Perhaps you personally know some student colleague -- a few years ahead -- who has made a painless transition from a two-year to a four-year institution. Some do. But the fact of the matter is, even if the transition path has some visible tracks, it is not clearly carved out. Many students find it difficult -- for a variety of reasons -- to transfer to four-year institutions. There are lots of variables -- a large proportion need to be worked out at an administrative level. Nevertheless, if you are interested in making such a transition, you can still be very proactive, and your level of preparedness will be a crucial factor in whether the transition will be a smooth one.
So how would I know? I am actually a veterinarian by training, but during my professional life, I worked as an interim director for the Center for Science Excellence at Contra Costa College in San Pablo, California, and as an educational consultant to four other San Francisco--area community colleges. My current position as co-PI and deputy director of Bio-Link, the National Science Foundation's Advanced Technology Resource and Education Center for Biotechnology (see box below), gives me the opportunity to help train community college students in general--and underrepresented minorities in particular--interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. All together these experiences gave me some valuable insights on important steps students at two-year colleges can take prior to transferring to four-year colleges or universities.
Making the move is really no different from any other academic transition. It requires serious consideration. It involves gathering the necessary information and being prepared financially.
Bio-Link is sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and is designed to improve and expand educational programs that prepare skilled technicians to work in high-tech fields in the U.S.
The Bio-Link National Center is headquartered at City College of San Francisco with office space at the University of California, San Francisco. National regional Bio-Link centers are located in Seattle, Washington; Solano, California; Austin, Texas; Madison, Wisconsin; Graham, North Carolina; and Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Each regional center focuses on a particular program area and develops relations with local industry and educational institutions, including community colleges, baccalaureate institutions, and high schools.
Various types of enhancement activities occur at both the national and local levels, often centering on student and faculty internship opportunities, equipment donations, instructor training, and general familiarization with employers.
Make a plan
First, and perhaps most important, you should have a plan. What is your vision of where you want to be and what you want to do in the next year, in two years, and five years down the line? It sounds easier said than done, and it will take some hard reflection; most people do too little of it, but doing it really pays off. Think about what you want to achieve, where, and when and write down your plan in detail. Doing so will help you formulate key points, time-lines, and support activities such as summer internships, job shadowing, and researching local industry. Ask trusted advisors to review and discuss the plan with you and re-visit the plan regularly, especially when you feel a bit lost or sense that your plan may take a change in direction. Changing the plan if logical is fine, but don't use the change as an excuse to take the path of least resistance for its own sake.
Find a role model
Do you know someone who has made the same transition? Contact them and ask them for advice, guidance, and avoidable pitfalls. People are mostly delighted to talk about their stories. Experience is a wonderful teacher; take advantage of it anytime you can. Your college's career placement or planning office also offers valuable resources; make an appointment and speak at length with a career counselor. This type of information gathering is critical.
It sounds obvious, but your academic achievements will be crucial. To keep a personal overview, create an inventory of your classes. Compare your course list with the academic requirements of the institution you are interested in. Determine whether the institution in question places equal value on all courses, subjects, and extracurricular activities as this can vary depending on the institution. It's well worth the time and effort to review your progress and compliance a few times a year, so you know where you stand and what you need to achieve.
There is no getting away from it -- four-year institutions are more expensive, and so financial aid is an important factor in most people's academic careers. Scholarships, fellowships, internships, and loans are available to help pay for school; ask your guidance counselor for leads and search the Internet (see text box).
Financial Aid Search on the Internet
Many awards are based on academic success and personal achievement. To minimize your work time and maximize your chances of receiving an award, target specific sources of aid, such as minority or discipline-based scholarships. Most sponsors ask for information about your professional goals, community involvement, volunteer interests, and special qualifications. Deadlines and application forms may be found in award descriptions. Don't wait until the last minute; start your search for financial aid at least a year before you plan to transfer.
Recommendation, in a letter
Find individuals who you know will write favorable letters of recommendation for you and obtain permission to list their names and contact information well in advance of submission deadlines. Supplying them with a current résumé that details your scholastic and community activities will help them compose a strong letter on your behalf.
If you suspect someone will treat this responsibility as routine or present a biased view, let him or her know diplomatically you must remove their name from your list of references.
Your personal story
In some cases the institution you are interested in or a scholarship award committee may require a personal essay to learn more about your background, motivation, and goals. Ask the people you have chosen as references or trusted professors to read, critique, and discuss your essay with you before submission.
Out of school activities
Be aware that most, if not all, reviews of candidates for financial support and academic enrollment place a moderate amount of attention on the candidate's extracurricular activities and achievements. Include volunteer activities, church and community activities, membership and responsibilities in academic honor societies, hobbies, and anything else that will provide a sharper, more detailed word picture of you.
Relevant work experiences are a big part of your applications to both four-year institutions and financial aid. Have you been an intern, a part-time volunteer, or worked with a professional in your chosen field of study? Not only will most of these experiences pay you for your time, it's a wonderful way to experience working in your future career and to get a real sense of what the sector will entail. Many four-year institutions place high value on these professional experiences, so make the effort to get involved; invest in your future.
Whether you are starting classes at a community college or nearing completion of your associate degree, don't forget that many scientists, mathematicians, and engineers started their careers at two-year schools (see MiSciNet's "Building a Strong Foundation"). These professionals were successful in making the transition to four-year colleges and beyond with a little hard work, patience, and good planning. Many people are willing to help you along the way. Just ask.
Barton L. Gledhill, V.M.D., Ph.D. is deputy director of Bio-Link at City College of San Francisco. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.