Students in a lab.

Transfer Scholars Initiative prepares N.J. community college students to thrive at selective four-year schools

As part of the new Transfer Scholars Initiative, community college students conducted hands-on laboratory research at Princeton this summer. 

When community college student Djulieta Ismaili-Jean first stepped onto Princeton’s campus this summer, she noticed a sign that immediately inspired her.

“It referenced Princeton making audacious bets on human potential,” she said. “It was like a Eureka moment. That is exactly what the Transfer Scholars Initiative is doing. Princeton is investing in human capital with programs like this.”

The Transfer Scholars Initiative (TSI) is a new partnership between the University and New Jersey community colleges that aims to extend Princeton’s academic outreach and strengthen the outcomes for promising students considering transfer to selective four-year schools. The endowment-enabled initiative is funded by Princeton and is the University’s first transfer program focused solely on non-Princeton students.

This year’s participants came from Camden County Community College, Hudson County Community College, Middlesex College, Mercer County Community College, Raritan Valley Community College, Rowan College of South Jersey and Union College of Union County.

TSI builds on Princeton’s efforts to expand opportunities for community college and non-traditional students. 

"With these outreach-focused programs, our goal is to reinforce and support the larger system of higher education, helping more students pursue an education and complete a high-quality degree,” said Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Cole Crittenden. “These programs allow us to expand the reach of Princeton’s intellectual resources, but they also allow us to learn from our neighbors and to strengthen the system of which we are a part.”

Next up: College application bootcamp

Ismali-Jean was one of 40 students from the seven community colleges who participated in the pilot TSI session that ran June 26 to Aug. 18. Many of the students will return to Princeton this weekend for a transfer application “bootcamp” as they prepare to apply for admission to selective four-year colleges and universities for fall 2024. 

“The students quickly became a cohesive community and it will be great to have them back on campus,” said Keith Shaw, director of transfer and outreach at Princeton’s Emma Bloomberg Center for Access and Opportunity. “It will be a two-day sprint, helping them draft, revise and curate their materials for transfer applications, building on the foundations we established this summer.”

Students having a discussion around a table.

Forty students from seven New Jersey community colleges could earn Princeton course credits this summer through the Transfer Scholars Initiative. A writing seminar is shown here. 

“The students really expanded their horizons through TSI and are applying to schools they may not have considered before,” added Queenie Reda, outreach program associate at the Bloomberg Center.

TSI is part of the Bloomberg Center’s mission to support students — including those from first-generation, lower-income, transfer, veteran and military backgrounds — in their academic journeys to, through and beyond college. Princeton reinstated its transfer admission program in 2018 and is in the midst of further expanding the number of transfer students on campus.

“There are many more promising students than we could ever hope to admit as degree-seeking students at Princeton,” Crittenden said. “TSI is designed to help community college students transfer to and succeed at excellent four-year schools across the country, including our state’s public institutions like Rutgers University and The College of New Jersey.”

Boosting skills and broadening horizons

TSI was designed as an intensive, eight-week program offering classes, college counseling and transfer success programing, co-curricular workshops, and mentorship from Princeton faculty, staff and undergraduates. “We are helping students set their college goals and make it more likely they will be successful when they transfer,” Shaw said.

“TSI opened our eyes to so many different opportunities,” said Ryker Chauhan, a second-year student at Mercer County Community College where he is also a member of Air Force ROTC. “I kind of had a good sense of the process, but the program laid everything out and made clear how I should focus my college search and application. It has given me the tools to think critically about what I want to study and where I want to apply.”

Chauhan said it’s also been invaluable to join a cohort of peers. “Building a network of like-minded individuals who also want to apply to four-year schools has really helped. Everyone is really supportive of each other.”

Students in an auditorium with three people in front speaking.

TSI students met with representatives from a range of private and public colleges and universities during a summer college fair. (From left to right) Chris Butler from The George Washington University, Sean Ashburn from Tufts University and Andy Halstead from Villanova University were some of the admission staff who attended. 

While the TSI students share the same goal of transferring to selective colleges and universities, they represent a broad range of perspectives, experiences and educational journeys. The group includes full- and part-time students and non-traditional and adult learners at different stages of their lives and careers.

Benton Hellwig completed a union carpenter apprenticeship and worked full-time before deciding to enroll at Raritan Valley Community College. He is studying business now, but hopes to major in economics after he transfers.

“This summer at Princeton has really refined my view of a liberal arts school,” he said. “I realize I don’t want to get a business degree from a four-year college. I would rather approach my learning from the social science aspect.” He’s now considering applying to schools like the University of Chicago, which had not been on his radar before TSI.

Camila Villavizar, a student at Mercer County Community College, was born in Trenton, New Jersey, and grew up in Peru. She said higher education opportunities were a big reason for her return to New Jersey after high school.

“I am obsessed with learning” she said, adding the TSI classes and workshops exposed her to new perspectives and ways of thinking. “I took a leap of faith by devoting my summer to this program. I’m glad I did because it has the potential to change my life.”

Princeton course credit and more

The cornerstone of TSI is the ability to offer two course credits that students can apply to their community college and four-year degrees (depending on the school). “This is the first time we’ve been able to host high-achieving, external students on campus to earn Princeton course credits,” Shaw said. “That is what’s new and what makes TSI especially exciting to the community college students.”

This summer, students took one writing seminar and one laboratory-based class. The lab provided the chance to work directly with incoming Princeton undergraduates who were also on campus for the Freshman Scholars Institute.

Students having a discussion around a table.

Keith Shaw (center) leads a class discussion with some of the Transfer Scholars Initiative students who spent the summer on campus. Shaw is director of transfer and outreach at Princeton's Emma Bloomberg Center for Access and Opportunity. 

“Princeton students are really unique people with different perspectives. Hearing stories about their college search process has given me ideas about how and where to apply,” said Olivia O’Donnell, who is studying mechanical engineering at Raritan Valley Community College.

O’Donnell especially appreciated the hands-on engineering projects in the class taught by Claire Gmachl, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Electrical Engineering. “Princeton is so focused on undergraduate research. I didn’t know these kinds of opportunities even existed for students seeking their bachelor’s degree,” she said.

Students also benefitted from peer-to-peer mentorship from current Princeton transfer students who served as summer course fellows.

“I was extremely excited to work with the Transfer Scholars Initiative because I knew how much of an impact this program would have on these students,” said Faeven Mussie, a Princeton senior who transferred from Chabot Community College in Hayward, California. “The biggest barrier that community college students face is not being exposed to Ivy League schools and other top universities. Although not all of these students will end up at Princeton, leaving TSI with their new exposure, skills and confidence is just as valuable.”

To provide that exposure, TSI students attended in-person college fairs on campus, allowing them to talk directly with admission officials from a range of private and public colleges and universities. The college fairs were hosted with support from the Princeton University Preparatory Program.

“We don’t often get an opportunity to have transfer students all in one room,” said Sean Ashburn, associate director of admissions at Tufts University. “It is really exciting to talk with a group of students like this who are really motivated and want to seek out new opportunities.”

Expanding to more transfer students

After a successful pilot program this year, the University plans to expand TSI.

“Our plan for next year is two-fold: to accept more students from current partners and to grow the number of partners,” Crittenden said. The hope is to grow the program to 100 students over the next two years, and to explore ways elements of the program may be scaled further through additional outreach-related efforts.

Shaw said he’s looking forward to what the future will hold for the program.

“In June, I was hopeful that I would look back on summer 2023 as the start of a successful engagement with our community college partners that would make a meaningful difference for their students,” he said. “Now I’m certain that will be true, having worked closely with our inaugural cohort and sorted through our evaluation data. We’re proud to call the ‘TSIers’ our students now too, and we look forward to seeing where their futures take them.”

Orange shirt with the TSI logo.

An orange shirt shows the Transfer Student Initiative logo. The Princeton program hopes to expand to more community college students following this summer's successful first year.