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‘It gave me the foundation I needed’: VCU, community colleges work to help transfer students thrive

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Following graduation from high school, Lilly Balderson attended Stony Brook University in New York to study neuroscience. Reaching college to pursue her interest in science was a dream come true for Balderson and felt especially rewarding because her family had been homeless for a year while she was in high school. Balderson was pre-med at Stony Brook and excelled in her studies but she had to leave after only one year because of financial hardship.

Balderson was determined that would not mark the end of her academic career. She enrolled at Paul D. Camp Community College in Franklin, Virginia; worked as a waitress, tutor and teacher’s assistant; and planned for her return to a four-year institution. She took a large array of classes to be sure of her academic interests (she had begun to waver on the prospect of a medical career), saved money, and — after encouragement from her professor — earned a prestigious internship at NASA, where she did research on aerospace coatings that would lead to a patent. Early in the process, she targeted Virginia Commonwealth University as her next stop because the school “was diverse in whatever field I was going to choose. They have a wonderful arts school and pre-med program, their chemistry program is the best I’ve seen, and their research opportunities are amazing.”

Balderson arrived at VCU in the fall of 2018 and soon became a student researcher in a lab at the VA Bio+Tech Park, working with Hong Zhao, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering. Balderson has already participated in several research projects through the lab and talks enthusiastically of more on the horizon. She is working toward a bachelor’s in chemistry on the professional chemist track with hopes of switching to professional chemist with honors so she can graduate next year with a thesis.

Now that she is at VCU, Balderson is making sure she takes advantage of every opportunity she can find.

“To me, an education is priceless and I’m ready to do whatever it takes to get everything I can out of it,” Balderson said. “I’m not stopping until I have my Ph.D. I’ve spent too many sleepless nights and done too much saving and killing myself to come here and not do anything. As soon as I got here, I knew I was going to get into a lab and put everything I can into all of my classes. That’s the most important thing to me in the world right now.”

Balderson’s ambition and intellect help explain her immediate success at VCU, but so does her preparation before she arrived on campus. Not long after Balderson enrolled at Paul D. Camp, she connected with a VCU adviser who could offer guidance for her community college studies in preparation for VCU.

“I had a game plan,” Balderson said. “I knew how my classes were going to transfer into VCU long before I got here. I knew what I was going to need to take at the community college level to have a successful transfer here for the degree that I wanted, regardless of which degree that ended up being. The VCU adviser was a big help and stayed communicating with me to make sure I stayed on the right path. It really was a great experience.”

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Lilly Balderson transferred to VCU from Paul D. Camp Community College, where she earned an internship at NASA. (Photo by Allen Jones, University Marketing)

Strengthened ties

Balderson is one of countless community college students who have transferred to VCU and thrived. The students themselves drive their success, but helping to provide the foundation for their accomplishments are the strong ties between VCU and its partners in the Virginia Community College System. Balderson’s communication with a VCU adviser to talk about the classes she took while still at Paul D. Camp is fast becoming the norm for Virginia community college students who have VCU in their sights.

Seth Sykes, Ph.D., associate vice provost for transfer initiatives and programs at VCU, said VCU and Virginia’s community colleges maintain strong relationships designed to help students on their path from high school to a four-year degree. VCU has articulation agreements with several community colleges that guarantee admission to qualifying students, and the extent of the collaboration is growing. So are the resources that VCU transfer students can access once they are on campus, particularly through support services offered at the university’s Transfer Center.

“We’ve seen a steady improvement in the retention and graduation rates for our transfer students and we think that really speaks to the partnerships that we’ve developed with community colleges and the services that we offer students when they arrive,” Sykes said. “We hope to build on these initiatives and continue to see more gains in this area.”

Sykes said VCU has developed especially strong relationships with John Tyler Community College and J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, which have local campuses. The institutions are working to ensure that advisers and faculty members at the community colleges are attuned to the undergraduate degree requirements at VCU. Among the chief initiatives is looping community college students into VCU’s Major Maps program, which provides a pathway for students by showing the requirements they need to earn various undergraduate degrees at VCU. The idea is that students can take a curriculum in community college that will transfer readily to the four-year degree they plan to seek at VCU.

“We’re working to collaborate in our efforts so that we’re not doing things separately and wasting time and effort, including the time and effort of our students,” Sykes said. “We want to work in a coordinated fashion to give them the best path to succeeding.”

Maggie Tolan, Ed.D., senior associate vice provost for student success at VCU, said the collaborations ultimately are about transfers from community colleges understanding the expectations they will encounter when they arrive at VCU.

“We want them to understand the same concepts as the students who start with us and to essentially speak the same language,” Tolan said. “We want them to take advantage of programs at their own schools, or come to our campus to take advantage of some of the programs that we have, so that they can step into the exact same mindset when they arrive that the students already here have.”

Tolan said the collaborative work with community colleges goes beyond coursework to make sure students seek out other developmental opportunities, such as student leadership roles, internships and research, that their peers at VCU are pursuing.

“When they join our ranks, we want to help them be on par not just with their classes but with that larger development piece,” Tolan said.


Getting students where they want to go

William Fiege, Ph.D., vice president of learning and student success at John Tyler, said advising for community college students is an integral part of guiding them toward success at a four-year school such as VCU. With that in mind, John Tyler and VCU have worked to increase the frequency that a VCU adviser visits John Tyler’s campuses to meet with interested students.

Fiege said the improved clarity that Major Maps and expanded advising bring students helps them avoid accumulating credit hours that do not transfer to VCU. It also means preventing the kind of confusion that can sidetrack students from pursuing a four-year degree, especially those who have not yet crystallized their academic goals.

“How many students come into college and know exactly what they want to do — the exact pathway they want to go on?” Fiege said. “We’re also working to advise students — especially in that first year, that first semester — how do you sign up for the correct classes so that regardless of what major you end up going into, the vast majority of classes will go towards that pathway.”

Fiege said John Tyler and other community colleges want their students to see an associate degree as a steppingstone for other aspirations.

“We tell our students to use us to get where they want to go,” Fiege said. “Because if you just focus on the John Tyler degree and don’t look at it within the pathway of your desire for a four-year institution — in this case VCU — then you’re not taking advantage of everything we can provide you at a community college.”

Fonkou Djoendia is a senior journalism major in VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. Djoendia received an associate degree from J. Sargeant Reynolds, having opted for community college to save money, and said the school was a great fit for him after high school, particularly the small class sizes and passionate professors. While there, Djoendia connected with a VCU adviser who helped him select the classes he would need to matriculate to VCU, making for what he described as a smooth transition academically.

“J. Sargeant Reynolds really did a great job getting me ready for VCU,” he said. “I definitely felt prepared when I got here.”

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Lois Akinola earned an associate degree at John Tyler Community College before transferring to VCU and earning a bachelor's degree. She is now pursuing a Ph.D. in the VCU School of Medicine. (Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)


Finding a fit

Tolan said community college transfer students have varied backgrounds and can need support in a range of ways. For instance, some have attended multiple institutions and have a web of classes and credits on their transcript to integrate. Some have taken online classes. Military backgrounds are common. For each student, VCU strives to help them get the specific resources they need to excel. The social piece is important, too, she said.

“A lot of our students have already developed relationships with their cohorts by their junior year, so transfer students are kind of cracking into that,” Tolan said. “They can feel like they’re late to the party when they first arrive. So there’s an important shift that needs to happen for them to build new friendships.”

Lois Akinola graduated from high school in Nigeria at age 15. She moved to the United States soon afterward to live with her father and attend college. In part because of her youth, she started at John Tyler. She was unsure what she wanted to study and knew she wasn’t ready to attend a four-year college until she had a better understanding of her interests. At John Tyler, she took a wide range of science courses. After receiving an associate degree, she opted for a gap year “to continue to try to figure out what I wanted to do with my life,” she said. She volunteered at a local hospital and ultimately applied to VCU because of its strengths as a research-oriented university.

Akinola was lonely at VCU at first as she adjusted to campus life but she soon began to take advantage of the university’s Transfer Center. Through the center, she enlisted in a Transition Leaders program that offers peer mentoring to transfer students. The program offered the entry to campus life that Akinola sought, helping her both academically and socially. She met new friends, received valuable guidance with her class schedule and was pointed in the direction of key resources, such as the African Student Union.

“It was tremendous,” Akinola said. “It was unlike anything I’d ever been a part of before, and I don’t think I’d be where I am today without their guidance, friendship and mentorship.”

Akinola eventually became a mentor in the program herself and earned her undergraduate degree. Today, she is studying for her Ph.D. in pharmacology and toxicology in the VCU School of Medicine and still maintains close ties to the transfer student population as president of the Transition Leaders program. Having been through the transfer process herself, she’s eager to help others navigate it.

“I think it’s important to alleviate some of the hardships that transfer students face integrating into a place as big as this,” Akinola said. “I know I can relate to their experiences and use my experiences to help them become more comfortable and involved with being a part of this community.”


Community college’s vital role

As Djoendia approaches graduation from VCU this spring, he laments that his two years here have passed so quickly — an inherent piece of arriving halfway through his college education. However, he said his time at J. Sargeant Reynolds played an essential role in his academic experience. Similarly, Akinola said her experience at John Tyler was a vital part of her academic journey and she is grateful for it. She said taking her time and waiting to attend a four-year school until she was ready to fully attack her studies was necessary for her long-term success.

“I have my mind right because of my past experience at John Tyler,” Akinola said. “It’s allowed me to know what I want to do. I understand what I have a passion for, and that wouldn’t be possible without my years of exploration both at community college and during my gap year.”

Balderson, who plans to work toward a career as a senior research scientist, said community college offered her the inroads to a long academic career she craved. Her internship at NASA led to her becoming the youngest researcher to ever present at the annual meeting of The Adhesion Society this winter. Her time at Paul D. Camp, she said, opened the doors she needed to open.

“Community college gave me a chance to explore what I was good at and what I wanted to do, and it gave me the foundation I needed to succeed when I got here to VCU,” Balderson said. “That was huge.”