Connecticut College News
Freshmen Persistence: Why Students Transfer, Why They Stay - by Lilah Raptopoulos ´1104/27/2009
Freshman Meredith Bosco stayed in this Thursday night. At almost midnight she was in her pajamas, still studying for a Calculus exam she had at 9 the next morning - that is, after her Chemistry class at 8. She is working to maintain her above-B average so she can still matriculate to Cornell in the fall as a transfer student, and from initial glance, she is certainly ready to go. "I may be an extra special circumstance, because basically everything went wrong," she said. Connecticut College was not Meredith´s first choice. She comes from Buckingham Brown & Nichols, a prestigious private high school on the periphery of Cambridge, Massachusetts, its students Ivy-focused and, more often than not, Ivy-bound. After being rejected from too many schools to remember off the top of her head, she chose Conn with guaranteed transfer to Cornell. It was impermanent for Meredith upon entry; she came in prepared to be gone in a year. "I think Conn was stigmatized by my high school as being the NESCAC that rich private school kids go to when they don´t get in anywhere else," she said. "Just because of that I was bred to believe this was a second rank school. And that´s awful, but it´s ingrained in me." Meredith explained that the problems did not stop when she got here, promising that she initially "wanted to like it." Most of her classes were taught by visiting professors. Her schedule, as a science student, was unfairly inflexible, leaving her to wake up at 7 in the morning and retain specific information every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. She was placed in a double in the lobby of Marshall, a dorm widely known to be populated by the Conn-deemed "Lax Bro´s" - white, middle-upper class, contact-sports players. "I got the wrong impression of the school from where I lived," Meredith said. "I was kind of upset with Res Life for knowing who was going to live there, and throwing in Freshman girls. Being in the lobby, lacrosse balls were hitting my door all the time." So why will Cornell be any better? Beyond the schedule flexibility, her interest in marine biology, and, beneath the surface, the bumper sticker, Meredith is impatiently waiting for the anonymity Cornell will offer. "Now I know I have to leave, because I think both Cornell and a bigger school will in the long run will be better for me," she said, smiling, rushing her words. "As I´m sure you know, I have a pretty outgoing personality." She thinks there will be more "out there." The what-if will drive her crazy if she doesn´t find out. Sophomore Christian Caminiti went through a similar process his freshman year. Also from a small prep school, this one called Newark Academy in Livingston, New Jersey, he wondered whether in going from small middle school to high school to college, he had missed some ambiguous important experience. Conn felt too small, not intellectually stimulating enough, and not academically rigorous enough. So Christian transferred, spent the fall semester in Ithaca, New York, drove back up after winter break to Rush for a fraternity, and, after a few days, packed his boxes and drove straight back home. There he emailed Dean Rossi-Reder asking if he could reenroll at Connecticut College, and got a room in Lazrus house for the spring. Christian essentially transferred back. Christian turned his car around for a few reasons. He found a larger school actually less intellectually stimulating. "It´s more demanding here," he said, eyebrows raised. "You can´t really fake engagement with the material in a small classroom setting." He also found it to be, in his words, depressing. "I lived next to the bridge that people would jump off of, and then I would hear about it. That´s not really what you want out of college." And finally, interestingly enough, Christian found he did not like the social aspect of a larger school. "Students here are a lot friendlier," he said, explaining that he found this to be a surprisingly important college trait. "It´s a bigger school, but bigger schools are actually broken up into clusters. Your social life revolves around it. You only end up interacting with those people." And here, Christian gave a perfectly-timed wave to a friend walking by his booth in Harris. He and friend sophomore Nate Goldman had been greeting passing students throughout the meal. "Because this is a small school, it doesn´t need to be broken up. You have 2000 people you´re free to interact with." Meredith and Christian are two of many Connecticut College students who think about transferring their freshman year, as well as two of the elevent percent of students that actually do, making our retention rate less than enviable by NESCAC standards. According to the college´s head researcher John Nugent, we should focus on the concerns of the entire freshman class to in turn make the potential transfers more content. In conducted studies, including the currently running Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education, many of the Conn students that participated said they didn´t find their first year challenging or rigorous enough. "We really are focusing on the first year experience, in part to make it more intellectually stimulating," says Nugent, "because we´ve found that by sophomore year and up, students tend to be more intellectually satisfied." The average freshman-to-sophomore retention rate for Connecticut College´s peer group in the ´07-08 year was 93.9 percent. Conn´s retention rate sat at 89.8 percent. Although this sounds on par, think about it this way: these three points are a difference of about fifteen students a year. And not just any students, but some of the potentially most active students on our campus, students who didn´t want to wait to see if Conn had enough energy and diversity to reach their expectations. Dean of Studies Theresa Ammirati and Dean of Freshman and Sophomores Andrea Rossi Reder see almost every student who considers or applies to transfer. These two ladies have an influx of unhappy students crowding their adjoining offices each year, which are nestled in the northeast corner of the second floor of Fanning Hall. "My first year here when 25 students approached me with the thought of leaving, I thought, oh my goodness. If everybody leaves, there will be no one left and I´ll lose my job," said Dean Ammirati. But, she explained, the number of students they see is always far higher than the number of students who leave. This year 306 transcripts have been sent out from the Registrar. Although a few of these transcripts will be sent to internships, the number helps deans and the Records Office quietly track the transfer application trends. This year´s number is up 21 from last year. At least 40 freshmen and 25 sophomores will sit at Dean Rossi-Reder´s round wooden table in a given year, or on Dean Ammirati´s couch, surrounded by hundreds of stacked books, family photographs and old senior theses, a glass bowl of lollipops on the coffee table before them. They will complain about a plethora of things, primarily that the school is too small and isolated and they want to be in a city, they need to be closer to home, the school is becoming unaffordable, or they are looking for a pre-professional major that Conn doesn´t offer. Dean Ammirati sighed at this. "Our concern is, we´ll never be a big city. This isn´t a university, we don´t want to be a university; we´re a small college for a reason. If students are leaving because they´re unhappy with things we´re unable to address, that may be reason to move somewhere else." However, there´s an extensive second set of reasons that are more addressable: many students simply want to be closer to home, or find that the social life isn´t fun enough, the sports teams aren´t competitive enough, the Camel Van doesn´t run enough. And so, the second most common case the deans see is general unhappiness. This is often linked to circumstance or issues with transition. "A lot of time when I talk to those people I realize they´re either in a bad roommate situation or they´re having a hard time making friends," said Dean Rossi-Reder. "And I hate to say this, but sometimes I think those are people who will have a hard time making friends in any setting. They kind of blame Connecticut College." When a student sits down in one of the two offices to talk, they almost unfailingly let out the phrase, "I just want to keep my options open." To this, Dean Ammirati asks them to consider questions like, "What are the things about the school, and what are the things about me? Am I lonely? Have I been having trouble making the transition?" The Deans also work with John Nugent and various other departments to improve the things they can: the fitness center, the Camel Van, Coffee Grounds, and the initiative to create social spaces. "We don´t have a big endowment," said Dean Ammirati, "So in the formation of social spaces, we can´t just build a new place. But we can give our students the resources to do what they can with what we have." She continued, "A lot of students are involved in making improvements to the school, and those aren´t the students who are leaving." And yet contrast the above with the following: many students in established positions, perhaps the most well known being our beloved SGA President Leidy Valencia, were ready to pack their bags halfway through freshman year. "I overextended myself in high school," Leidy said, stopping to chat en-route to the library, "So freshman year I made the decision to chill out, just go to classes, and I got so bored. So I went to Dean A with papers for her to sign, and she sat me down on her couch and asked, ´Why?´" Leidy squinted in the sun, silenced the buzz of her cell phone, and waved at a passerby. "She signed me up for committees, and sophomore year I ran for class president and won! I ran against five people and I didn´t know anyone. And after that I was like okay, this is weird, this is going to be okay. And I never left. What a change, huh. Now I´m so busy all the time." The Dean Team, it seems, does its job quite well. The kids that are involved stay, so they get the kids they want to stay at Conn involved. Junior Max Elghanayan applied to transfer his freshman year, looked at his options, and declined them all with a change of heart. "There´s this silly conception that going to a higher ranked school is better," he said, joining Meredith on the opposing common room couch. "In the end, what it comes down to isn´t ´is the ranking better for you,´ but ´is the school better for you.´" He offered that freshman year can be difficult regardless of where you are, simply due to the fact that it´s your first year of college. "If you lived a very free high school experience, college can be kind of this weak place with these weak friends. They´re not the friends you´ve grown up since you were four years old." This changes only with time. But Max´s general rule of contentment is as follows: you make where you are the place you want it to be. "It´s totally up to you how much fun you want to have. I always hear people complain about the partying. But if you don´t like it, you have to do something about it." Dean Ammirati quoted a poem by e.e. cummings called "maggie and milly and molly and may" that ends with the verse "For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)/ ?it´s always ourselves we find in the sea". "You bring with you to a new place who you are," she said, talking with her hands as much as with her voice. "The personal things are not going to get better somewhere else. College can be a wonderful experience. I hope students can find that wonderful experience here." As excited as Meredith is about leaving, the longer she spoke the more her words became muddled in contradictions, catching herself mid sentence, deciding whether or not to throw in a quick "don´t quote me on that." "As soon as I started going South and Central, or even to other dorms in the Plex, I started loving it here," she said intently, "I really did. I´m happy now, which is kind of a bummer, because if I were happy first semester I probably wouldn´t have decided to transfer." Meredith curled her feet up under her and the common room sofa squeaked. "I don´t know whether either of these schools are right for me," she said. And instead of finishing the thought, she chose to talk over it: "I´ve worked so hard for this transfer that I need to go there and see if it actually is different. And I´m fine with the possibility of coming back." And that was it. We said goodbye and she trailed out of the common room to finish studying, so she could maintain her B average. Meredith may come back, but like a lot of students, she needs to see what she´s missing.