Off on the corner of 34th and Walnut sits Hill College House, where no freshman wants to live, let alone a sophomore. Nobody, that is, except for Max Polkinhorne.
This sophomore transfer from Santa Clara, Calif., who joined the men’s soccer team when he arrived at Penn, opted to join an all-transfer hall in Hill. This little community is more meaningful than meets the eye.
Right next door is field hockey sophomore transfer Katelynn Mudgett. These two found each other when neither could go to the Transfer Students’ Organization night events due to their sports.
“He and I had this conversation one day,” Mudgett said. “And he said, ‘Why did you pick to live in Hill?’ and I was like, ‘I didn’t pick to live here.’ And he said, ‘I did.’ And I was like, ‘And did it say there was air conditioning on the website?’ and he was like, ‘No,’ and I said, ‘And is there air conditioning?’ ‘No.’”
Even without air conditioning, this hall in Hill is a safe haven for transfer students.
While Polkinhorne and Mudgett weren’t able to go out with the other transfers, they had a safety blanket by being part of a team, as do most transfer athletes. They had the fortune of jumping into a new family upon arrival at Penn.
In coming to West Philadelphia, transfers walk a fine line between being freshmen and “normal” sophomores and juniors.
Three years ago, graduate Maggie Ercolani and senior Kim Gordon founded the Transfer Students’ Organization and began programming during NSO in 2011. Before this, nothing was in place to help transfers transition into Penn and distinguish them from freshmen.
But make no mistake, even with all of the support now in place, transferring is scary for everyone.
The risk is big, but the payoff is even greater.
Max Polkinhorne wanted to come to Penn. He just had to figure out how.
“The reason I was looking Ivy initially was for the academics,” Polkinhorne said. “I definitely used soccer to get into the Ivies.”
Originally, the California native was looking to play in the Ancient Eight, but unfortunately, it didn’t work out.
“It was a bad recruitment year,” he said. “Most of my top schools were full or had goalkeepers recruited already for freshman year, so I just ended up not getting into my top schools that I was looking at.”
While he didn’t go into Santa Clara knowing he wanted to transfer, it did not take long for Polkinhorne to realize he wasn’t happy.
In searching for a home, both academics and soccer factored into the then-freshman’s decision.
Ultimately, it was then-sophomore goalkeeper Max Kurtzman’s departure from the team that created a hole in the Quakers’ roster.
“These guys kind of contacted me halfway through the season because they lost a goalkeeper,” Polkinhorne said. “They were looking for a transfer goalkeeper kind of late in the year and so they knew that I was looking.”
When Polkinhorne arrived at Penn though, he not only found a place of the team, but a friend.
Risks pay off
Polkinhorne’s next door neighbor Mudgett transferred from Brown to be in Wharton.
Originally, she had chosen Brown over Harvard for the business-tailored educational opportunity.
But Brown didn’t have a Wharton, and that was what Mudgett was looking for.
In late May, when Mudgett got into Penn, she faced a dilemma. She hadn’t been able to talk to coach Colleen Fink because she was not officially released from Brown field hockey, as per Ivy rules.
“Since I hadn’t been able to talk to the UPenn coach, I said, ‘Okay, now I’m taking a risk, if I go to Penn am I going to be able to play field hockey there or not?’” she said.
When she decided to leave the Bears and join the Quakers, Mudgett told her coach she wouldn’t be back and immediately reached out to Fink to ask if she could play for the Red and Blue. The answer was yes, and the risk paid off for Mudgett.
Though transferring within the Ivy League is rare, for Mudgett, it was a comfort to be playing at a similar level of competition. Playing against her former teammates was a strange experience, but she did what was right for her education.
“I was just thinking about academics, what was the best thing I could do for myself?” Mudgett said. “And it was Wharton.”
Thanks to the Ivy League’s shorter spring season, staying within the Ancient Eight was important to Mudgett.
And in time, the decision paid off.
“I am going to a conference in Qatar,” Mudgett said. “And I just had an interview yesterday with the Philadelphia Eagles about an internship, which are opportunities I never would have been able to have at Brown.”
In all realms
Fifth-year senior quarterback Ryan Becker had a different road to West Philadelphia.
Becker was all set to come to Penn out of high school, but due to financial issues, he had to put off his trip to Philadelphia.
“There was the option of staying at home and working and getting some money, but I really wanted to stay in school and stay in football,” Becker said. “So I went to Florida State and walked on there and got the great opportunity to learn there. Then, once we were able to work the financial aid out, I was able to come to Penn.”
Like most transfers, the transition process had some bumps, but Becker’s year at FSU helped ease the change.
“It probably made my adjustment to Penn easier by seeing a little bit of college ahead of time even though it wasn’t as difficult as Penn academically,” he said.
But academics were where the biggest struggle took place. Even with the year at FSU, Becker wasn’t
prepared for the jump.
Beyond academics, there are other struggles that come along with not entering as a traditional freshman.
“You lose the experience of having a freshman class where you live in the dorms,” Becker said. “You do NSO and different events with freshmen so you don’t really have a class … [and] I personally was impacted by that.”
Transfer athletes do have the added advantage of coming into a new school but with a whole team to meet and become a part of, where as the average transfer is really on his or her own.
However, it is easy to get stuck only fraternizing with the team. Becker chose to broaden his horizons by joining a fraternity.
Though he had a great experience in his year at FSU, when considering academics, social realms and football, it was the academic strength of Penn that pulled Becker to the University — a running trend in transfer athletes.
“The opportunity to come to Penn — the degree,” Becker said. “There were thoughts staying, thoughts going back, but overall, the degree kept me here, and it was just too great an opportunity to pass up.”
Financial struggles are not unique to Becker’s transfer experience. Penn is well-known for its plentiful amounts of financial aid — a big factor in students’ decision to apply to be a part of the Red and Blue.
A real place
Veronica Jones transferred as a junior this fall from Virginia. Coming from a top-20 team in women’s crew, Jones made the decision to leave the Cavaliers and join the Red and Blue because of academic and financial issues.
Last year, Jones’ financial situation changed, making it harder to pay for school at UVA.
“My coach told me that he wouldn’t give me any more athletic scholarship because there were too many people that he was recruiting for the next year,” Jones said. “So I started contacting other schools — Columbia and Penn and UNC.”
Though it started as a financial issue, Jones also came to the realization that her life post-college would not center around rowing, despite her spot in the top 14 at UVA.
“Maybe rowing is important to me, but it isn’t going to be my life,” Jones said. “I think that is really hard to face, because you can love something so much, but you have to realize that after college, it’s not doing anything for you except for being a fun pastime.”
With Penn’s strong financial aid, large group of sophomore transfers and great academics, it seemed like the perfect choice.
“I want to be a leader somewhere,” Jones said. “I want to do more things with my life than just major in rowing.”
Despite the weaker and less intense team, Jones has never looked back or questioned her decision.
“I always wanted to try to go to a really high-level institution. UVA is a good school, but it doesn’t compare to here,” she said.
“I feel like I am in a real place, I’m not just rowing, rowing, rowing. I’m like, ‘Oh, employment. Oh, friendship. Oh, you’re from here.’ Here, you have pressure to expand and to meet other people.”
For Jones, the transition was anything but easy, and TSO made the process easier.
“[TSO made clear that] we know you’re not freshmen, we’ve been there, and we know you guys can do this,” Jones said.
For Jones, the decision to transfer was more than just switching schools. It was about changing her life trajectory and reorganizing priorities.
Stories to tell
Every transfer, athlete or not, has their own story to share. Whether a desire for stronger academics, a financial struggle or something else brought the student to Penn, arriving at 34th and Walnut does not solve all the problems.
“I think part of it is a struggle, you know?” Jones said. “You struggle at your old school, and you want to come here and do well.
“Maybe you do have to struggle a little bit [here].”
Perhaps it is that struggle that makes transfer students appreciate Penn in a way that those who enter as freshmen never can.
When Becker came to Penn four years ago, there was nothing in place to help him transition into the Red and Blue as a transfer.
“I don’t think they did anything special really to integrate transfers,” he said. “Coming in as a transfer is a little bit tough, because they treat you as a freshman for certain things, but not others. Overall, I’d say it could be improved.”
And improved it has been. TSO is made up of a group of students who have transferred into Penn and are devoted to helping those going through the same process now.
It is all too easy to overlook transfers because they do not fit neatly into a mold. Whether the motivation is financial, academic or anything in between, the 150 or so new non-freshman students that walk onto this campus every year are ready to start over, even while their peers are already acclimated to Penn.
Max Polkinhorne, Katelynn Mudgett, Ryan Becker, Veronica Jones and countless others all have stories to tell — stories of struggle and triumph not discussed nearly enough.
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