New Kids on the Quad

Glenn Matsumura

Scott Hartley likes to point out the wooden bench in the Quad where his life changed. Sitting there on a warm June afternoon nearly two years ago, the Palo Alto native had a revelation. He had just finished his second year of college, but the University of Virginia wasn’t meeting his expectations. Hartley felt at odds with classmates focused on landing plum business jobs and he wanted more than a Greek-centric social scene. Stanford, he realized, encouraged a broad liberal arts education and was a short Caltrain ride from culture-packed San Francisco. “That’s when it hit me,” he remembers. “I should be at Stanford.”

Come June, the political science major will graduate with the Class of 2005, but he won’t be able to reminisce with freshman dormmates, complain about IHUM or swap stories about Sophomore College. He is one of the 80 to 100 students who transfer to Stanford each year to complete their undergraduate careers. From Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and the University of Victoria in British Columbia, from Penn and Princeton and from two-year community colleges, they are newcomers in a strange land, veterans of collegiate life but unfamiliar with the local language and culture.

Late to join their classmates, transfer students arrive willing to face isolation and embrace uncertainty in the hope of finding better academics, more diversity, a new social scene. Some have to sacrifice previous course credits, or prove themselves as athletes all over again.

As much as the transfers look to Stanford to meet their needs, the University looks to them to add another dimension to campus life. “We believe that undergraduates who have attended another college bring an important perspective to the university,” the 2005 Application for Transfer Admission reads. “Stanford has, since its founding, reserved some places for transfer students, who normally comprise some eight percent of the student body.”

About 35 percent of U.S. college students in two- and four-year institutions transfer at some point during their postsecondary careers. (Officials in the registrar’s office say Stanford doesn’t record the numbers or destinations of students transferring from the Farm.) The University receives about 1,300 transfer applications annually and admits roughly 7 percent, compared to the 12.6 percent acceptance rate for freshmen last year. In 1999, an unusually high number of freshman applicants accepted their admission offers, so only 29 of 1,302 transfer applicants got in. (Transfer deadlines are later.) “That was a safety valve in some sense,” says Anna Marie Porras, director of admission and financial aid. “It worked for us, but it wasn’t ideal.”

Not ideal because transfers bring a special element to the classrooms and residence halls, says Porras, ’89, MA ’89. Besides having experienced academic life and culture at other colleges, “they know why they are coming to Stanford in a very different way than freshmen can. They’re moving here either from a four-year institution that isn’t quite suiting their needs or from a two-year institution that, almost by definition, doesn’t have the resources a place like Stanford has. So they’re coming here with a different kind of hunger and drive, and that’s a valuable thing.”

Like Scott Hartley, junior Katie Swanson from Hillsborough, Calif., first chose an Eastern university. She grew up attending youth soccer camps and football games at Stanford, so the Farm seemed too close to home. “I wanted that ideal Ivy League, East Coast feeling,” she says. “I’m kind of preppy, so Princeton seemed like the perfect place.” Swanson visited the campus, liked the students she met and applied early decision. Once accepted, she ditched her unfinished Stanford application—but only temporarily. After 21⁄2 years at Princeton, she realized something wasn’t right.

“I was really loving my classes and professors, but with the social atmosphere, there wasn’t a lot of diversity,” she says. “Even if there were kids from different races, everyone thought the same, everyone had similar attitudes and values. I was in a sorority and a good eating club, and that was what defined me: my title and my status. I was used to California where you can be friends with everyone and you can have different interests. I just felt like I was missing part of my education.”

Swanson thought Stanford’s friendly atmosphere and reputation for open-mindedness would be a better fit, so she began the transfer process midway through her junior year. The application is similar to the freshman version—but it also wants to know why applicants wish to leave their current institution and why they find Stanford attractive.

For some, the choice is pragmatic. Gillian Gentry worked 20-hour weeks to pay her way through two years at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, earning an associate degree and a 4.0 grade point average. UCLA, UC-Berkeley and Stanford offered her transfer admission. Gentry considered the financial aid packages: Cal’s tuition was cheaper, but the state deducted a “parental contribution” from her aid entitlement even though she’d be putting herself through school. Stanford’s grants and loans negated the difference, so she chose the Farm.

The University recognizes that transfer students have different needs than freshmen, and plans accordingly. “With all of our programming, we balance their desire to become part of their class with their need to have some extra attention at the outset,” says Krista Zizzo, director of outreach and assessment in the freshman dean’s office.

For Swanson, the first step was to meet with Phil Spitz, a specialist in the registrar’s office who deals with transfer credit. Students can transfer no more than 90 units, or two years’ worth of classes, so Spitz spent several hours examining her previous courses, outlining an academic plan and introducing her to various administrators. “I almost wanted to give him a hug,” Swanson says of the unexpected attention.

Such pre-arrival treatment is routine. Sally Mentzer, coordinator of transfer advising, encourages students to see her during the summer to discuss their academic interests. In early August, “Transfer Visit Day” provides a chance to mingle and explore campus resources. Transfers also can participate in the Stanford Pre-Orientation Trip, a five-day backpacking excursion into the Sierra Nevada. Each 10-member SPOT group hikes between four and seven miles per day, and after setting up camp each evening, they share stories, play games and ask current students (their trip leaders) what Stanford is really like. The program was created in 2003 to foster community among transfers before they’re immersed in the frenetic pace of Orientation.

Transfer students appreciate the special attention when they arrive on campus, suddenly sharing the spotlight with more than 1,600 eager freshmen. “At times you feel like you’re this little group lost in a huge sea shouting ‘Go Branner’ and all of that,” says Gentry, who will graduate this year. She welcomed Stanford’s practice of pairing transfers as roommates and assigning groups of them to a handful of neighboring dorms.

“It was really helpful to have that community in place, to be in Kimball [Hall] and have transfers around,” Gentry says. “When you’re a transfer, you feel inexperienced about Stanford but you don’t feel inexperienced about college itself. And that’s what was helpful about having transfer-specific orientation activities. [Otherwise] you’d show up to one of the freshman ones and go, ‘I feel old. I don’t need to hear about dating and sex in college. I’ve been there.’”

When the euphoria of September dissipates into the midterms and problem sets of October, many transfers are anxious to prove they belong. Gentry, who still works long hours at a Coldwell Banker branch to finance her education, worried whether her community college background had prepared her to succeed in classes with Stanford peers who knew the ropes. Getting back her first assignment was a defining moment.

“I was pretty scared because I didn’t know if my past experience prepared me for the kind of paper a Stanford professor would expect,” Gentry says. When she got back her research paper on King Alfred for a class called History of the English Language, “I got an A! I was really overjoyed. I was like, ‘Yes, I can do this. I can work as hard as I worked at Foothill and I’m smart enough to get A’s at Stanford.’”

Some transfers from four-year universities are eager to dispel any misconceptions. People often wonder why Swanson, a sociology major, left Princeton for a school of similar stature, but she doesn’t let their imaginations fill in the blanks.

“I do feel like there’s a mentality that we’re all escaping something, that we didn’t have any friends at our old school so we came here to try and find friends,” Swanson says. “None of the transfers I’ve met are like that at all. No one was running from something, but I feel like I have to explain myself to people.”

“I don’t think of the transfers as students who are escaping something,” admission director Porras says. “We’re looking for the students who are drawn to Stanford because of what we offer.”

For Tapiwa Mabaye, the Farm offered plenty. A native of Harare, Zimbabwe, he had visited the United States during high school and wanted to come back. Financial aid was a top priority, and Mabaye learned that Colby College was highly ranked for granting aid to international students. In a winter scene in its viewbook, “You’d see students on skis as if they’re going to class, and I was like, ‘Wow, that seems cool!’” He was also drawn to Colby’s finance and economics courses.

But Colby was not what he expected. Mabaye longed for a more challenging academic atmosphere and diverse student body. As for skiing to class? “Trust me, I never saw anyone do that at Colby,” he says. Mabaye applied to Stanford, Harvard, Yale and Wharton. Harvard and Yale admitted him, but Stanford matched the financial aid he was receiving at Colby, so he chose the Farm. As soon as he left for the Sierra on a SPOT excursion, he knew he had made the right decision.

“We joked that after seeing people at their grimiest, dirtiest, with no sleep and in their worst state, there’s nothing else to know about each other,” he says. “It was really great. The kids who went on the SPOT trip are definitely much tighter.” Mabaye is thousands of miles from home, but in his transfer friends he’s found a support network. And he’s finally comfortable with his campus identity: “At Colby, I was the international kid. At Stanford I feel more like a normal kid.”

It was the transition from Colby’s semester system to Stanford’s quarters that proved difficult for Mabaye. Other transfers grapple with Farm lingo. When Swanson tells friends she’s on her way to a discussion section, “I’m going to precepts” usually rolls off her tongue. She also calls her Stanford ID her “proximity card.” For Gentry, shopping for classes was a new phenomenon; she was so used to preregistering for classes at Foothill, she spent the first two weeks of fall quarter wondering, “What deadline have I missed?” Adam Kreek, from the University of Victoria, refers to his fall quarter as a “pretty intense first quad.” Coming from a comparatively staid campus, he was startled to stumble upon a Big Game pep rally and marveled at the prevalence of a cappella groups.

Indeed, it’s the lighter side of Stanford that strikes some newcomers. Michael LeBeau, who spent two years at the University of Chicago, transferred to Stanford to major in symbolic systems. LeBeau, a senior, says his former classmates took pride in T-shirts reading, “The University of Chicago: Where Fun Comes to Die”; at Stanford, he was thrilled not to be the only person in his dorm with a television. Chris Holt, a junior who spent a year at Middlebury, says transferring was the best decision he ever made and calls his first year at Stanford his “freshman year.” Holt was so enthralled with the Band’s unruly orientation rally—he likened it to a soccer riot—he joined their ranks days later. He also writes a Daily column.

Transfers find their footing in a variety of ways. Kreek was on Canada’s Olympic crew team in Athens and joined the Stanford crew. Another student, an ethnic Albanian from Kosovo who had spent time in a refugee camp, transferred from the College of Marin and was one of the first to join a new ethnomusicology club.

Even after settling in, some transfers miss certain aspects of their former schools. Hartley says his friends at Virginia were more spontaneous; at Stanford, hanging out with friends requires a long look at everyone’s busy schedules. Carey Myslewski, a sophomore physics major and rugby player, came to the Farm after a year at Wesleyan in Middletown, Conn. Although the rigorous academic work is a perfect fit, she says, at the smaller school she was able to play varsity volleyball. Chris Holt says he’d like to donate the proceeds of his first novel to Stanford, but he sometimes misses the frigid days at Middlebury when classmates dropped everything to go skiing.

For all their differences, most transfers use the same word to describe one other: courageous. Leaving the comfort of close friends and familiar locations for something new, with no assurance it will fulfill their needs, is a brave undertaking.

Just ask Carolyn Chiang. A senior from Greencastle, Ind., Chiang was a pianist who had performed at the White House and Carnegie Hall. After three years in the Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins, she began experiencing chronic pain in her left hand and wrist. Doctors recommended she stop playing piano. With her career derailed, Chiang thought transferring might help her refocus on academics. NYU offered admission first, but when she called Stanford to get a decision, former dean of admission Robin Mamlet immediately asked how her hand was doing, then offered her a place. Mamlet’s concern helped alleviate Chiang’s misgivings about crossing the country.

“It’s hard to leave the life that you know,” says the political science major. “It would have been much easier to stay at Hopkins. I knew Baltimore, I had friends there, I had my life there. You need to be okay with uncertainty because it’s a big decision to leave where you are. And what if you get there and it’s not better?”

For athletes, the decision can be even more wrenching. Brooke Smith was a star basketball player at Marin Catholic High School before choosing Duke over Stanford in what she calls an “overwhelming recruiting process.” After a disappointing freshman year in which she saw little playing time, Smith wanted to transfer even though NCAA rules meant she’d have to sit out a year. “If basketball’s not going well,” she says, “that affects just about everything else I’m doing.”

Stanford was the only school Smith considered, and while she liked the fact it was closer to home, there were no guarantees about basketball. “I was like, ‘If basketball is worse than it is at Duke, if basketball just doesn’t translate as I’m hoping it will, is it still a valid switch for me to make?’” Smith says. “I decided that it was definitely worth it for me. I love being in the Bay Area and the academics here are top in the country. So regardless of how basketball turned out, I knew this was going to be a better fit for me overall.”

Leaving her Duke teammates—a close-knit group she still counts as friends—was difficult, but they encouraged her to do what made her happy. Currently Stanford’s starting center, Smith thinks last year’s stint on the sidelines was responsible for her breakout success this season. “I got a year to adjust to my new situation, get some more skills, play with the team and get to know everyone prior to being out on the court,” she says.

Swanson uses an offbeat example to describe what she thinks sets transfers apart. “A lot of the transfers I’ve met are take-charge people,” she says. “In the dining hall, when the chocolate syrup runs out and everyone is just standing there, it’s always the transfer who goes, ‘Let’s go see if there’s more, let’s go ask for more.’ If they don’t get it, they don’t get it, but they think the possibilities are out there for something better. I feel like the transfers are all kids who believe they can have more—and better—if they know where to look for it.”

As Porras puts it, “Transfers are just not willing to compromise their education, and I think that’s a really positive thing.”

Once they graduate, is the alumni experience any different for transfer students than for four-years? Jerold Pearson, director of market research for the Alumni Association, surveyed 605 alumni in November 2002 and found no difference in their feelings about Stanford. “Transfers, however, are much less likely to have a close affinity with their graduating class, and are a bit less likely to feel part of the greater Stanford community,” he says. Pearson admits the transfer sample size was too small to make reliable statistical inferences but offers one example as proof: himself.

Pearson, ’75, transferred from Amherst. “I was fleeing from my ex-girlfriend” who attended nearby Smith College, he recalls, only half joking. “I’ve learned how to deal with misfortune and sadness in a more mature way, but in those days, the best way was to flee.”

Looking back, Pearson sees the Farm as much more than a refuge for the lovelorn. “It gave me a huge sense of self-confidence that I don’t think I had before,” he says. “Whether that self-confidence came from having the courage as an 18-year-old to make a change after only a year and a half, or just being accepted at Stanford and being able to thrive, I’m not sure. But I’ve always been very appreciative of Stanford, and I feel, whether it was intentional or not, that Stanford really made a difference in my life.”

Back on his bench, Scott Hartley is months away from graduation. Rather than a small ceremony under Virginia’s famed rotunda, he looks forward to a raucous Wacky Walk and reflects on the path he has chosen.

“Your first two years of college, you really learn about yourself, and the second two years you learn things from school,” he says. “I got to know myself at the University of Virginia, but I’m so glad I got to know Stanford.”

Editor's note: This story has been altered from the print version.

JOSHUA FRIED, '01, is a writer in San Francisco.