Kaylee ChengNov. 26, 2019—When Kaylee Cheng transferred to CSU Channel Islands (CSUCI) from College of the Sequoias in Visalia last year, she was suddenly hundreds of miles from home.

“I had never really been in Southern California before,” said Cheng, 21, of Fresno. “I had heard good things about CSUCI and I came here without ever visiting. Coming here was a huge culture shock.”

For a while, Cheng was lost. Cheng’s mother had immigrated from Mexico when she was 16 and had spent time in foster care, so although she eventually got a college degree and went into teaching, Cheng’s mother did not understand the numerous intricacies of navigating a campus, and had no parents of her own to guide her through the process.

“I was not a first-generation college student, but I had a first-generation experience,” Cheng said.

Being a transfer student further complicated Cheng’s ability to manage college socially, academically, and practically. She would later learn that other transfer students were having experiences similar to hers.

“One student told me ‘I just came to campus, went to class, went to my job, went to evening class. I ate lunch by myself. Never talked to anybody,’” Cheng said. “That conversation opened my eyes to the quiet struggles transfer students face every day.”

Then one day, Cheng discovered undergraduate research and it completely changed her life.

In less than two years, she went from newcomer to becoming one of four students nationwide to win a Transfer Student Ambassador Award from the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students (NISTS).

The award comes with $500 for her education and a $500 to benefit CSUCI. In the video essay she had to submit in the competition, Cheng indicated what she wanted to do with the grant.

“I’m really camera shy so I have about five hours of unusable video,” she said. “I indicated that if I won, I wanted to use the grant to start an initiative focused on undergraduate research for transfer students.”

Cheng finally hit her stride one day when she attended an informational session on a whale research project in Hawaii that would take place that summer under the supervision of Assistant Professor of Environmental Science & Resource Management Clare Steele, PhD and Professor of Mathematics Cynthia Wyels, PhD.

It was a trip to Maui hosted by Biology Professor and whale expert Rachel Cartwright in partnership with her organization, Keiki Kohola Maui. Cheng was fascinated.

The room was packed with about 60 interested students—most of them science majors—so Cheng thought the chances were slim that a Psychology major like her would be one of the 16 students selected out of the 200 who applied for the trip.

Cheng was shocked when she was selected, and the week she spent researching humpback whales and ecotourism in Hawaii was transformative. Soon, her life was filled with activity.

“Even though it wasn’t my field, I fell in love with research,” she said. “Right now I’m working on a study on transfer students and the sense of urgency they feel compared to four-year students. They feel a need to catch up and feel they need to do all sorts of extra things to succeed.”

Cheng got involved with the Freshman Student Undergraduate Research Fellows (SURF) living learning community; became a peer mentor through Peer Education and Equity Programs (PEEP); got involved with the National Student Transfer Student Ambassador Program; became president of the CSUCI Psychology Club; and took advantage of the help and guidance available from the faculty.

 “Kaylee is a very motivated student and does not shy away from opportunities that come her way,” said Assistant Professor of Psychology Weldon Zane Smith, PhD. “Each time I talk to her it seems that she has become involved with something new.”

In February, Cheng will travel to Atlanta to the NISTS annual conference to be honored with the other three national awardees. She will also be part of a panel of transfer students who will speak about their experiences to professionals in higher education from across the country.

After she graduates in May, Cheng plans to apply to a doctoral program at UCLA in Higher Education and Organizational Change.

“I’d really love to continue work in public policy, educational leadership and organizational change, especially when it comes to best practices for non-traditional students like transfer and former foster care students.”

Whatever she decides to do after CSUCI, Smith thinks she made and continues to make a huge difference for other students—particularly transfer students.

“If you’re a transfer student, use Kaylee as a role model,” Smith said. “Get involved with communities on campus, reach out to your professors, and realize that sharing your experience is important. Kaylee has a great opportunity to use her experiences to effect change, and I know she will continue to help make things better everywhere she is involved.”

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