowsky and Cox (2012) thoroughly discuss this “neglect” among institutions, proposing that it could be related to the assumption that transfer students are successful and a narrow understanding of their needs, along with other factors. Handel (2013) goes as far as characterizing the attitude of institutions toward transfer students from community colleges as one of “wide-ranging indifference.”

What can institutions of higher education do to address these issues and support transfer students in their transitions? Colleges and universities could start by offering on-campus programming specifically targeting transfer students and designed to provide them the opportunity to interact with other transfer students as well as traditional students.  Potential programming could be as simple as “meet and greet” networking events for transfer students within the residence halls, which could help address the challenges discussed by Utter and DeAngelo (2015.  I believe I would have participated in events like this since I knew there were other transfer students but wasn’t sure how to connect with them.  Flaga (2006) suggests a number of other potential initiatives, including enhancing transfer orientation, implementing seminar courses for transfer students, and employing peer-mentoring programs. Flaga also recommended offering living-learning communities for transfer students and noted the importance of general on-campus involvement.

These potential strategies would align with what foundational student development theories tell us about student success.  Programming initiatives like these could provide opportunities for transfer students to become involved on their new campus and contribute to their holistic development and success, consistent with Astin’s (1984) student involvement theory (as cited in Patton, Renn, Guido, & Quaye, 2016).  They would also allow transfer students to build relationships and thus become part of a community where they feel they matter, which we know from Schlossberg’s (1989) theory of mattering and marginality is important for mental health and a precursor to involvement (as cited in Patton, Renn, Guido, & Quaye, 2016). Implementing such programs would also send a message to transfer students that they are not overlooked or ignored and that they matter to the institution.

While there is no simple and universal plan for how colleges and universities can support transfer students in their transition, the ideas discussed here could provide a starting point.  As a transfer success story myself, I know transfer has the potential to be a positive experience for students. But while everything worked out in the end for me – I found a mentor who I could count on and developed relationships that led me to an organization in which I found a home on campus – I would have appreciated more guidance and support as a transfer student. I hope to see institutions of higher education take more steps in the future to support this group of students in their educational journeys.

Acknowledgements and References


Tyler Vuillemot
Graduate Assistant with Commuter Life, San Diego State University
Graduate Intern with Orientation and New Student Programs, California State University San Marcos

    Tyler Vuillemot is a rising second-year in the Postsecondary Educational Leadership and Student Affairs M.A. Program at San Diego State University, graduating in May 2018. His paraprofessional roles include serving as a Graduate Assistant with Commuter Life at San Diego State and Graduate Intern with Orientation and New Student Programs at Cal State San Marcos. His primary areas of interest in student affairs include orientation and first-year transition, mentoring programs, and learning communities.


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