‘A stronger person’: 1st-generation transfer students face obstacles from community college to UC Berkeley

Ariel Lung/Staff

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Four years ago, Yousef Moneer decided to leave his homeland of Yemen to live with his family in California and study at Fresno City College.

Moneer, a first-generation student who transferred to UC Berkeley this fall, chose to attend community college first because out-of-state tuition was cheaper there than at a four-year university. Moving to a new country was already a difficult transition — and then came the move to UC Berkeley.

“I’ve had to learn everything myself and develop my way, either in community college or here. So yeah, it’s been tough, and it’ll continue to be,” Moneer said. “I feel like it’s all on me to navigate my way and to discover the path.”

According to data from Cal Answers, 44.2 percent of the transfer class of 2020 is first-generation college students, which means neither parent has a four-year college degree. First-generation transfer students report facing many disadvantages on campus, ranging from the stigma associated with being a transfer student to the limited two-year time they have at UC Berkeley.

“Community colleges serve as a gateway for many students, especially first-generation students,” said Andrew Henry, an academic counselor at the Transfer Student Center, in an email. “Given that first-generation students may lack access to resources, mentors, and college-going information, community college is an ideal starting point for them.”

According to Henry, many first-generation students choose to go to community colleges because of their locations and because it can be cheaper than paying tuition for four-year universities.

Deborah Choi, the membership chair of First Generation Professionals, said first-generation students tend to feel as if they do not belong on campus.

First Generation Professionals is a student-run organization at the UC Berkeley School of Law that helps first-generation law students navigate and succeed in their first years of law school.

Choi, who was also a first-generation transfer student when she came to campus as an undergraduate in 2013, said she felt behind in terms of contributing to large classrooms and getting involved in student organizations.

Some first-generation transfer students feel as if they do not belong on campus because their time is short and the transition is difficult. Moneer said there is a stigma around being a first-generation transfer student. He questions whether it might have been easier to navigate college if he had come as a freshman.

“I don’t have a person to look up to in order to get that experience or learn from someone who was that close to me, like my parent,” Moneer said. “(Non-transfer students) look down on us, like we went to community college because we’re less intelligent and we wanted those two years in order to adjust.”

Some students said administration is not providing enough support to transfer students. Campus senior and transfer student Georgie Güitrón said his struggles began when the university did not offer him a housing contract — a guarantee for all freshman who meet application deadlines.

Another transfer student, campus senior Aurora Rios, said campus does not have enough students of color or students from low-income and first-generation backgrounds. She added that the transition was very hard because the school was not diverse and did not have a lot of students she could relate to.

“I think also, as a first-generation student, you don’t want to show your parents that you’re not doing well because you’re here,” Rios said.

According to campus senior Talha Siddiqui, navigating internships and professional networking was challenging as a first-generation transfer student. He said campus organizations, such as professional fraternities and consulting organizations, were not “transfer-friendly.”

Though many first-generation transfer students often feel as if they do not belong on campus, there are many resources available for them, such as the Transfer Student Center and the Educational Opportunity Program. Many students advise that first-generation transfer students should look into resources and understand that they deserve to be on campus.

First-generation transfer students have also emphasized that they belong here because the admissions office thoroughly reviews applications to UC Berkeley. According to Moneer, the campus selected first-generation transfer students because it sees the value in each of them.

Despite the obstacles, some first-generation transfer students regard the fact that they are going to college as a responsibility to themselves, their families and their community colleges.

“At the end of the day, you’re carrying so many people with you. You’re carrying not only your community college and the people that helped you get to where you’re at, but you’re carrying your family,” Güitrón said. “I’m super proud to be a transfer student, and all the obstacles I’ve gone through in community college, and through my transition, have made me a stronger person.”

Mariam Zagub is the lead race and diversity reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @MZagub.