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Transfer students consistently said that their experience from community colleges made their transition to Princeton academics easier. Photo courtesy of Pexels.com.

This past fall, the University welcomed transfer students for the first time in decades.

The nine students come from a variety of backgrounds, including prior enrollment in community colleges and service in the military. Representing a range of ages from 20 to 33, some entered as first-years, others as sophomores. They applied for many reasons, and plan to study everything from philosophy to mechanical and aerospace engineering.

As they begin life at Princeton, the students have encountered unique challenges, but also unique advantages.

Applying and adjusting

Applicants qualify as transfer students if they have completed “one or two years of full-time postsecondary credit,” according to the University admissions website. According to the transfer students interviewed, the application process was relatively straightforward. Students apply through the Common Application or Universal College Application and complete a Transfer Supplement.

Thomas Johnson ’22 was pleased with the support he received throughout the application process.

“When it came to having more information, or having people to talk to — they were really eager to have people reach out,” Johnson said.

After reviewing 1,429 applications, only 13 students were admitted, representing an acceptance of just under one-percent. Of the 13 students accepted, nine matriculated. After acceptance, their academic standing was determined by Princeton faculty and college deans who evaluated their transfer credits.

“We formed a mixed committee of faculty and staff from the Office of the Dean of the College to address each case individually, deciding what particular courses should transfer to Princeton,” wrote Keith Shaw, Director of Transfer, Veteran, and Non-Traditional Student Programs, in an email to the ‘Prince.’

The transfer students arrived one week early to get settled in and participate in a special pre-orientation program.

This included a STEM boot camp, which they took with FSI Residential students. According to Shaw, the boot camp helped bridge the gap in difficulty from community college-level courses, which tend to be larger in math, chemistry, and physics than in other subjects.

Several transfer students said that although they felt prepared academically, making the transition to student life has been tough. As many transfer students are significantly older than other undergraduates — some have families and children — housing was initially an issue. 

However, the transfer students report that the administration has responded to problems promptly.

“If there was an issue that was brought up, it was almost immediately addressed,” Seth Freeman ’21 said.

From military to civilian

Six of the nine transfer students are veterans, including Johnson. After high school, Johnson joined the military as a medic and was stationed in Colorado for three years before serving in Afghanistan. When he returned, he attended community colleges in Colorado Springs and Ithaca.

Johnson heard about the University’s transfer program through Service to School, an organization that helps veterans attain higher education. Attracted by the University’s strong computer science program, he decided to apply.

He was pleased that the University waived the application fee in acknowledgement of his service.

“It was a huge symbolic gesture from Princeton that I didn’t get from other schools,” Johnson said.

Johnson said that transitioning from military to civilian life has been a challenge distinct from the challenges most freshmen face in going to college.

“I have a different perspective than most freshmen coming in,” Johnson said.

Since Johnson is married, the University provided him and his family housing in the Graduate College. He was also exempt from orientation week activities in anticipation of the birth of his daughter, who was born on the first day of classes.

“Being a father of a newborn is definitely challenging. A lot of sleepless nights. But it’s definitely been a fun challenge, as well, becoming a father,” Johnson said.

Samuel Fendler ’21 is also a veteran who served in the Marine Corps for five years.

“My experiences in the Marine Corps made me more comfortable with pushing myself and trying to do things that are difficult, and not being scared to fail,” Fendler said.

After his service, he planned to attend community college, but a friend encouraged him to go to a four-year school. This led him to Penn State, where he studied for two years.

Fendler sees many contrasts between his experience with the Marines and his experience so far at the University.

“The culture is much different than anything I’ve ever experienced,” Fendler said. Even at Penn State, Fendler said, adult students were given a large degree of autonomy. At the University, however, he senses a lower level of individual accountability.

“There are advisors, peers, and other members of the residential college and beyond, to support you and check up on you,” Fendler said. This is something he isn’t used to, and says he doesn’t really enjoy as an older student.

Freeman, who also served in the Marine Corps, also attended Penn State for a semester in between a warehouse job and an internship.

For Freeman, the transition to college life meant less responsibility in day-to-day processes. 

“I’ve always been supporting myself, working, doing regular adult things. But now at Princeton, I don’t have to worry about a lot of that stuff,” Freeman said, giving eating at a dining hall as an example.

“Attending a primarily residential college, as opposed to a commuter school, also means more interaction with other students,” Freeman said. 

“Everybody lives here on campus,” Paul Haws ’21 said. “It’s a much better environment — you actually get to know people.”

Haws served in the Marines for four years and also got involved in the transfer program through Service to School, “In community college,” said Haws, “you might see someone once, and then not run into them again until a year later.”

“I’m a little bit more involved socially now,” Freeman agreed.

Benefitting from past experiences

Transfer students come in to the University with more knowledge and experience than most freshmen. Some of this experience comes from attending other institutions.

Fendler said he benefited a lot from his time at Penn State, where he was not only able to transition from military to civilian life, but also to learn how to perform in the classroom.

“I feel like I’m more prepared now,” Fendler said. Instead of being frustrated with the academic challenges he currently faces, Fendler says he reminds himself that he is “ready and capable to be challenged at the highest level.”

Daniela Alvarez ’21 attended community college in Florida for two years before transferring to the University. She said it was a stepping stone toward figuring out what she wanted to do next and what she loved learning.

“It was two years of self-reflecting into what I’m passionate about and what really excites me academically,” Alvarez said.

She said her time in community college allowed her to meet people from different backgrounds who had non-traditional backgrounds. Now, her experiences from community college are shaping her life here. “I’ve been able to incorporate into my classes things that I’ve already learned from other classes at community college, which has been eye-opening,” Alvarez said.

Vinicius Wagner ’21, who immigrated from Brazil three years ago, attended a community college in southern Florida for two years. During that time, he interacted with people from all walks of life.

“There’s just a wealth of experiences that you see at community colleges,” Wagner said. “It gives me a broader perspective.”

Adding to his own unique background growing up in Brazil, Wagner feels that he has a lot he can bring to the University — and a lot he can learn.

“Although I feel that I can teach a lot here from my experience, I feel like I can also learn a lot here from the experiences of students,” Wagner said.

A change of policy

The transfer program was reauthorized in January of 2016 by the Board of Trustees and reinstated in October 2017 for fall 2018 admission by former Dean of Admissions, Janet Lavin Rapelye.

This followed a nearly 30-year moratorium on traditional transfer students which began in 1990.

According to Shaw, the previous transfer program was designed to fill gaps in the student body left by invited applicants who chose not to attend Princeton.

As the number of applicants who turned down admission dwindled, however, the transfer program lost its purpose and was officially decommissioned in 2005.

Its current relaunch is an “access and inclusion initiative,” Shaw wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’ The program explicitly aims to increase diversity in the student body by encouraging applicants from low-income, military, or community college backgrounds.

“President Eisgruber made it clear that it's crucial, for our scholarship and for our campus community, that Princeton's undergraduate body more closely reflect the broader society it emerges from,” Shaw wrote.

Elite institutions, such as those in the Ivy League, have generally not accepted transfer students, requiring freshmen to enter straight out of high school.

But institutions are beginning to change this to reflect real trends in education.

Nationwide, one-third of college students transfer at least once before earning a four-year degree, and 40 percent of students start at community college. 

A tight-knit community

The transfer students have remained very close since meeting each other one week prior to new students’ orientation. The nine students even attend the same writing seminar, taught by Shaw.

“It’s really like a family. We’re all going through these unique challenges,” Johnson said. “We all band together and work through different problems that we might encounter being a transfer student and being in a different environment than most of us are used to.”

The social aspect of coming in as a transfer student can be difficult, as transfers coming in as sophomores navigate already existing social circles. But the presence of such a close transfer group has helped, according to Wagner.

“I know they’re going to be my friends for the rest of my time here at Princeton and definitely beyond,” Wagner said, speaking of the other transfer students.

The cohort also reported feeling well-received by the rest of the University community. 

Although Johnson lives in graduate housing, he was still assigned a residential college, RCA, and zee group. They have been welcoming, inviting his wife and baby along to events, Johnson said.

Shaw expressed his appreciation of the transfer students, and his joy in working with them.

“They're brilliant, disciplined, mature, creative, and offer nuanced and unexpected perspectives, earned through their experience, that would otherwise be lacking on campus,” Shaw wrote. 

“They've taken a different path to get here, have grown as scholars and as people in the process, and it shows — both in the classroom and in everyday conversation,” said Shaw.

Future transfer students

The University plans to continue to expand its transfer program in future years, offering admission to talented students with backgrounds that have traditionally been ignored.

Frelicia Tucker ’21, who attended Rice University for one year before transferring, is glad that the University has realized what it has been missing.

“This is a huge a step for the University to take in my opinion, offering admission to very deserving students they’ve noticed have too little a place on campus,” Tucker wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’ “The University has been missing out on talented students from community colleges and the military for quite some time.”

Other students agree.

“I know plenty of people in the military or back home who are certainly capable of going to school at a top-tier institution,” Fendler said. “There are just other factors that are in the way including the mindset, maturity, and finances necessary to attend,” he said.

Allowing transfers also figures into expanding opportunities for veterans, a key target population for the program.

“It’s important to give highly qualified veterans an opportunity to go to school,” Fendler said. “The transfer program is going to be a major pipeline for veterans to come in to Princeton.”

Current transfer students are blazing the trail for years to come and anticipate welcoming the next group.

“We’re building this framework so everyone can feel welcome, not only in the Princeton community, but in the transfer community as well,” Johnson said.

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