In the weeks leading up to the NISTS 2022 virtual annual conference, we're highlighting the transfer stories of this year's National Transfer Student Ambassadors. All four students will attend the conference in St. Louis and participate in a student panel conversation on Friday, February 4th. You can read more about Herman's story and meet the other 2022 ambassadors on the NISTS Blog.
When I sat in my professor’s office, and he shook his head. He told me undergrads didn’t do research in music education—that was something reserved for graduate students and professors, and besides, how could I know what I wanted to study? I’d be better off just focusing on my coursework. Studying performance and education is hard enough; no need to complicate it all with research. I had come into his office prepared with a proposal, with ideas, and with drive. “It’s not like we have a lab for you,” the director of the university’s top undergraduate research program had said after my acceptance, realizing I was a student of the humanities.
When I told a graduate student I wanted to do an arrangement assignment on Bolivian music, she told me she didn’t know what the class would have to learn from that. After passing the parts around and conducting the ensemble, I got a B—my peers played with hesitance, not because I had written the bassoon or flute parts in the wrong key or range, but because the music wasn’t “entertaining” or “engaging” enough for middle grade woodwinds. It was a song my family had grown up dancing to, one I’d listened to at home for years.
When I didn’t recognize a song example in my aural skills class, and the white professor and white classmates all turned to me, collectively, with an incredulity that publicly shamed me in a way I haven’t quite experienced since then. What do you mean you don’t know the song? It’s an American classic, we know it by heart! The professor was disappointed. If I wasn’t able to recognize a song like this, how was I supposed to memorize the correct note intervals for the next quiz? The class shook their heads, went back to humming the American goldie.
When I began university, I wanted to push music education forwards: I wanted to integrate non-Western perspectives into repertoire and lessons, explore dual-language and ESL music education, and contribute to reframing the consciousness around teaching music. The system and its barriers kept me out. These barriers I experienced as a queer Latinx student in a music education program are likely not unique—nearly 90% of all music licensure candidates in the United States are white, not to mention the faculty that teach those who go through their programs.
My School of Music had two faculty of color total, across all degree programs. I watched other students around me drop the music program like flies, all of them either students of color or of lower socioeconomic status. By the end of my freshman year, I joined them, defeated from being told both explicitly and implicitly by faculty, staff, and students that, in some way or another, I wasn’t welcome. I left music education for cello performance, allowing myself to sink into the music itself as I explored the transfer pathway for a field of study that was new to me: ethnomusicology.
The introductory music history course mirrored most other Colorado State courses: filled with small, cheap desks with barely enough space for a laptop on the L-shaped wood made only for right-handed occupants, several rows in some state of misalignment, whose seats were filled almost entirely by white students. The first day of class, the professor told us that we’d all most likely fail his first exam. He was right—the class average was under 60%. Looking down at my C+, I felt a strange sense of pride, that I’d still beat the odds even if only by a few more percentage points. Despite the collective groans from the class when we saw our grades, there was still an enchanting quality to our work.
The ephemera of music was put into practice as our professor would stand at his laptop, playing various fifteen-second excerpts from the midst of our pieces of study from each assigned period in the history of Western classical music. Based only on a few moments of sound, we’d have to identify the composer, the date the piece was composed, the style the piece was written in, and why it was significant to study. This standard musicological procedure broke open my freshman consciousness: there is more to the music than walking onto the stage and playing the notes the way you are supposed to, so much more that holds the potential to change our relationships to the music we engage with.
I began to study musicology under the tutelage of professors in music history and music theory in a quaint study group we playfully called “First Principles.” We met in third-floor offices and downtown coffee shops to discuss Susan McClary’s new musicology and Tim Rice’s introduction to ethnomusicology, and I saw through the limitations of K-12 music programs and into the academic disciplines of music scholarship.
The pleasures of deeply thinking about the social and historical paradigms of music were captivating. I rediscovered the prospects of education, but this time with the engagement of undergraduate and graduate students. If my own professors weren’t going to support me then I would become everything that they weren’t: a thoughtful and open-minded professor and mentor with a commitment to empower students rather than discourage them.
Deciding to Transfer
Even with their help, it became obvious to me that I would need a degree in ethnomusicology rather than cello performance if I were to become a professor of music studies. The U.S. offers only a meager handful of these undergraduate degrees, and most of them have vastly different curriculums from my studies at CSU—I couldn’t be certain as to whether my courses would transfer or whether admissions committees would perceive my need for a new school as valid.
UCLA stood apart from any other school for two chief reasons. The university is one of the three founding schools in the field of ethnomusicology, and they provided a plethora of transfer resources and transfer pathways. Early in my process, I stumbled upon UCLA’s Transfer Admissions Guide, which clearly explained what coursework was needed for students to qualify for transfer to any major, and which helped me plan each semester in my final year at CSU. Still, I felt hesitance at not knowing the UCLA campus or the community. I reached out to a Latino professor in the musicology department with trepidation and hope. When he agreed to welcome me to campus to talk about my prospects as a transfer student, it was as if the first door opened on my journey to UCLA, and a few short months later my best friend and I traveled from Colorado to explore what would become my new academic home.
A Needed Change
I fell in love with the early summer on campus. The pink flowers stretching their petals out to greet me outside of Powell Library; the statues at the entrance of the Schoenberg music building, clearly visible from the windows that traveled from floor to ceiling; the warm brick of Royce Hall and the castle that is Kerckhoff on green, rolling hills; the diverse array of students meandering from class to class in the midst of the spring quarter. My journey to Professor Cesar D. Favila’s office was like a pathway in a dream.
A professor’s warm smile greeted me for what felt like the first time in my undergraduate studies, and as I sat before him, he told me that I could do it, that I could come and study with him. That UCLA would not just be the right place for me, but that, if I could make it, they’d be happy to have me. I felt this same warmth over two years later when I sat with him again at Plateia over dinner and coffee, when he later introduced me to the chair of musicology and I found myself in an impromptu lesson in early camp drag with Mr. Pibb, the pug, settled at my feet. Though few in light of the pandemic, my memories with Dr. Favila are everything I wanted in my undergraduate studies. Someone who believed in me.
I was fighting an uphill battle. Not only was I seeking to transfer to a university that almost exclusively admits in-state community college transfers—93% of UCLA transfer admits are California community college students—but I was inserting myself into a career path with unfortunate realities, as tenure-track humanities professor positions continue to dwindle with the ongoing devaluation and competitiveness of the field. Yet I always find myself drawn back to one particular comment from my first meeting with Dr. Favila: “You have to be 150% sure that you want this.” I didn’t hesitate—I still don’t—to know more than anything that I want to be a professor of music.
Transferring in Difficult Times
By the time I was admitted to UCLA, the United States was not even two months into the COVID-19 pandemic. I committed, insecure of what the rest of my college career would look like, but confident that I could now step through the newest set of doors on my path of conducting research, studying my passions, and—most importantly—finding community as an undergraduate student.
A mere handful of weeks after submitting my deposit, I received the twin acceptance emails that would begin to shape my next two years: a research scholarship offer to work with Dr. Favila, and a directorship under Zuleika Bravo, the Transfer Student Representative in our student government. I didn’t know it at the time, but these were the seeds that allowed me to flourish into the student I am today.
I lived between Los Angeles and Colorado during my first year as a transfer. A bout of housing instability left me moving in and out of three households in the middle of a term. Somehow, I managed to deeply embed myself into the transfer community, and I found a home amongst other students who had taken many different paths to get to UCLA.
I was selected to the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship program and began to work on my thesis alongside the four other students in my transfer-only cohort. I worked for UCLA’s Transfer Student Center to provide virtual volunteering experiences for transfers, and through student government I developed a Transfer Awareness Training curriculum and program, expanding education and allyship about the transfer community to various organizations, departments, and administration. My community inspired me to run for office, and I was ultimately elected as the university’s eighth Transfer Student Representative.
Serving on the Undergraduate Students Association Council was not a part of my original transfer plan, but it was a natural progression given my experiences at UCLA. I had finally found a community of students who shared my experiences. Yet, the administration at our university is notorious for leaving transfers behind.
From denying us on-campus housing priority that we were once promised or allowing programs to withhold membership from us by maintaining three-year participation requirements, so many policies and programs at UCLA keep transfers from receiving the full support we needed to succeed in our short two years. I couldn’t keep quiet. Up until this point in my term, I have passed resolutions to reform our university’s Basic Needs Committee, provide off-campus housing resources through institutional partnerships, and to begin a process of noting the history of transfer student activism and organizing at UCLA.
I’ve met with New Student Academic Programs, Admissions, and countless other administrators to voice the concerns and experiences of the transfer community. Most importantly, though, I’ve come to lead an office of over fifty transfer students who have worked closely with me to spearhead projects including a transfer summer bridge program, an internship program, lobbying for transfer-supportive bills such as California Assembly Bills 928 and 1111, conducting surveys about the transfer experience, and hosting events to connect the transfer community.
I created the space I couldn’t have at CSU, one where community members could have not only a safe place to embody their identities, but one where they could challenge the systems of those in power to build programs and opportunities that would support minoritarian students.
I’m now at the end of my second year at UCLA—my final year of university studies—and I’ve done everything I was kept from doing in Colorado.
I spend my mornings sitting at my desk, lit by the California sun while working on the final stages of my thesis: an interdisciplinary analysis of the politics of mestizaje and Indigenismo in the publications and networks of the Bolivian composer Atiliano Auza León.
I’ve continued to improve my educational skills, working as an educator at the Hammer Museum, a tutor at the Academic Advancement Program, and in my final quarter I’ll even be teaching my own undergraduate course in the Chicano/a and Central American Studies department about the discourses and expressions implied by the Latinx identity term.
I’ve taken deeply engaging classes in my double majors, Ethnomusicology and Comparative Literature, having had the opportunity to delve into subjects that were virtually nonexistent back in Colorado.
I have queer mentors and mentors of color, mentors who look and sound like me. I’ve made close friends and served my student body. Not only do I feel fulfilled with the transfer experience, but I know it has set me up for success in my future; for the next two years, I will be studying music and policy at King’s College, London, with full funding as a Marshall Scholar.
Looking back on the Experience
As much as I am grateful for my experience, being a transfer student is exceptionally difficult. It requires us to carve our own path in a world with a one-track narrative, to challenge the assumptions of what a “regular” or “normal” college experience looks like.
Regardless of what others say, community cultural wealth teaches us that these diverse paths to getting our degrees actually make us stronger. They bind us together. We have to push through complex circumstances to walk across that stage and receive our diplomas, and we walk away from it all knowing that we had to discover it all ourselves.
Obstacles, for us, are almost a given—we have to find inventive ways to overcome them. I want any student considering the transfer pathway, whether they are looking at community colleges or are unhappy with their four-year institution, to know that they can and should take whatever road that is best for them. It might just be the one a few highways over.
Find the people who will support you, and work with them to find and get to your goals. And for us to succeed in this, universities have to open their minds and doors to students from all educational backgrounds. I wouldn’t be here without the existence of the transfer pathway, the help of my mentors, and the conviction that somewhere, sometime, there would be a better future for me at another school. Well, for me, this future is now. I am living what was once my own wildest dreams.
The views and opinions expressed on the NISTS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of NISTS. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, individual or anyone or anything.