Trading Places: A Portrait of Yale’s Transfer Program

Trading Places:
A Portrait of Yale’s Transfer Program

Published on February 17, 2017

To most Yalies, you can transfer a meal swipe, or at most, a residential college. Perhaps because so few transfer out, they often say things like, “Oh, I didn’t know Yale had a transfer program,” or “you’re the first transfer student I’ve met here.”

This September, 20 or 25 new transfer students will receive room keys, submit immunization records and wave handkerchiefs embroidered with the year “2021” alongside 1,550 or so freshmen — Yale’s largest intake ever, owing to the newly constructed Pauli Murray and Benjamin Franklin Colleges.

Even if Yale is not rushing to fill these new beds with transfers from other colleges, the residential college expansion is still good news for students in a world where Ivy League transfer admissions are increasingly competitive — and uncertain. In a 2008 memo, the Harvard Admissions Office stated that, because “overcrowding in Harvard’s residential houses was more extensive than previous information had indicated,” Dean David Pilbeam “had no choice but to suspend transfer admission” and to announce a moratorium on transfer applications for the following two years. According to an email from Moira Poe, director of transfer admissions at Yale, the admit rate for transfers has hovered around two and a half percent for the last couple of years — less than half of what it is for high school applicants.

According to a July 2015 report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, over a third of college students would transfer at least once.

*  *  *

“I wasn’t academically inclined in high school,” Sean Moore ’17 says. “I went to a high school that was under-resourced and didn’t have a good track record for getting people into college. I didn’t really see the value in it.” He has sandy blond hair, horn-rimmed glasses and a Black Flag tattoo on his bicep. He is sitting in one of two blue leather armchairs adjoining the Davenport College common room. Behind him is an ersatz tombstone to John Davenport. It’s a quarter to one in the morning.

After a circuitous path through California, Mexico and more than a couple different fishing vessels, Moore found his way back to New Jersey. “I was roofing houses and miserable,” he recalls, “so I signed up for County College of Morris in Randolph, NJ.” With the help of his mentor — a family friend named Michael Klinger who transferred from community college to Cornell — he began applying to colleges. After receiving the Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship, which helps community college graduates seeking bachelor’s degrees after graduation, Moore entered Yale as a sophomore in 2014.

“I came to Yale very comfortable asking for help,” Moore recalls. Even so, he credits Karin Gosselink, who taught his ENGL 114 class his sophomore fall, for getting him “plugged in to a network of support that existed.”

“It’s not always apparent that those things exist. Although it’s becoming a lot more apparent now,” he adds. “The formalized transfer programming wasn’t super helpful.”

At this point, Erich Prince ’18 ambulates into the room eating a sandwich from Good Nature Market. Himself a transfer student, he listens in eagerly on the conversation. Prince has a different experience of the formalized programming: “Dean Pamela George was extremely helpful in getting me settled into Yale,” he notes. “I was meeting with her up to a year afterwards to check in on how things were going.”

The pair begins to reflect on the peculiarities of the transfer students they know. “Because the transfer class was sort of brave enough to take the leap of applying to school and starting from scratch, they sort of come into a circle that already exists and end up most of the time in more interesting niches than randomized housing can provide for freshmen,” Moore says. “They’re people who always want to try something else,” Prince adds. “I think they tend to be more interesting to take interesting jaunts, like going to the Coast Guard Academy or the Irish Hunger Museum.”

Prince and Moore both agree that, although transfer students definitely spread out in their own niches, they still retain a special connection with one another. Moore likes moments when transfers “will sort of encounter each other. Like I’ll run into some random transfer from our class and have a great time.”

Moore eventually hopes to go into public interest legal work helping ex-offenders re-enter their communities out of prison. He is a 2016 Truman Scholar.

*  *  *

Ashley Suan ’18, a transfer from Wesleyan college, has just finished recording for the night. As a member of Yale’s folk singing group, Tangled Up in Blue, Suan has spent a lot of time this semester recording an album that the group records every four years “so every class year has a chance to be on it.” She also plays varsity squash.

“I did not have the best freshman year [at Wesleyan], and for me I just assumed that getting into Yale was gonna fix all my problems,” she says. “It was interesting to be a student-athlete [at Wesleyan], because there’s a definite split between the more artsy side and the athletic side. At Yale it’s a lot more seamless.”

Nevertheless, she experienced the all-too-common transfer student demand for aggressive self-promotion just to catch up with one’s peers. “When I transferred in I was placed in a suite with two seniors, and I had a single. I didn’t have an opportunity to meet people in my college, which is a common issue in living situations. My main friends on campus are mainly people I’ve met through activities. On the one hand, I’m very lucky to have that; on the other, I don’t have a random group of friends,” Suan notes, adding that she suspects this may have been different had she come to Yale as a freshman.

“I definitely felt a lot busier. Part of that was being in a D1 program on top of coursework. What people always say during orientation is to make making friends your fifth class, and it’s hard to know what to do when you’re getting bombarded like that.” Suan also adds that, although she feels much more integrated into Yale than she felt a year ago, transferring still isn’t “a complete process.”

For all of the difficulties inherent in the transfer process, Suan sees a lot of value as well. “If you just accept people who simmer into the fold it doesn’t really do as much as if you bring in people who can really make an impact,” she says, remarking — as many other people involved with the transfer program are wont to do — that transfer students contribute vastly different experiences and perspectives on Yale than many other undergraduates do.

Suan sees an injunction for transfer students to be honest with themselves about their expectations and disappointments at Yale. For her, the most meaningful part of orientation was an unscripted moment “when Tim Gavin ’17 said his first semester sucked.” This position on the Student Life Panel has been taken by one student for at least the past three years, and every year a significant subset of new transfers recognizes it as the most important part of their orientation. That year, “you could tell the head transfer counselors didn’t want [Gavin] to be telling us that. I think it was really important to have that perspective … to be prepared for what was going to happen, and to know there was nothing wrong if my experience wasn’t perfect.”

*  *  *

Pamela George, assistant dean of student affairs, who served as director of the transfer program from 2011 to 2015, said in an email that “the transfer program began to assist in the establishment of coeducation at Yale. The first class of women at Yale, the class of ‘71, were considered transfer students.” Since then, it has continued without disruptions until the present day. Once Yale achieved the desired gender balance, the transfer program was opened up to students of all genders.

Many of the changes that make the transfer program what it is today happened under George. In addition to the complicated logistical and bureaucratic tasks involved in transferring students — things like evaluating academic records for transferring credit to Yale; housing assignments; facilitating transfer student orientation materials/programs and hosting transfer orientation dinner; and providing ongoing academic advising — she also spearheaded the creation of the transfer counselor program.

Yale’s website for transfer students says “the Transfer Counselor Program is designed to help incoming students adjust to life at Yale and explore the full realm of their interests.” “‘TroCos’” — a play on the commonly used shorthand expression for freshman counselors — “are students who transferred to Yale in previous years, and who are interested in providing guidance and mentorship to the incoming class. Each new transfer student will be assigned a TroCo during the summer, and this TroCo will serve as both a friend and a mentor to them throughout the academic year,” the website says. Think of them as freshman counselors with minimal institutional oversight and a shoestring budget.

Additionally, George expanded transfer orientation to take one week and to dovetail with freshman programming, created and enhanced structures for the academic advising of transfer students and “increased communication and services for transfer students within their assigned residential college.”

Since 2015, George’s position as director of the transfer program has been filled by Risa Sodi, director of advising and special programs and assistant dean of student affairs. George continues her involvement with the transfer program as an academic adviser. George currently chairs the Committee on Reinstatement. Sodi stepped in as the director of special programs at the Yale College Dean’s Office two years ago, taking the mantle from transfer program mainstay George.

In response to concerns that something like Harvard’s transfer moratorium may happen at Yale, Sodi says, “I don’t believe [the program] has ever been threatened in the past or ever will be threatened … you can see that because we have a dedicated admissions officer.”

“I think the fact that about two transfer students get assigned per residential college per year demonstrates that we hope students will transition into Yale easily and quickly, but also that they will spread their knowledge and perspectives through the university and the residential college system,” she adds.

Sodi at once makes a compelling case for the value and the security of the transfer program, but its continued existence does not come without its own peculiar demands. There is perhaps nobody to whom these are more apparent than the director of special programs. Transfer students have complex and unusual advising needs, especially during their first semester and the preceding summer. For example, transfer students are required to complete the same distributional requirements as all Yale undergraduates but do not have to meet sophomore or junior year milestones. Much of this advising has to take place in a way that is both satisfying and legible to every transfer student before the end of the first shopping period.

“One reason transfer students are assigned a Yale College dean as their adviser is to help them with those requirements when they come in,” said Sodi. Another is because “Deans have a good overview of the curriculum and resources [transfer students] may need” to navigate a different academic system successfully.

On the other hand, transfers don’t need institutional advising on extracurriculars and social matters,” according to Sodi. Instead, the dean relies on the transfer counselor program, which started in 2013, to handle these needs.

Recalling a dinner that took place for Yale’s transfer students shortly before winter break, Sodi recalls a real sense of “unity and community” between the transfer population, as well as a strong transfer identity. “Students would change places and talk enthusiastically with other different groups of transfer students,” many of whom were among one another’s first acquaintances. “I know them as individuals on their own path, but also it’s great to see that there’s this real cohesion among students.”

“Since I am the director of advising, one of the reasons why I was asked to step in was to think about the transfer program in terms of best advising practices,” she explains. Her involvement with special programs is part of a variety of efforts Yale has taken over the past several years to foster positive change in the transfer student experience. “I’ve relied on my colleagues here and on the TroCo system … but I really would like to think more holistically about what the best advising structure is for transfer students, and to do that I would need feedback. I really hope to focus on that going forward.”

*  *  *

The peculiar culture of Yale transfer students is largely a product of individual student input during Camp Yale, when new transfers scramble to get their requirements, classes and social niches figured out. Lucas Riccardi ’17, one of four students heading the TroCo program in the Fall of 2015, is a major architect of the program as it exists today.

“I personally met my TroCo once in October sitting on a bench on Old Campus, and that was the only time I ever saw her in person. The TroCo relationship wasn’t actually enforced until 2015,” he says. He attributes much of the restructuring of the transfer program to an Oedipal reaction his class had to its own lack of oversight. “That was the year that the mental health stuff exploded and so then that whole spring sparked a whole debate around reinstatement and the Dean’s Office issued statements on reinstatement and Pamela George headed reinstatement in addition to transfer stuff,” he continues, adding that this conflict stretched institutional resources for transfer students predictably thin.

According to Riccardi: “My explicit goal for the coming year was to provide more structure and accountability,” and to “informally try to fill the inevitable gaps in people’s relationships” on entering an ossified social scene. “If there was anything I felt proud of the year after, it was taking some of that burden off of the new transfers and making friendships here feel more reciprocal.” The Yale College Dean’s Office relegates all social programming to the TroCos.

Reflecting on his own first year, Riccardi recalls finding himself overwhelmed with the uncomfortable social position of being a new transfer. “I don’t think people are very receptive to a gaggle of 10 or more strangers coming into their social space. Trying to find approachable, friendly ways for people to appear in places is really hard,” he notes. “And that’s a responsibility that a lot of transfer students have felt: you take people under your wing and you take groups under your wing. That’s where the problem lies: I trust that individuals can make their own friends, but it’s harder with groups. It’s really hard to integrate as a group, socially.”

Additionally, Riccardi focused extensively on the emotional challenges of transferring to Yale. “I really pushed my new transfers to reflect, both over the summer and throughout their first few months here, on how they made meaning of their experiences at their last institutions: what they were coming away with, what they were looking for here and what they were trying to get out of transferring. It helped me process some of the disappointments of being here, and I hope it worked for others as well,” he says. “No one arrives here with a clean slate.”

In spite of his demonstrated commitment to the transfer program, Riccardi has taken a backseat in all transfer student matters since his tenure as head TroCo. He notes that the best transfer counselors often still carry with them the rawness of their own experience. For him, that rawness “is a really important part of the structure of the program. People who just went through it know it best. You don’t get wiser with time, you lose it with time. It’s by no means a rational process, and the people who are best prepared to deal with it are the ones who are least removed from the emotion of it. As much this program has been a formative part of my time at Yale, I just don’t feel those things as strongly anymore.”

When asked about the value of the transfer program, Riccardi notes a high level of awareness about “the University’s harmful or problematic aspects from the transfer students.” “I’m happy I know people here who went to community college or didn’t go straight into college or went to nontraditional universities or colleges. I think as a whole I just feel like it helps bring people out of this unfortunate Yale bubble.”

Jake Brussel Faria ’18, who transferred in during Riccardi’s tenure as head transfer counselor, shares some of these views. Compared to Northwestern University, his previous institution, “it was a revelation that I would have my own space that wasn’t psychotically policed. I know that if I stayed at Northwestern, the things that were ingrained to me in those early, manic weeks would still be stuck with me, so it’s actually a great luxury to have some distance from that.”

Brussel Faria also has suspicions about the freshman experience at Yale. He notes that the University tends to congratulate students for “beating the odds” and getting in while taking the earliest opportunity to constrain them to a tiny, sanitized sliver of New Haven for four years.

For all this, Brussel Faria notes that transfer students miss out on important social moments that may take place freshman year. “The social life of the transfer is a lot about staking up space,” he says, recalling a bench across from the Davenport dining hall that, for a spell, became a sort of transfer student watering hole.

“You have these fairly stark situations where you have the weird institutional exclusivity of frats versus the amorphous exclusivity of the readily available nonfrat social spaces,” Brussel Faria said. “There are also things that float in the middle, and a lot of those fly under the radar because they are between friend groups. That’s something transfers don’t have access to.”

Like Riccardi, he feels an obligation towards other transfer students and students who may feel similarly out of place in social spaces to try something different. “It’s a great way to meet people, or invite people in and communicate that I’m interested in spending time with them. It is hard to get into other social spaces, cause we don’t, as transfers, get involved through people we know.”

“A friend of mine once said that transfer students wear their institutional neglect as a badge of honor,” he adds.


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