Obama's Lessons for Transfer Students

His former roommate talks about what he and Obama learned about switching between colleges.

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Barack Obama began to feel lonely and out of place after his freshman year at Occidental College in Los Angeles, he says in his autobiography, Dreams From My Father. So he decided to transfer to someplace more urban and, he hoped, diverse—Columbia University in New York. When he got there, Obama discovered that the life of a transfer student is not so easy, according to Phil Boerner, a friend from Occidental who transferred to Columbia the same year and shared an apartment with him their first semester in New York. "We didn't know people, and we were living off campus," which made it hard to connect with Columbia students, says Boerner, who now works as the spokesman for the California Veterinary Medical Association.

Of course, Obama's transfer experience worked out, and Columbia helped shape him into the man who is about to move into the White House. (Six other presidents also were transfer students.) But Boerner and admissions deans say there are a few things Obama—and the more than 30 percent of college students who transfer between colleges today—can do to make the transition smoother.

When he arrived in Manhattan in the fall of 1981, Obama discovered Columbia didn't provide housing for transfer students. So he says he slept in an alley the first night, then stayed with a friend until he found a crummy, semiheated apartment near campus.

Obama writes that he loved exploring New York. Boerner says the two of them spent their free time in their first semester visiting museums, exploring Central Park, or strolling down Broadway. Obama says in Dreams that he matured at Columbia and became a disciplined student.

"It was good for us in a lot of ways," says Boerner. He says he felt lucky to share an apartment with Obama, who was an excellent roomie. "He did his share of cooking and cleaning," Boerner says. Obama sometimes made curry when guests visited. At the time, Boerner says, Obama wanted to be a writer, not a politician. "He's a great guy; very generous and fun to be with."

But both Obama's memoir and Boerner note that there were plenty of transfer hassles that taught them some hard lessons. Because they didn't know the city well and didn't have much money, they ended up renting a third-floor walk-up next to a burned-out building in a dodgy neighborhood, Boerner says. The radiators were often broken, so Boerner recalls they sometimes had to wrap themselves in sleeping bags when it was cold. The hot water was so unreliable they often had to shower on campus. And Boerner remembers feeling a little lonely early on because most of the students in his classes already knew each other.

College admissions officers say students who want to change colleges can learn from Obama's and Boerner's experiences:

  • Redouble your efforts to find happiness at your first campus before going through the hassle of transferring. Starting over again at a new school is so hard that "I'd be hesitant about transferring unless you are really unhappy, or unless the other school has a program you are really interested in," Boerner says.
  • Make sure you're qualified to transfer to your target school. Some elite schools, such as Harvard, haven't accepted any transfer students recently. Others are extemely picky; Columbia accepted 8 percent of transfer applicants in 2007, and the University of Pennsylvania accepted 16 percent in 2008.
  • Study hard and write a persuasive essay if you want to transfer to an elite school like Columbia. Successful transfer applicants to top schools generally have great grades and test scores and have written essays that explain "what they have learned about themselves" and "what the motivating factor is to change their environment," says Eric Furda, dean of admissions at Penn. For academic reasons, Penn prefers those who want to transfer in as a sophomore (not the more typical junior). "We don't embrace the student who is trying to trade up" to a more prestigious bumper sticker, Furda says.
  • If you're planning on transferring from the start, apply first to schools with good transfer or "articulation" programs with your target school. A growing number of schools, such as Cornell, are establishing "guaranteed" transfer programs with selected community colleges. Students at those community colleges who take specified courses and get good grades can automatically transfer to the four-year school as juniors. A list of highly ranked schools that accept lots of transfer students is below.
  • Search out schools that offer lots of help, such as on-campus housing, to transfer students. Rod Risley, executive director of Phi Theta Kappa, the honor society for community college students, says transfer students do better when their new school provides early counseling, on-campus housing, and early course registration. Too many schools, he says, let regular students register ahead of time, which leaves transfer students with the worst course selection. He says Mount Holyoke, Amherst, and Bucknell are among the highly ranked schools that are improving their services for transfers from community colleges. Many public universities, such as Texas A & M-Commerce, are offering even more services, including employment assistance for spouses of transfers, Risley says.
  • Jump into campus activities and life. Transfer students have missed out on freshman bonding experiences, so they have to make an extra effort to forge friendships, Boerner notes. "If you can get into a dorm, that would help a lot," he says.
College Name Transfer Acceptances Transfer Acceptance Rate
Washington and Jefferson College 40 93.0%
Arizona State University 5258 89.5%
Calvin College 151 88.8%
Randolph College 53 86.9%
Ohio State University--Columbus 3543 84.8%
Colorado State University 2012 84.5%
University of Denver 393 83.6%
Washington State University 3583 83.4%
Samford University 255 82.3%
Iowa State University 2124 81.4%
University of Oklahoma 2556 80.5%
University of Kansas 1963 79.5%
University of Utah 2311 79.1%
Hillsdale College 51 78.5%
University of California--Riverside 4086 78.2%
Hollins University 50 78.1%
University of Oregon 1838 75.2%
Duquesne University 279 75.2%
Drew University 108 74.0%
Siena College 241 73.5%
University of California--San Diego 6494 73.2%
University of California--Davis 5466 72.5%
Ohio University 762 72.2%
Hope College 118 72.0%
College Name Transfer Acceptances Transfer Acceptance Rate
Drexel University 2743 71.7%
University of California--Santa Cruz 3374 71.0%
St. John's University 51 70.8%
University of California--Santa Barbara 5622 70.8%
Augustana College 97 70.3%
Loyola University Chicago 1817 69.1%
University of Puget Sound 190 69.1%
University of Iowa 1813 69.0%
University of California--Irvine 6040 68.7%
Miami University--Oxford 438 68.5%
University of Vermont 741 68.3%
Michigan Technological University 470 68.0%
University of Missouri--Columbia 1654 67.7%
Luther College 81 67.5%
Kansas State University 1477 67.2%
University of Arizona 2850 67.1%
University of Tennessee 1909 66.8%
Clemson University 1156 66.4%
College of St. Benedict 57 66.3%
University of Nebraska--Lincoln 1246 65.7%
University of Massachusetts--Amherst 1989 65.3%
Southern Methodist University 497 65.2%
Juniata College 51 64.6%
University of Tulsa 293 64.5%
Clarkson University 146 64.0%
University of Colorado--Boulder 1973 63.8%