Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Advising the Transfer Student

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

It’s National Transfer Student Week, a great time for students and counselors to remember that the college where you begin doesn’t have to be the college where you graduate, as long as you have an effective plan.

That last point can’t be emphasized enough. I typically hear from one or two of my students this time of year, students who graduated last June and made a strong college plan, who somehow find themselves on a college campus without much of a plan at all. Using phrases like “This isn’t quite what I thought it would be”, or “they sure didn’t tell me about this when I took the tour”, these students are turning to their counselor to once again be their compass. Do they stay and stick it out? Do they go somewhere else? Do they stop and try some other path, hoping a life experience other than college might give them some sense of direction?

As is the case with all college counseling questions, the answer lies in exploring other questions.

Why are they unhappy? There’s very little in life that can compare with the buzz and energy of a college campus in the fall. Returning students are eager to get back in the routine they love, freshmen bring in the energy that makes them, well, fresh, and there’s this air of new starts and possibilities that’s nothing short of empowering.

Then along comes October, with the first round of exams, a few rainy days, and the realization that maybe the football team isn’t going to go all the way. This makes it easy for the newness of the year to feel a little old, making college seem more like a routine than an opportunity—and let’s face it, that’s not as much fun.

For some students, the absence of that start-of-the-year excitement is what they’re missing. The school may have everything they need, but what they really want is the thrill of a fresh start at a new school—not realizing that the high of the next new start will fade as well. Students wanting to transfer because they fear the routine may need some counseling about the purpose of school, and the nature of long-term commitments. On the other hand, if they simply say they hate the place, a new start might be just the thing for them.

Where do they want to go? This question has its own share of tricks and turns. On the one hand, a student who has researched other options may have an answer for this question based on what’s missing from their current school. “I had hoped to do research as an undergraduate, but I can’t really do that here” shows a student who is looking with purpose to go somewhere else, while “I don’t know—anywhere but here” suggests a need to explore more of what they’re looking for in a right fit.

Either way, be especially careful if the student wants to transfer to a school where they applied as a high school senior. In many cases, the desire to go to that school is based on the high school friends who are going there, and the student is assuming that transferring there will guarantee a return of the good times of senior year. Those days were great, but they are now past. It’s time to think ahead.

When do they want to go? This can be a pretty telling question. A student who plans on finishing the term out where they are is more likely to have thought out their reasons for why they want to make a change. Students who answer this question with some version of “I just want to go home now” are more likely reacting to a setback they haven’t completely processed. That setback may be more than enough reason to decide it’s time for a new start, but the student needs to consider the time, energy, and money they’re invested in their current college. Are things really so unbearable that you’re willing to extend your time in college by walking away with no credits and more debt?

Thousands of students transfer colleges every year for healthy reasons, seeking new opportunities based on their desires to grow as a person and as a student. Supporting those students is important, and easy; making sure that’s the posture of all transfer students might take a little more work on our part, but it’s more than worth it.

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