There are many paths to obtain your undergraduate degree in the United States. While it is not uncommon to stay in the same university or college for the entire four years of your education, it is equally acceptable to start out in one place and then attend classes somewhere else, such as the case with people who opt to acquire an Associate’s degree first before attaining the second half of their Bachelor’s degree in two years. Both enrollment options for your studies are valid and come with their own challenges and consequences. There are as many different reasons for moving between academic institutions as there are transfer students, but the most common personal reasons are either career-related, geography-related, or financially-related. Some students move across the U.S. in search for better opportunities and scholarships, while others do it in search of a better living arrangement, robust social lives, and improved job prospects. No matter which option you commit yourselves to, you need to research ahead, have a plan in mind, and be mentally ready to face some hurdles. In this article, I have interviewed Indira Pranabudi, the Editor-in-Chief for Indonesia Mengglobal, who had successfully gone through the process of transferring from a community college to a prestigious university. I am comparing her experience to my own in hope that readers can learn from our shared stories.
Indira, who now lives in Boston, Massachusetts, studied at a Secondary School in Singapore before deciding to further her education in the US. At the age of sixteen, around 2012, she applied to the Green River College (GRC) in Auburn, Washington. Auburn is a town in the middle of nowhere, about 40 minutes away by car from Seattle. At first Indira felt that the small town was too boring, but she adapted after a while and found that being away from the hustle and bustle of a big city actually helped her focus more on studying. However, she also found it helpful to be involved in many different activities and student organizations, such as the Photography Club, the Muslim Students Association, and she also worked as a Student Marketing Assistant at the International Programs Office.
After she graduated from GRCC, Indira moved to Providence, Rhode Island, to attend Brown University and study Computer Science. Most of her classes at GRC were accepted as the equivalent of similar introductory classes at Brown, which meant that she did not have to repeat general education or core classes that she already had from the community college. Other classes with no equivalency appeared in her college transcript as elective classes.
When asked about her decision to continue her education at Brown instead of any other university in the US, Indira admitted that she did apply to several other universities but ultimately chose Brown for its rigorous yet flexible Open Curriculum, which have shaped Brown alumni into creative-thinkers, problem solvers, innovators, and entrepreneurs. At Brown, instead of choosing a major, the students are expected to choose a concentration. According to Indira, Brown does not acknowledge GPAs. Classes are graded on letter grades like A, B, and C instead of 0 – 4.0, but it is also possible (and at times encouraged) to take classes on a Satisfactory/No Credit (S/NC) basis, which encourages students to try new subjects without fear of not doing well in the class .
The open and highly individualized curriculum at Brown means that students are free to design and direct the course of their own education, thus each student’s journey is unique and they can explore new ideas and are encouraged to branch out. Indira herself said she had the chance to take several classes that had no relation to Computer Science, the most memorable one being a class on Egyptian Anthropology, which she took purely out of sheer curiosity. Indira loved the ability to discover things she might otherwise never dive into. Granted, this curriculum is more suitable for self-driven and independent students, therefore Indira suggested that anyone who is also interested in coming to Brown need to be mature and need to know what they hope to achieve in the future, what their goals are, and what they want to pursue so that they can stay on track to graduation.
Asked about how difficult it was to adjust to a big university like Brown after attending a smaller institution like GRCC, Indira said that there were some differences in the academic culture between the two. Most American community colleges are staffed by professors whose sole focus are teaching undergraduates while professors in bigger universities with research grants and generous funding have to split their focus between their own research projects with graduate students in doctoral or postdoctoral programs and on teaching undergraduates. However, this does not mean that undergraduate students at Brown are neglected. Indira said that the professors she met at Brown were generally very friendly, they even invited their students to call them by first name basis, such as Tom instead of Prof. or Dr. Doeppner, and it could be weird for Indonesians who never address older people without adding Pak or Bu, but that was not strange at Brown.
Indira believed that transferring from one college to another could pose some risks, but the most apparent one for her was how she had to consciously make an extra effort to get some friends. “When you are new and hardly know anyone around you, you may feel lonely and isolated, especially when you realize everyone else already established their friendship groups. This is why you need to be highly adaptable!” Indira advised, while also adding that having a friendship circle depends a lot on whether you put yourselves out there and mingle. Finally, she also has advice for readers who may find themselves in her situation. “Transferring to a university is not easy, and therefore you have to be intentional. You have to know the purpose of transferring to your school of choice, you have to know what you want to accomplish, and you need a certain level of maturity to be able to survive in a new environment,” Indira concluded.
I began my academic journey at Hiram College in Ohio circa 2013 and stayed there until 2014. My reason for choosing Hiram was due to my acceptance to its Eclectic Scholars Program, an Honors program that not only waived 75% of my tuition fee but also enabled me to improve my Creative Writing skills at the Hiram’s Bonney Castle Writing House. This enrichment program also allowed me to work on-campus with the campus-owned publication Hiram Poetry Review. I was assigned to a special dormitory that accommodated other scholarship recipients from different disciplines, such as Environmental Science, Nursing Science, Philosophy, and Theaters. This gave me the luxury of making friends with students of all majors and I am still friends with the dormitory residents even today.
Despite my affiliation with the English department, I chose to major in Political Science, but in my third semester I began to have my doubts and I also became unhappy with the harsh Ohioan winter (I attended Hiram during the worst polar vortex the US had ever seen). Thus I returned to Jakarta to assess my options. I retook TOEFL and SAT in 2015 (because I had to re-apply for F1 visa too) and then applied to seven different colleges in seven states, including Colorado and South Carolina. Unfortunately, only two colleges accepted me: Hampshire College (Amherst, Massachusetts) that, like Brown University that Indira attended, has an open curriculum, and University of North Carolina Asheville (UNCA), which is not as popular as its Chapel Hill sister but is very affordable. Originally, my first choice was Hampshire but then after speaking with my parents I realized I would be much happier living in North Carolina for its warm Southern climate and its unique Appalachian Mountains culture. So I matriculated at UNCA.
Just like Indira said about making friendships, having friends was a matter of trial and error. I had to live in an off-campus apartment because the dormitories were reserved for first-year/freshmen and transfer students were not guaranteed a spot. Luckily, I was active on campus as I got involved with UNCA Center for Diversity Education that promoted multiculturalism and anti-racism, UNCA Campus Operations that handled the biannual Green Festivals, and a publication called The Odyssey Online which was managed by students from the Mass Communication and New Media department. My involvement won me some friends!
Academic-wise, UNCA is of course very different from Hiram, not only because I switched my major to International Relations but because UNCA puts a lot of emphasis on the Humanities regardless of one’s major. My first few semesters there, I had to take classes on Renaissance era, Ancient and Medieval era, World War 1 and 2, and then finally an upperclassman class on Contemporary World, which require students to critically analyze and engage in discussions about current issues. For someone who used to be very introverted and reserved, speaking up was terrifying. Fortunately, my professors helped me by referring me to some public speaking seminars that were hosted by the UNCA Career Centers and also the Health and Counseling service. The supportive environment made me feel welcomed and I came out of my shell.
If I could give you a piece of advice on transferring, it simply is to know what you hope to gain from that move. It is also important to evaluate how you can do your best. Are you an independent and mature student like Indira who thrives when given the freedom to shape your own future? Are you a shy mouse like I once was and appreciate having guidance along the way? Knowing your own personality type and learning style will help you narrow down which college you wish to transfer to.