It is a Friday night, cool and raining, but David Lee ’10 still has plans. In the two hours since dinner, he has finished an assignment for class and changed for the Pierson semiformal at Keys to the City. Now he is striding down High Street toward his fraternity house, where he will pregame the dance and, hopefully, catch the end of the Yale-Stanford basketball game on TV.
While Lee might seem like a well-adjusted Yalie, he transferred from UCLA this semester. Lee is one of just 23 new transfers to Yale this year, and part of a microscopic minority — transfers make up less than 2 percent of Yale undergraduates.
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“There are some people who come here and just hit the books,” Lee says as he makes his way upstairs to hang out and channel surf, kicking aside a few stray cans in the Sigma Phi Epsilon house. Clearly, Lee has no intention of spending his last two years of college holed up in the library.
Although this year’s National Survey of Student Engagement found that more than 40 percent of college seniors surveyed had started at different colleges, it also revealed that transfer students tended to be less engaged with faculty and have fewer “enriching educational experiences” than their peers. They also lagged behind in joining campus activities.
At Yale, however, six transfer students interviewed agreed new arrivals tend to be multifaceted “free spirits” who manage to survive and thrive on campus; still, they groused that the University does not ease the transition with orientation programs similar to those welcoming freshmen. Given the challenges of getting in and fitting in, all the students interviewed said they were prepared to deal with most of the academic — if not all of the social — demands of an Ivy League campus.
THE NEW KID
Current transfers said the transfer process is a trial by fire. Matt Baum ’09, a Colorado College transfer whom other transfer students affectionately nicknamed as the “unofficial dean of transfers”, frankly described it as “jumping onto a moving train and holding on for dear life.”
Coming from institutions ranging from military academies to small liberal arts colleges to large state schools, some transfers said they were unhappy with their previous colleges’ social scene, while others said they enjoyed their underclassman years. All transfers agreed they wanted to come to Yale for specific educational opportunities such as science research and, more broadly, an “intellectually challenging” environment.
Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeffrey Brenzel said his office favors transfer applicants who can handle the quick start.
“We simply try to pick the students whom we think will … be best prepared to engage all of Yale’s resources,” he said in an e-mail.
According to the office’s Web site, only 3 to 5 percent of the 700–800 applicants are admitted every year.
“They’re just the kind of people who like to shake things up,” said Anna Wood ’09, who left Wheaton College in Massachusetts for Yale in her sophomore year. “The idea of picking up and leaving was not difficult for me.”
Independence and a willingness to take initiative are necessary for students who decide to apply and come to Yale from other colleges, students said, especially because Yale’s transfer orientation is perfunctory at best. Transfers apply by March 1 and receive decisions by mid-May, and though they arrive on campus at the same time as freshmen, they do not participate in any activities similar to freshman orientation.
Instead, they only attend a welcome dinner and a logistical meeting.
Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs Jill Cutler, who is responsible for overseeing Yale’s transfer program, said there have been some discussions about folding transfer students into freshman orientation, but cautioned that such a step would be complicated.
“Many of the things that take place during freshman orientation are not appropriate for someone who’s a junior,” Cutler said, explaining that although transfers may be new to Yale, they are already familiar with the college environment.
The small number of transfers each year — about 24 — limits the number of formal orientation activities the University can organize, she added.
The transfer students interviewed said they were largely on their own when it came to learning how to register for classes or finding their way from the post office to Commons. Although transfers are advised by their residential college deans and Cutler, they have no departmental adviser or freshman-counselor equivalent.
Baum’s suitemate Severin Knudsen ’09, who transferred from the Naval Academy, said he wants the administration to treat transfers almost as freshmen, complete with a “slightly altered book of freshman orientation activities,” he said. Even just a residential college tour and the option of eating at Commons during Camp Yale, he said, would help out transfers.
But Cutler said the transfer students she has worked with have always weathered the transition smoothly — aside from a few rough days — without the administration’s help.
“Often the adjustment process is hard no matter who you are, because being new anywhere is hard,” she said. But, she added, “I have every confidence that 99 out of 100 of them are going to do just great here.”
ACADEMIC AND SOCIAL ADJUSTMENT
The same amount of energy and effort put into academics, students said, is devoted to establishing a social niche at Yale.
Most transfers have well-developed academic plans even before setting foot on Yale’s campus. Like most transfer students at Yale, Cassie Chambers ’10 said she is “someone who wants something very specific out of Yale and knows how to get it.”
Chambers is applying to the Yale School of Public Health’s five-year B.A.-M.P.H. dual degree program, which she said initially attracted her to Yale. Baum is in the combined B.S.-M.S. biology program, which is only the first part of a plan that includes taking a year off to study computational biology, enrolling in an M.D.-Ph.D. program and conducting research on bipolar schizophrenia.
As for Lee, he is constructing a special divisional major combining economics, computer science, history and psychology.
“If I hadn’t done all the research, stopped and asked a lot of people questions, I wouldn’t know what to do,” Lee said.
Many transfer students also said they had to take control of their new social situations.
Although they are used to a college environment, transfers said they face the same social adjustments that freshmen do, with an added complication: “You’re like the new face in an already established community,” as Baum put it. But other students’ friendliness as well as the residential college system eased the transition, he said.
For Baum, Knudsen and Wood, who all entered as sophomores in Berkeley College, social assimilation required some effort and planning. Wood, who was assigned to a suite of annexed juniors in Vanderbilt Hall, said she recalls deliberately sitting in the Berkeley dining hall for hours during lunch and dinner, gradually introducing herself to others in her class.
“I was so intent on getting to know my Berkeley ’09 class,” she remembered. “I had the impression that the residential colleges were supposed to be that way.”
Meanwhile, Baum and Knudsen knocked on doors in their entryway, looking for Yalies to help them navigate through campus life.
The college system, all the transfers interviewed said, had been especially helpful for the adjustment.
“My frat has been nice, but the colleges are the way to meet people,” said Lee, who rushed SigEp as soon as he arrived on campus as a way to create a social community for himself.
Without the experience of living with Yale freshmen, students said, their social networks are more restricted to their colleges and extracurricular scenes. But they — and their friends — now see themselves as seamless parts of the Yale community.
“The way you know when you’ve made a good adjustment is when people forget that you weren’t here as a freshman,” Wood said, adding that she no longer thinks of herself as a transfer student.
“My identity is a Yale student,” she said.