Transfer students are sometimes forgotten about and excluded from the rest of the student body here at Willamette. Many students who have transferred either from community colleges or other schools can attest to feeling not as well integrated as their freshmen peers. Every year, Willamette hosts Opening Days, a week-long orientation for new Bearcats, but many of the activities this entails are planned without non-traditional students in mind and fail to accommodate their needs. In most cases, the experiences of transfer students differ greatly to those of students who are entirely new to the world of higher education. In order to gauge these experiences, and to understand what the university might do to help transfer students feel more included in the Willamette community, I spoke to a handful of bearcats who transferred in the last year.
One of the people I spoke to was Velika Yasay (‘24). Yasay is originally from Kalihi, on O’ahu, Hawai’i. She transferred to Willamette after two years at the University at Hawai’i at Mānoa and is currently a junior. While she has since acclimated to Willamette and found a group of friends that she feels happy with, her experience in the first few weeks of the fall semester, particularly during Opening Days, was not exactly easy. Orientation “definitely felt more tailored to people that just came from high school,” she told me. “I haven’t been in high school for two years now.” Yasay described how many of the icebreakers and the informative sessions that took place during Opening Days were designed for people who never had any college experience and therefore felt superfluous to her. What’s more, many of these activities were designed to ease the transition into college life in general. “As new as both freshmen and transfers are to Willamette,” she and other transfer students, she stressed, “are not new to the college experience.” She wishes that the university had offered more resources and guidance specific to Willamette, its academic life and customs, rather than a generic induction program.
Yasay also told me about her experience as both a student of color and first-gen student and how this added to some of the issues she faced as a transfer student. Coming from a racially-diverse school in Hawai’i to a predominantly-white institution like Willamette was a “really huge culture shock” for her. She also noted the “tone-deafness” of some of the people she encountered at Willamette, many of whom, she believed, came across as insensitive when confronted with experiences different than their own. These are aspects of her personal experience that, she feels, weren’t properly recognized in the transfer process.
Mala Neuman (‘24) is another student who transferred at the beginning of this semester. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, Neuman spent two years at California State University, East Bay before coming to Willamette. She described how one of the hardest things about her transfer process was coming from a “public state school to a private liberal arts college.” The style and intensity of the teaching model practiced here at Willamette, she said, was “very jarring at first.” While the workload at her previous school was less demanding and allowed for rest periods throughout the semester, here at Willamette everything is “go, go, go.” “It’s burned me out a little bit,” she said. “Preparing us for that reality would have been helpful.” Although Neuman found that the university “did a good job at integrating us” socially, and many of her “friendship groups came out of opening days,” the transfer colloquium was not so helpful. Echoing Yasay, she described the colloquium as “a little redundant,” as someone who had already had several years of college experience. Neuman also told me about her academic experience at Willamette, and how, like many other students who transfer from the state to private school system, she has seen a bit of a “dip” in her grades. “When it affects my overall GPA,” she said, “it affects my mental health a lot.” This is something that Neuman has found difficult to express to her professors. “A lot of professors don’t know I’m a transfer. It’s not something that’s announced or on your roster when you have a class. They don’t know that you’re not used to this, and you don’t know how to adjust or to vocalize that without it sounding like an excuse.”
I also spoke to Lauren Meekins (‘24). Meekins is a junior and CCM major, in addition to being the president of the Non-traditional Student Union (NTSU). Unlike most other transfer students, Meekins came to Willamette after just one year at her previous institution, citing unhappiness with its academic life. One reason she was drawn to Willamette is its CCM curriculum, as well as its credit transfer policy, which, she told me, is “surprisingly good.” Although her personal experience of transferring to Willamette was relatively smooth, she set out to effect “institutional change” and facilitate the process for other transfer students, both through her work as an opening days leader and her involvement in NTSU. She and other transfer students inherited the union from a group of students last year, under whom the NTSU failed to gain traction. This semester, the union has set out to create resources for students whose pathways differ from those of typical undergraduates. Meekins admitted that, as a “new student group,” the NTSU has “run into some issues” and is still in its formative stages. But next semester she and the rest of the leadership hope to engage in “activism projects” and “other exciting ideas.” They hope to establish a proper “community hearth” for transfers and other non-traditional students, through which they can navigate their college experience more easily. This could include guidance tailored specifically to the Willamette experience, rather than the generic advice that Yasay and Neuman cited as a source of frustration. This could also include career guidance that caters specifically to non-traditional students, which might take the form of resume building, to name just one example.
Having spoken to some of Willamette’s transfer student community, it’s clear that adjustments need to be made. Based on the interviews I conducted, as well as my own experience as a non-traditional student, a good first step would be for the university to organize special orientation programs designed to suit the individual needs of transfers and other students from unconventional backgrounds, in addition to the generalized program. Transfer students should feel acknowledged and receive the necessary resources, while also having the opportunity to integrate with the rest of the student body. Through the work of individuals like Meekins and through the input and organization of other bearcats, appropriate action can be taken in the future to make the Willamette experience more welcoming and inclusive for all who come here.