For most Columbia and Barnard students, “transferring” means little more than getting on the express train at 96th Street. But for some, it describes their educational path to Morningside Heights.
President Barack Obama, a 1983 graduate of Columbia College, is notoriously mum about his time at Columbia. When he arrived from Occidental College for his junior year, transfer students weren’t eligible for housing. Obama reportedly spent his first night sleeping in an alley near the off-campus apartment he would eventually move into on West 109th Street, between Amsterdam and Columbus avenues.
A Vanity Fair article from June 2012 states that, as an alumnus, Obama “felt no attachment to Columbia.” When Obama discusses his Columbia years, he characterizes them as “an intense period of study,” likening his habits to those of a monk, according to Columbia College Today—suggesting that his status as a transfer made it difficult for him to fully assimilate into campus life, leaving him little recourse but the stacks.
Fortunately for transfer students, a lot has changed since the ’80s. For one, CC and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences transfers are now guaranteed on-campus housing.
“We understand that transfer students, having already experienced some level of higher education, have some needs that differ from those of traditional first-year students and a different set of challenges,” Interim Dean of Student Affairs Terry Martinez says in an email.
Columbia defines a transfer student as someone who has completed at least 24 points of credit (or one year of full-time study), but no more than four semesters, at another institution. Barnard defines transfer students similarly—these students have completed a minimum of 24 credits, but no more than 60 credits at their previous college. At Columbia, transfers represent five to seven percent of current undergraduates, while they comprise eight to nine percent of the student body at Barnard.
The School of General Studies enrolls transfer students who have taken a break of a year or more in their education, but Vice Dean Curtis Rodgers is hesitant to compare GS transfer students to SEAS, CC, and BC transfers.
“Whether students transfer or not is… I don’t want to say it’s irrelevant, because it’s part of the review…but it’s not the same as a more traditional admissions office—like our sister college, Columbia College, where you apply either as a first-year or as a transfer, and it’s sort of a different and separate process,” Rodgers says.
As someone who transferred to CC for her sophomore year, I sometimes forget that I didn’t start out here. But the extent to which transfer students feel fully integrated into the community depends on a combination of factors, including the ways they have felt supported by the administration and their satisfaction with the culture at Columbia and Barnard.
Home Sweet Home
“I wouldn’t identify myself now as a transfer,” Sarah Elrafei, a Barnard junior, says. “I definitely feel like a student who’s totally immersed herself.”
Elrafei entered Barnard after spending her first year at Connecticut College.
“It felt very unfulfilling,” she says of her time at Conn. “I felt like a lot of what the school advertised itself to be didn’t really come through in the end.” Dissatisfied with career services and the “cliquey” community, and unchallenged by classes, Elrafei decided to reapply to Barnard, her dream school when she was first applying to college.
She was accepted for fall admission for her sophomore year, and quickly found her niche on campus by joining the Columbia Metrotones. “Immediately, right off the bat, that became my family on campus,” she says.
Monique Bartley, a Barnard sophomore, also had a positive transition, which she partially attributes to living in Elliott Hall—the Barnard dorm with the highest concentration of transfer students. Elliott has a corridor-style living arrangement, with a common lounge and two bathrooms and kitchens per floor—a layout that the school hopes will be conducive to meeting new people.
“I know some people had a little bit more trouble if they didn’t live in Elliott,” she says. “But for me, I made friends instantly.”
However, Barnard has never guaranteed housing for transfer students. In the fall of 2012, a group of transfers learned first-hand just how short on housing Barnard had become.
“They kind of just shoved us anywhere,” Elrafei, who transferred at the height of Barnard’s housing crisis, says. “And I know that it was actually a huge problem my year.” Luckily for Elrafei, she was one of “very, very few” transfers who received housing, and was placed in Hewitt Hall. Gabby Borenstein, a Barnard junior, was less fortunate. Three weeks before orientation, the housing office notified her that she was unlikely to receive housing, and placed her on a waitlist. Housing also provided her with a link to a website for other students in the same situation that “functioned much like an online dating website for finding a roommate,” Borenstein, now studying abroad in Israel, says in an email.
After she met a match, she and her roommate faced Manhattan real estate on their own. “Receiving little assistance from the college, it was overwhelming to say the least,” she says. Luckily, Borenstein landed an “amazing” apartment near Plimpton Hall. “Of course, three days after signing the lease, Barnard notified me that they found [me] housing,” she adds. In the end, about 70 transfer students were housed in Elliott, Cathedral Gardens, and Plimpton. Single rooms in Plimpton were converted into crowded double rooms in order to accommodate some students. Although Borenstein was disappointed that she couldn’t have “the quintessential dorm experience”—the reason she transferred to Barnard from the decidedly less campus-centric New York University—she says that the housing situation motivated her to become active in student organizations.
Across the street, CC and SEAS transfers are guaranteed a home on campus. Before the start of the fall semester, they indicate their residential preferences in housing applications, effectively entering the housing lottery with other incoming transfers. The application links to relevant residence hall pages on the Housing website for details, so that students can get an idea of what each dorm is like.
“We make every effort to assign all students according to their stated preferences,” Joyce Jackson, executive director of Columbia Housing, says in an email. “Since the transfer student population is largely comprised of rising sophomores, many prefer to live with other rising sophomores. However, if we have an empty suite due to housing cancellations and room transfers, we make an effort to house some transfers together given the … preference some have to live together.”
Of course, it isn’t always possible to respect these preferences.
“I got stuck in the [Living Learning Center],” Corey Stafford, a SEAS senior, says. “I was in Hartley. I never signed up to be there, but they put me in there, and that was not great at all.”
Stafford, who transferred from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was placed on a floor with other engineering students. “For lack of a better word, they were a bunch of over-eager, really nerdy freshmen,” he says. “And we didn’t have much in common.” Stafford ended up spending most of his time with transfer friends who lived in East Campus.
Nita Ponnaganti, a CC senior and a transfer from Rice University, also ended up in a dorm that wasn’t on her list—47 Claremont. “Claremont is the most awkward apartment system ever for a group of people that don’t know each other, because there’s no living space,” she says. But the odds ended up in her favor—Ponnaganti became such good friends with her roommate that they decided to live together for the next two years.
This fall, 21 transfers were offered a communal living situation in the former Zeta Beta Tau brownstone, now referred to as the 627 W. 115th St. residence, after the national fraternity suspended operations at Columbia. “The exceptional availability of this residence for the 2013-14 academic year allowed for the placement of transfer students there,” Jackson says.
The residence was unassigned during Room Selection, so it allowed for some transfer students to be housed together. But this will not necessarily set a precedent for transfers living together, according to Jackson. Cam Molis, a CC sophomore and a transfer from Georgetown University, describes the living arrangement as “incredible.”
Molis was not only pleased with the size of his room, but also with the community in the house. “The fact that it’s an all-transfer house, pretty much, really helps for the first couple months to give you a set of people who are all going through the same thing, and who are all with you in the same way that freshmen are with each other when they first come in,” he says.
Stafford says he would have preferred to have had this living arrangement when he transferred to Columbia. “It probably would have helped me meet more people similar to me, rather than being around mostly freshman,” he says. This year’s transfers were also housed in a suite in the Special Interest Communities House, the brownstone on 113th Street, formerly known as the convent.
The Cost of Transferring
No matter where a transfer student is housed, feeling like the transition is afforable contributes significantly to a sense of support and belonging.
Karl Daum, a CC junior and a deputy editorial page editor at Spectator, described the academic and financial support for transfer students as “fucking terrible.”
Daum, who transferred from George Washington University at the start of his sophomore year, was especially disappointed with the way his financial aid package was handled. “You get the folder, and the acceptance letter’s the first thing,” he says. “And then right behind it, they give you your financial aid package. And there was, like, a big fat zero right behind my acceptance letter.”
According to Columbia’s website, the financial aid policy is need-blind for all transfer applicants who are citizens or permanent residents of the United States. But the website also states, “We do not guarantee that we can meet 100 percent of demonstrated financial need for admitted transfer students.”
“I’ve heard it says that transfers kind of get the shaft when it comes to financial aid, but I didn’t think that it would be so dramatic as zero,” Daum says.
But Dean of Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid Jessica Marinaccio maintains that many transfer students receive “significant financial aid from Columbia.” “While we do not guarantee that we can meet 100 percent of demonstrated financial need for admitted transfer students, Columbia has a very generous financial aid program,” Marinaccio says in a statement. She emphasized that transfer students, like all undergraduates, are not packaged with loans, and that they are eligible to apply for the summer and academic term work exemption program.
Still, Daum says he had to fight to receive aid for his first year at Columbia.
“My parents literally had to go in with me, to the office, and beg,” he says. “And it wasn’t even like, ‘We’ll reconsider.’ It was, ‘We might put you on the waitlist and see what happens.’” Columbia offered him some aid the year he transferred, but it took “a lot of begging.” “It was embarrassing, almost, going to that office and asking for financial aid,” Daum says. He later found out that the reason he was denied aid was because his parents turned in a form late. “So, we essentially got punished for turning a form in late, by not getting any financial aid, not being considered,” he says. “And I don’t think that’s a particularly good policy to have.”
This year, Daum didn’t receive any financial aid. “My parents depleted most of their savings accounts to send me here without the guarantee that they would have a job or income the next month, and Columbia never took that into account, or really seemed to care to do so.”
The Adjustment Period
Although Daum felt overlooked, Marinaccio maintains that admitting transfers is “a small but important part” of the work that the admissions office does. “We believe the entire Columbia community benefits from the extraordinary enthusiasm, focus and insight that transfer students bring to campus,” she says in an email. Despite the value that the admissions office places on transfer students, Ponnaganti also felt like she didn’t receive much guidance when she first arrived at Columbia. “I think most transfer students recognize that they’re kind of being dumped into a totally new space with not much support,” she says. “So we go reach out for it, but I think it’s really important for the school to have a system in place that gives us those resources very early on.”
Based on what she knows now, Ponnaganti says she wishes she had structured her time at Columbia differently. “I don’t think every transfer student comes in knowing what their major is,” she says. “A lot do, but for those that don’t, honestly, you need sophomore year to shop for your major and not your Global Core stuff.” Ponnaganti initially declared a neuroscience and behavior major at Columbia, but switched her major to psychology during her senior year. “I think I would’ve benefited from talking to another transfer student about how they took advantage of their three years here,” she says.
Daum also had trouble deciding on a major. “Transferring definitely pigeonholes you into the lesser-requirement majors, unless you’re really focused on what you want to do… But if you’re not sure, Columbia’s really not the place to go to transfer,” he says. Daum entered Columbia as a prospective urban studies major, but had to drop it due to the program’s rigorous major requirements. “Because of the Core, it’s really hard to get a major that fits,” he says. “So I feel like I’ve lost a lot of opportunities to study.”
While some students take summer classes to compensate for this loss, Daum—now a history major—says it’s unrealistic for some. “I can’t take summer classes, since I got no financial aid, and so I can’t afford them,” he says. “The University doesn’t give a shit about that. They don’t understand that some people can’t actually afford to take summer classes.”
Still, Sydney Gross, Columbia College’s director of communications, says that there are several support structures in place for transfer students. The University offers a special welcome dinner for transfer students during the New Student Orientation Program, and advising deans at the Center for Student Advising assist transfer students with transfer credit,Core petitioning, program planning, and class registration.
In 2007, there was also a student organization run for and by transfer students at Columbia called the Columbia University Transfer Alliance. But it no longer exists, and is not currently recognized by any of the governing boards, according to Katherine Cutler, the director of communications and special projects for Columbia Student Affairs.
“I think that it would be a great idea,” Urvashi Pathania, a CC sophomore and a transfer from Wesleyan University, says of the Transfer Alliance. “There’s definitely more that could be done, in terms of the social aspect of transferring. In the beginning of the year, I think there was one event for transfer students to meet each other, other than the usual NSOP stuff.”
Lexie Brackenridge, a CC sophomore and a transfer from Williams College, says she was pleased with NSOP and the support she received. “I think they did a really good job,” she says. “The part that really stood out to me was the administrative side of it, with telling you how exactly your credits would transfer, setting you up with advisers.”
Like Columbia, Barnard pairs transfer students with an academic advisor who has prior experience working with transfer students, and provides transfer-specific NSOP programming. But Barnard follows up with programming in the months following orientation.
“Throughout the academic year, the College offers special programming to support transfer students as they continue to adjust to life at Barnard,” Dean of Enrollment Management Jennifer Fondiller says in an email. “Examples include ‘Transfer Time,’ a residential program that extends the orientation of new transfer students over the entire semester, and the Dean’s Office runs a program called ‘T is for Transfer’ that helps students acclimate to Barnard’s campus and resources.”
Bartley, who came from Trinity College and entered Barnard in this past fall, was especially pleased with the support she received from Barnard before winter break. “Apparently we were supposed to be meeting with our advisor again and I didn’t know—I guess I didn’t get the email—and they ended up coming to my door to check on me because they hadn’t heard from me in, like, three weeks,” Bartley says. “I was so touched. I was like, they took the time to come find me, knock on my door, and check that I was OK.”
While CC and SEAS only offer the option of fall admission for transfer students, Barnard also offers the option of spring admission—but not for students who are current first-years. Emilie Schwarz, a Barnard senior, seized this opportunity during her sophomore year at Smith College. As a spring transfer, the transition was difficult. “My biggest problem was with the administration,” Schwarz says. “They didn’t take me seriously because they were like, ‘Oh, it’s January. Why don’t you know any of this stuff?’ And I was like, ‘Well, I just got here.’” Schwarz was also under the impression that she would be able to graduate in May 2014, after her advising dean confirmed this. “I found out last semester, they were like, ‘No you can’t. You have to spend a minimum of four semesters here. Sorry about what the dean says.’ And so, that sort of screwed up what I did with my major and my classes,” she says. As a result, she will be graduating in December 2014. In terms of managing her credits, the registrar was “a nightmare.” “I had to email them so many times saying, ‘Why don’t I have all my credits? Why hasn’t this replaced a core requirement?’ And they’d be like, ‘Oh, whoops. Sorry.’”
When she first arrived at Barnard, Schwarz was assigned to the seventh floor of Hewitt. “I hated that floor,” she says. “It was so antisocial.” As an international student, Schwarz also didn’t qualify for financial aid—another part of the transition that she laments. While Columbia offers financial aid to international transfer students on an “extremely limited basis,” Barnard does not offer aid to international transfers at all. Its financial aid policy is also need-aware for transfers who are U.S. citizens and permanent residents, according to its website. But the policy for spring transfers is even more restrictive—spring transfers may only apply for federal and state aid, not Barnard grant aid.
Sarah Schwarz, a Barnard senior and a transfer from SUNY Rockland who entered in the fall of 2012, didn’t receive any financial aid. “This was nothing short of devastating,” she says in an email. But she was able to secure some funding with the support of an advisor. “Thankfully, I found a sympathetic and tremendously helpful advisor in Nanette DiLauro (the director of Barnard’s Financial Aid program),” she writes. “Without her ready willingness to review my case, and her repeated efforts to secure my place at the college, I very likely wouldn’t be here.”
When Logan Donovan, 2013 graduate of SEAS and a former vice president of policy in the Engineering Student Council, transferred to SEAS from the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science in the fall of her sophomore year, she didn’t experience significant culture shock. A native New Yorker, Donovan had taken the SATs on Columbia’s campus during high school. “I would say more I was excited because I felt like I found the type of environment that I was looking for originally,” she says. “But, some of the aspects of the workload at Columbia or the type of work that I got in the engineering school was more demanding.”
Donovan isn’t the only student to acknowledge the demands of student life at Columbia. In April 2013, Spectator’s The Canon addressed the subject of stress, asserting that it is “undeniable that stress is a constant factor of life at Columbia,” as well as campus conversation. In the fall of 2012, University President Lee Bollinger discussed the issue at a fireside chat.
Other students were more disillusioned when they faced the realities of the workload. “I only had the rose-tinted glasses view of Columbia,” Daum says. He had always dreamed of attending Columbia, his father’s alma mater, but he was waitlisted in high school. “The Core was, by far, the most attractive thing about the school,” he says. “At the time, it was something I had never had the opportunity to read—some of the most basic texts in philosophy and literature.” However, Daum wasn’t prepared for the stress associated with life at Columbia. “It was something I was totally unaware of,” he says. “I had done three campus tours, a bunch of different events over the course of applying in high school, to applying again at GW. It never even occurred to me—that side of student life—like, how stressed out people get, how much people value their lives based off of grades, what internships they get. I did not expect that at all, and I can’t say I really liked it, either.”
Keenan LeBlanc, a CC senior and a transfer from Onondaga Community College, prefers living in his off-campus apartment on 145th Street and Riverside Drive, so that he can distance himself from Columbia’s tense environment. “It’s kind of nice being isolated from other students’ stress,” LeBlanc, who was originally placed in McBain, says. “When I was living in dorms, I would definitely feel either stress or people were releasing that stress... partying heavy. And just that energy surrounding me would mess with me, I think.” LeBlanc decided to take the spring semester of his junior year off due to feeling overwhelmed by schoolwork.
Wade Burelbach, a SEAS senior, also hadn’t expected this energy. Burelbach is part of SEAS’s Combined Plan Program—a path that allows students to complete their undergraduate career in a 3-2 sequence. Students typically spend the first three years earning a B.A., and then transfer into SEAS to complete a B.S. in two years. Coming from Bard College at Simon’s Rock, where he was pursuing a B.A. in pre-engineering, Burelbach decided to take the civil engineering track. “Academically, Columbia is a lot more stressful, which…I don’t think Columbia has to be stressful,” he says. “It just makes itself stressful.” He thinks that the grading policies at SEAS contribute to this pressure. “Columbia weights the exams so much more than my old college did. If you mess up on one problem on an exam, you can’t get an A in that class.”
Burelbach, who was on a first-name basis with all of his professors at Simon’s Rock, was also surprised by SEAS professors’ focus on research, rather than undergraduates. “They’re a lot more impersonal… with Columbia, I’ll be lucky if I know their first name,” he says.
Pushing for Change
Ponnaganti also recognized how impersonal Columbia’s environment is. “I know at Columbia we’re definitely not spoon-fed—you’re expected to be independent, and I think that’s important,” she says. “But I think more support in terms of transfer students… and giving that to us the summer before we get there would be really helpful.” Ponnaganti suggested that the Center for Student Advising release a transfer resource guide containing information about how other transfer students have structured their time at Columbia. Although the CSA sends out e-newsletters catered to transfers over the summer, the newsletters pertain to general issues, such as community development and student wellness, in addition to information about NSOP.
Ultimately, the onus seems to be on students to initiate transfer-related policy change. Enter Michael Li, CC 2015 class president and a transfer from Baruch College, and Jackson Tse, CC junior class representative and a transfer from Johns Hopkins University. The Columbia College Student Council pair is working with the Center for Student Advising on building a sense of community for transfers. They’ve teamed up with Lauren Orr—an advising dean, coordinator for CC advisers of transfers, and my own adviser—to develop a mentorship program.
Tse is careful to acknowledge that he can’t speak for the entire transfer population, and he’s planning to send out a survey for student feedback. “I don’t want it to be a program where I’m interested in having it and some of our transfer friends are interested in having it, but most of the transfer population isn’t interested in having it,” he says.
“I’m so pleased that Jackson approached me about this initiative,” Orr says of Tse’s idea in an email. “I think it’s an idea well-worth exploring.”
This isn’t the first time that Li and Tse have planned transfer-related events. Last semester, they organized an event called “From Transfers To Transfers”—an opportunity for incoming transfers to meet older transfers about their adjustment to Columbia. “That was something that Michael and I thought about just because we really wanted to have that opportunity—we really wanted that opportunity when we were transferring in, but we didn’t have it,” Tse says. According to Tse, 120 students attended the event. “I think it was good, but that was just the beginning,” Li says. The two followed up with a similar event in early February called “Tea With Transfers,” but fewer people attended than expected. Tse estimates that 20 to 25 people turned up, and he attributes the fall event’s successful turnout to the timing. “It was more effective because people are recently transferring in, rather than having, say, a semester under their belt,” he says.
With student council elections approaching, Tse isn’t sure if transfer issues will be one of his top campaign priorities. But it’s not something he plans to neglect. “Hopefully if I get elected, we’re going to try to institutionalize at least the fall event for transfers, because that was a really, really big event,” he says.
When Donovan arrived at Columbia, she was frustrated by the fact that she had to repeat several courses that she had taken at UVA. Among these courses was Gateway (now called The Art of Engineering), which was very similar to an introduction to engineering course that she completed at UVA. “I was basically placed in a position where I had to repeat a few classes that I had already taken, and I also didn’t have basically any electives for the entire time that I was there,” Donovan says. Currently, there is no policy in place to automatically exempt SEAS transfers from The Art of Engineering, according to Orr. But exemptions can be made by instructors on a case-by-case basis. Still, Donovan was not satisfied with this process, and brought up the issue with the CSA.
Is It Worth It?
Looking back at her time at Columbia, Donovan is more than satisfied with her decision to transfer. “Making the switch to Columbia was one of the best things that I’ve ever done, so I don’t regret it at all, and I’m very happy I did it,” she says. “But for me, it caused a lot of unnecessary frustration.”
Burelbach says he won’t realize many of the benefits of having transferred until he’s on the job market, but he’s glad to be at SEAS because of what it might mean for his future.
“Nobody knows Simon’s Rock, for one,” he says, “If I had gotten a B.A. from there, nobody would have cared… whereas, getting a B.S. from Columbia, everybody in the world knows what Columbia is. So, I think it’ll definitely help me get a job. Columbia also has a lot more resources than my other college.”
Though Daum admits that he’s bitter about some aspects of his transition, he says he’s happy with where he is right now. “At first it was definitely difficult. It wasn’t an easy transition, that’s for sure. And that only made the whole financial aid situation feel worse,” he says. Getting involved with student organizations helped him acclimate to campus life. “If you don’t get involved, you’re always gonna feel like a transfer,” he says.
The feeling that Daum refers to is one that many transfers experience when they first arrive on campus. Comprising a minority of the student body at CC, SEAS, and BC, transfer students occupy an oddly interstitial space. At once new and not-so-new kids, they’re supposed to take a cue from Ovid’s legends and morph into Columbia Lions or Barnard Bears. But the seamlessness of this metamorphosis depends on self-advocacy, administrative support, and a healthy dose of luck.
Transfers to CC, SEAS, and BC describe conflicting experiences, but common narratives emerge: Columbia can do more in terms of advising for transfers when they plan their academic careers; sustained programming for transfers might be as helpful at Columbia as it is at Barnard; advisers can prepare students for the stressful environment they will enter; although school websites boast famous alumnae and admissions office representatives insist that transfers constitute a vital role in the community, the ways in which Columbia and Barnard’s financial aid offices prioritize transfers’ needs does not necessarily match these sentiments.
Although older transfers can create a welcoming community for younger students by reviving the Columbia University Transfer Alliance or by finding a more lasting alternative—so that this effort doesn’t disappear at the end of someone’s term in student council—the nature of being a transfer student resists the permanence of these kinds of initiatives. To an extent, transfers are expected to outgrow their dual identity. And once this process is complete, there isn’t much incentive to go back.