Transfer changes lives. Wendy's story describes the reasons why she and her fellow classmates chose to transfer to McMaster University. Many students, particularly from outside Canada, view transfer as a way to improve their chances of success. Their words convey their hopes and dreams about what education can do for them, in life and in a career. While transfer can be a very helpful tool for students to achieve their dreams, the process can be difficult to navigate. These students' experiences demonstrate why institutions need to invest in providing specific support to transfer students to make sure they receive the credit they deserve for previous education. Pathway development is one way to ensure this happens.
As part of our commitment to highlighting transfer student voices, ONCAT developed the Community Animators on Transfer (CAT) program. The program funds Ontario transfer students to develop media projects that share their experiences, insights, and tips with other students.
Online Learning in the Pandemic: A Glimpse Into the International Transfer Student Experience
During the pandemic, postsecondary programs were forced to transition to online learning. Computing programs were among the few to make this transition as smooth as possible, probably because most computer courses are available online with adequate substitutes for classes and instructional videos.
McMaster University has several engineering programs that are increasing their online class offerings. As a transfer student, I wanted to learn why so many students in this program had transferred from another postsecondary school. I conducted interviews to explore these reasons and offer my own experience and insights as a transfer student at McMaster University. What follows is a short narrative about these experiences.
One reason I discovered students transferred to McMaster University is its international reputation. Kyle was the first student I interviewed. When I asked him why he chose to transfer from Mohawk College to McMaster, he didn't answer why he transferred, but why he chose McMaster. He said, "McMaster is my dream school since I’m young." Kyle and I are both international students. In Kyle's mind, attending Mohawk was a step on the way to continuing at McMaster. The choice, which was so obvious to him, became one of common knowledge.
I asked him when he heard about McMaster. He replied, “McMaster's engineering department is so famous, haven't you heard of it?” McMaster University has a different reputation inside and outside of Canada. I have seen some Chinese websites that describe McMaster University as the MIT of Canada and a top choice for engineering departments. Other Chinese people in Canada would say it is well recognized but generally considered one of the top six schools, rather than number one.
Another student, Hudson, told me that transferring to another school was just a path, and that coming to McMaster University was a decision made from the beginning. When Hudson first came to Canada, he attended Niagara College and felt that the program was very easy. After some time, he decided that he wanted to go to a more challenging school, like a university. Hudson had a very simple assumption: if he wanted a high-paying job, he had to attend a difficult program at a prestigious university.
Hudson's options at the time were Lakehead University, Mohawk College, Griffith University, Niagara University, Conestoga College, and Yorkville University. He thought that since he would have to spend a lot of extra time studying anyway, he might as well choose the place that would give him the most credits for his previous education. He took the following path: Niagara College-Mohawk College-McMaster University.
Programmers often debate whether bootcamp-style training can substitute college. Many people say that there is enough learning material online to absorb, so long as a person has the passion to learn. Others say that what they learn in school is only part of the story, and there is much more to learn on the job.
Hudson told me that he estimated that it would take about seven years from the time he came to Canada to study until he graduated from McMaster. The harsh reality is that no matter how long you've been in college, some universities can only accept one year of college credit in the end. No one can predict what the future looks like. That's why Hudson did not regret starting with a different major.
Emily is more time-conscious than Hudson. She chose McMaster University because it accepts the most credits and a student can get a bachelor's degree in as little as four semesters. Emily is still working a full-time job after enrolling in school. She told me that besides thinking that the school had a better reputation, she also felt that she could pass these courses while working. In the very first semester, she chose to take some general education classes online.
The curriculum is also the main reason for my transfer. Like Emily, I was working and returning to school, so my primary goal was to complete my degree in the shortest amount of time. After comparing similar credit-receiving policies, I chose McMaster because it accepted the most credits and its general studies courses included business, which I liked. Some students said to me that they didn't understand why programmers like us should come to study business, but in my eyes, understanding the needs and requirements of a company’s stakeholders can lead to better programming.
Benjamin particularly appreciates the curriculum at McMaster. McMaster has been experimenting with online education since before the pandemic. A professor in the W Booth School of Engineering Practice and Technology invented LightBoard, a tool to assist with education. Benjamin values online education because he has his own time to do other things. During the pandemic, many schools launched online education, but he had no way to preview the quality of virtual education in different schools. In terms of McMaster’s promotional materials, it showed experience with online education, which attracted Benjamin.
Benjamin said he was happy with McMaster, except for one thing he couldn't understand. He applied to McMaster in February of 2022, got his acceptance notice in mid-March, and had to wait until September to enroll instead of beginning classes that summer. He feels that it should be up to him to decide if he wants to take a break this holiday season, not that he must have a mandatory break. He said it may relate to the delay of the credit system.
Unlike Emily and Benjamin, I was a little disappointed with the online courses I took. This disappointment was not brought on by the school, but rather the virtual class format, which felt like it left a lot to be desired compared to offline. During the pandemic, many people who worked from home felt a sense of isolation and loneliness. I, as a student, felt this way too.
It was also during this time that I suddenly understood that the benefit of the classroom was not only the teacher, but also my classmates. Our online classes did not require synchronous attendance because it was also recorded for students to watch after the fact. As a result, fewer than 10 students attended the synchronous class regularly. If this weren’t enough, the learning environment consisted of black, camera-less screens, while the teacher projected a PowerPoint presentation. During those classes, I wondered what the difference was between that and online self-study.
Like many students, I thought online learning would be a good alternative to in-person instruction. But after the real experience, I discovered how different it was. I felt like I was living on an isolated island, and I wondered if I was the only one listening in this class. There is only one place in the school's online class system where you can contact your classmates, the class member list. There are three pieces of information listed here for each person: name, email, and whether they are online. Throughout the semester, I was curious about how hard people found a certain test and how well they did on their homework. But no one would respond to me in a natural way. I could only send a particularly deliberate email in a casual way saying: “Hello, I'm your classmate. How are you feeling about the course?” It felt strange, to say the least.
I noticed in talking to other transfer students that they were similarly isolated from one another. Despite sharing parallel answers to my questions, coming from the same country, and even graduating at the same time, Kyle and Hudson did not know each other. When I asked them if they asked for advice or knew anyone else who transferred, they said that they hadn’t asked classmates because they received enough information online. Perhaps this is a common response in the virtual age. People prefer to search for themselves from the Internet than to get information from real people.
Emily had already completed her bachelor's degree before coming to Canada. Then, she completed a three-year certificate at Seneca College to find a job locally. After finishing her program, she went to McMaster to obtain a second bachelor’s degree. When I asked her what motivated her to get a second bachelor's degree, she said she was tired of her current job and wanted to get a better one.
I asked her if she had any basis to prove that transferring to a university would lead to a better job. She said that a bachelor's degree is very critical for civil engineering majors. If they want to get promoted from frontline staff, they will need certificates. There are two basic requirements for the certificate: a bachelor's degree and relevant professional work experience.
Emily said she didn't care what the school taught her, she just wanted to get a job related to civil engineering through the school's co-op platform. Emily's undergraduate program in China is "Civil Engineering Management." In China, this major is classified as civil engineering. In Canada, it is classified as management. When she came to Canada, she had to retake some classes because they were not recognized for credit. When she came to McMaster, she had to retake these classes again. She felt numb to all this and just wanted to get her certificate sooner and earn more money.
Benjamin said he felt that his current educational background was not strong enough to enter the big-name technology companies to which he aspired. For that reason, he chose to continue to improve his education. I asked him about his goal for upgrading his education. He said he hadn't thought about it yet, but firstly, he wanted to get a better job, and secondly, he wanted to pursue graduate school. I then asked him, "What is the purpose of graduate school?” He said for work, naturally. I felt that in his planning, finding a career was his top priority.
According to Benjamin, the big technology companies will divide their interviewees based on education. I'm not sure how true this hypothesis is. But I'm pretty sure that the most challenging part of the interview for those big technology companies—the algorithm test—is not taught in school.
After interviewing many engineering transfer students, I discovered that the main reasons why they chose McMaster were the school’s reputation, its curriculum and online course design, and students’ desired career paths. Among these reasons, the school’s reputation was mentioned the most.
I think these reasons speak to our time in the virtual age. The school's reputation is important because many transfer students can't find current students to speak with to understand the quality of teaching at the school, so they must rely on the reputation to make a judgment. Many people recognize the school's virtual course offerings, which makes it appealing.
In the virtual age, it is becoming difficult for a company to evaluate an interviewee. Checking references has also become less effective. Even if one has worked alongside another, his/her knowledge of colleagues has become limited. It is also tough to assess the level of the interviewee on the internet. As a result, the name of the school takes on greater significance, as a kind of guarantee. The reputation suggests that it took some effort for the candidate to pass the exams and complete the degree. While it is probably not sufficient, it is better than nothing at all.
Many students make a lot of assumptions before they transfer. Unfortunately, I have not heard these assumptions about reputation, curriculum, or career paths explored in recruitment information sessions. Perhaps if schools provided more virtual open houses, as well as graduate statistics and lectures on students’ outcomes beyond graduation, students could make better choices.