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Finding the right place: one student’s journey

The Breslin Center during the 2020-21 basketball season. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, no fans were allowed in the arena except for family members.
Michael Markoch
The Breslin Center during the 2020-21 basketball season. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, no fans were allowed in the arena except for family members.

Most college students land at school their freshman year and stay at the same institution until they graduate. But for some Michigan State students, their journey started at another college, and they found their way to East Lansing later.

EAST LANSING – I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t battled unhappiness at some point in their lives. Some will have to face it at 30, others at 60.

I went through it when I was 19.

Unhappiness can be caused by a multitude of circumstances. It could be that someone isn’t happy with their career path, is lonely or simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. For me, it was a little bit of everything all at once.

I am many things. I am a son, brother, journalist, broadcaster and student at Michigan State. But what a lot of people don’t know about me is that I am part of another community that isn’t normally in the spotlight: I am a transfer student.

The transfer student experience isn’t something that most people go through, so many can’t relate. Most students in high school will pick a school, go there and stay for four years.

I wasn’t one of the lucky ones.

In 2019, my freshman year, I was attending the University of Akron in Ohio. UA was the school both my parents attended, in an area that I loved and I got a great financial aid package. It seemed like a near-perfect fit.

A look at UA’s campus where I spent my freshman year. Buildings from left to right: Bulger Residence Hall (my first dorm), Spanton Residence Hall, Robertson Dining Hall (the only dining hall on campus).
Chris Markoch
A look at UA’s campus where I spent my freshman year. Buildings from left to right: Bulger Residence Hall (my first dorm), Spanton Residence Hall, Robertson Dining Hall (the only dining hall on campus).

I probably still haven’t come to terms with this yet, but there is no such thing as a perfect fit.

Almost right away I could tell something was wrong. I struggled to make friends, I didn’t like my suitemates and my classes weren’t challenging me in the way I needed. My parents told me to give it time, that not everyone makes the adjustment right away, so I tried to give everything its due.

Instead, I started spiraling.

There would be a few good days but far more bad ones. I was depressed and unfocused and my anxiety was unbearable. I found myself counting down the days until my dad came to pick me up once a month so I could come home for a weekend.

My parents noticed a change in me, they knew I was unhappy. My dad has a saying, “It’s the singer, not the song’.” It means that a good song isn’t about the lyrics, but about how the singer interprets and performs them. In this situation, he meant that it’s about the person, not the place. He reminded me that college is what I make of it, the place can’t dictate that fact.

Then, in March 2020, the world changed.

UA was one of the first schools in the country to move online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Situation aside, I was elated. I finally got to go home, for good.

However, despite the fact I was back at home, my happiness was temporary. My brain was going a mile a minute, and I was second-guessing everything in my life. By the time the semester ended in May, I knew a change was necessary - I needed help.

That began the first time in my life that I ever went to therapy. It took a lot of effort and discipline to work on myself and it was painful at times, but after a month I was doing a lot better and thinking a lot more clearly. I realized that the pandemic gave me an opportunity to do what I needed to do.

During my freshman year, my dad had made a deal with me. If I could stick it out for two years at UA, I could transfer wherever I wanted as an upperclassman. But with the pandemic putting the entire world on hold, I was presented with a chance for a fresh start at a new school a year early, in the fall 2020.

My father, Chris Markoch, and I with Akron’s mascot, “Zippy the Kangaroo,” during a UA football game in 2019. UA was my father’s alma mater and the main reason why I went there my freshman year.
Chris Markoch
My father, Chris Markoch, and I with Akron’s mascot, “Zippy the Kangaroo,” during a UA football game in 2019. UA was my father’s alma mater and the main reason why I went there my freshman year.

I had done some research into Michigan State before the year ended. I knew about their journalism program and knew it could potentially be a good fit. I also knew I had friends at MSU that were already there so I wouldn’t be lonely like I was at UA.

I approached my parents with the idea of transferring to MSU in time for the fall semester and they were fully supportive. Because MSU has rolling admission, they accept applications year-round. I applied at the end of June and was admitted a week later for fall 2020.

I accepted my admission a few days later having never seen the campus before.

That part didn’t change as the entire academic year would take place online in 2020-21. I wasn’t allowed on campus my entire first year, the first game I ever covered was in an empty Breslin Center with fake crowd noise pumped in. I can’t lie, that was difficult.

In my time in therapy, I was told I have OCD. My condition doesn’t affect me physically as much as it does mentally. I tend to worry too much about things outside of my control or about things that don’t make sense. Without having seen campus or being allowed on it, I couldn’t give myself that reassurance that I made the right decision. It was the perfect opportunity for my mind to mess with me once again.

I felt guilty and still wasn’t happy.

Dr. Charles Jackson, the director for Transfer Student Success at MSU, was a transfer student himself when he was in college. He said it’s important for transfer students to remember that it isn’t their fault that things didn’t work out at their prior schools.

“You’re here for a reason and everything happens for a reason, and because of that, don’t let that deter you from completing your undergraduate degree,” Jackson said. “Life just shows you various curveballs that you just don’t anticipate, and you’re just going to have to be able to adjust.”

Jackson started at Tennessee State before attending two other schools (LCC being the second stop) on his way to getting his degree. He faced many roadblocks that led him to believe he would never get it, but he said it was his support system and networks that pushed him through.

“It was people outside of LCC who encouraged me to just continue on and just let me know that this is a bump in the road and that you can’t give up,” Jackson said. “And once I got (to MSU) they were telling me to make sure you’re networking and building relationships with the appropriate folks because you just never know who will be that inspiration to you, that’ll help you finish and that helped me get through.”

Even among a group of transfer students, I still felt different. Normally, transfers are planned by students who go to community college their first two years before transitioning to a four-year university. It isn’t as common to see students like me who leave a four-year institution for another.

Lauren Calhoun is a transfer student coordinator who transferred to MSU herself in spring 2020. She said that students who plan to transfer may be more well-suited for the environment they are entering.

“I feel like people who are prepared to transfer are a little bit more at an advantage because they are mentally prepared and things of that nature to be in a new environment,” Calhoun said. “But when you aren’t and you are transferring for whatever reason that may be, it’s kind of like you are getting dropped in chaos and you don’t know what to do with yourself.”

The Transfer Student Advisory Board at MSU was started to try and organize that chaos. The board is made up of 40 transfer students, who all come from different backgrounds and work together to try and help out other transfer students in the present and future.

The student coordinators do many different things for transfer students. They organize and run orientation, create events to try and create a community among transfer students and offer support to those students who may need a little extra help during their transition to MSU.

Calhoun has been on the board for the last two years and said she is still in touch with a lot of the students she met while being an orientation leader as they reach out with a variety of needs.

“They’re going to need resources, they’re going to need help and not just only on the day of orientation,” Calhoun said. “I still am in contact with the students that came in in January, they still ask me financial aid questions and ‘who do I ask for this?’ or ‘where should I eat on campus?’ or just any type of question.”

I never used the resources available to me when I came, but looking back now, maybe I should have. It is getting better to be a transfer student, but there is still plenty of work to be done.

There is still an expectation that these students are different from freshmen. People in charge feel they can drop these students into the middle of a large ocean like MSU’s campus and they will be able to swim. I could, just barely, but others need to wear their life vests a little while longer.

Transfer students should be treated the exact same way as other newcomers, but they aren’t.

Starting next school year, transfer students will not be able to live on campus as housing has already filled up for 2023-24 due to the two-year mandatory on-campus living requirement.

Ashley Hewlett-Lemke, the program coordinator for Transitions and Student Success at MSU, said that although she understands why, this is one of the most frustrating things about how institutions treat transfer students. It shows how far schools like MSU still have to go.

“Living on campus was a critical part of my Spartan experience,” Hewlett-Lemke said. “Most students, first-year or transferred, don’t want to live on campus, I completely understand why, but for the individuals who want to live on campus, you’re depriving them of that opportunity.”

By forcing transfer students off campus, they’ll never get that same chance to build community organically. Hewlett-Lemke said that these students will never get the full college experience.

“We now have an entire commuter population of transfer students,” Hewlett-Lemke said. “We don’t want it to be similar to a community college experience which might be I drive to campus, go to class and I might go to the writing center or whatever, but that’s the extent of my campus experience…we want everyone’s Spartan experience to be much more than going to class.”

That was similar to my experience. My first year at the school, my only option was to live off campus due to the pandemic. It was either get an apartment in the East Lansing area or live at home. I chose to take a chance and be around people my own age with like minded goals, even if they were strangers.

In the three years I’ve been here, I never once lived in the dorms. I lived in an apartment and had different roommates every year that I didn't know beforehand. It hasn’t been because we haven’t liked each other or got along, but because they had already made plans in their first year of college and I was just a placeholder in their lives.

There were other people they wanted to live with, and none of those people were me. I remember promising that we would keep in touch, but that was a lie. Except for the occasional, brief text conversation or passing on the street, I never spent time with any of these people again.

That’s incredibly frustrating.

Despite the revolving door of roommates, I was still able to find my people at MSU. I made friends in class, joined the student radio station and met some other people through my roommates. But for many others, it isn’t that easy, and being on campus can help them ease in.

I’m finally beginning to understand what my father’s words meant, that life is about human connections which are necessary for our survival. My poor experience at UA wasn’t because of the school, but because of the lack of connection that I had when I was there. At MSU, I had more of that human connection and therefore was more happy.

Me on senior day for MSU men’s basketball. I covered the team for the student radio station throughout the 2022-23 season.
Michael Markoch
Me on senior day for MSU men’s basketball. I covered the team for the student radio station throughout the 2022-23 season.

When I was growing up, I only heard stories of the good things about college. I heard about students that met their best friends or significant others in the dorms, that found their life’s calling their sophomore year and left claiming these were the best four years of their life.

I am now one of the approximately 55,000 transfer students that have graduated from MSU since 1991 and I can’t definitively say I found all of those things.

I’m still going through my journey and fighting to be happy every single day.

I can’t say that happiness is something that can be attained because I haven't completely found it yet, but I can say in order to find it, you have to be willing to work for it. It requires self-reflection, self-awareness, self-discipline and most importantly, a leap of faith.

I took that leap, survived and now am ready for when I’ll assuredly have to take the next one.

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