When Ami Waller-Ivanecky joined Georgia Tech’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (ChBE) in an undergraduate advising role in 2012, she soon noticed a significant difference in academic success between students admitted as first-year freshmen and those who entered as transfer students.
Those who had transferred from non-international institutions had on average a GPA that was 0.34 points lower than the total average GPA, she found.
“We conducted focus groups and discovered that transfer students in ChBE felt overwhelmed during the transition to Georgia Tech and needed not only additional support, but also targeted interventions to address their unique needs,” says Waller-Ivanecky
Efforts to meet those needs led to the fall 2013 launch of ChBE’s Transfer Student Association, which provided a student organization for incoming transfer students to connect with one another as well as offering peer mentoring.
By summer 2014, the Transfer Student Association (TSA) became a chartered student organization for Georgia Tech and began to spread across campus with ChBE students often in leadership roles. “Now I am pleased to observe that this organization has reached all of the Colleges and Schools at Tech,” says Waller-Ivanecky.
Third-year ChBE undergraduate student Joanna Thomas, who is president of TSA, says that an important part of the organization’s mission is to help facilitate transfer students’ efforts to build their social networks.
Having grown up in the Metro Atlanta area and attended Georgia State University for year prior to enrolling at Tech, Thomas says she personally didn’t have that much difficulty acclimating to campus. “But that’s not the universal transfer student experience,” she notes. ‘It’s usually a struggle for most students.”
Hearing their concerns motivated Thomas to take on a leadership role in TSA.
She and other students who entered Tech in fall 2019 had about six months of normalcy before the Covid-19 pandemic drove learning online during the second half of spring 2020 and limited opportunities for physical interaction and in-person learning during the 2020-21 academic year.
“Through the pandemic, it’s been really difficult for all students, not just transfer students, to make friends,” Thomas says. “We’re really looking forward to a return to greater normalcy in the fall.”
During the past year, TSA’s activities went all online, leading the organization to expand its social media presence with platforms such as Tik Tok and Instagram in order to create more opportunities for engagement. Moving forward, TSA also plans to hold more community-building workshops (e.g. game nights) in addition to career-building ones.
“Community is the biggest focus,” Thomas says. “We’re going to collaborate with more clubs to show how many different opportunities are available on campus, improving everyone’s reach.”
Improving Transfer Orientation
The organization also wants to become more involved with Georgia Tech’s FASET orientation for new undergraduates (transfer as well as first-year and exchange) across campus.
When ChBE originally launched TSA in 2013, the School also overhauled its FASET to enhance its relevancy for transfer students. Ellen Murkison, the academic advising manager for ChBE, is now working to make FASET even more socially engaging as well as involving TSA to a greater extent in future orientation plans.
“ChBE does a really good job with its FASET,” Thomas says. “We’d like to see elements of what ChBE has implemented in other Schools’ orientations on campus.”
Developing Academic Support
Another way that ChBE worked to help transfer students adapt was through the creation in spring 2014 of a ChBE 2801 (Inside ChBE) course to coincide with ChBE 2100 (Chemical Process Principles).
“ChBE 2100 is one of the most challenging classes in the ChBE curriculum as it not only draws on previous skills and knowledge, but also requires students to synthesize and process information differently than most have experienced in previous coursework,” says Waller-Ivanecky. “Some of the new transfer students lacked key core content knowledge; others were uncertain how to approach studying and preparing for the class.”
ChBE 2801 provides additional instruction on the topics covered in ChBE 2100, and it provides supplemental help sessions three days a week so that students can develop their problem-solving skills.
Fourth-year ChBE student Cameron Sharif, who served as a teaching assistant for ChBE 2801 during 2020-21, remembers how hard the Chemical Process Principles course was for him when he enrolled at Tech three years after completing a biology degree at Kennesaw State University in order to make a career transition into the pharmaceutical industry with a chemical engineering degree.
“It was a huge challenge for me,” Sharif says. “I didn’t feel that good about myself while taking that course until halfway through. The learning curve is drastic. The course essentially scratches the surface of every aspect of chemical engineering.”
Keys for Success
Sharif recommends that transfer students make every effort to ensure that they understand the material in their courses. “The key for success at Tech is how hungry you are for the information taught,” he says. “Tech provides a lot of resources to help you, but you have to take advantage of them.”
Waller-Ivanecky emphasizes the importance of transfer students’ tapping into TSA. “Success at Tech is rarely achieved solo—the students who are the happiest and most successful are those who form new bonds and connections with the students, faculty and staff,” she says.