A Bruin Ambassador: How NISTS Transfer Student Ambassadors Reflect Why We Must Move Beyond Free College

6 min read

In October, four outstanding students were named NISTS (National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students) 2022 Transfer Student Ambassadors for their commitment to improving the transfer process for other students. Interviews with each of them showcase one common theme: transferring represents the opportunity to accomplish a dream and a degree which would otherwise have been unachievable.

Their stories reflect the research found in the recently published book, Beyond Free College: Making Higher Education Work for 21st Century Students, co-authored by NISTS Board Members Stephen J. Handel, a senior strategist with the College Board, and Dr. Eileen Strempel, Inaugural Dean of The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. The book details recommended actions for universities looking to re-invest in students by focusing not merely on access, but completion. Interviews with each transfer student ambassador reveal a common desire for a sense of community at their new schools, including both academic and social support structures.

For Herman Chavez, Katie Ibsen, Jan Paolo Canteras, and Noelle Dana, transferring brought them one giant leap closer to the goal of degree completion. Read on to hear their stories.

Herman Luis Chavez, who is pursuing a BA double major in Comparative Literature and in Ethnomusicology is a member of the UCLA class of 2022. His transfer journey required him to navigate the difficult technicalities of moving from a four-year institution outside of California (Colorado State University, CSU) into the complex UC system. With former faculty trying to dissuade him, no easy connection with a UC transfer staff to assist in his particular situation, and a pandemic complicating the whole process, Herman’s transfer was an uphill battle which he says was the best decision he ever made. One look at the excitement on this student’s face as he talks about his life at UCLA tells you the truthfulness of his statement.

In an interview with Herman, he repeatedly emphasized the importance of UCLA’s supportive network of faculty and staff during his transfer process. Herman credits an encouraging and validating community as the greatest benefit of his transfer process – from the programs of the Undergraduate Research Center for the Humanities Arts and Social Sciences, “led by the amazing Dr. Whitney Arnold… one of the most supportive women [he] has ever met in [his] entire life, ”to the mentorship of Cesar D. Favila, Assistant Professor of Musicology at UCLA. Professor Favila showed Herman that it was possible to pursue his passion for music studies focused on the people creating music as a queer, Latino student. Herman’s respect for his mentor is clear: “He deserves a raise… He should be tenured immediately!”

The presence of this nurturing community rocketed Herman from his dissatisfying experience at Colorado State University to his current enthusiastic research on “Atiliano Auza León, Popular Folkloric Music, and the Bolivian State” at UCLA.

Herman’s story exemplifies one idea from Beyond Free College particularly well: “It’s the combination of ‘high-tech/high touch’ that works to assure degree completion.” While Herman noted that the school can do more to fund the transfer students who make up nearly one-third of UCLA’s population, he firmly stated that the “high touch” sense of community he feels here has made his success possible.

For Katie Ibsen, a senior pursuing her BA in anthropology at UC-Berkeley, community college felt like a transitory space, in which the goal of the institution was to transfer students somewhere else to finish their degree. This was a distant concept while she was attending community college. It wasn’t until she attended a trip with the anthropology club to the Museum of Anthropology at UC Berkeley that transferring felt like a real option. With this experience, the idea of a Bachelor’s degree moved from concept to concrete.

Now in her last year at UC Berkeley, Katie works for Accepted Consulting, helping other transfer students navigate the process she completed. She also regularly posts content on her YouTube vlog, The Vintage Academic, and notes that similar channels helped her tremendously as she struggled to develop the skills needed to be a successful student with ADHD. When asked whether she thought such a channel administered by a university would be helpful, she responded that institutional approaches tend to force a sense of structure that impedes the organic relationship between fans and content creators. The strength of that relationship is what ensures the audience is getting the information they want and need to know.

Katie’s vlog contains videos on every step of her transfer process and her life at UC-Berkeley. From writing college application essays to how she structures her weekends with work and school, she shares tips and tricks to help other transfers navigate the process of transferring and settling into a new school. She particularly wants other students like her to remember that “It’s okay to review your old community college coursework,” as you took those classes for a reason and probably learned a lot in them!

When his mother became sick years ago, Jan Paolo Canteras, now working on his BA in Psychology and Sociology at UC Irvine, decided that family comes first. Leaving behind a nearly-complete business finance degree in the Philippines, he had to start college over completely in the United States. None of his previous credits transferred. In an interview with him, Paolo said this was a blessing in disguise, as it led him to discover a deep passion for the fields of psychology and sociology,

Paolo has always seen a college degree as necessary to compete in the real world. While community college felt like a halfway point, transferring to UC Irvine brought his desired goal of a degree within reach. At UCI, he helped create a Student Transfer Engagement Access and Mentorship (STEAM) course to help other transfer students to acclimate to campus life and to provide the support that he wished had been available when he first arrived.

He faced numerous challenges during his transfer to UC Irvine and noted repeatedly the financial burden of being a transfer student. The higher per credit hour cost can double or even triple when a student transfers from a community college to a four-year school. Additional expenses, such as paying for an orientation program over the summer, present even more barriers for students already struggling to pay higher tuitions.

When asked how schools might best support the non-academic needs of their students, Paolo expressed concern for students facing food insecurity. Having been a food-insecure student himself, he felt that the UC system has so many students who need support that it is all too easy for some students’ needs to be overlooked and unmet. Additionally, he noted a need for more mental health support on campus as the quarter system often generates a cycle of perpetual stress. These views align directly with Strempel and Handel’s findings about addressing place-based needs of students as essential to promoting retention and degree completion.

According to Noelle Dana (currently working on her BA in Classics and Philosophy, Science, & Mathematics), at The University of Notre Dame, degree completion is never in doubt thanks to their “army of advisors.” She recalls how the university’s advising network sat down with each student and detailed every step to get their degree. From the outset, she knew which of her credits from The University of Vermont would transfer and which general education requirements she had yet to fulfill.

Despite this assistance, Noelle experienced a rocky transition as she transferred to Notre Dame. In an interview, she recalled the numerous small reminders during Welcome Week that incoming traditional students were the priority, not transfer students. The emphasis on integrating first-year students into the university family excluded transfers, as shown by the “learn how to college” Monroe course. This course provides access to resources and friendship networks for first-year students, but transfer students are not allowed to enroll. Redesigning the curriculum to address place-based support for transfers students in a class of their own could help prevent a central concern voiced by Noelle: a sense that, regardless of institution, “transfer students are often an afterthought.”

Noelle’s one wish for transfer programs in the United States is a greater emphasis on fully integrating students as part of the campus community. She sees advising as one key to academic success, and views social support systems as key to fostering a campus climate in which transfers feel as much a priority as traditional students.

Help to change the lives of students like these Student Ambassadors by supporting transfer students at The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music.