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When I first arrived at San José State University (SJSU) as a transfer student from Evergreen Valley College (EVC), I suffered a severe concussion from running head-first into a brick wall of bureaucratic policies and practices. Though I was warned about long papers and heavy reading loads in upper-division classes, no one had warned me about the system.
Shortly before the SJSU semester started, I swaggered into an advising office with what I thought was a simple question: Why couldn’t I enroll in upper-division classes even though I had completed lower-division GE? I was bounced from building to building and cubicle to cubicle at least five times before arriving back exactly where I started! Eventually my question was answered, but I was very frustrated by the experience.
I heard similar stories from other EVC transfer students; in fact, some of my peers postponed enrolling at SJSU because they could not cope with the bureaucracy and felt that they didn’t fit in it. Most were first-generation college students with limited resources, had outside work and/or family obligations, and were overwhelmed by the challenge of navigating through the mazes.
We decided that we needed to take collective action. A group of EVC transfer students made a pact—those who transferred together would stay together! We organized a support group called SUERTE (Students United for Education and Retention among Transfers from EVC)—Spanish for luck. Our organization focuses on mentoring new transfer students, matching them with members from the same major. The mentors encourage the new students to come to their classes, meet professors, and learn “insider tips” about the department and major.
My peers and I had been fortunate enough to participate in an EVC-to-SJSU transfer project supported by a Title V Hispanic-serving institution grant to increase the number of Latino/Chicano students enrolling at SJSU (www.evc.edu/hsi). The project grew out of a special program initiated by EVC faculty members in 1983 called ENLACE —Spanish for connection (www.evc.edu/enlace)—that includes academic classes in core subjects, counseling, tutoring, and peer mentoring. The Title V grant also supported a five-week counseling class at EVC to familiarize students with SJSU, a workshop on passing an SJSU writing test that is a prerequisite for many upper-division courses, and counselors familiar with the policies of both campuses. The SUERTE founders wanted to continue the sense of community and support developed through our EVC experiences after transferring.
It is SUERTE’s long-term goal to embed itself into the DNA of SJSU by expanding to include transfer students from other community colleges, and by providing a model to inspire students across the country to become part of the solution to system challenges. Peer support is extremely valuable, but additional support from the institution, such as incentives for mentors and a gathering space, is also critical for transfer student success. Elsewhere in this issue, Debra David and Alexandra White describe the SJSU-EVC pilot project that is part of the AAC&U Compass project. Dr. David heard about SUERTE soon after the pilot began and invited me to become involved as a peer mentor and as a student consultant. This has also led to a new opportunity to work with the SJSU Student Academic Support Services office on outreach to transfer students.
I passionately believe that students need to become active partners with the university to create programs to promote retention and graduation. Our missing voices can alert faculty and staff to the barriers we face and offer ideas for supporting us. Transfer students are even more invisible than those who arrive as freshmen. Through peer mentoring and through involvement in shaping campus policies and practices, students can develop leadership skills. We are willing and able to take on more responsibility for our own success in exchange for more opportunities!
Robert Corpus is a senior student at San José State University.