The transfer-student experience
The profile of community-college transfers — traditionally an ‘invisible’ population at Berkeley — is being raised, thanks to several campus initiatives
| 12 March 2003
Elizabeth Klinkert was a straight-A student during her two years at Long Beach City College in Southern California. Encouraged by her stellar GPA, she asked a counselor there about transfering to Berkeley, but was told to look elsewhere.
“The counselor said I should go to Long Beach State or someplace similar,” Klinkert recalls, “because I had little to no chance of getting in at Cal.”
She ignored the advice. After connecting with a more supportive adviser, Klinkert got the information she needed to successfully transfer to Berkeley and is now a senior here, majoring in rhetoric.
“Because I was an older student, I had enough maturity to seek a second opinion,” says Klinkert, who was 26 at the time. “But I imagine a lot of younger students just accept what they’re told because they think counselors are the experts and know best.”
Unfortunately, Klinkert’s experience is not unique among community-college students hoping to transfer to Berkeley.
“Many administrators, faculty, and advisers at community colleges think getting into Berkeley is nearly impossible for their students,” says Genaro Padilla, vice chancellor for undergraduate affairs. “So they discourage them from applying, or don’t even offer it as an option.”
Padilla and others in his office have been working with community colleges over the last several years to address those concerns. A number of programs and initiatives have been put into place to make the transfer process easier for students and counselors to understand and follow.
His office now hosts numerous functions throughout the year — workshops, fairs, and an annual conference — that make it possible for community-college counselors and students to learn more about the Berkeley admissions process, selecting a major, and career opportunities after graduation. (The latter is a topic of keen interest to students who arrive on campus in their junior year.) Websites and publications have also been created to better disseminate information about Berkeley to community colleges.
The flow of transfer students to Berkeley also has been greatly enhanced by the Transfer Alliance Project. Established in 1999, this campus outreach program works with disadvantaged (e.g., low-income, first generation) students to improve their academic preparation for admission to Berkeley. Project staff currently provide one-on-one counseling for 472 students from 30 northern California community colleges. More than 90 percent of Alliance students have been admitted to Berkeley — almost three times the rate of acceptance that transfer students overall achieve.
While more needs to be done, says Padilla, this collection of efforts has greatly improved relationships between the campus and community colleges.
“As a result of our collaboration with Berkeley,” says Martin Olguin, a student-support specialist at Napa Valley College, “students who never even thought they could apply to Berkeley are now enrolled and very successful.”
Transferring to Berkeley isn’t easy: of the 9,000 students who apply each year, only 2,600 or so are accepted. And once they’re here, the approximately 1,700 who do enroll face a unique set of challenges upon their arrival, says Lorena Valdez, coordinator of the campus’s Transfer Student Center.
“By the time traditional freshmen are juniors, they’ve had two years to acclimate to Berkeley’s size, culture, and pace,” she explains. “Transfer students don’t get that kind of honeymoon. They have to hit the ground running.”
The pressure to perform at top speed from the get-go can be daunting, Valdez adds, particularly because the academic workload here is much heavier than at most community colleges.
“Because they’re working so hard to stay on top of their schoolwork, transfer students don’t often participate in extracurricular activities, like joining clubs, going to football games, or visiting museums,” she says. “But what goes on outside the classroom is an important part of the student experience as well.”
Feeling isolated is something Klinkert has experienced as well, she says: “It’s been kind of hard to make friends. Most of my classmates forged their friendships during their freshman year and are already socially connected, so it’s tough to get to know people.”
The Transfer Student Center (one of a trio of offices that also serve re-entry students and student parents) tries to address these and other obstacles, says Valdez, by offering services that help new and continuing transfer students connect with the campus community and excel academically.
Their programs include orientation courses, tutoring, workshops, community events, advising, and referrals. Students can also stop by the center — located in 100 Cesar Chavez Student Center — to ask peer advocates questions about scholarship, internship, and undergraduate research opportunities, network with other transfer students, or relax and socialize in the center’s cozy lounge.
In addition to social and workload hurdles, transfer students must also deal with negative perceptions held by some faculty and traditional students about their scholastic abilities, says Padilla.
“When I was a full-time professor in the English department, I kept hearing faculty say that transfer students weren’t up to snuff in the classroom,” Padilla recalls. “They complained that these students couldn’t keep up with the work, and that they took too long to graduate.”
He decided to look into these claims, and, based on the analysis he conducted, they didn’t bear out. “I found that, while these students can have a rocky start,” he says, “their average GPAs and time to graduation were on par with our traditional students.”
According to the Office of Student Research, the latest six-year graduation rate of freshmen was 82 percent, identical to the four-year graduation rate of community-college transfers. At the end of the fall 2000 semester, the average GPA of transfer students was 3.37, compared with 3.28 for all students.
Not only do transfer students perform well academically, they also bring a much-needed richness and diversity to the student body, says Padilla.
“Often these students have gone through a variety of life experiences, both bad and good, that traditional students have not,” says Padilla. “This added dimension of intellectual and social maturity deepens classroom discussions and gives their writing and analysis a pronounced social reach.”
Padilla says he also finds transfers students very disciplined and focused when it comes to their studies.
“Some have overcome seemingly insurmountable odds,” he says, “and I think they feel obligated to make the most of their time here.”
While the campus’s various efforts to improve both the connections with community colleges and the environment for transfer students enrolled at Berkeley have produced great results, the future of these initiatives is precarious.
Because of the state budget crisis, Governor Gray Davis has called for steep cuts in student services (20 percent) and outreach (50 percent), two areas that greatly affect transfer programs at Berkeley.
“We may have to temporarily scale back, but these programs won’t go away,” says Padilla. “A need has been identified, and these services have become part of the fabric of the university. I will do whatever I can to mitigate the impact on our current and prospective transfer students.”