Transfer Talk Tuesdays are a series of personal blogs where current USC transfer students dive deeper into their real-life stories, perspectives, and experiences in transferring to USC. Note that each transfer application is unique and there are no guaranteed paths to transfer. For guidance on how to put together a competitive transfer application, please review our Transferring to USC brochure.
My name is Sammie Zenoz and I am currently a senior at USC. I transferred in from Miami Dade Community College in South Florida. I am majoring in Creative Writing with a double minor in Screenwriting and Theatre. At USC, I work with the Office of Admission as a Transfer Ambassador, helping community college students navigate the transfer process and sharing my own experience as a successful transfer applicant.
My Transfer Journey: The Non-Traditional Student
From Past High School Dropout to Future Valedictorian
“It wasn’t long ago that I defined who I was by my single greatest failure: being a high school dropout. I wore it like a mark of shame and ached with regret for all the missed memories, forgotten friendships, and lost opportunities. It was agonizing to watch from afar as my former classmates stumbled through all these important milestones while I went through the hardest time in my life. It was a difficult decision to drop out of school at fifteen years old, but something terrible happened to me and I couldn’t ignore it. I needed to take the time to understand it, heal from it, and find my own way back. I struggled for a long time but in the end I learned one important thing: the most difficult lessons are those with the greatest rewards.”
This was the beginning paragraph to my letter of appeal when I was initially rejected by USC back in 2020. To this day, I consider it to be the single greatest thing I’ve ever written and the very letter that changed my life forever.
At the time I was in the middle of my own transfer process, like many of you are now. I had just graduated from community college and I didn’t know where my next step would lead me. Every waking moment since graduation day and even before, I wondered whether I’d actually be able to transfer to a 4-year university. It sounded like a fantasy. I wasn’t sure whether I’d ever find my way to somewhere new that I belonged. I was filled with self-doubt and fear of failure. I agonized over whether I’d even get into any schools at all after applying to so many. When filling out my transfer applications it was hard to ignore the fact that I was different from other students applying. I was a former high school dropout with a G.E.D. I spent a decade out of school working late nights as a waitress and bartender. Could a high school dropout really find a place at a top university? Was I too old to have dreams of attending university? Would my troublesome past hold me back from moving forward with my life? I wondered often if there was any hope left for me after so much time had passed me by. I know that I’m not alone. This is the story of millions of students across the world who have been faced with difficult hardships that set their academic progress off course. The non-traditional student’s educational journey is one that is filled with surprise twists and turns. Hopefully I can share with you a little bit about my own journey to USC and give all my fellow non-traditional students some inspiration and advice to help you along the way.
What is a Non-Traditional Student?
There is a lot of debate about what specifically makes a non-traditional student, but the general definition refers to students who are over the traditional college age of 24 years old. Other definitions include students who earned their G.E.D diploma instead of a standard high school diploma, students who work full-time jobs while attending college part time, or students from low-income backgrounds who are not financially dependent on their parents. For the sake of this blog, we will define a non-traditional student as anyone who has returned to school after previously taking a break from achieving their educational goals. As more and more older adults return to school, non-traditional students have become more common in the admissions process. Every year, millions of non-traditional students return to college. You are not alone in your journey to return to school. Non-traditional students make up a small percentage of USC’s campus, and you’re bound to run into one eventually during your time here.
Knowledge is Power
I dropped out of high school at a young age. Because of this, I never had the opportunity to learn about the college admissions process. I didn’t have SAT scores. I didn’t even know what the Common Application was. I dreamed of attending a top university, but I didn’t know specifically what that process entailed. I was fortunate enough to have a couple wonderful professors at my community college take me under their wing and share with me what they could. Eventually, I won a community college transfer scholarship that helped fund my continued education and also included a weekend-long trip to West Hollywood, California where I was invited to attend a “Transfer Student Symposium” that would educate and train me in all aspects of the transfer process. This event changed everything for me. As a first-generation student whose parents never attended college and as someone who never finished high school, I didn’t have any foundation of knowledge to help guide me through transfer applications, supplemental essays, or building up a competitive resume. Thankfully through my scholarship foundation’s help, I was able to learn so much that it kicked open door after door for me as I finished my time in community college. This is the first piece of advice I’d like to give all of you: learn as much as you can about the transfer process. This new journey to transferring will require a lot of hard work and research on your part. Everything that you learn will be another piece of the puzzle.
You will want to know a lot of the basic stuff at first: the difference between a college and a university, the difference between a non-profit and a for-profit institution, the difference between a public university versus a private university, which schools practice need-blind admissions and which ones are 100% meet-need schools (which is especially important for low-income students).
Once you have gone through those important foundational questions, you’ll need to decide which schools to apply to. You will need to research which schools best fit your needs as a student while considering which schools have the best programs for your intended major. Your top choice school may have an impressive football team and an amazing dining hall, but does it have a well-funded science program for you as a biology major, or does it offer generous financial aid for you as a low income student? Perhaps a question that applies to returning adults reluctant to move out of state for school – will the schools near you have strong well-funded programs and scholarships, or other financial aid, that makes it possible and plausible for you to attend? At some point, USC must have ended up on your list of schools to attend, otherwise you wouldn’t be here reading this fabulous blog! I would love to share with you why I ended up applying to USC.
The University of Southern California isn’t just one of the top schools in the country, though that certainly is reason enough to apply. What many don’t know is that USC practices need-blind admission while meeting 100% of students’ demonstrated financial need, meaning that they don’t take your family’s ability to pay tuition into account when deciding whether to admit you. If you are admitted, they will assess your situation and do everything they can to meet your financial need in a way that would make it possible for you to attend USC. This was crucial to my decision to attend.
As a non-traditional student, I also chose USC because of their large transfer student population. Over one-third of undergraduate students at USC are transfer students from other schools around the country. Over 55% of those transfer students are from California community colleges. Knowing that USC valued community college students so much meant a lot to me. I wanted to attend a school that understood my unique journey and recognized my potential. USC’s application process also takes a very holistic approach, considering many different factors of an applicant’s profile, not just leaning heavily on grades and test scores, but diving into who potential students are through many different essays aimed at getting to know the whole person applying.
Once I knew which schools I wanted to apply to, I started my research into what previous successful transfer applications looked like. Online I was able to find many examples of personal statements and transfer essays from students who found success in transferring. Each of these resources helped me to craft my own competitive application. Arm yourself as much as possible with all the resources and knowledge available to you. The information is all there, you only have to find it.
Reframing Your Story
Your story is everything, and I’m not just saying that because I’m a creative writing major. When I first thought about transferring to a 4-year university after graduating from community college, I saw all the supposed red flags in my story. I didn’t finish high school. I had a G.E.D. I was a 30-year-old waitress barely getting by. I didn’t see what I could possibly have to offer a prestigious university on the other side of the country. Through the transfer process and especially while crafting my application essays, I was able to start seeing a new side to my story. Maybe I wasn’t just a high school dropout. Maybe I was a smart, talented student who went through a difficult time. I considered that maybe having a G.E.D. meant that I never truly gave up on myself or my education. Yes, I had a less than ideal GPA, but my transcripts told the story of someone who struggled at first academically and ended with a strong upward trend in grades by my final semester. Where I once saw failure, I now saw proof of my resilience and strength. After all, I was beginning the race to attend a top university from behind the start line, but even knowing I was behind I ran as fast and as hard as I could anyway. I knew that I might not compare with other more privileged students who had more opportunities than me but it didn’t make me feel any less than. Reframing your own story is essential and something that, quite frankly, you owe to yourself. Throw away any negative ideas you may have about your journey and give birth to a new version. What if all the mistakes you once made were actually gifts to help you better understand yourself and make you strong than you ever were? Would you still have your same regrets? The truth is, you can’t change the past. You will never be able to gain back that time lost, but what if it wasn’t time lost, but time spent getting to where you need to be. You are the incredible person you are today because of everything you have gone through. Own that. Reshape your story to fit the new you. If you don’t believe in yourself, how can you convince the rest of the world to believe in you? Besides, I know for a fact everyone loves an epic comeback story, especially the amazing admission committee at USC.
Though I was initially rejected by USC, I was given the opportunity to appeal, one last one-page letter explaining to the committee why I feel they may have overlooked my application. It was agonizing to be rejected, but I wouldn’t have it any other way because it pushed me to write a terrifically beautiful, powerful letter that helped convince the admission committee to take another look at me. I can’t begin to explain to you the overwhelming emotions that overcame me when I received news that my appeal was successful and I had officially been granted admission to the University of Southern California, my very own dream school.
Two amazing years at USC later and I am about to graduate with a 4.0 GPA and fielding an invitation to apply as Valedictorian of my graduating class. Not too bad for a former high school dropout, right? Just a few years ago, this felt like a wild and impossible dream for someone like me. Now it is my everyday reality. Even after all this time, I’m still in awe that I’m really here. I feel so lucky and grateful that I pushed through and never gave up. I was able to ignore that crippling self-doubt and those around me that told me I was too old and foolish for ever daring to dream so big. As I walk through campus and watch the younger students enjoy their time at USC, I often wonder how things would be if I was ten years younger but as I well know by now, youth is entirely wasted on the young (I’m kidding! Well mostly). I don’t think I could’ve ever appreciated USC as much as I do now, where I spend every moment here taking part in as many opportunities as possible. Really, I’m just soaking it all in. Just know that there are many returning adult students like myself and even older that have found their place at USC. I have met other non-traditional students in my classes and on campus, and it is always a joy to hear the stories of their journey back to school. I’ve been able to make so many friends with fellow classmates, professors, and the brilliantly kind staff all throughout campus. My final and perhaps greatest piece of advice for you now is to be brave enough to dream big and never give up on yourself. You are worthy of greatness. You are moving on to that next great step in your journey. You need only to believe in yourself. You are ready. Fight on.
Written by Sammie Zenoz, (she/her/hers), 2nd year at USC studying Creative Writing.