‘Everyone’s on their own schedule’: Nontraditional transfer students reflect on journeys, challenging transition to Duke

<p>The 2023 Project Transfer cohort poses in front of the Chapel.</p>

The 2023 Project Transfer cohort poses in front of the Chapel.

With each new class of first-years comes a cohort of roughly 50 transfer students, each arriving in Durham with different educational backgrounds and experiences that fuel their creativity and passions in ways distinct from those who begin college at Duke.

Despite being admitted at a rate nearly identical to first-year students, many transfers face unique challenges while transitioning to the University, including social and administrative obstacles.

The Chronicle spoke to three transfers who followed an alternative path to Duke to learn their stories.

Jorge Mato Frontela, Class of 2026

Junior Jorge Mato Frontela grew up in Cuba, where he was required to complete one year of mandatory military service before pursuing higher education.

Mato Frontela attended the University of Havana. While he intended to pursue a degree in biochemistry and molecular biology, the COVID-19 pandemic presented obstacles to this goal.

“Things got pretty bad when it came to food availability and pretty much anything that you needed,” Mato Frontela said.

He noted that a combination of issues involving the pandemic, the authoritarian Cuban government, a lack of tourism and the Trump administration’s measures against Cuba resulted in civil unrest.

Protests against the state — which began July 11, 2021 — prompted the government to draft university students to the military with the goal of quelling public outcry.

Having already experienced a year of military service, Mato Frontela decided he would rather continue his education outside of the country than risk being drafted.

After spending some months living in Spain, he joined his father in the United States. There, Mato Frontela resumed his educational career — first attending community college as a “stepping stone” to a four-year college. 

“I went to community college because I didn't know how things worked,” Mato Frontela said. He shared that he had difficulty navigating the American higher education landscape with all the “rules and little things that you need to know … because [in the U.S.], of course, universit[ies] ha[ve] a price tag.”

Mato Frontela applied for transfer admission at several universities and eventually decided on Duke. He was drawn to the “general vibe” of the school, along with its biology program and the relative proximity to his family.

“My main goal was to resume academics and follow the same path that I was following in Havana, like study[ing] biology or biochemistry and [doing] my Ph.D. and all the things that I knew I wanted,” Mato Frontela said.

Tom Newberry, Class of 2025

Senior Tom Newberry attended a boarding high school in Connecticut but wasn’t fully set on pursuing a degree post-graduation.

Deciding he wanted to try “something different,” Newberry headed west, applying to work as a ranch hand. He wanted to “experience the world in as raw a fashion as possible” and thought cattle ranching would provide the appropriate combination of “real concrete consequences” and “real victories.” Yet, he found that his boarding school background did not provide him with the experience that many ranches sought.

While most ranches rejected Newberry, he did receive one offer to “come up for a month.” The rancher told him, “I’m not going to pay you, but I’ll give you somewhere to sleep, and we [have] a bunch of extra hamburgers, so you can eat.”

What began as one month quickly turned into four years, and Newberry now refers to his former boss as “another father” figure. Yet, the good times would only last so long. After being run over by a cow on the job, Newberry shattered his leg and realized he needed to consider his next step.

“I basically had a moment of like, ‘I’m having so much fun as a kid,’” Newberry said. “I got free food, and I lived there, so life didn’t cost me anything, but I kind of realized I was playing the child’s game. When that happened, I was like, ‘I should get serious.’”

Newberry had “always really enjoyed school” and felt that going to college was finally a decision that made sense for him. He was accepted to Montana State University, located about an hour from the ranch.

Newberry spent two years there but would still visit his home at the ranch often. While he had regrets from his time at the university, he also had some fond recollections.

“I complained bitterly about [Montana State] … but I got the best education in the world at Montana State, and I didn’t properly appreciate that until I came to Duke,” Newberry said.

He also added that a lack of motivation to buy into programs and activities on campus may have dampened his university experience in Montana, ultimately informing his decision to transfer.

“I was studying agricultural economics and geography at Montana State, and the threads that I always pulled from all those [classes were] that I loved making policy,” Newberry said. “I was like, ‘I would like to go somewhere with a good public policy school’ … and that landed me here.”

Denver Cowan, Class of 2025

Until he reached his teenage years, senior Denver Cowan had not received a formal education. His mother and other family members suffered from drug use and mental health, forcing him to move from house to house every handful of years. 

“When I was a teenager, about 12, 13, [I] start[ed] realizing, ‘Okay, this isn’t normal,’” Cowan said. “It was then [that] I started looking for ways to get out of my mom’s house.”

Cowan was eventually able to move in with his grandmother, who helped him to enroll in summer classes and catch up on missed years of schooling so he could attend high school on time.

Yet, complications to Cowan’s living situation meant that he and his grandmother floated around together for a time without a permanent residence. These conditions influenced Cowan’s post-high school considerations, since he sought to care for his grandmother while also either continuing his education or finding a career.

“At that point, I felt like I really didn’t have a lot of options — like college wasn’t going to happen, [since] I couldn’t afford it and there was no one to help with it,” Cowan said.

One pathway that crossed his mind was military service, which he thought would be “steady,” “bring money in” and leave the possibility of college on the table.

Cowan joined the army, where he served in the infantry, attended airborne school and tried out for special forces twice. Most of his career was spent in the 82nd Airborne Division on Fort Liberty, located in Fayetteville.

After around four years, an injury to his back led Cowan to depart from Fort Liberty. Cowan started taking online courses through the local community college and ultimately chose to stay in North Carolina — close to his now-fiancee — but relocated after a year from Raleigh to Smithfield, N.C., in order to attend community college where classes were offered in person, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.

After completing associates’ degrees in engineering and science, Cowan began to explore options for bachelor’s-granting institutions.

“I applied to Duke… and saw that the financial aid and everything kind of worked out for me to come to Duke,” Cowan said.

Helpful supports for new students

The three students all participated in the Project Transfer Experiential Orientation program, where they had opportunities to familiarize themselves with Duke’s campus, University traditions and the rest of the transfer student cohort.

Cowan emphasized how the program provided the kinds of learning opportunities and experiences he had hoped for.

“You didn’t show up on the first day not knowing anyone — you had probably 50 other people you knew from the transfer orientation,” Cowan said. “They really tried to show you around campus, where your classes may be… I thought that was super helpful. I think all those arranged meet-and-greets with teachers and things like that, so I think all the stuff they have in place is really great.”

As far as housing, both Cowan and Newberry were able to live off campus despite being considered juniors. Such permissions aided the older students — particularly Cowan, who was living with his fiancee and dog.

Transfer and non-traditional students at Duke also receive guidance in the course credit transfer process.

Due to political conflict between the U.S. and Cuba, Mato Frontela encountered obstacles receiving syllabi from his professors at the University of Havana, many of whom faced internal pressures from the school and political authorities to not provide him with the requested information.

“[With] those political things going on, they could lose their job if they [gave me the syllabi],” Mato Frontela said. “I had some professors that would abide to give me the syllabus in a less official way… but that took me months.”

Although most transfer students submit syllabi from previous educational experiences earlier on, Mato Frontela was able to submit the syllabi for his past courses whenever he received them throughout the first semester.

A difficult transition

Despite University policies meant to support new students in transferring their course credits, the process still poses difficulties for transfers. Mato Frontela highlighted issues faced by peers who were able to receive credit for courses they’d previously taken but were unable to view those credits in DukeHub for several months.

Both Newberry and Cowan faced challenges with nontransferable class credits and felt trapped by general distribution requirements within the Trinity College of Arts & Sciences.

“Even though I have an associate’s in engineering and I took two semesters of calculus-based physics and chemistry, [the University] didn’t count that towards any Trinity requirements I’m taking now,” Cowan said.

Newberry echoed Cowan’s concerns, acknowledging that “there are many schools that do a lot worse,” but also stating that much of Duke’s efforts are “largely performative” in that they don’t allow for “case-by-case exceptions.”

“My time at Duke is largely taking core courses and checking off boxes, which to me just feels like such a robbery,” Newberry said. “Duke is a crazy cool place, and there are a zillion fascinating classes, and I’m just not getting to take them.”

The two transfer students also shared issues with aligning their previously-earned credits with Duke’s course code system. In Cowan’s case, a class he had previously taken — titled “Science, Technology and Society” — failed to meet transfer requirements for credit in the Modes of Inquiry category by the same name within Trinity’s curriculum. When Newberry faced a similar issue with course codes, he found that the process to revise an Areas of Knowledge label was long and arduous.

Newberry contacted Claire Siburt, academic dean for Trinity transfer students, who reportedly told Newberry she would submit the request to the Course Committee. He noted that he thinks this process is “bureaucratic” and something that deans should be able to decide.

In addition to describing Duke’s system as “not really being ready” for transfer students and the associated transition processes, Mato Frontela raised issues with Duke’s QuadEx housing and residential life model, which is predicated on continuing relationships established in first-year dorms on East Campus.

“If you get in as a transfer, it is harder for you to create those connections with people who already have social connections,” Mato Frontela said.

Newberry specifically criticized how Duke has “forced so much of social life off campus,” which makes it difficult for students unfamiliar with those dynamics to integrate into the community. He thought that with the QuadEx residential system, the community would be more campus-centric — one of his reasons for transferring from Montana State.

Mato Frontela said that his age gap with other students further impacts relationships with his peers, due to disconnects over experiences that come with age.

“Usually people are going through things that I have gone through already and that I know the answer to just because I’m a tiny little bit older,” Mato Frontela said. “It takes being open-minded and more open to receive people in whatever life stage they are.”

Cowan added that despite being older than many of his peers, meeting others in seminars and other small classes has helped him to build a network of people on campus. He also acknowledged that the choice to live off campus made it “a little harder” to form connections with people, but he clarified that he didn’t see that as a problem for the University to address.

Wisdom gained from experience

Newberry highlighted how his time before Duke taught him important lessons about growing up.

“A lot of Duke students will come to find this out later … but not everyone has to be nice to you,” he said. “In the real world … there are no rules of civility.”

For Cowan, he gained a “get it done” outlook from the army that he’s utilized beyond military life. 

He also took from his upbringing the importance of recognizing that people come from different backgrounds and — even at similar ages — may have had different opportunities or experiences in their lives. Instead of comparing himself to others, Cowan chose to focus on bettering himself with the skills and resources he had.

“Your situation is your own, and you can’t really judge where you are in life or where other people are because there’s so many different variables that went into you being you and them being them,” Cowan said.

Although Mato Frontela, Newberry and Cowan each took unconventional paths to arrive at Duke, they described learning valuable lessons of flexibility and resilience from their respective journeys.

“Things will happen that you cannot control, and you have to adapt. You have to just build a new plan and keep going,” Mato Frontela said. “Everyone’s on their own schedule.”

Ryan Kilgallen

Ryan Kilgallen is a Trinity sophomore and an associate news editor for the news department.


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