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During my entire time as an undergrad, I never knew about student government. I was active in so many different areas on campus, but graduated thinking that transfer students were not eligible for student government positions. -- Jamaal

During my two years at community college, I held leadership positions. When I transferred to UC Berkeley, I asked student leaders how to get involved. I was given only one option: transfer representative. If I had followed that advice, I would not be in the position I am in today. -- Alexis

Higher education needs the voice of students. At the University of California, where we study, students led the charge in advocacy for basic needs; students drove initiatives such as reforming campus police and banning standardized testing as an admissions requirement. Whether at one campus or across the entire system, students have proven the value of their expertise, experience and passion.

However, transfer students are often left out of governance and advocacy discussions. At UC, for example, transfers represent one-third of the student body. Unfortunately, too few community college transfer students are encouraged -- or even allowed -- to engage in this kind of high-level leadership. We need to change that, for the sake of all students.

The time-to-degree expectation for transfer students means we have less time on campus than traditional students. Simply put, we have less time for exploration and incidental discovery of campus resources and opportunities. In the first semester at our new campus, some of us don’t have the GPA needed to be eligible for activities (by policy, transfer students have a 0.0 GPA upon entry), or we don’t have the time to rise within an organization year after year. A common unspoken assumption is that the process to ascend to leadership should take multiple years: a student’s first year may be spent serving in the general body; the following year, one may serve as a committee chair or other officer. Under this model, after these two years of service, a student might consider running for the head position on the local, systemwide, or statewide body. And that’s assuming they found the right organization during their first year!

But what about transfer students? Do we see transfer student inclusion as essential to our mission?

Two questions emerge: How do transfer students come to engage the leadership opportunities available to them? And does the environment discourage transfer student participation? The answer to the first question is structural and must be addressed by campus leadership, and the second is cultural; students need to address it. Here are some realistic steps to create a more equitable place for transfer students in governance.

Recommendations for faculty/staff/administration:

  • Include campus resources and opportunities into class time
    • Have segments of class time, and even class assignments, that introduce transfer students to opportunities, specifically acknowledging transfer students in the class and encouraging their participation.
  • Have transfer student orientation (this is crucial!)
    • Present local, systemwide and state-level opportunities for leadership to transfer students during this orientation.

Recommendations for student organizations:

  • Encourage and develop transfer students’ expertise in all areas, not just those related to the transfer experience
  • Reach out to transfer students; encourage them to prepare and apply for a wide range of positions
    • Avoid relegating transfer students only to the transfer seat on a student government body
  • Consider the historical pipeline for leadership positions and make changes around timeline and requirements to bring our organizations into an era that values transfer students

Transfer students bring a wealth of skills to campuses. These skills may be related or unrelated to our transfer journey. Ignoring the structural and cultural barriers to transfer students' inclusion in governance creates an equity issue, as transfer students are more likely to be people of color, veterans and parents; we are more likely to hold jobs. When the structure and culture of student governance meaningfully include transfer students, our higher education systems will transform as well.

Jamaal Muwwakkil is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and served as a student regent for the University of California. Alexis Atsilvsgi Zaragoza is a second-year transfer student at the University of California, Berkeley, and serves as a student regent for the University of California. Their term marks the first time in UC history that both student regents were transfer students.

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