Michelle Zhiqing Yang / Sun Staff Photographer

A lone student walks below McGraw Tower. Some first-year transfer students said they felt isolated this semester, wishing Cornell had more formal structures in place to support them.

December 9, 2020

Lack of Connection Defines Transition to Cornell for Transfers

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Although the University’s website boasts that Cornell is “unmatched” in making transfers feel welcome in the Ivy League, transitioning to life on the Hill, mostly on a screen, meant some felt less than welcome this fall.

Cornell consistently accepts 500 to 600 transfer students each semester, and they experience a wealth of resources to help them transition to Cornell beyond the typical circumstances of a first-year Orientation Week in August.

“I don’t think the strategy quite worked,” Will Bodenman ’23 said of Cornell’s attempts to make transfer students feel included in the campus community this semester. 

Bodenman was offered the transfer option in the spring of 2019, which guaranteed him a spot at Cornell as a sophomore if he fulfilled certain requirements his first year at another institution — he chose Pennsylvania State University near his hometown of Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. In August, he came to Cornell “not knowing a soul.”

“It is certainly isolating and challenging with online classes, especially as a transfer student. Without that in-person element, you really aren’t getting much of a social connection no matter how much you try,” Bodenman said. “It’s more of a task to reach out to someone you see online and don’t know at all.”

For Bodenman, few in-person opportunities and Zoom fatigue feel like barriers to making friends as a transfer student. Unlike freshmen, who live in the same dorms and knit together through the Tatkon Center and other official programs, transfer students are scattered across campus and have little structured contact with each other, according to Bodenman. 

To mitigate the effects of this physical isolation, students have turned to a GroupMe of over 350 transfers. Otherwise, transfers are mostly on their own, according to Cooper Stepke ’23.

Stepke said he was “having the time of my life” at the University of Maryland near his hometown of Colombia, Maryland, when the campus was evacuated last March. Cornell was always his dream school, Stepke said, but he was sad to leave his Maryland friends behind — especially after a year cut short. He decided to look at his transfer option as a fresh start.

“As soon as I got sent home, I was just ready to move on to Cornell and then just start the next chapter,” Stepke said.

But the next chapter meant making new friends, this time, almost entirely through Zoom. The only chances he got to meet friends in person were a few casual soccer games that his orientation leader organized at the beginning of the semester. Those moments were meaningful, he said, and he wished Cornell had also stepped in to plan outdoor events.    

Both students looked forward to a post-pandemic Cornell, imagining packed Lynah Rink stands and bursting house parties — a world where they could engage with people in person.

“I plan on joining a fraternity, and I’m excited for a social party scene to reemerge. I’m excited for hockey especially,” Bodenman said. “I hear it’s fantastic.” 

Despite the general consensus that college life is better in person, the spring semester is slated to look similar to the fall, filled with social distancing rules and the world of Zoom. The two are looking to draw on what they’ve learned from the first semester while moving into the next, putting in effort to make meaningful connections and looking out for people with similar interests in online classes.

And they have advice for students starting in Ithaca in the spring: reach out. 

“It’s awkward, but the only way is to go out of your comfort zone, just messaging someone on Zoom who has a poster on their wall that you like, or anything like that,” Stepke said. “Anything you can find you have to use to your advantage to meet people and form relationships.”