Alternate Paths

Rebeca Willis-Conger was initially attracted to Reed because of its reputation as a “weird little community of learners.” Generous financial aid convinced her to enroll, and in the fall of 2014 she moved from her Portland apartment into a dorm room in MacNaughton.

Just like for any student entering Reed, O-week is tough for transfer and non-traditional students, though not necessarily for the same reasons. For students coming from other colleges or working full-time jobs, especially older students, many of the Orientation workshops are simply not tailored to their needs. For Rebeca, Orientation at Reed was difficult more because of age differences than the fact of being a transfer. “People confused me for a parent a lot. It was a weird time,” she said.

Milyon Trulove, vice president and dean of admission and financial aid, works with visiting transfer students to help them assess their financial aid and credit transfer situation. “Technically you’re a non-traditional student if you’re 26 or older, or if you’ve been out of school for several years, or have come in from the military,” Trulove explained. At small liberal arts schools like Reed, it is not uncommon for non-trad students to feel a bit isolated due to being a different age and having different life experiences than the majority of the student body.

Savanah Walseth was attracted to Reed after two years of volunteering at a homeless aid organization while taking community college classes. She decided that a four-year college, along with all the knowledge, connections, and experiences it would offer, was the next step she wanted to take. Savanah applied and enrolled in fall of 2014.

Most transfer students coming to Reed are local, a marked difference from the majority Californian and wide array of other states many incoming first-years hail from. The most common school transferred from are Portland Community College, followed by Bard in upstate New York, Lewis & Clark, New York University, and Portland State University. “A student who has gone to community college has a different set of life experiences,” mused Trulove. “They bring a little more maturity to campus, and they always have a story.” Transfer students are not considered in the same way during enrollment as traditional first years, due to the likelihood that they will be taking different kinds of classes and completing Reed milestones such as quals and theses on a different timeline. “Transfer students retain at a higher level and graduate at a higher level than regular incoming students,” said Trulove. “They know how to suss it out, they’re more adept at seeking out resources.”

Despite this, the transfer students interviewed for this article had several ideas for improving transfer-specific issues and resources at Reed, especially ways to improve resources for figuring out credit transferring. “Reed is pretty snobby about the credits it will take, which makes sense but was very frustrating,” said Rebeca. When she entered Reed, Rebeca’s previous classes qualified her for 0.333 credits completed for group X, making it awkward to incorporate the work she had already done into choosing future courses and fulfilling requirements. Transfer students spend a lot of time meeting with administrative offices such as Student Affairs and the registrar’s office to sort these kinds of situations out. “One of the things we make sure to do with transfer students is a credit evaluation, and we also have them meet with faculty from the department they plan on majoring in, so that they know what they’re getting into, so that they’re fully informed,” said Trulove.

Reed does not have any one staff member dedicated exclusively to transfer students’ needs, most likely due to the college’s small size and relatively small number of transfers.

“I wish the process of choosing classes and hurdling over transfer credits could have been a lot easier... having one point person could have helped a lot,” said Rebeca. Navigating the nuances of credit values and becoming familiar with several administrative offices can feel like significant burden to many transfers. “Transfer students are expected to talk to Ben Bradley [in the registrar’s office], petition departments and figure out how to manage incomplete credits all on their own, which is a disadvantage,” said Rebeca. “The Griffin Guides are improving that, though.”

Griffin Guides are a new program aimed at streamlining transfer students transition into Reed. The original Griffin Guide program was put in place in 2015 as a peer-based effort to help traditional first years adjust by matching them with upperclassmen mentors. In fall 2016, the Griffin Guide program expanded to work with transfer students, matching incoming students with more experienced transfer students who could help guide them through the process of choosing classes and navigating the complex and often vexing transfer credit system.

Last fall, Savanah served as one of the guides for incoming transfers. “A lot of the advisors and professors do not know how transfer credits work or the complexity of which classes to take, whether or not to take Hum 110, etc,” she explained. “[And] we had a lot of transfers this year! About 40 [incoming] transfer students, and only two former transfer students helped with Griffin Guides.” In addition to registration counseling, the Griffin Guides program offered a Transfer 101 session to answer specific questions, as well as gatherings for small groups of new students to get to know one another. According to Savanah, the program was successful, though there is plenty of room for improvement. “It went fairly well, I certainly enjoyed it, but in the future it would be better to have a chance to talk to more students one-on-one, and for connections to go beyond just Orientation week,” she said.

Even as new programs help Orientation week and credit transferring become less of a hurdle, integrating into the community once classes begin can be daunting, especially for older students. Savanah explored several student groups and activities as she searched for her niche in the community. “There were quite a few [student organizations] that said that they only took "real freshmen," or that I couldn't join because I was a first-year. That was confusing and disappointing, but I did find that RELAY, SEEDS, PMP and a few others were really helpful in me making friends and feeling like I belonged.” For transfer and non-trad students placed in dorms, having roommates who are also transfer students goes a long way in establishing a sense of friendship and belonging. For Rebeca, finding people she could befriend was the most important factor for integrating into Reed. “Finding my place in the institution as a soc major and being an HA, and being useful to the community in that way, those things make me feel like I fit in.”

Savanah brought up how assumptions can keep transfer students from feeling welcome or having equal opportunities in the community. “I think there are a lot of stereotypes about what a "real" Reed student is. I worked 30-40 hours a week all three years at Reed. This meant that when professors wanted to move classes to a different day, evening or weekend, they often forgot that we have different schedules. Students at Reed come from a wide variety of backgrounds and "real life" experiences, and I think other students, faculty, staff and community members can sometimes forget this.” Rebeca expressed a similar sentiment about how certain activities don’t necessarily define what it means to be a Reedie. “I would tell myself that it’s okay to do Reed in my own way. I don’t go to balls, I spend a lot of time off campus. I’ve never been to Daft Ball and I don’t really care. Being okay with not doing all the usual ‘traditional’ Reed things has been important for me.”

As for how the institution canhelp improve the transfer student experience, Trulove acknowledged the difficulties presented in transferring credits. “Our credit system is really hard for people to navigate,” he said. “Things vary so much from department to department... I think what we have to do is make better resources and reconsider the credit evaluation process, as well as working to make Orientation more informative for people who have already been to college.” What steps can be taken to make a simpler credit transferring system at Reed remains to be seen, as well as how much the new Griffin Guides program will grow in coming years. “I think transfer students are really good for our community,” said Trulove. “They articulate Reed’s value in a really important way, because they’ve seen other places.”

Rebeca feels that she has found her place at Reed. This summer she will be working with Sociology professor Kjersten Bunker Whittington on a soon-to-be-published academic paper, after which she plans on applying to sociology graduate school. “This place has been really incredible for me,” Rebeca said. “It’s been a first time for a lot of things, I’ve found what I’m passionate about. I’m sad that I’m a senior and it’s all almost over.”