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2020 TSA: Kaylee Cheng's Transfer Story

In the weeks leading up to the NISTS 2020 annual conference, we're highlighting the transfer stories of this year's National Transfer Student Ambassadors. All four students will attend the conference and participate in a student panel conversation during concurrent session one on Wednesday, February 5th.

Blog post photo with blog post title and image of 2020 TSA ambassador with geometric shapes as the background

What’s your major? Why did you choose it and what do you hope to do after graduation?

My educational journey has been anything but straightforward. In summary, it all started with me deciding to major in Dance in 2012, got sidetracked by my switch to History somewhere in 2016, and concluded with me changing my major to Psychology in 2017... only to realize soon after transferring that I’m not really interested in Psychology at all?

... It’s honestly been a roller-coaster experience. Let me explain.

I started college as a dual-enrolled student a College of the Sequoias and chose Dance as my major when an advisor encouraged me to pick whatever I wanted since I’d probably change it anyway. By the time I graduated high school, I had 60+ transferable college units and decided to change my major to something I actually intended to pursue seriously, which was History.

I loved History and took every single history class offered at COS. I was accepted to California State University Monterey Bay as a History major and was all set to begin classes with several thousand dollars in awarded scholarships. I had a world of opportunity in the palm of my hand, and my future was bright and golden until… plot twist!

In California, it’s impossible to transfer from a community college to a four-year university without first passing an upper division math course. And it just so happens that I was unable to schedule my required upper division math course until literally the final semester before graduation (from both high school and community college).

And this is what happened: I failed. Despite intensive preparation, tutoring, and studying, I couldn't complete the seven page, front-to-back, hand computation only test packet in the allotted 50 minutes. When I got my final grade, I saw that I’d failed the course… by 0.11 points.

I lost everything. I lost my admittance to CSUMB, my scholarships, and for a while, I even lost my desire to go to college. But after a few months, I picked myself up and decided to give it another go. Because History felt tainted, I chose Psychology as my major instead. I wasn’t passionate about it or anything, but it seemed like a practical and strategic decision since I didn’t know what else to major in.

It wasn’t until after I transferred to California State University Channel Islands that I discovered what I wanted to do after graduation, and it was honestly completely by accident.

I applied to be a peer mentor with PEEP (Peer Education and Equity Programs) which serves specific groups or interests such as Hispanic students, first-generation students, transfer students, or STEM. Although I’d applied for a general position, I was asked to interview for the more specialized position of Research Ambassador. When I asked why, the committee said my study abroad research experience in Maui stood out on my application; furthermore, it was especially impressive that I, as a transfer student, had any research experience at all.

I got the job, and I can sincerely say that I’ve loved my time working with PEEP. But I have to admit that as soon as I left my interview, the phrase “especially as a transfer student” wouldn’t leave my mind. I found myself looking around campus with a closer eye, and I noticed that not only were transfer students less likely to hold student leadership positions or get involved with university organizations, but they were also far less likely to participate in undergraduate research opportunities, internships, or even speak to faculty in their office hours to ask for help. Observing this silently… it bothered me.

As such, this past year I’ve begun taking decisive action to learn more about transfer students and how to assist them. For example, I’m currently in the process of conducting several independent research projects focused on CSUCI transfer students, especially pertaining to issues such as career anxiety and campus engagement. (Some of my other research interests include the specialization of community colleges, how college students utilize and gather social and/or cultural capital, the effects of degree and major impact on California students, and factors that influence students to attend university out of state.)

And then, of course, I jumped on the chance to apply to be a NISTS Transfer Student Ambassador, and now here I am.

It was only due to all these experiences that I discovered how much I truly value advocacy for transfer student opportunities, and how research can be used to learn more about transfer students’ needs so that universities can offer solutions. Now I’m seriously considering a career in higher education focusing on serving transfer students like me, and I have every intention of pursuing a graduate degree that will help me accomplish that goal.

Did you complete an associate degree before transferring? What led to your decision to complete it (or not)?

Technically, I did not complete an AA. However… I have met all the requirements.

I had every intention of transferring to CSUMB with an AA in History, but because I failed that required upper division math course, my application for an AA was denied. Of course, I retook that class the following semester and passed. But at the time, I was so traumatized by the whole experience of having my university acceptance rescinded that I just changed my major and never bothered to reapply for that History AA, even though I’d completed all the qualifications.

It’s been on my to-do list for a while now to stop by my community college and reapply for that History AA. One day when I have the time, I’ll get that done.

What were your concerns about changing schools? What was most difficult about transferring/ acclimating to a new campus?

Before transferring, most of my concerns stemmed from leaving Central California to attend university on my own in Southern California; and I was right to worry, because those first few weeks were a definite struggle.

It was such a huge culture shock. The Central Valley is all about wide sprawling agriculture and slow, small town living. Southern California? Not like that at all. SoCal is loud and fast and crowded almost everywhere you go. Traffic is always congested, and I remember initially thinking that the air seemed thinner and harder to breathe because of the sheer density of all the people. (And don’t even get me started on how people eat their fries in Southern California.)

However, my concerns started to change after transferring, as it began to register that, even if I was starting to become accustomed to my new place, I still didn’t know the people. I lived in the dorms my first year, but even then when I started school I noticed that nobody ever seemed to… talk to each other? Socialize? It felt like there was this palpable feeling of isolation and disconnection among the students, and nobody ever really reached out to me. And so, for that entire first semester, I drove the 3 hour distance back home every other weekend because I had no local support system.

What did you do to find support/community on campus?

I started small. When I transferred, I knew I was starting from the absolute bottom-up, so I told myself: “I’m going to do things right. I’m going to put myself out there, I’m going to ask questions, and I’m going to ask for help.”

And I did.

Two weeks into my first semester at CSUCI, I found my major advisor’s office, sat myself down during his office hours, and asked if he knew anything about how to gain research experience in psychology. And short answer: he did not. But he did give me excellent general advice, and he pointed me toward a couple other professors who might be of assistance.

One week later, I had spoken to about eight different professors in my department, and each one was able to teach me something new or point me in a different, potentially useful direction. It might have seemed like I was running around in circles from the outside, but in reality, I’d unintentionally started to learn about the value of participating in various campus opportunities.

As a result, I found myself volunteering as a student representative on CSUCI’s General Education committee. I also volunteered to be a floor representative for my dorm’s Residential Housing Association, and I ended up meeting a lot of people and making personal connections. Through the relationships I’d cultivated by visiting faculty in their office hours, I managed to secure a free invitation to Southern California’s 2018 Graduate Forum for Diversity in Education, and I was also able to find several faculty willing to act as my independent research advisors in my senior year.

All these smaller opportunities became the foundation for my more ambitious future endeavors, such as my application to conduct supervised research in Maui, or my campaign to become president of CSUCI’s Psychology Club (both of which I succeeded in attaining). And a year after transferring to CSUCI, I found myself hired as a Research Ambassador with the PEEP program, and I’d just started an application to become a NISTS Transfer Student Ambassador.

By taking the initiative to put myself out there and asking for help, I’ve managed to build an amazing network of great friends and mentors that I can rely on whenever I need assistance. I think anyone can do the same and begin building a strong support system if they just start by taking small steps to build momentum.

What has been your best/worst transfer experience so far?

My worst experience so far was definitely failing that upper division math course back in community college. And it probably always will be because that experience was honestly traumatizing. (0.11 points… wow. I’m just never going to get over that.)

My best experience so far… hmm. I think my best transfer experience so far has been getting to know and help other transfer students like me.

I think it’s important to note here that transfer students, due to their diversity in age, background, education, etc., experience a very transient sense of social isolation. To elaborate, because most transfer students usually only spend about two years at university, most of their time is spent transitioning in then out. And because they’re seemingly “here then gone again” in the blink of an eye, many transfer students struggle to build any strong ties with their campus and peer community.

As one transfer student once told me, “It’s easy to get lost in the cracks.”

And I understand, because I’ve never really forgotten how alone I felt that first semester after transferring, and how much I wished someone would have reached out to me first. No one ever did, and so now I make it a point to take the initiative to reach out to others whenever I can. In doing so, I’ve learned that it’s not always the big things; oftentimes, it’s the small gestures (like a smile, or including someone in a conversation) that make a world of difference.

What one piece of advice would you give students who are considering a transfer between schools? What about the faculty and staff who work with transfer students?

For faculty and staff, my advice would be to remember that the university experience was initially built for the traditional four-year student; as a result, transfer students have a harder time adjusting to an academic environment that accommodates them, but wasn’t necessarily built with them in mind.

Let me explain. Something I’ve learned from working with freshmen is that freshmen all have to undergo a huge learning curve in transitioning between high school and college, but at least it’s a learning curve that all freshmen at the same university have in common. But that’s not the case for transfer students; for example, transfer students might theoretically all come from the same neighboring regions or districts, but even so, all college campuses (including community colleges) have their own culture and way of operating. Transfer students not only have to learn how to navigate their new campus, but in fact they also have to unlearn a lot of the habits and assumptions that got them through their previous college institution. Think of it not as acclimating but assimilating to a new culture.

As for transfer students… I have a lot of general advice.

Try everything. Be curious. Explore. Don’t be afraid of failure. Make mistakes and learn from them. Take risks and reach for the seemingly impossible, because now is the time while the stakes are still low. Talk to people, ask questions, and reach out for help.

Make friends, and cultivate relationships that will last even after you graduate. Don’t be afraid of stepping outside your comfort zone. Challenge yourself. Embrace opportunities for growth.

And most importantly, have faith in yourself.


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