Transferring Humanities Skills from Community to Four-Year College

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We are almost at the midpoint of spring semester and requests for letters of recommendation are starting to pile up. Teaching at a community college necessitates that faculty support students' transfer applications, which are generally due later in the admissions process than those of first-year students. The fact that the overwhelming majority of my students are not continuing on in my field of study makes writing these letters more challenging. I would love to be able to share the perspective that a student’s love of history would no doubt flourish when he/she had the opportunity to take upper-level courses. Reality, however, is that in the nearly fourteen years I have taught community college students, fewer than a handful have gone on to major in history. It’s my job, then, to help admissions counselors to see that a community college student’s success in a college-level humanities class is, in fact, indicative of his/her potential to be successful in virtually any area of study. 

While I cannot be certain that my approach to writing letters of recommendation for transfer students is the “right” way, here are some of the things that I ask my students to think about and share with me before I write a letter:

  • What specific field is the student hoping to enter and why?
  • What has he/she done work/internship/class-wise that has led to this decision?
  • What specific personal challenges has he/she overcome to be successful academically?
  • How has community college prepared him/her for the next step in their journey?

In my letters I focus on the specific skills that I believe college-level history classes offer to all undergraduates, regardless of their intended field of study: critical thinking, research, and writing. Since all of my students are required to complete a research project I am able to describe the individual student’s written work and what he/she accomplished with the assigned project. For many community college students, history is one of the few fields in which library-based research is required. I emphasize to college admissions committees that to pass introductory-level college history classes my students have had to prove proficiency in basic research methods that include developing thesis statements, supporting arguments with primary source documents, and properly citing materials. 

Since my students regularly participate in group discussions, I tell admissions counselors about the individual student’s ability to formulate an oral argument and share ideas with the class. This is particularly useful as a letter of recommendation topic when a student has shown leadership potential in a group setting.

I’m currently writing a letter for a student who will study engineering at his next college. Simply telling the admissions committee that he received an A in each of my introductory level classes, I believe, is insufficient. It is in our students' best interests that we as humanities faculty directly identify to people outside of our fields the academic competence and confidence that students gain from humanities courses like history and how those skills can be applied to virtually any academic field. And, that we convince admissions counselors that our students' humanities experiences at the two-year college level will make them quality contributors to their next academic community.

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.