Liam drank a lime LaCroix from our dedicated LaCroix fridge (a millenial company requirement) as we spoke about his transfer journey to University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign. It was a cold Thursday evening in February when Liam joined us at our headquarters in Chicago, IL, after work.
As an actuarial accountant, Liam graduated from U of I almost three years ago, but distinctly remembers transferring colleges for a few different reasons.
“I had a… not great roommate situation,” Liam admitted. It was the first thing he cited when recalling how his first year at his initial school went. “We just didn’t see eye-to-eye super well.” Roommate situations can have an enormous impact on the college experience, which is a lot of pressure for something most students have no control over.
Despite this rocky start with his roommate, there were plenty of other reasons Liam chose his first university.
“The smaller classes were really interesting for me. Before I started, I was excited to get to know professors really well. I grew up rooting for their basketball team… and I loved the campus when I visited.”
Despite that, by Thanksgiving, Liam found himself going home a lot.
“I wasn’t making good relationships. The social atmosphere just wasn’t a great fit,” he explained, trying to keep his tone even. But there’s always more to the story when it comes to social situations, often hard to forget. Students that aren’t meshing well with the campus social life can feel isolated, totally disconnected from campus, and far from home.
“I started talking to friends [from high school] who were having amazing times their freshman year and I was like, well, something doesn’t feel right. Why am I not having this same, amazing start to a freshman year that’s so status quo, that you would expect to hear.”
Despite the years that have passed, the successful completion of his degree, and a promising career trajectory as he accomplishes his actuarial exams, it’s clear Liam still feels a sort of guilt over not making it work—a sense of failure.
It’s one of the most distinct difficulties with transferring, the idea of it being that something is wrong with you, not the combination of school and student, or, as we often refer to it, the fit. Fit is incredibly important when considering a college or university, and it can take an in-depth look at yourself, your life, and where you imagine yourself in the future intersected with major, geographical location, and social desires.
“I thought if I keep pushing through, I would have a breakthrough at some point. [My first university] had everything a kid could want in a school—smaller classes, tons of opportunities.” Frustration leaking into his tone, it was clear it was still a sticking point.
Liam put in a significant amount of effort into getting involved, likely adding to the frustration. He worked on campus, had season tickets to basketball games, played in intramural games, and became a member of a Christian Fellowship group, all during his 1-year stint at his initial college.
What ultimately made Liam’s decision to transfer had to do with academics.
“I realized I wanted my major to be more specialized,” Liam explained. “I’d started at [my first university] in the mathematics department. It was kind of a broad field, it was maybe I’ll be a teacher, maybe I’ll go to grad school, something like that. I didn’t really know — I just wanted to do something with math.”
He wanted to become much more focused in his academic studies and, while searching for what exactly that meant for him, spoke with a relative who’s an actuarial scientist—and that was it. Liam knew what he wanted to do.
This time around, he knew three things he hadn’t before. One, while he’d initially thought he wanted to attend a college near a city, he ultimately realized he wanted a college town. Two, he had a very specific major and career he wanted to pursue. Three, he wanted a different type of social environment—which could probably be satisfied by choosing a college town.
“What I grew up thinking of when I thought of college was that big university, a big campus town feel,” Liam said, citing a number of movies, which led him to one conclusion: “[University of] Illinois was kinda my idea of what going to a university would look like.”
There was only one issue with Liam’s Illinois or Bust plan: he’d been waitlisted from U of I twice already. Was it even worth it to apply again? If they’d waitlisted him before, what would be different this time?
He decided it was, and he would put all of his eggs in one basket and send in just one transfer application: to U of I Urbana Champaign. There was a lot that went into making that decision, though, and it started off with having conversations with all of the key players in the transfer process—beginning with advisors at the university he currently attended.
“It was kind of awkward talking to guidance counselors, telling them why you were leaving a school they loved so much.”
When it came to filling out the application, though, there were some hurdles to jump.
“Yeah, I’d heard the transfer application was different.” Liam paused before he continued. It became obvious why he’d paused, though—he’d had an “in,” if you will.
“I had a friend of mine who worked at a smaller liberal arts college,” he admitted. It was this friend who helped him through the application process, in particular with his transfer essay.
“One of the big differences I noticed was they cared a lot about how you were doing as a [college] freshman. They weigh your grades a lot just because now they have a body of work to look at. When you’re [coming in as a] freshman, they’re kind of projecting how you might fit into their academics, their campus, all of that. [As a transfer], it’s easier for them to see, we can see this can be a fit, a match.”
After he’d put careful thought into the “why are you transferring” question of the application and hit submit, he was prepared to sit on tenterhooks for months waiting on a response. He was shocked to hear back from U of I in less than 30 days.
“I got an email and it just basically said you got in. I was super happy — I was realizing a childhood dream.” He smiled, wide, and it transformed his face. If he had been applying as a freshman, this would’ve been the end of a long, difficult process, but because he was applying as a transfer, there was an entire Part 2 to his college application process.
The joy was coupled with concern—concern about transferring credits, about financially affording the transfer, and about leaving the friends he had made behind.
He spoke kindly of them, saying, “leaving the people that I did connect with was pretty hard. Some people I still talk with, still have a relationship with now. But there was nothing that was going to stop me from leaving for U of I.”
While some of his friendships were enduring despite his transfer, some of his credits weren’t.
“I needed to take additional summer courses to graduate on time, and to make my semesters easier.” He had a unique class situation where he needed a supplemental course to transfer over a higher level math class, which he ultimately decided to take at a community college that U of I accepted credits from.
In the middle of all that, he attended U of I’s transfer orientation, which he spoke highly of.
“In the middle of summer, they hosted a transfer admission day, where I got to go down to the school and meet guidance counselors, got to see the campus, and that was really helpful for me. At that point, it felt real. Before that, it was like “what the heck did I just do?” Liam laughed. The Pathway Program was all-encompassing and was inclusive to nontraditional students as well as transfers. It was a good chance to meet peers in similar situations—always a good opportunity to take advantage and mitigate that feeling of being alone.
For all of the support that Liam received from U of I while transferring, he still had a word of warning for transfer students regarding credits: no one else is monitoring what you’re getting done and what you aren’t. Getting a list of graduation requirements and keeping an eye on what you’re completing using an online portal (or other method provided by the school) is key to graduating on time—something Liam managed to do through close monitoring and summer school.
It grew dark outside while we spoke, what with Chicago still experiencing the early nights of winter, but Liam wanted to impart one more piece of advice for all students contemplating transferring.
“Listen to your heart, listen to people that have your best interests in mind. I really tried to push through my doubts. I figured there might be something wrong with me—I must be doing something wrong. If you feel that way for an extended period of time, maybe it’s just not the right place for you. I would really talk to people you trust. It just might not be something you can push past.”