When Stephen Los Baños remembers his USC Welcome Week, he remembers being alone. And it set the tone for his first semester at USC.
“The famed Trojan spirit was all around me, but I felt extremely out of place,” said Los Baños, a senior majoring in narrative studies and communication. “Everything seemed to be catered to the incoming freshman class. They were celebrating the Class of 2015, but I was coming in as part of the Class of 2014. I was like, ‘I don’t belong here.’”
Los Baños, 29, is one of 1,487 students who transferred to USC in 2011. Looking back, he would not trade his experience at USC for anything. But it was not an easy road for him to get where he is today. Los Baños worked full time for 10 years out of high school before getting laid off when the economy slumped. He decided to attend West Los Angeles College and graduated two years later as his class valedictorian.
Following the urgings of his professors and mentors, he set his sights on continuing his education. USC was his first choice and Los Baños felt elated when he was accepted. He even created a Facebook page for other incoming transfer students to connect before school started. His first semester at USC, however, was an uphill battle.
“I had to fight some demons,” Los Baños said. “I was very lonely and I got depressed. My age played a big part as well because I was just swimming in a sea of very young people. But, eventually, I just kind of realized that I’m here for me. I taught myself that you define what it means to be a Trojan on your own. We build this strong network of Trojans but it’s not like you just jump in and you’re there. You have to ask yourself what you can bring to the table. When I shifted my focus, that’s when I got empowered to do well. And from there, I charged straight through.”
Los Baños’ story is not unique. Though transfer students make up significant amount of the undergraduate population, many transfer students feel like an underrepresented minority, especially during their first semesters at USC.
Alex Rose, a senior majoring in communication, transferred to USC from Marymount Community College in 2011. Rose said it took time to feel at home at USC.
“You’re essentially dropped in a social environment where everyone has formed their cliques from freshman year because they met in the dorms and they were all bonding over something at a similar time,” Rose said. “USC didn’t really do much to help sort of mediate what transfers are feeling and make them feel like they are not alone. It’s like it’s assumed that transfers already know what college life is about, but the truth is that USC is different from many other schools.”
Coming from a small high school and college, the size and scale of USC was a new experience for Rose. In order to start to feel more comfortable, he went out of his way to join activities and organizations to find his own niche on campus.
“I knew that if I stayed quiet and sort of just went along my way going to classes and doing homework that I would not meet people. I needed to get involved with things,” Rose said. “That’s something transfer students need to know. You do have to make the effort to put yourself out there or else you will get alienated from social life.”
One of the organizations he felt most at home with was El Rodeo, the student yearbook. Director of Student Publications Mona Cravens, who oversees the operations of El Rodeo and the Daily Trojan, got to know Rose. And when Theta Chi contacted her asking for names of students who might be interested in helping establish the fraternity, she passed his along.
“At the time, Theta Chi was being reintroduced on campus and they were looking for founding fathers to restart the chapter. She told the recruiter that I might be a good candidate for starting a fraternity,” Rose said. “I did join Theta Chi as a founding father and things just fell into place. That was sort of my ‘in’ for making connections.”
Looking back at his experience, Rose said USC could do more for transfer students.
“I just wish USC did a better job of raising awareness on campus that there are tons of transfer students that enter USC per semester,” Rose said. “I think if that was something that people felt they could be more open about, they would feel that they weren’t alone and that would contribute to them feeling like they’re not the minority here. They’re not.”
One thing Rose said might help is creating more orientations and programs for transfer students. He was unable to attend a transfer orientation because he could not make any of the four scheduled dates, one of which is catered specifically toward international students.
“They definitely have way more dates for freshmen to do orientation and that’s sad because it almost feels like they don’t really value the experiences of transfers,” Rose said.
Despite obstacles that Rose had to face, he said that his experiences at USC have given him unparalleled, rewarding opportunities.
“USC is one of the best things that has ever happened to me,” Rose said. “The hard work that it’s taken me to get acclimated to USC life has paid off. I am able to refine my career goals and have a better vision of what I want to do afterward because of the direction that USC gives students the freedom to take.”
The university has taken steps to make the transition smoother for transfer students, such as the Transfer and Veteran Student Programs, founded by the Office of Campus Activities in the Division of Student Affairs in the fall of 2011. Run by Assistant Director Syreeta Greene, the goal of the program is to identify campus resources and serve as an advocate for transfer students matriculating into USC.
“There really wasn’t much by way of an overall program before this,” Greene said. “We did have something known as the scholarship program that focused on three community colleges that are part of USC’s family of schools … [but] that was a grant-funded program and that grant funding ended a few years ago. Beyond that USC didn’t really have anything in place, so departments filled in the gap in terms of reaching out and supporting students in their particular areas.”
Greene runs the center with the help of one student worker and the student transfer ambassadors. Her goal is to make her department a one-stop shop for transfer students.
“Transfer students are very diverse, there’s a little bit of everyone from your traditionally aged college student, who’s 18, 19 years old, to your non-traditional student, who’s maybe 40 and has a family and also commutes to USC,” Greene said. “My focus is on that first semester for first-year students at USC. So far, what we can tell is once a transfer student feels integrated in the community they’re good — they have their network then, whether it’s academic, career wise, or personal.”
In addition to its office located in the Ronald Tutor Campus Center, the department has a website which has information on financial aid, scholarships, academic resources and social events. Greene also emails a biweekly newsletter out to students to keep them informed on what is going on around campus.
“Part of the issue for transfer students is just identifying those opportunities and that information. If they don’t live on campus, there isn’t an RA who’s posting that information in a resident hall,” Greene said. “I have a number of different colleagues and liaisons across the campus that I work with to help them better understand the transfer experience, while also being able to [use them to] connect a student directly to a key person in a particular department.”
Though Greene said the program is in line with peer institutions in terms of providing an orientation, reaching out to students and letting them know what resources are available, she hopes to tailor the program to fit students’ specific needs at USC.
“As we continue to evolve, we’re just really honing in on what we can do to serve transfer students and aid in their transition here at USC,” Greene said. “That’s unfolding as we go along, as we are getting more students to even know that this program exists. We want to really hear them out so we can transition something that is unique to the university and really aids in retention and graduation of our transfer students.”
Spring admits make up one of the groups of transfer students with needs different from the larger community. Though transferring in the fall can be hard for students, transferring in the spring, in many ways, can be even more difficult. Christian Sibrian, a spring admit majoring in business administration, transferred to USC after spending two and a half years at University of California, Riverside. Though USC was her dream school, it wasn’t easy for her to come here.
Because Sibrian, now a junior, was unaware that she could apply for scholarships before she was accepted, she missed out on various merit and financial need-based grants when she came to USC. During orientation, she also said she wasn’t given the clearance to take the classes that she needed to take right away in order to graduate on time. Despite these obstacles, Sibrian said that when things were difficult, she constantly reminded herself that she was where she had always wanted to be.
“Ever since I was little, I thought, ‘I could go there, I could do it.’ The Shrine Auditorium is where I had my eighth grade graduation. I remember walking out of those doors looking across at USC thinking, ‘I’m not there yet, but I will be eventually,’” Sibrian said. “Then I came to orientation and heard about the five traits of being a Trojan: faithful, scholarly, skillful, courageous and ambitious. In my first semester, I was tested in all those things and I was like, ‘I just have to make it through.’”
Sibrian said she felt the impact of a USC course schedule as soon as she started classes.
“I could see the difference in the way the classes are structured. The teachers are more one-on-one,” Sibrian said. “When it comes to the recruiting process to get internships, at UCR I felt like I had to work 10 times harder to get the attention of a recruiter, versus here the recruiter comes to us. There’s this certain reputation and prestige that comes with USC and it’s true that the Trojan network exists.”
Today, she identifies with both schools, explaining that each experience has added to her personal and professional growth.
“UCR was very important for me finding what I want to do and it gave me that conviction to go after what I wanted and USC is me pursuing it,” Sibrian said. “Even though I never felt that spirit at UCR, I’ve always been a Trojan since day one. That’s something I wrote in my personal statement. I’ve been a Trojan forever. I went to UCR, I found myself and I came over here.”
For Sibrian, one of the most challenging parts of coming to USC was during the interim period when she was admitted to USC but was not yet enrolled. She pointed out that programs such as the Trojan Transfer Ambassadors, run by student volunteers at the Transfer and Veteran Student Programs and geared to help transfer students at USC, focus solely on students who are just coming in, not those who are admitted but have not yet started at USC.
“I would like the school to reach out more to students that have been admitted and are in the period where they are getting ready to come to USC,” Sibrian said. “I know there’s alumni SCendoffs, but as a spring admit, sometimes it feels awkward because you’re like, ‘I’m not here yet, but can I come to this event?’ I think that’s something that could be worked on — the school saying you’re a Trojan even though you’ll be joining us in January … It does feel a little bit awkward because you don’t feel like an official member yet.”
Student-created resources are also available for fall and spring transfer students. Los Baños’ Facebook group, for example, gave transfer students a place to talk about the transfer process, find roommates and discuss housing options.
“It caught like rapid fire. Suddenly this community of transfer kids from all over the place found my page and we started talking,” Los Baños said. “Like 99 percent of the friends I have now are from that original transfer group. We stuck together. They formed their own groups. They became roommates, best friends, study buddies, romantic partners … So much came out of that original group.”
Over the next two years, Los Baños has made successive groups to give students a place to discuss everything from the admissions processes, to articulation agreements, to financial aid information to housing tips. Now there are six groups to represent individual communities for fall admits and spring admits each semester.
“I realized that being underrepresented kind of sucks. If I can be that one voice to lift someone’s spirit and give someone hope about being a transfer student and being successful at it, then why not?” Los Baños said.
Los Baños also got involved with transfer organizations on campus. JaBari Brown, an academic adviser at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, approached Los Baños and a fellow transfer student to see if they could collectively revive the student Trojan Transfer Organization at USC in 2011. The ideas proposed for TTO became the Transfer Student Ambassadors outreach program, which could focus more on individual experiences of transfer students.
“Syreeta Greene is amazing. I stayed with her and I was part of every single pilot program they did,” Los Baños said. “I’m a part of literally every transfer thing that happened in that office. I was at every single event, the planning, the execution. It means a lot to me.”
He embraces the label of being a transfer student because he said it’s part of his identity.
“It’s important to know I’m a transfer student here, to declare it, because I feel like as a transfer student I did have to face some things that traditional incoming freshmen didn’t have to face,” Los Baños said.
Both in his own personal experience and in those of his friends, Los Baños said transfer students bring their own culture to USC.
“I feel like because we’re coming from so many different places beyond the context of high school that we’ve already been exposed to different kinds of issues at that post-high school level, whether that be geographic differences, diversity differences or anything like that. A lot of us are transfer students for a myriad of reasons: We have children, we joined the workforce, we went to the military. … All of that comes together united as transfer students,” Los Baños said. “We feed that body of diversity and collectively we create a community here, which is not very recognized — I mean, it’s getting there, but it takes a lot of work.”
Los Baños, who is preparing to graduate this spring, said that if someone told him when he first started that he would be where he is today, he wouldn’t believe it.
“When I look back at the experience, it’s like I wouldn’t have changed it at all because I learned so much. I grew so much,” Los Baños said. “This university has given me all the tools I need to move forward. It’s been a very bumpy ride but a very fulfilling one.”
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