I am a 27-year-old second-year graduate student in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of California, Riverside (UCR). From 2010 to 2015, I attended two community colleges within the Los Rios Community College district in Sacramento, California. In 2015, I transferred to UCR for my Bachelor's degree in Physics and am currently working towards a Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics.
Having had experience as an undergraduate transfer student and currently as a graduate student, I hope to share some insight to transfer students considering or preparing to transfer. Below, I outline some challenges that were (un)foreseen and how I handled those situations.
What I Anticipated
Before I transferred, I anticipated having "harder" professors, even if I didn't know exactly what that would mean.
In my experience, the perception that research university (R1) professors are harder than community college professors seems to stem from the functions they serve at their institutions. At the community colleges I attended, it seemed like my professors were there to teach students as their principal responsibility. They did their own grading, made their own lesson plans, gave their own lectures, and ran the lab components of their classes. This direct engagement with students is what I typically think of when I hear the word "teacher." I considered my community college professors to be teachers at heart, and it translated into me feeling like they genuinely cared about my learning and success as a student.
In comparison, the primary function of R1 professors is typically to conduct research and generate new knowledge. Teaching is not the primary function of R1 professors, which may result in students feeling like their professors don't care as much about them. This was certainly true for me during my first few quarters until I was able to articulate this difference and change my mindset. My R1 professors did not spoon-feed me information the same way that my community college professors had. In general, they point to where I should learn from, usually a particular book, and leave the acquisition of information to me.
Overall, I noticed that community college professors gave me information, whereas R1 professors directed me towards information.
"After transferring, I found that my education was in my own hands and that it was now my responsibility to acquire information."
How did I respond to this? I adopted the "you get out what you put in" mentality and studied hard. While I could put in the minimum effort required to pass my classes, I thought this would be disrespectful to all of the time I had spent at community colleges preparing for this experience. Instead, I focused on my studies. This meant doing readings ahead of schedule, reviewing and rewriting lecture notes every day, and doing homework not just to complete it, but to understand what every problem was aiming to teach me. I wanted to ensure that the time I spent at UCR was utilized to its fullest potential.
Less Free Time
I already anticipated having less free time after transferring, but my perception of "free time" changed after doing so; it continued to change as I entered graduate school. This ongoing change wasn’t inherently good or bad, but rather something I feel is important to point out prior to transferring.
While I was in community college, I could finish all of my classwork by mid-afternoon, and the rest of the day was "me time," where I could do whatever I wanted. Typically, how I decided to spend this time was completely by impulse, with no intent on accomplishing anything in particular. I would play video games, go for a drive next to the river, ride my bike, or paint. While these activities have intrinsic value, I did these activities simply because I wanted to, with no particular goal in mind.
After transferring to UCR, I found myself with less free time, which was something I expected. I was more critical of how I spent my ever-decreasing free time, and I slowly began to notice that the activities I undertook started serving new purposes. Instead of taking a drive because I wanted to, I started taking drives because I needed to recharge myself. I played video games to give my brain a break from working all day. I painted because I had been doing physics calculations all day and the analytical part of my brain was burnt out. In this way, I started approaching my free time with a specific goal in mind: to alter my current state of being.
If you go to graduate school, this goal-oriented approach to free time may be taken to an extreme level. Throughout my first year of graduate school, I found myself feeling exhausted, stressed out of my mind, frustrated with classmates, and completely overwhelmed with homework. The amount of free time I had each day to address these emotions was typically only an hour, or two, if I was lucky. This meant that whatever I was going to do had to be the most effective thing for maintaining my sanity.
If I could redo the semester before I transferred to UCR, I would explore how my hobbies affected my state of being. Prior to transferring, I only knew that I enjoyed taking drives, or that I enjoyed painting. I didn't stop to think why I enjoyed doing these things and I definitely didn’t stop to think how they affected my state of being. This is important to understand about yourself, because the adjustment period into a new university is already difficult.
Specifically, during my first quarter post-transfer, I experienced a lot of emotions that impeded my academic progress. I often felt overwhelmed, exhausted, or unmotivated. It would have been convenient to be able to identify an emotion and quickly find a solution, to be able to say to myself, "I am feeling very mentally exhausted, but I know that I will feel recharged after taking a drive." Instead, I had to figure out how to deal with these feelings while experiencing them. Ultimately, this may not have been a major factor affecting my adjustment to a new university, but it did complicate the adjustment process.
What I Did Not Anticipate
Temporary Social Isolation
As a transfer student, you are probably aware that you will transfer with a certain class standing, mine being a college junior. This means that the university acknowledges you at that level and that you will take appropriate level courses with other students of the same standing. Although I was a junior on paper, I was not a junior in practice. My junior level standing only applied to academics, not to the social environment. Even though I transferred in as a junior, I did not have the same social support network as a typical junior level student.
This point is unique for each transfer student, but many transfer students enter a university at a level where friend groups are already established, and thus may need to build a completely new social support network.
For me, I transferred to a university 400 miles away from my hometown, and I had no social support system at all when I arrived. On the first day of classes, I didn't know a single soul and it was intimidating to see students who were already part of groups and cliques from their prior two years. I immediately realized that I was alone and would need to find a new group of friends and social support network.
Rebuilding my social support network and making a completely new set of friends scared me because I am a fairly shy and introverted person. I dreaded the thought of attempting to integrate myself into an existing social network. However, after two months of "socially sampling" various cliques, I ended up connecting with other transfer students in the Physics department and immediately felt accepted. These other transfer students became an incredible resource for me, precisely because they had a similar set of experiences and goals that I had. They provided a tremendous amount of insight about how to succeed as a transfer student and I am still grateful for their friendship to this day. If I could redo my first quarter, I would have sought to meet other transfer students from the first day.
My undergraduate education was significantly enriched thanks to this small network of transfer students and the sage wisdom they passed onto me. In the spirit of continuing to pass down information, I hope that my story will guide you, future transfer students, during this stage of your academic journey.
Adam Green grew up in Sacramento, California, where he developed a passion for both learning and teaching while he was a student within the Los Rios Community College district. This passion has driven him to pursue a Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics at the University of California, Riverside. Ultimately, he hopes to become a professor at one of the community college institutions he attended. Outside of academia he is an avid cyclist, tackling the mountainous landscapes of Riverside, California.