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Beyond the Ivory Tower: Welcoming Transfer Students to the University with Summer PWR 1

“What does it mean to be a student at an institution of higher learning? Who gets to decide what gets taught and what’s worth knowing?” These are the all-important and provocative questions that open the description of one of PWR’s summer courses: PWR 1TRF: Beyond the Ivory Tower - The Rhetoric of the University, a PWR 1 course designed specifically for transfer students who are coming to Stanford having not yet fulfilled their Writing 1 requirement.

Every year, Stanford accepts roughly 60 transfer students, all of whom bring a rich diversity of academic and life experiences with them to campus. Of these students, some receive Stanford equivalence through previous coursework in writing and research-based courses similar to PWR 1. However, many have not taken such classes and so face the challenge of fulfilling both the Write 1 and Write 2 requirements while also diving directly into their majors -- often on a truncated academic timeline.  When advisor Alice Petty took on the position of undergraduate advising director for transfer advising a few years ago, she immediately recognized an opportunity here to re-think how transfer students navigate the writing and rhetoric requirements.

The idea of have a special writing class dedicated to transfer students is not a new one. "In the early 1990s, there was a 'PWR 6' that was intended for non-traditional students, most of them transfers," Christine Alfano shared. "However, that course disappeared long ago."  In early meetings in 2021 with Christine, Gabrielle Monsour from the Registrar, and Danielle Wood, Associate Dean and Director of Summer Sessions, Alice pitched a new version of such a class, a summer PWR 1 that would meet online, allowing those transfer students who needed to fulfill the Write 1 requirement to do so, even before they moved to campus. 

The result was PWR 1TRF: Beyond the Ivory Tower, which was first offered in Summer 2022.  This course joins “Transfer 101”--the transfer equivalent of “Frosh 101”--in supporting incoming transfer students, who the university credits with “bring[ing] a dynamic perspective to a campus community that values diversity and defines it broadly.” What makes PWR 1TRF particularly noteworthy is that the university subsidizes the cost of the course for the transfer students, a key innovation that would have not been possible without Alice and Danielle's resourcefulness and dedication to this project.

Once the course was approved, PWR lecturer Shannon Hervey-Lentz came onboard to design the learning experience; they faced the particular challenge of delivering the standard PWR 1 curriculum in eight weeks instead of ten -- while also keeping in mind the unique perspectives and varied academic and life experiences of these non-traditional students. Shannon offers the story of the course’s inception, and what it has meant to them to teach it these two years:

“The PWR 1 transfer course is probably my favorite course to teach at Stanford. Students bring a rich diversity of experiences to the classroom, from military histories to activist missions; I’ve taught entrepreneurs who took extended gap years, and I’ve taught ballerinas who spent their early adulthoods dancing on globally recognized stages. These students range in ages from twenty years old to mid-thirties and tend to be generous in sharing their perspectives and humble in receiving that of their peers. What I probably like most about this group is that I don’t need to spend any time convincing them that rhetoric and communication matter - they show up ready and so eager to dive in, to create something in their research writing that feels both incredibly personal and also often political, academic, rigorous, and robust. In a nutshell, these students are really a dream. 

When I developed the course theme last year, I wanted to invite students into a topic with immediate relevance to them. I could have gone many ways, but I decided to pursue a course titled 'Beyond the Ivory Tower: The Rhetoric of the University' because I knew that many come into the class with complex relationships to big systems, like that of a University. As they step into their university life, not just attending any university but one of the elite universities in Western education, I wanted to give them the space to consider what that means. I’m truly blown away by both my PWR 1 transfer students last summer and this summer who have completely exceeded any of my expectations in answer to this call.

Some standout projects include a student who wrote an autoethnography focusing on education and the youth outmigration in rural areas to find opportunities - this paper made me weep as I read about his love for his rural community and the beautiful people who live there paired with his heartbreak at the lack of opportunities and the policies that ensure the perpetuation of undereducation and few opportunities. Another project that comes to mind is a student who explored the relationship between global policies and Islamophobia in higher education - he began this paper with an anecdote of some of the training he’d received as US military, being told as a young person that the Islamic faith is inherently violent, and noting that his dog tags identified him as Christian even though he was and is, in fact, a Muslim. While many of the topics tend to be specifically thinking about positionality and identity, there are many other types of projects, like one that convincingly argued in favor of gap years from a biological, developmental, economic, and social standpoint. 

The other thing I’ll mention here is that offering a PWR 1 course exclusively for transfer students is just so, so important. Because they share in the transfer experience, they form a strong community from the get go, which makes things like workshops and collaborative writing opportunities all the richer. I feel so lucky that I get these students as they enter their Stanford experience. If I had it my way, we’d also offer a PWR 2 course exclusively for transfer students!”

The 2022 pilot phase of PWR 1TRF was so successful that it was taught again this year --with the addition of a second section taught by Tara Diener.  Tara credits Shannon with the strong course infrastructure that made it possible for her to jump right in.  

Alice Petty's reflection on PWR 1TRF underscores how important innovative classes like this are for Stanford's transfer students: "It can be challenging for these students to navigate departmental silos and university policy that often presumes a more traditional student experience.  This class provides an opportunity to meet a foundational university requirement while providing a supportive introduction to academic life at Stanford, a sense of community and belonging, and a warm welcome."