The college experience you won't find in the brochures.
"Cuando das tu palabra, das tu palabra.”
When you give your word, you give your word.
This is a saying that my dad always told me growing up.
As I pushed the last box into the back of my family’s packed Honda Odyssey, my dad reminded me of the promise I had made. He offered me una torta con huevos y frijoles. I took the torta from his hand and placed it in my bookbag with no intention of eating it. My nerves held my appetite hostage that entire morning.
The moment my mom took her foot off the brake and switched it to the accelerator, I knew that I was making a mistake. As we crossed state lines, my dad shuffled through Selena, Luis Miguel and Marc Anthony. I erased all the negative thoughts from my mind, each escaping through the small crack in the driver’s side door into vast cornfields of the rural Midwest.
However, six hours was not enough time to wipe out the feeling. As the car pulled up to Campus Drive that Labor Day weekend, I knew I had traveled 400 miles in the wrong direction.
Pero, había dado mi palabra, y estaba listo para cumplirla.
But, I had given my word, and I was ready to honor it.
Many students enter college fresh out of high school. Other than some community college students, most enter with the intention of graduating from the same school they matriculated into. But this isn’t always the case. The narrative of transfer students is non-traditional and often overlooked.
Northwestern is one of several top universities across the country accepting more transfers than ever. According to the University’s common data set, Northwestern accepted 150 transfer students in the fall of 2017. Joining a growing community of transfers already on campus, this group was the largest class of transfer students yet. This cohort came from all over the country, each carrying their own reasons for transferring.
“I remember it was one of the only times that I saw my mom cry — when she was telling me, ‘Yeah, we probably can’t afford for you to go to Bowdoin,’” says Luke Cimarusti, a third year in Weinberg. As he pushes a strand of his long blond hair behind his ear, he recalls this once-painful memory with a tone of acceptance, healing and closure. “She wanted to give me everything, so bless her heart.”
Despite being accepted into his dream school, Bowdoin College, he had received no financial aid. For that reason, he was forced to attend a 31,000- student public state school, which was far from the intimate college experience he had hoped for.
This trend continued with every school he got into. While his friends committed to their dream schools, his list dwindled down quickly. He was left with only two options: the University of Washington-Seattle or the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He chose the former.
“As I was putting ‘yes’ to matriculating into the school, I was like, ‘I am going to transfer out of there,’” Cimarusti says.
Despite setting his mind on transferring, he says he gave it a chance. If he was going to survive the year at UW-Seattle, it would be better to do it with friends.
Cimarusti met a tight -knit group of people at a queer bingo night in the fall. However, within a month of knowing them, he says he realized he didn’t like them. Despite having friends, he was not happy.
"Why try and make meaningful connections if I am leaving to begin with?” Cimarusti says. “That sort of contributed to this overall sense of alienation from the culture.”
Similar to Cimarusti, while my body was physically present at St. Olaf College, my mind was miles away, envisioning how my life would be different at a new school. On a Saturday morning in early December, three months after I moved in, I realized I could no longer handle the chronic feeling of displacement.
In high school, I was named a POSSE scholar, granting me a full-tuition scholarship that sends select groups of 10 students to colleges across the country. I was convinced it was the only opportunity I would ever receive to go to college. With this scholarship, I could eliminate any financial anxieties my parents had and be guaranteed a college education. I acted purely on economic practicality and told myself that I could adapt and grow to love whatever school gave me the most money. However, the instant I signed the early decision form, I knew I had made a mistake. But the fear of being blacklisted from other colleges, combined with the guilt of taking a scholarship that could have aided someone else, was enough to convince me to stick it out for as long as possible.
For weeks, I had avoided the moment when I would have to tell my mom about my decision to transfer. Just the thought of adding another financial burden on my parents paralyzed me. I paced back and forth in my dorm, becoming more anxious the longer the phone rang.
“I don’t think I want to be here anymore,” I said when she finally picked up. Those nine words hurt.
Like most moms, she already knew. She was simply waiting for my phone call.
“En esta vida no más hay una,” she told me. “Your dad and I will do whatever it takes to support you.”
For the first time, I asked myself what I wanted. I could finally breathe.
While my friends spent their fall semester joining student government, cultural clubs and going on weekend trips to the Mall of America, I spent my free time in the library researching as many colleges as possible.
I barely knew how to apply to college the first time, and now I had to do it all over again. I spent the month of January writing personal statements and supplemental essays, requesting transcripts from both my college and high school.
The transfer application process is an isolating one. With so little information and statistics out there, it requires spending hours on sites like College Confidential, Transferology and even YouTube to figure out where to go next, all the while juggling a full course load, part-time jobs and extracurriculars. The lonely experience is an undertaking many transfers keep to themselves for months.
“I didn’t tell anyone except the teachers whose letters I needed, and I felt very secretive,” says McCormick second year Nate Friedle. “People would have treated me differently.”
Friedle is a film junkie turned civil engineer. He spent his freshman year 15 miles away from Northwestern at DePaul University. On any given day after class, he would spend several hours watching films. It was his way of staying detached from the school and making it easier to eventually leave.
Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, Northwestern was always in the picture. He says it was one of his top schools, and even when he didn’t get in the first time, he didn’t lose hope. Friedle was prepared to apply again. However, his determination to go to Northwestern affected his experience at DePaul.
“If you know you kind of don’t belong to a school, you don’t assimilate into that school,” Friedle says. “I had my mind made up that I didn’t want to be there, so I didn’t allow myself to enjoy it.”
While Friedle didn’t let himself integrate into his former school, third year transfer Alyssa Hiraoka spent two years trying to make University of California, Berkeley a home. Yet being fully integrated only made the decision to transfer more painful.
Before moving to Berkeley, Hiraoka went to Bed, Bath & Beyond several times to make sure her bedding matched all the decorations in her room. She hung up posters from museums she had visited throughout her life.
Despite her attempts to blend into Berkeley, she still felt out of place. She joined a sorority, the club water polo team, intramural sports, a consulting club and student government. She even joined a hip-hop dance group, despite not knowing how to dance. But none of these groups felt like a community, and the taxing culture of Berkeley created a toxic environment for Hiraoka. Within the first couple of months she began sleeping less, studying more and trying to find the perfect internship.
“You have these little robots that bring around Soylent to people, and you can order it off your phone,” she says. “People don’t shower, so when you are taking exams it just smells bad in the room.”
Her second year, she decided to live with her closest friend. They had taken on the whirlwind of general chemistry together and both struggled to make Berkeley home. When it came to deciding their housing plans for the next year, it was a natural fit for them to room together.
But in November, one of her other roommates told her that her closest friend had been stealing from them. For several months, she had taken clothing, makeup and even a Tiffany & Co. necklace from their rooms.
“I was just like, ‘You know what? I just need a fresh start,’” Hiraoka says. “I need to go somewhere else, have the opportunity to make some new friends and go to a place that’s not so intense or toxic.”
She scoured the Northwestern Facebook page for a roommate, thinking she could move past her experience. However, her ability to trust another person to live with was ruined. She decided not to take the chance and opted to live in a single.
Despite being more than 2,000 miles away from home, the California native has taken advantage of her fresh start. She took a step back from the old mindset that pushed her to focus solely on her academics and career. Instead, she signed up for organizations that fulfilled her interests. But starting over as a third year is not easy.
“I am living with all first years, and it’s pretty difficult to get to know people,” Hiraoka says. “Most people have been in classes with each other for two years already.”
Starting from scratch was not easy for me. While I was a second year academically, I felt like a first year in every other aspect. Though the environment was familiar to me, the fastpaced quarter system, culture of overproduction, involvement in extracurriculars and work experience caught me off guard.
“If you know you don't belong to a school, you don’t assimiliate ... I had my mind made up that I didn't want to be there, so I didn't allow myself to enjoy it.” Nate Friedle, McCormick second year
The large lecture hall on the second floor of Fisk was crowded with people one October morning during my first quarter at Northwestern. I had just been handed my first statistics quiz when my neck started to burn. Each breath was a shard in my chest. The pull-out desk felt like it was closing in; I was swimming in claustrophobia up to my neck. The sounds of tapping pencils and fingers on calculator keys grew deafening.
Trying not to make a scene, I walked out of the lecture room with a barely finished quiz. An hour later, I had another exam to take. My mind was still wired, but I was too exhausted for my neck to burn, my breath to fall short and my limbs to shake. This is how my body reacted during every exam I took that quarter, failing each one after another. It was not until I went to CAPS that I realized I was suffering from panic attacks.
That first quarter at Northwestern, I barely passed my first round of midterms, dropped a class and ended up changing my major. What I hoped would be a good start to my college experience took a turn for the worse.
For many transfers, adjusting to Northwestern can be overwhelming. It takes patience and time to find one’s place in established social groups and the academic culture of Northwestern.
Medill fourth year Maddy Ashmun, a transfer from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says Wildcat Welcome brought her both dread and excitement. No transfer wants to participate in ice breakers, hear about campus resources for a second time and sit through eight days of programming. She says when she arrived at Northwestern, transfer students seemed to exude a too-cool-forschool energy. But it’s the only way to meet new people and get to know Northwestern.
“It’s a weird thing because it’s like, I know how to eat in a dining hall, but I don’t know where the dining halls are here,” Ashmun says. “It’s a weird mix of thinking you know how to do things but also realizing that you definitely don’t.”
While acclimating to Northwestern’s culture, many transfers look to get involved in the campus community through the hundreds of organizations on campus. Many groups, however, focus on recruiting first years, as they are more likely to spend four years at Northwestern.
Growing up in New Jersey, Ashmun spent her teenage years in and out of New York City attending concert after concert. Her love for indie music inspired her to get involved in event planning. Prior to Northwestern, she spent most of her first year on UNC’s concert and activities committee. She naturally wanted to continue this work at Northwestern. During her first month, Ashmun and another transfer friend from the University of Wisconsin- Madison worked on their applications together. However, neither their previous experience nor their impressive skills with booking live music events were enough to secure them a spot on Mayfest or A&O Productions.
“I came in worrying about that a little bit because I had just put Northwestern on kind of a pedestal,” Ashmun says. “When I got rejected from those clubs, it’s like, ‘Shit, maybe I am not good enough for this.’”
From the sticks of Ohio to the big city of Chicago, Andre Baronov — a third year transfer in the School of Communication —of the institutional help he was provided once here. He said there is hypocrisy in having so many resources while not helping transfers navigate Northwestern.
One of the major reasons Baronov transferred to Northwestern was to follow his passion for film. When he received a callback from a student production organization last fall, he was flattered and excited to do what he loves.
He arrived early and rehearsed his lines before taking the stage. During his audition, he realized his competitor was absent, so it appeared the part was his. So, when he got the email that his competitor got the part over him, it left him bitter.
He later learned that the other auditionee was dating the director of the production. This was only one of 30 organizations that rejected Baronov. Nevertheless, Baronov found success elsewhere, like satirical newspapers and film sets.
“They are touting Stephen Colbert, who [was] another third year transfer,” Baronov says. “I felt there was a certain disconnect in what we are saying to transfers as they apply and how we are treating them here.”
As Northwestern’s transfer population steadily increases, the University seeks to better both the academic and social transitions. Josh McKenzie, Associate Director for New Student and Family Programs (NSFP) and Director of First-Year Experience, says his office has identified opportunities to provide a more supportive experience.
“There are always comments and frustrations about how wildly frustrating things are or unclear the University seems,” McKenzie says. “Some transfers may feel like they are placed on the back burner or not supported like your incoming first year cohort.”
While NSFP prepares for a larger transfer population during Wildcat Welcome, there are little to no resources available to support them after that week. In their first quarter, McCormick third year Luke Choe and School of Communication third year David Eng struggled to adjust to Northwestern and recognized a lack of community among transfers. To bridge this gap, they helped create the Transfer Student Organization (TSO) last fall to try to change the way transfers are viewed on campus.
They created a mentorship program in which incoming transfers are paired with another transfer student at Northwestern who is familiar with campus. There are currently over 130 transfers participating in the program.
“We wanted a place where transfers could meet each other [to build] a stronger community at the start of their transition into their second college,” Eng says.
In addition to their mentorship program, the organization is looking to create more resources for transfers all across the country. The group is trying to make the transition easier by providing information on the process. Nadia Ennab, a fourth year in Weinberg, runs TSO’s public relations. She says this year the group spent most of their time establishing a campus presence. Though she grew up in Evanston, Ennab spent her first two years of college at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She says adjusting to Northwestern’s preprofessional atmosphere can take a long time.
“When you are in a culture where everybody is cultivating their own brand, time really is important,” she says. Ennab recognizes the pressure to fit into this culture, and entering into it two years late only makes developing her professional image more challenging.
It’s been almost three and a half years since I found out I received a full tuition scholarship to a school that was wrong for me. While I’m grateful I decided to transfer, it has been a bittersweet experience. Sometimes I still wish I had gotten it right the first time. I made a decision based on the fear that my financial situation would hinder me from having a college experience at all. But now, I realize there were always options beyond what I was led to believe were possible. Now, that fear has evolved. What could I have achieved if I hadn’t lost so much time? What would college look like if I wasn’t constantly playing catch up?
“No hay que vivir la vida con miedo.”
This is the saying my dad repeats to me now.
“You can’t live your life with fear.”