These aren’t their stories: The lack of transfer students in college films

Beini Liu/Staff

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Transfer students are like the giant squids of college culture. Society is vaguely aware we exist — there’s photographic evidence, but there’s also a systematic disbelief associated with our existence. This isn’t entirely unwarranted, especially when UC Berkeley admits the smallest number of transfers of all UC campuses.

The reality of transfer student populations within four-year institutions being so small would be the logical explanation for the lack of college films centered around transfer students. Apparently, transfer student experiences aren’t universal enough to make a compelling and monetarily successful film. But it’s far more likely that the greater college-going population has all pledged a fraternity for which the school’s dean is attempting to stage a coup.

The plot of “Animal House” aside, this idea that transfer students’ stories aren’t easily consumable is easy to poke holes in. For starters, transferring to a four-year university is often a second chance. These are students who ventured into the supposed black hole of community college and came out of it on top. They are not the bumbling sidekick, but the quintessential underdogs. It would seem to be the perfect ground zero for the classic, formulaic hero’s journey. Yet, similar to the small population transfer students often occupy on their four year campuses, transfer stories are largely absent from the big screen.

Part of the issue lies in the distinction society places on two-year colleges and four-year universities: Community college just isn’t seen as a valid means of pursuing a degree. Instead it is viewed as a last-ditch effort at education, the place where folks end up when they can’t hack it in university. Often times, because of this stigma, transfer students are at the mercy of their insecurities surrounding the validity of their achievements.

Sure I got into UC Berkeley, but by attending community college, I essentially had to do “High School: The Bigger, Badder Sequel” first. This is the plight of the transfer student. After I was accepted, I had the opportunity to visit UC Berkeley’s campus, through a recruitment event by the bridges Multicultural Resource Center, and meet with other transfer students — specifically transfer students of color. What I came to realize was that all of us, recent transfer admits and alumni alike, were struggling with “imposter syndrome”: the idea that we got into UC Berkeley on luck or mistake, rather than merit. These stigmas are reinforced not only by a student’s environment, but also in the lack of visibility transfer students get in the media.

This isn’t to say that community college doesn’t get screen time. Shows such as “Community” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” paid mind to the institutions. And while the latter did have an explicit arc on transferring, both failed to do so realistically. The fact remains: Transfer students don’t see themselves on screen, and if we do, we can’t relate.

Another issue lies with the college film’s tendency to paint students with extremely broad strokes. We’ve all seen the age-old college flick — the doe-eyed freshmen traipsing about, unwittingly doomed to fall into traps set by their own naivety. They’re old enough to be in college and make their own decisions, but young enough to have this newfound freedom exploited by any number of villains in their new environment. Fraternity boys, sorority girls or literally anyone with a modicum of social power can play this villainous role.

“Neighbors.” “Revenge of the Nerds.” “Sydney White.” All of these, and their hundreds of similarly formulaic cousins, are embodiments of the coming-of-age tale set to university life. For these films, freshman seem to be the perfect targets — they’re young adults imbued with just enough naivete to be susceptible to being taken advantage of.

But the relatability of this narrative lies within the confines of whom the entertainment industry deems the most commercially accessible.

Hint: It’s white people.

On screen, the tales of Greek life are almost always synonymous with the university experience, and sororities and fraternities, as depicted by media, are by and largely for white people. You need only scan the Internet Movie Database pages of shows such as ABC Family’s “Greek,” and pretty much any other college film that achieved mainstream success, to see this reality.

This is important when talking about the portrayal of transfer students in film and media culture, because many of us are people of color. The lack of diversity in the entertainment industry is a longstanding battleground for minorities as it is. Our stories often on the chopping block. For so many students of color, achieving academic success is a feat — one we simply aren’t privileged with seeing on film and on television, because again, it isn’t a universal enough experience.  

At this point, I figure I should be happy with the small amount of representation college transfer students and community college students get to have. But I simply cannot accept that it’s more relatable for a guy to create a fake college and get accreditation a la Steve Pink’s “Accepted,” than to see the trials of a transfer student’s journey through higher education.

Most college films are completely entrenched in the idea of finding one’s community, and given that transfer students often have so little time at four-year institutions, that’s a huge part of our motivation in navigating our campuses. It may be unrealistic to demand a swarm of transfer-student-based college content, but realism is rarely the hallmark of the traditional college film anyway.

Contact Areyon Jolivette at [email]@dailycal.org.