Small, but mighty: Transfer Student Center turns 20

Steven Nguyen is an academic counselor in the Transfer Student Center.

Steven Nguyen is one of two academic counselors at the Transfer Student Center, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this week. Events will include a nacho social, where students are encouraged to wear spirit gear from their previous schools. (UC Berkeley photo by Irene Yi)

UC Berkeley’s Transfer Student Center has hit a milestone — it’s 20th anniversary — and although squeezed since 1999 into space that once was a deli, and serving 32% more transfer students than it did then, the center is a model for schools nationwide. It was the UC system’s first transfer student center; some campuses have none.

Small, but mighty, the center offers comprehensive services for Berkeley’s 6,700-plus transfer students, who comprise 22% of all undergraduates: transfer success counseling, a transition course, workshops on career and professional development, mentoring programs, community-building events, an internship and leadership program and a place for transfers to meet, study, eat and get information and referrals.

Transfer Student Center 20th anniversary activities poster

Activities to celebrate the Transfer Student Center’s 20th run Tuesday through Friday this week.

There’s also a popular perk — 25-cent coffee.

“It’s a big thing,” says transfer student Taryn Kato, who leads a team of 15 to 20 students at the center who provide transfers with peer support. “Coffee can be pretty costly, but the price of ours hasn’t changed since the center opened.”

This week, National Transfer Student Week, the center is celebrating its anniversary from Tuesday to Friday. Having renamed it Transfer Pride Week, Berkeley’s center is offering activities that include free transfer student photos taken on Wednesday to help students create their professional profiles on LinkedIn. A more formal celebration will be held next February.

“Incoming juniors have careers and internships at the top of their minds, and it’s recruiting season for business majors,” explains Steven Nguyen, one of the center’s two academic counselors. “We bought a good camera and are providing practical help — everyone needs a LinkedIn photo and profile. I’ll be taking the photos, and Lorena will prep the students.”

Lorena Valdez is director of the Transfer Student Center

Transfer Student Center Director Lorena Valdez “has been a visionary for transfer student support from day one,” says Fabrizio Mejia, assistant vice chancellor for student equity and success. (UC Berkeley photo by Irene Yi)

Lorena is Lorena Valdez, the center’s director, who has “been a visionary for transfer student support services from day one,” says Fabrizio Mejia, Berkeley’s assistant vice chancellor for student equity and success. “In the late ‘90s, she planted and cultivated seeds that have yielded and are in the process of yielding a better transition and experience for our transfers.”

Says Kato, “She puts the students first and listens to us and our concerns, and that makes a difference. She always welcomes any transfer student to just come in and talk to her. Her door’s always open.”

Fixing a jolting experience

Before there was a Transfer Student Center, Valdez was a program coordinator at Berkeley’s Student Learning Center. Founded in 1973, the Student Learning Center — in the Cesar É. Chavez Student Center — provides academic support to nearly 10,000 undergraduates, about half the undergraduate population.

Valdez, who joined the campus staff in 1989, says that, at the time, there were only a few services for transfers scattered throughout campus. New Student Orientation focused on freshmen; transfers weren’t even mentioned. As a result, “one transfer student described her orientation experience to me as extremely disappointing, … jolting,” recalls Valdez.

The Transfer Student Center is popular and already this semester has handled 7,500 visits.

Already this semester, the popular center has handled 5,700 visits; 1,300 of them were unique visits. Transfer students study, relax, get information and make new friends. (UC Berkeley photo by Irene Yi).

Then, in February 1999, Valdez, who’d been teaching courses to help transfer students transition to Berkeley, was asked to implement the recommendations of a task force that had explored what transfers need most to succeed. Agreeing that this population of students requires a “specialized approach,” the committee urged the addition to Berkeley of a transfer student resource center, which opened in August 1999 in the Chavez Center, where a dining hall deli used to be.

It recommended “a place to foster social connections, a sense of belonging and identity … to facilitate integration into the student community, … an environment that is friendly and respectful.” The center also would grow to add academic workshops, orientation sessions, academic advisers just for transfers, a website, a handbook and a faculty, staff and student advisory committee.

A student works on her laptop in the Transfer Student Center.

Toys are a familiar sight in the space the Transfer Student Center shares with the Student Parent Center. The facility, within the Cesar É Chavez Student Center, once was a dining hall deli. (UC Berkeley photo by Irene Yi)

Over the decades, says Valdez, the center’s model of support has evolved “as we’ve learned about transfer students and some of the challenges they face. Many are low-income and first-generation college students — neither of their parents has a four-year college degree.

“And, a key challenge is that they have a short time to graduation. On average, they spend 2.15 years on campus. The ‘Transitioning to Cal: An Introduction to a Research University’ course we offer that helps transfers get their bearings has grown from two sections in 1999 to 19 sections today.”

Recent campus statistics show that 43% of new Berkeley transfers are first-generation college students, compared to 23% of freshmen. Ninety-five percent of transfers are from the California Community Colleges. The group is very diverse: for example, 29% are white, 27% Asian, 18% Chicanx/Latinx, 17% international and 5% African American.

Taryn Kato is a transfer student who works in the Transfer Student Center.

Taryn Kato, a transfer student, leads a team of 15-20 students at the center who provide transfers with peer support. (UC Berkeley photo by Irene Yi)

And while 24 is the average transfer’s age, says Valdez, “others are re-entry students 25 and older, student parents, student veterans or formerly incarcerated students. They bring life experience to Berkeley and a focused determination to succeed. Many overcome great odds to get here.”

By the time they graduate, she says, Berkeley transfer students’ GPAs and graduation rates are nearly identical to those of students who began as freshmen.

Students supporting students

A key to the center’s success was Berkeley students’ approval in 2015 of a self-imposed GOLD (Giving Opportunities and Leadership Development) student fee of $38 a year to increase holistic support for non-traditional students, including transfers. That support helped the center — and other programs and centers in Berkeley’s Centers for Educational Equity and Excellence (CE3) — to expand.

“Those funds represent a good portion of our total budget,” says Valdez. “That’s how Steve (Nguyen) came on, and we’ve been able to expand the transition courses to 15 in the fall and four in the spring. We have a course enrollment of 450 students in the fall and another 150 in the spring, and we have nine instructors.

“The courses are designed to help transfers transition to the university’s campus and culture, to introduce them to the landscape of a research university and to connect them to services.”

Transfer students at Berkeley comprise 22% of all undergraduates.

Transfer students at Berkeley comprise 22% of all undergraduates. They’re ethnically diverse and include parents, veterans, former foster youth and formerly incarcerated individuals. About 43% are first-generation college students, their average age is 24, and 95% attended the California Community Colleges. (UC Berkeley photo by Irene Yi)

But the “Transitioning to Cal” course filled so fast this fall that 300 transfers were turned away. “We’re constantly in the process of seeking more funding to grow this course and expand impact,” says Nguyen.

Diana Castro, who graduated from Berkeley in 2018, was a transfer and first-generation student from Southern California’s Irvine Valley College. She says the Transfer Student Center is an oasis for transfers who, with only two short years at Berkeley, “at first feel scared and behind and like they need to go the extra mile to catch up to those who have been on campus for a few years. Berkeley is an amazing school, but it can be difficult to navigate, to find out about resources.”

After her first semester at Berkeley, which Castro, a political science major, says was “a big adjustment period,” friends successfully urged her to visit the center. There, “I found a strong sense of community, a space for people to come together — whether for academic or personal reasons, or just to relax for a moment — and share information,” says Castro. “I loved it so much that I became a peer advocate and later was peer advocate lead until I graduated.”

A student does homework at the Transfer Student Center

After the two short years transfer students typically spend at Berkeley, campus data show that they graduate with grade point averages and graduation rates nearly identical to those of students who arrived as freshmen. The Transfer Student Center is an important part of their transition to a major four-year research university. (UC Berkeley photo by Irene Yi)

Kato says many transfer students are motivated to give back, so they help prospective transfer students through the center’s Starting Point Mentorship Program. Berkeley students receive academic credit for being matched with community college students and becoming their mentors. They urge them to enroll at four-year colleges and universities, she explains, and “help them with the admissions process, give them advice.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s free community college tuition plan also is likely to prompt more transfer students to apply to Berkeley. Valdez constantly ponders the next 20 years and how to grow the center, which shares a roof with the Student Parent Center.

In addition to a larger space, her wish list includes a second-year course for transfers that would focus on careers and graduate school, as well as scholarships for transfer students, a graduation gown-lending program, support for transfer students who commute from long distances and a summer residential program for incoming transfers.

“Being able to expand would be amazing,” says Kato, adding that, already this semester, the center has handled visits from 5,700 transfer students — including 1,300 unique visits. “Sometimes, there’s not enough space for everyone to sit down. We’re a large population on this campus.”