It’s that time of the year. Students have finished a semester of college and are taking stock of where they have spent their time and what lies ahead. And before they return for another semester, they are often contemplating a big question: should I stay or should I go? They come home for winter break, usually eager to see old friends but not sure how their experience compares to and measures up to their peers. Did they choose the right college after all? Might someplace else be a better fit? Conversations about transferring, as well as about taking time off or dropping out, emerge more frequently in this time of transition between semesters.

The college application and selection process can be grueling and sometimes parents look at each other and their kids thinking, “Oh gosh, not this anguish again?!” 

Photo from Alex Jones/Unsplash
Source: Photo from Alex Jones/Unsplash

As a college professor I routinely meet with students who talk about wanting to transfer. It happens like clockwork; there’s a time in virtually every first year student’s experience when doubt creeps in and s/he wonders and worries that s/he made the wrong choice. I have seen students transfer more than once during college, and I have seen students return back to the original place a year later. It’s not just the grass that’s always greener; sometimes the cinder block is too.

Perhaps a student had a dream to attend a particular school and was not admitted the first time and wants to try again. Or, maybe s/he came to X school with the intention of using it as a steppingstone to transfer to the flagship in a public system or to another sort of college entirely. Sometimes, students overestimate the issue of size, thinking a school of more than 10,000 will be entirely too large and they will feel lost, only to find themselves at a much smaller school feeling claustrophobic and wanting a much larger smorgasbord of opportunities.  There are the students who chose a school because of it being in a more densely populated urban area and now yearn for sprawling green space between buildings on a hill, that sort of idyllic campus setting we see in movies. Conversely, there are the students at campuses in more rural and remote locations craving the pulse and vibrancy of a city.

When I was in my first year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I wanted to transfer to The School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University. I applied and was admitted. My parents put down a large deposit so I would be able to secure a space and a room. At that age, I said what so many young people say----“I just want to work with people. I want to help people.” It was well intended but totally vague and meaningless really. Everything will involve working with people. I also loved to travel and had the privilege to do a lot of that as an only child with my parents. We stayed at historic and posh boutique hotels around the world. Throughout high school, I worked in hotels in Cleveland. And, I did my senior project in high school at the famous Broadmoor in Colorado. My parents pointed out to me that managing a luxurious resort someday would likely not carry with it the same allure and magic as traveling.  But, I didn’t care. What did they know anyway?

In the early summer after my freshman year, I was set to go to Cornell. I had said goodbye to dear friends I already made in Madison and figured, even pre-social media, that we would find a way to stay in touch and see each other. I wasn’t yet overly connected and wedded to UW-Madison or to Madison. It held some appeal but I was clearly in limbo. I had not truly found my place yet so a move at that point felt doable. Plus, I would get to experience the prestige of saying I went to an Ivy and to the best program for hospitality studies. I would surely be able to land a plum job at an amazing place. It all made sense. Sort of.

That summer, my mom and I regularly met up in the late afternoons when she was done with work to take long walks. We talked a lot about this idea of transferring and what it would mean for the present and for the future. In the meantime, one weekend, my dad took me to visit Cornell so we could see the dorm I was assigned and get a lay of the land. I met with an adviser and saw the schedule I would have to take to be on track, and when I was truthful with myself, the classes barely interested me. Then, we stopped at the student center that was nothing like the Memorial Union at Madison, and I sat down on the steps and cried. My dad could not figure out what was wrong. But, I was too unhappy during that visit and couldn’t shake it.

I came back from that visit, walked more with my mom, and she pointed out to me that it seemed like I was going to transfer for what appeared to be an endurance contest, for classes that did not excite me, and with eyes set solely on post-college and not the experience of actually being there. She expressed concern that I was solely interested in the end result and not the process. I was also worried about telling my friends I was coming back, like I had gone back on my word or prematurely quit something.  I knew Cornell had a thriving Greek life and though I had less than zero interest in joining, I figured I would have to in order to make new friends as a transfer student.  I was worried that my parents would not be able to get back the over $6000 they had deposited.

I think I wanted the sense of the present of what the University of Wisconsin offered to me and the sense of the future that looked so promising if graduating from Cornell. But, of course, I could not have both.

On one of those walks, the craziest thing happened. I was wearing a red Wisconsin tank top, one I still wear twenty eight years later for all the good luck it seems to still provide; we were at a traffic light waiting to cross the street and a woman we had never seen before was stopped at the light and rolled down the car window and asked if I went to Wisconsin. I said I had gone there but not for long and was just about to transfer. The light turned green and as she started to drive away, she yelled out: “Don’t go. Wisconsin is the best.”

My mom and I still wish we knew who this woman was so we could properly thank her.  She affirmed and validated what I felt down deep. I returned to Madison and my sophomore year was my favorite part of college. I got heavily involved in arts programming for the university, World AIDS Day, rallies for reproductive rights, giving tours for prospective students, helping with orientation, exercised a lot, met my college boyfriend at the gym, developed closer bonds with friends, and became extremely active in sociology and gender studies, the very disciplines that became my life’s work. And though I was consumed with the idea of being at the number one program for hotel and restaurant management, I instead found myself in the number one rated program for sociology. It all worked out. I probably would have made it work just fine had I gone to Cornell, but I am glad I stayed and let myself enjoy the benefits of a true liberal arts education.

There are many reasons to want to transfer, some better than others. There are usually very good reasons for staying and also compelling reasons for going. It’s just important to remember that for most students, freshman year is hard; well, okay, it sucks. And, that may not be the best time to make such a big decision and forge a transition.

Here, we’ll take a look at what parents and students might want to consider when the desire to transfer or leave school comes up and what parents can encourage students to do:

1) Recognize that these thoughts are very typical and very normal.

2) Find your passion; follow your bliss.  All of us enjoy where we are much more when we have a sense of purpose, shape and meaning in our days. Have you truly given the school---and yourself--- a fair chance and explored new things?

3) Find mentors. An implicit and explicit mission of the college experience is to assist and support students as they individuate from their families of origin. Students generally do better in school both academically and socially, and experience greater success when they graduate and launch into the world, when they have identified and nurtured relationships with faculty and staff who become mentors to them. These are connections that have the potential to lead to job opportunities and to other sources of enrichment. Encourage your students to seek out their favorite professors, or the ones they are most curious about, in office hours.

4) Consider intended majors and minors. Are the areas of study you most want to pursue available at your current school as well as at the institution to which you might transfer? Is the program strong and robust? If you are a student who prefers face-to-face classes and avoids online classes, will you be able to enroll in the face-to-face classes you need and want?

5) Take an intriguing elective and not only general education requirements in the first year. This is related to #3 and #4 above. If you take the risk in a class that feels compelling and intriguing on a gut level, it may unlock the key to what you want to major in and possibly pursue as a career. Or, maybe there’s a class where you have heard the professor is fabulous but the subject matter is lackluster to you; you’ll get exposure to a new way of looking at things and you might find the area of inquiry is far more interesting than you imagined.

6) Find out about research opportunities. Many professors would love to involve students in research and collaboration that might lead to student exposure for presenting at conferences and publishing.

7) Assess the underlying reasons for wanting to transfer. Avoid transferring for boyfriends and girlfriends.

8) Cultivate strong friendship circles.

9) Consider the array of extracurricular activities, including Greek life, intramural sports, etc. that might be meaningful and rewarding.

10) Consider any opportunities to assume leadership roles in clubs and activities to experience a sense of real contribution.

11) Get an internship. Unless the only thing you get to do is water plants and stuff envelopes, it is likely that the time spent in an internship will serve you well for making real-life, practical applications with theories in class, and it can help nurture connections for effective job seeking.

12) Consider the study abroad or study away experience as a way to broaden your horizons.

13) Meditate. Deep reflection assists in any decision making process and helps with cultivating stillness, self-reliance, presence and peace of mind.

14) Attend evening and weekend events that the school sponsors such as an intriguing lecture series, dance performances, musicals, interdisciplinary events sponsored by multiple departments, excursions, volunteering, movie nights, etc. Take advantage of why you’re in college. One of the saddest things to me is the student who commutes to classes from home, never stays on campus, makes no connections, and works 20-40 hours. That’s not college. That’s high school on steroids. Certain financial circumstances and life challenges might make that the necessary reality, in which case that is understandable, but when students tell me they are working at Kate Spade, Michael Kors and Coach to get discounts on the clothes and purses, perhaps this calls for some reconsideration.

15) Consider counseling.  Reflect on how much of this struggle relates to the ways you think about making decisions and trusting the decisions you do make. If you don’t work out the underlying reasons for wanting to transfer, you are likely to simply relocate your troubles.

16) Network. Talk to alumni as well as older students at the school. Learn from them what shifted and made their experience better as time went on. 

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