Transfer Students at GW Follow Unique Journeys

The number of students transferring into GW has almost doubled since 2005.

Transfer student Kate Hines. (William Atkins)
Transfer student Kate Hines. (William Atkins)
December 18, 2017

By Ruth Steinhardt

By the time Matt Bucher arrived as an undergraduate at the George Washington University, he already had a career. A Navy veteran, he had applied his G.I. Bill benefits toward an associate’s degree from Northern Virginia Community College and had a job as a government contractor. But he wanted to advance his career and expand his study of international affairs. GW seemed like the place.

“I work in a technical field, but I wanted to get to the analyst side of the house,” he said. “I felt like international affairs was a good opportunity for that.”

Mr. Bucher was one of 735 transfer students to arrive at GW in fall 2017—roughly 300 of them admitted through the central Undergraduate Admissions Office, and the rest through the School of Nursing, the School of Medicine and Health Sciences and the College of Professional Studies. Like many, he isn’t exactly a traditional undergrad. He works full time and can only attend classes in the morning and evening.

In fact, Mr. Bucher was hesitant to apply to GW at first, partly because the Common Application presented difficulties for nontraditional students. The application is undergoing revision in an effort to be friendlier to students entering from all different life stages, but some questions on the current version don’t make a lot of sense for students not applying from four-year to four-year schools.

“It required you to get your class standing from high school,” Mr. Bucher said. “That was 16 years ago for me.”

But GW admissions staff helped him work around the obstacles as part of their effort to support students who have switched tracks to come to GW. The number of students transferring into GW has risen gradually but steadily over the past decade and has almost doubled since 2005, when 383 transfers enrolled.

Laurie Koehler, vice provost for enrollment management and retention, said transfer students bring a unique point of view both in and out of the classroom.

“You all bring a level of intentionality that is different,” Ms. Koehler told students at a visit day event for potential transfer students in May.

No Shame in Changing

Kate Hines, now a senior in the Elliott School of International Affairs, was a panelist at that visit day. For her, “intentionality” has sometimes meant living with uncertainty about what path she wanted to pursue.

When Ms. Hines graduated from high school, she deferred her admission to engineering school in order to take a gap year as an exchange student in Belgium. But that year, and the people and perspectives she encountered during it, made her realize that what really interested her were the relationships between countries and cultures. The dream she’d always had—to be an engineer—might not be the career for her after all.

“That was a really scary thing, realizing that this thing I’d wanted forever was not what I wanted,” she said.

But Ms. Hines said that moment of fear was also “a catalyst for understanding that it’s OK to change your plans.” So she gave up her deferred admission and returned to her home state of New Jersey for two years of community college before applying to GW.

“If something’s not right for you, there’s no shame in making a change,” she said.

That openness to change has served her well at GW, where the flexibility of her interests has led her in unexpected directions. “I took a geography class, and now I’m considering getting an advanced degree in geography,” Ms. Hines said.

Like Ms. Hines, Grant Smith planned to be an engineer—until he also realized that wasn’t what he wanted at all. But unlike her, he was already a college student when he had his epiphany. Sequestered in a laboratory at the University of Delaware, he listened enviously to his supervisor talking about attending funding meetings—not a subject most would have found compelling. But Mr. Smith was discovering that he missed interacting with people, and he yearned to work on larger policy issues rather than do narrowly focused research.

“I seriously considered transferring my first year, but I decided I needed to stay for a whole year just to see if it was freshman year jitters,” Mr. Smith said.

He took on leadership roles in student organizations at the University of Delaware and formed friendships he still values. But, he said, “I still woke up every day thinking, ‘This isn’t for me.’”

Instead, he wanted to be at the heart of Washington, D.C., where national politics were at their most vibrant. So he applied and was accepted to GW.

“Transferring was the first time I had to make an adult decision that wasn’t just emotional,” he said.

GW Offers Help for Transfers

All three students faced challenges, especially at the beginning. GW offers transfer students a special Colonial Inauguration at which they register for classes and attend orientation sessions on issues specific to transfers.

Ms. Hines said her adviser helped her navigate the tricky waters of class selection.

“You think you know what classes you need, but you don’t,” she said. “Of the five classes I’d suggested I ended up taking just one of them. So that was the biggest initial help that I had.”

Once transfer students arrive, the Office of Enrollment Retention and the Center for Student Engagement have established programs to support them. Those include the TEAM mentorship program, which matches new transfer students to more experienced ones who can help them adjust to their new school.

Yiwen Chen was assigned mentor Ashley Hidalgo last year when she transferred to GW from China’s Dalian University of Technology. She said Ms. Hidalgo was a resource on basic questions like where to eat and how to get around, but also for larger ones—like the questions Ms. Chen had when she discovered in the spring that she needed her wisdom teeth removed.

“I didn’t know how much it would cost, I didn’t know how insurance works,” Ms. Chen said. “Ashley helped email the student center for me. The TEAM program is really cool especially for international students because we not only have problems like American students, we also have to get used to the language and culture. So it’s really a relief knowing someone will help you when you are in need.”

Mr. Bucher faced a different kind of social hurdle. As a professional in his mid 30s, attending classes first thing in the morning and working the rest of the time, he felt he was in a social space distinct from his 18- to 22-year-old classmates.

“I’ve found community with other veteran students,” Mr. Bucher said. “It’s easier to try to get together with other vets, easier to get an honest feel for what they recommend in terms of classes. I think everyone at this school is bright and intelligent, but sometimes there’s perspective you have as an older student that’s just different.”

Mr. Smith said he was “generally pretty shy” when he arrived on campus but forced himself to muscle through.

“You have to dive in right away,” he said. “I tried to be much more social than I ever have been and get involved. That meant going to student orgs, going to events, expanding my network, trying all these things I never thought I’d want to or be interested in.”

As a result, Mr. Smith is now a volunteer with Camp Kesem and a co-executive director of the GW chapter of refugee support organization No Lost Generation.

“I was always really tired, honestly,” Mr. Smith admitted of his arrival at GW. “But I knew it was the best choice within a week of being on campus. Genuine passion was what brought me to GW, and I knew I’d found that.”

When he came home for the holiday break, Mr. Smith’s family confirmed the improvement he’d felt internally.

“My dad said, ‘You look genuinely happy for the first time in a year,’” he said.

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