Tales from the Applied Zone: Lessons Learned from the Literature and Beyond
Tracy Mores, University of Wisconsin-Madison
This post offers lessons I have learned from running the Transfer Transition Program for almost seven years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I will discuss the knowledge gained from my work with the program and include some of the literature that offered important insights for my staff and I as the program grew.
Our Background & Services
The Transfer Transition Program was founded in 2010 and is part of a larger organization called the “Center for the First-Year Experience,” whose mission is to understand and improve students’ experience during their first year at UW-Madison. Our program focuses on transfer students. We strive to help them feel like they belong on campus and to assist them in accessing resources, developing skills, and maximizing their time. We have two professional staff members and regularly employ about 8-10 student staff. One unique feature of our program is that we serve both prospective and enrolled students. We connect with a minimum of 1,700 students per year, all in different phases of their careers at UW-Madison.
Our program consists of three parts:
Prospective Student Advising We begin by offering prospective students pre-transfer academic and transition advising, which helps them become familiar with UW-Madison and start planning their time with us before they enroll. Advising appointments are scheduled for up to an hour’s worth of time. We talk about topics like UW-Madison degree requirements, how a student’s coursework at a previous institution might map on to a degree with us, application materials and deadlines, and what the transition is like overall. We’ve become a go-to resource for students who are thinking about what a transfer to our school entails.
Current Student Programming We continue to build relationships with students once they are on campus. We run a Transfer Engagement Center—the only on-campus space specifically designated for transfer students. It offers a microwave, free coffee and tea, and a small computer lab and print station. We host a series of welcome events in this space and the adjoining classroom, and, as the semester continues, we support students with social, alcohol-alternative programming. We write a weekly newsletter for our students that advertises all campus events, lists important dates and deadlines, and offers recommendations from our student staff. Finally, we run a weekly, semester-long leadership cohort designed to help students connect with a small group and practice interpersonal skills that may help them acquire leadership positions in student organizations, jobs, or internships.
General Advocacy We also support transfer students indirectly through transfer advocacy. On our campus, this involves working to develop transfer student-specific scholarships, leading a cross-campus working group of people who want to advocate for transfer students, developing a strong transfer alumni network, and raising awareness about how certain academic policies impact transfer students negatively.
Advice from the Literature
Four main pieces of advice are repeated throughout the literature on transfer students. We have found them to be particularly relevant to our practice.
1) Students need support throughout their entire education life cycle.
As Wyner, Dean, Jenkins, and Fink illustrate in The Transfer Playbook (2016), the transfer life cycle starts well before students reach their destination campus (and sometimes as early as high school), as they think about how transferring will affect them academically. For this reason, our program emphasizes pre-transfer advising as a core feature.
It became clear early on that simply having information about our campus was not enough to inspire a smooth transition. Students often felt like they were freshmen all over again, which lowered their self-confidence. They didn’t want to attend the freshmen-focused welcome events where they felt like they didn’t belong, but they still needed the same information. Strayhorn’s research (2012) offers support for the idea that, across many different populations of students, fostering a sense of belonging throughout the student life cycle is key for retention and graduation.
Grites & Rondeau (2011) suggest multiple ways that a four-year institution might begin to create an inclusive community, such as a seminar, peer mentoring, and extended orientation efforts. On our campus, we started by developing a series of transfer-student welcome events that normalized the need for belonging and community by allowing these students to connect with each other and begin forming a personal support network. We also learned through surveys that the transfer-student identity remained important to at least 1/3 of our transfer students, and they wanted to remain engaged with our program beyond their first year. More recently, we have begun to focus on how to serve these students in ways that help sustain their sense of identity and community throughout their time on campus. Capacity and student needs will look different from campus to campus, but finding a way to connect with and support students at every step is the key to a successful transfer program.
2) Physical space for students is essential.
There are some great articles that discuss the need for a physical transfer center, including the activities it should provide that differ from two-year to four-year campuses. These can range from transfer-credit evaluation to advising to programming to providing peer mentors (e.g., Poisel, 2010; Cuseo, 2012; Jain, Herrera, Bernal, & Solorzano, 2011). It can be difficult to find the appropriate physical space on many campuses. In our case, for the first seven years our program operated with office space but no physical center for students to visit. We held events around campus in whatever classrooms or meeting rooms we could reserve, so our location was never consistent. Our original plan was to find a space after we expanded our program and the number of students we served because we did not think we’d be able to do it any sooner. We were fortunate that a space eventually became available.
The benefit of a physical space has had a tremendous impact on programming options, program attendance, and the general sense of community among transfer students on campus. Without a center, we struggled with low attendance at events, especially past the midpoint of the semester. Now that we have a reliable space for transfers, attendance at all events has skyrocketed, which in turn has increased the number students who regularly visit the center. The space enables us to create a sense of community that not only attracts new students but also keeps them coming back to participate throughout their time at UW.
It’s unnecessary to have a huge space; ours only has seating for about 10-12 people. In fact, we must reserve a connecting classroom in order to have enough space for even our smaller events. Regardless of the size, having a consistent place where students can come has boosted our reputation and our familiarity among transfer students. Space should be a priority if your goal is to enable the greatest level of support for students.
3) Communication is worth your time and financial commitment.
Multiple studies have documented the lack of information given to transfer students during their transition and how it can become a huge barrier to their success (Owens, 2010; Wang, 2010; Bensimon & Dowd, 2009). Much of this research involves vertical transfers, but my anecdotal experience at a university that has traditionally yielded over 50% of its transfer class from other four-year institutions suggests that it also holds true for lateral transfers and swirlers.
Originally, we focused on individualized weekly emails sent by our student staff, making little use of available communication tools. Our social media presence was limited to Facebook. Though it seemed like students weren’t interested in much communication from us, we struggled to keep them engaged beyond our big welcome events. Further, we had no way to measure our efforts. As we expanded our programming, we invested in subscriptions to the online services Mailchimp and Canva, standardized the weekly emails into a newsletter produced by our student staff, and expanded our social media presence to include Instagram. We now make heavy use of graphics, pictures, and bullet points so that students can move quickly through each item. Our open and click rates for the newsletter have increased, and they remain high throughout each semester. The evidence suggests that our communication methods have contributed positively to student engagement, and we can predict an attendance range at events based on click rates for our newsletter.
Our program coordinator spends a lot of time designing content for our website and supporting students by highlighting content for the weekly newsletter. We have a campus partner page as well as a student-facing page dedicated to National Transfer Student Week each year. If you’re able to make investments in your communications strategy, I recommend hiring someone experienced with design and also purchasing subscriptions to design and mailing tools. We’ve had luck with Mailchimp, Canva, and Powtoon (video-creation software). It may feel like you are spending too much time on indirect service to students, but you’re actually enabling better service to them.
4) Advocating for and raising awareness of transfer students are crucial efforts.
The literature referenced in this post supports the idea that improving the transfer student experience depends on professional staff advocating for and raising awareness of these students and the issues they face on campus. Our campus predominantly admits freshmen, so most people assume that new students are always freshmen. Even at our large institution, our biggest college on campus does not set aside scholarship money for incoming transfer students.
What does advocacy and awareness look like for us? We co-chair a group of people from a variety of academic and student affairs departments who consider themselves “transfer advocates.” We heavily advertise National Transfer Student Week (NTSW) on campus, creating social media kits for people to use that week. We open subscriptions to our weekly newsletter to campus partners. We repeatedly apply for campus recognition programs and take advantage of other opportunities to keep campus leadership aware of the needs of transfer students. We offer to train student staff and professional advisors on working with transfer students. We also encourage students to be transfer advocates in their own spheres of influence, as they are often most successful in pushing for change on our campus.
Lessons from the Applied Zone
The literature cited here has been enormously useful in helping us structure our direction, goals, and efforts in the Transfer Transition Program. But we have learned the greatest lessons through our personal experience of working with transfer students for nearly a decade on a large, decentralized campus:
1) “Transfer student” is a social identity.
Transferring from one university/college to another is a social-justice issue; it’s often a choice made for people due to uncontrollable circumstances and the realities of other social identities that they may not have the power to counter. On our campus, transfer students are more likely than freshmen to be eligible for federal Pell grants (assistance for students with great financial need); returning adults who are supporting children or other family members; and first-generation college students. Additionally, being transfer students on our campus automatically puts them in another non-dominant category that carries a level of stigma because they were not Badgers from day one of their college careers. Highlighting the intersectional identities of transfer students has helped us develop increased support for them as a socially just outcome and normalize the idea of transfer as a legitimate and viable way to come to UW-Madison. I encourage transfer advocates to partner with your institutional research office to collect data that will help paint a broader picture of what it means to be a transfer student at your institution.
2) Culture change is slow; be willing to play the long game for your students.
The need for advocacy never stops. Often, people are unaware of the ways transfer students get left behind until they see the data. Or, if the percentage of transfer students is small, institutional leaders may not be willing to spend the necessary resources to improve their potential for success. Creating a transfer-friendly culture can be an uphill battle that requires a long-term commitment to these students. Keep in mind that positive outcomes can be effective even when they are incremental, particularly when you consider the experiences of individual students.
3) Define “success” for your program broadly.
You may be tempted to measure your program’s success by the number of participants. But what happens when some transfer students on your campus choose not to participate? We believe that success comes in many forms. Certainly, if the number of people attending your events increases, that is a sign of success—even if they only come to your larger events. My team also considers other statistics, like the readership levels of our newsletter and the use of our website. Google Analytics allows us to see website data, and Mailchimp gives helpful data on our newsletter’s open and click rates.
We use more anecdotal measures as well. For example, if our campus partners are subscribing to our newsletter and we hear that they are forwarding it to their students, that’s a form of success because it means people are viewing our team as a go-to resource. If someone outside our team brings up the transfer student perspective in a meeting, we know that we have raised awareness of transfer student issues on campus. If we have more applicants than in previous years for our transfer student jobs, we can be confident that students value our program and appreciate the professional experience it can provide for them. Creating a broad range of measures for your team will help you avoid a narrow definition of success and allow you to feel comfortable spending your time in “experimental” ways even when you’re unsure of the end results.
4) Enlist the help of other people.
Linking back to lessons from the literature, advocacy and ally development should be a big part of your work, no matter what else your program involves. I recommend creating a working group that links individuals from across campus to talk about transfer issues on a regular basis. This group can serve as a sounding board for new ideas and projects. They can also help you broaden engagement in events like National Transfer Student Week and further raise awareness about a particular issue. On our campus, this group is the Transfer Advocates Working Group. It brings people from Academic and Student Affairs together and is led by two rotating co-chairs—one from among our program staff and one from another office with membership on the committee.
In addition to working with campus partners, mobilize your students to take part in their educational success. For example, ask your student government to sponsor a committee on transfer issues or to add a student council representative for transfer students. Encourage transfer student organizations, and offer to be their advisor if you can. At UW-Madison, one of our current goals is to focus more attention on student engagement in upcoming years. Though it’s challenging to attract students’ attention and commitment in their busy lives, they’re a crucial part of any effort to improve your campus and build a stronger transfer culture.
Helping your institution become more transfer-friendly can be a big, tough job. You might start by (1) creating a strategy for how you might expand your ally base and (2) considering whether you are spending enough time on communications (especially now, in the time of social distancing!). If you don’t have a physical space to work, make a plan to create one, even if that involves partnering with other offices to share a space. If these efforts feel like a constant struggle, I’d encourage you to redefine success for yourself. Begin to share your new metrics and triumphs with both allies and campus leaders. Above all, don’t lose hope. You ARE helping students, even though you may not see quick results. I’d love to hear from you about your successes and challenges, so please feel free to reach out to me at email@example.com.
About the Author
Tracy Mores (firstname.lastname@example.org) has directed the Transfer Transition Program in the Center for the First-Year Experience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 2013. She has led the program from its early days with one professional advisor, six student staff, and one welcome event per semester to its current state with a professional advisor, a program coordinator, and a student staff of 13 who run a Transfer Engagement Center where transfer students can connect, participate in regular programming, and build community throughout their time at UW-Madison. Through her work she strives to celebrate and amplify transfer students’ voices and contributions to the UW-Madison community and make their transition to campus as smooth as possible.
Bensimon, E. & Dowd, A. (2009). Dimensions of the transfer choice gap: Experiences of Latina and Latino students who navigated transfer pathways. Harvard Educational Review, 79(4), 623-658.
Cuseo, J. (2012). Facilitating the transfer transition: Specific and systemic strategies for 2- & 4-year institutions. In T. Grites & C. Duncan (Eds.), Advising student transfers: Strategies for today’s realities and tomorrow’s challenges, Monograph Series Number 24 (pp. 135-152). Manhattan, KS: NACADA.
Grites, T. & Rondeau S. (2011) Creating Effective Transfer Initiatives. In T. Brown, M. King, and P. Stanley (Eds.), Fulfilling the promise of the community college: Increasing first-year student engagement and success (pp. 83-97). Columbia, SC: National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.
Jain, D., Herrera, A., Bernal, S. & Solorzano, D. (2011). Critical Race Theory and the Transfer Function: Introducing a Transfer Receptive Culture. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 35(3), 252-266.
Owens, K. (2010). Community college transfer students’ adjustment to a four-year institution: A qualitative analysis. Journal of the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, 22(1), 87-128.
Poisel, M. (2010). The transfer center: Building a home for transfer students. E-Source for College Transitions, 8(1) 1-3.
Strayhorn, T. (2012). College students’ sense of belonging: A key to educational success for all students. New York, NY: Routledge
Wang, X. (2010). The differential patterns of college involvement between transfer and native students. Journal of the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, 22(1), 49-66.
Wyner, D., Deane, K.C., Jenkins, D., and Fink, J. (2016). The Transfer Playbook. Washington, DC: The Aspen Institute.