, , and

Dismantling Deficit Thinking: A strengths-based inquiry into the experiences of transfer students in and out of academic libraries

In Brief
Library research on transfer students tends to focus on the idea of the “struggling” transfer student and creating solutions to “fix” them. While we might assume transfer students will falter because they missed our institutions’ first-year offerings, this oversimplifies their vast and heterogeneous experiences.

Our study complicates the narrative of the lagging transfer student. We surveyed and interviewed students to gain a holistic understanding of their lives in the workplace, the classroom, and the library. We encouraged them to explore their identities as students, researchers, caretakers, employees, and more. We found that most had previously received information literacy instruction, some had 4-year degrees, and the majority had extramural experiences that gave them confidence and knowledge to navigate higher education.

This paper explores the harm of deficit thinking, identifies how a strengths-based approach can inform librarianship, and shares data on transfer student experiences, challenges, and barriers. It offers readers an opportunity to consider how they might leverage transfer students’ strengths, rather than fixating on perceived shortcomings.

By Chelsea Heinbach , Brittany Paloma Fiedler , Rosan Mitola , and Emily Pattni


Librarians have recently conducted a significant amount of research on transfer students (Ivins, 2017a & 2017b). Unfortunately, much of the early research and resulting programs have focused solely on the challenges they face and creating solutions to “fix” them. This perspective is called the deficit mindset or deficit thinking, which labels any student that does not fit into a traditional norm as “at-risk” or working at a deficit. The deficit mindset often occurs with the good intention of supporting these students; however, it can lead to problematic assumptions. While we might surmise transfer students will falter because they missed our institutions’ first-year offerings, this oversimplifies the vast and heterogeneous transfer student experience.

Our research attempts to counter this deficit mindset by intentionally focusing on previous experiences that might contribute to success at our institution. Transfer students are not a monolith, and we recognized the complexities of their experiences through some of the literature, our work with them at multiple institutions, and as former transfer students ourselves. We aimed to learn holistically about our transfer students’ lives, what their previous experiences were, and how that might influence their time in and out of the library at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). We sought to gain a nuanced understanding in order to better support this student population in the library and advocate for them across campus. We purposefully did not attempt to compare transfer students to those who began their academic career at UNLV. We did not want to treat first-time, first-year students as the norm that transfer students deviate from or as the barometer with which to measure other students against. Instead, we focused exclusively on transfer students.

Literature Review

Deficit Thinking and Strengths-Based Approaches

Deficit thinking is pervasive in higher education literature and practice. It is often discussed in relation to the success gap between minority and white students. Valencia’s 1997 work discusses the long history of this problematic viewpoint in education:

“Of the several theories that have been advanced to explicate school failure among economically disadvantaged minority students, the deficit model has held the longest currency- spanning well over a century, with roots going back even further as evidenced by the early racist discourses from the early 1600s to the late 1800s…the deficit thinking model, at its core, is an endogenous theory – positing that the student who fails in school does so because of internal deficits or deficiencies” (Valencia, 1997, p. 2).

This thinking manifests in practice by believing that students who in any way do not conform to a “traditional” or privileged financial situation, home life, or route to education are not likely to succeed. This leads to lower expectations as well as an ignorance of their strengths (Portelli, 2010). This mindset can be difficult to recognize because it is pervasive and often manifests in an attempt to help students, but deficit thinking, coupled with the influence of neoliberalism on education, can cause even well-intentioned teachers to harm marginalized students (Sharma, 2016). In a study of pre-service teachers, Picower (2009) found that white educators believe that their students of color are deficient and “place the blame of educational failure on communities of color rather than on the institutions that are inequitably serving them” (p. 210). Educators operating through a deficit-oriented lens do not acknowledge the varied life experiences of marginalized students. Rather than encouraging students to inform the nature of the learning environment, educators attempt to fix them to fit a mold defined by a society rife with inequities such as sexism, racism, ableism, and classism.

K-12 teacher education literature has been at the forefront of discussing strengths-based approaches to teaching. This includes the closely related concepts of asset-based pedagogy, funds of knowledge, culturally relevant pedagogy, and critical pedagogy (Ladson-Billings, 1995; Tate, 1997; Moll, Amanti, Neff & Gonzalez, 1992). Meanwhile, higher education and academic libraries have made some positive movement away from the deficit model as well. For example, at the 2018 Library Orientation Exchange (LOEX), Tewell called on librarians to seek better teaching methods because “deficit thinking is a major aspect of information literacy and library instruction, whether we realize it or not; …this approach to education runs counter to meaningful educational practices; and we should adopt alternative pedagogies to resist this pervasive and counterproductive way of teaching” (2018). A 2017 study at GSM London created strengths-based initiatives for first-year students and found focusing on strengths during the transition to higher education improved student experiences and generally “allows people to better manage their weaknesses and become independent learners. Recognising talents and strengths helps…develop appropriate approaches – from classroom design, assessment tools, learning resources and teaching delivery” (Krutkowski, 2017, p. 228). A librarian who intentionally created a classroom environment grounded in asset-based teaching for students of color found that attending to the students’ cultural context, using auto-ethnographic approaches, creating opportunities for counter-stories, and avoiding the deficit mindset made information literacy education more “valuable, relevant, and useful” (Morrison, 2017, p. 212). A recent study using the funds of knowledge concept to investigate the research skills of first-generation students states, “[they]…have strengths that they bring to college by virtue of their identities, lived experiences, and interests” (Folk, 2018, p. 53). We hope to contribute to this growing body of strengths-based approaches in libraries.

Transfer Students and Libraries

As the number of transfer students has increased, academic libraries have made efforts to address this population. Some examples include librarian contributions and partnerships on campus-wide transfer student initiatives (Ivins & Mulhivill, 2017; Jacobson, Delano, Krzykowski, Garafola, Nyman, & Barker-Flynn, 2017; Tipton & Bender, 2006) and personal librarian programs, where transfer students have an assigned point of contact in the library (Coats & Pemberton, 2017; Lafrance & Kealey, 2017; MacDonald & Mohanty, 2017). Others have investigated cross-institutional collaborations in order to see what local librarians are doing for this population (Phillips & Atwood, 2009; Roberts, Welsh, & Dudek, 2017) while some have taken steps to create connections across several institutions in order to foster transfer student success (McBride, Gregor, & McCallister, 2017; McCallister, Gregor, & Joyner, 2015). Many of these studies express concern that students are underprepared for the expectations of a four-year institution and started initiatives to support transfer students in response (Ivins, 2017).

Librarians studying student populations have often replicated the perspectives present in the deficit model of education. We as a profession have been quick to adopt language such as “at-risk”, “gaps”, and “lagging” to describe entire groups of students. These terms are a manifestation of deficit thinking and, in the context of transfer students, ignore the experiences these students had in their K-12 and previous college education. It dismisses the work of the school, public, community college, and university librarians who have taught them information literacy or helped them navigate a library in the past, and insinuates that the way “we” do it is superior. Deficit thinking encourages institutions to “view students as deficient” rather than consider how “we librarians – as part of such educational systems – might ask ourselves to what extent we are part of the problem” (Ilett, 2019, p. 180).

Meanwhile, other librarians and higher education researchers have made an active effort to view transfer students holistically and acknowledge how unique this population is in their work. For example, Richter-Erikum and Seeber’s study (2018) echoed Jacobson et al. (2017) by explaining that there is no single transfer experience and discussing the ways transfer students bring research skills with them from their previous institutions. They acknowledge that transfer students are not blank slates when they arrive on our campuses. Lester, Leonard, & Mathias (2013) investigated the ways transfer students engage with campus and found that they view their social and academic lives as separate endeavors. Sandelli (2017) asked readers to consider whether “transfer students [should] be treated as a single group or as subgroups based on characteristics such as age or previous educational attainment” (p. 407) and acknowledged that each institution’s answer will be different.

We aim to build upon this work by using a strengths-based approach to learn holistically about the previous experiences of our transfer students, how those experiences influenced their lives both in and out of UNLV classrooms, and subsequently, discover how we can best support them. Our research considers how our profession currently discusses transfer students as coping with a myriad of deficits and argues that we should not continue to operate under this assumption, as it is damaging and oppressive. This is particularly true for our students of color, who have likely faced this mentality throughout their entire education.


Who We Are

UNLV is a public, doctoral-granting research university of about 30,000 students. Over 8,700 students are identified as non-traditional because they are over 23 years old, have dependents, have jobs, have had an interruption or delay in education, or serve or have served in the military (University of Nevada, Las Vegas, n.d.-a). UNLV has been designated by the US Department of Education as a Minority Serving Institution; an Asian-American and Native-American, Pacific Islander-Serving Institution; and a Hispanic Serving Institution. UNLV is one of the most diverse college campuses in the US, and in Fall 2018, 40% of our undergraduate students self-identified as first-generation. In the Fall of 2017, there were 7,097 incoming undergraduate students with 32% or 2,287 transferring from another institution. Of those incoming transfer students, 44% transferred from the College of Southern Nevada (CSN), a local community college system.

For the past eight years, UNLV has earned the gold rating designation as a Military Friendly university from G.I. Jobs Magazine (McCabe, 2018). There are more than 1,800 active-duty, reserve, veteran or military family members on campus. Many military service members start or continue their college education while enlisted which means a large percentage of transfer students are also veterans. Only 6% of our student population lives on campus, making UNLV primarily a commuter school. UNLV struggles to build community because of this, and at the beginning of this project, there were limited initiatives aimed towards transfer students.

What We Did

This was a mixed-methods study that included a survey and interviews. There were four researchers, with three acting as primary researchers and one serving as the transcriber and auditor. In January 2017, with data provided by the UNLV Retention, Progression, Completion Initiatives & Analytics Coordinator, we sent a survey to 5,116 students and offered an entry into a drawing for a $50 Amazon gift card. 568 students completed the survey (see Appendix B), though many did not answer every question, as we did not require any individual questions. As part of the survey, we asked students if they were interested in a follow-up interview which offered entry into a drawing for an additional $50 Amazon gift card. 155 students expressed interest in the interview. We then emailed all 155 students and scheduled 24 interviews assuming we would have some cancellations.

Before we began interviewing students, we practiced with student employees in our Mason Undergraduate Peer Research Coach program (Rinto, Watts, & Mitola, 2017). While not transfer students themselves, the Peer Research Coaches helped us refine our questions. We then conducted semi-structured interviews with 21 transfer students (see Appendix C). Two of the primary researchers were present at each interview. One acted as the main interviewer while the other took notes and asked additional questions. We recorded the interviews in two places: on an app on a tablet and on a smartphone for backup. We then de-identified the recordings and uploaded them to a shared Google Drive folder. At the end of the interview, we asked students to complete an optional demographic survey for the purposes of ensuring a representative sample.

After completing the interviews, the auditor transcribed them, and the primary researchers built a coding frame in order to do content analysis (see Appendix A). Our coding process was influenced by the Qualitative Content Analysis work of Hsieh and Shannon (2005). We began by brainstorming codes and then collectively reviewed a sample transcript to expand upon them. We then reviewed three transcripts individually to norm the existing codes and add additional codes as necessary. Once the coding frame and definitions were finalized, we began coding the interview data.

Each of the three principal investigators used ATLAS.ti to code eight interviews. One of each researcher’s transcripts overlapped with another researcher as a method to check for consistency in code application. We then merged our reports together in ATLAS.ti. As an additional norming measure, we sent our codes and their contents to the auditor, who performed random checks against the definitions to ensure they were used properly across the transcripts. The auditor also wrote her overall impressions and takeaways for each code. Finally, we collectively wrote our perceptions from each code and looked for overarching themes to describe the transfer student experience as a whole.


We acknowledge that there are many voices that aren’t represented in our research because our interviews were conducted on campus during regular business hours. We likely excluded students who are working a traditional 9-5 schedule, who are taking classes online because of their location or accessibility, or who don’t have access to flexible childcare. The transfer students we talked to that had robust responsibilities outside of school tended to have supportive family members such as spouses to help out with childcare or finances during this period of their lives. Additionally, the UNLV student population is unique because of our high numbers of non-traditional students, commuter students, first-generation students, and minority students. We encourage librarians to get to know the transfer students at their own institutions.

Out of the 21 interview participants, 20 completed the optional demographic information survey. Participants had an average age of 27.5 and ranged from 19 to 43 years old; 13 identified as women and seven identified as men. Six participants identified as a veteran or retired military service member. Fifty-five percent of our participants reported their race in an open-ended text box as white, with the remainder reporting their race as non-white Hispanic or Latino (15%), Pacific Islander (10%), multiracial (10%), and Asian (5%). One participant who filled out the demographic information did not report their race.

The self-reported demographics of our interviewees does not quite match the demographics of our diverse institution. For example, we did not speak to any Black or African-American students, who represent 8% of the UNLV student population. We also did not speak to any Native American students, which comprise 0.2% of our students. Asian and Hispanic or Latino students were also significantly underrepresented. Meanwhile, white and Pacific Islander students were largely overrepresented (University of Nevada, Las Vegas, n.d.-b). Additionally, UNLV’s data reports both race and ethnicity under the term ethnicity, making it difficult to compare the datasets. In retrospect, it may have been useful to collect demographic information in the main survey or intentionally reach out to diverse student organizations in order to ensure a representative sample in our interviews.



The survey questions revealed how students spend their time on and off campus and in and out of libraries. As mentioned above, not all of the 568 students answered every question. To account for this, our percentages have been calculated based on the number of participants (n) that answered that particular question.

Some of the most striking findings were regarding the research experiences of transfer students. When given a list of common library instruction topics, only 13% reported not receiving information literacy instruction (n = 529) (see Appendix B question 11). In addition, 82% had completed a college research paper where they found sources, used them to support their topic, and cited them in a bibliography (n = 539).

Other major findings include that 58% of our transfer students work in addition to going to school, and 60% of those employed students work over 20 hours per week (n = 559). Students reported that they used their time on campus for the following activities (see Table 1). The results indicate that students do not spend a significant amount of time utilizing on-campus resources or participating in special events, but 93% say they spend at least a few hours on campus studying and completing classwork (n = 547). We also asked students which campus resources they use (n = 539) and discovered the top three include University Libraries (81%), academic advising (73%), and financial aid (67%).

Table 1. How much time per week do you spend doing the following activities on campus outside of class?
No time 1-5 hours 5-10 hours 10-20 hours More than 20 hours
Studying and completing classwork (n = 547) 7% 31% 28% 25% 10%
Socializing and hanging out with friends (n = 543) 34% 47% 15% 3% 1%
Participating in on-campus special events (n = 542) 69% 28% 2% 0.2% 0.2%
Utilizing on campus resources like Student Rec Center or Academic Success Center (n = 543) 45% 42% 10% 3% 0.4%

We also wanted to know whether transfer students are using libraries, what they are using them for, and which libraries they are using. Three quarters (75%) of students are using a library at least once a week (n = 538). While 88% report using our main campus library, 26% of students have used a public library in the past 6 months (n = 539). The majority of students are using libraries for study space (84%) or access to technology (52%), some are borrowing items (40%) and socializing (27%), and 16% reported taking advantage of research help (n = 527).

The surveys offered an opportunity to gather a broad view of transfer student lives. We interviewed 21 of these students to get a deeper, more nuanced understanding of their experiences. Many of the survey themes and questions were mirrored and expanded upon in our interviews.


Varied lived experiences

It is remarkably difficult to make generalizations about transfer students. They varied from students who had recently graduated from high school and started their education at a Las Vegas area two-year institution, to students returning to school after decades away, to students who had already completed advanced degrees and were working on an additional undergraduate degree program. Of the 21 students we interviewed, 33% were veterans, 38% have been caretakers, and 100% had work experience. Over half of the students had previously completed a degree, with ten having an associate’s degree, one having a bachelor’s degree, and one having a master’s degree. Participant K served a religious mission. Participant U works at a public library. Participants T and J are majoring in education and nursing which require unpaid practicum hours. Participant C has two children under five and is the legal guardian of two teenagers, and Participant Q drives 2,400 miles every other weekend to visit their child. Participant D is a more traditional student that took no time off from education, but their mother is a PhD student and their father is a pilot, so they have a lot of caretaking obligations for their younger siblings.

Self-sufficiency, self-awareness

The interviews demonstrated that transfer students have an immense amount of self-sufficiency, self-awareness, and confidence. Many specifically discussed the ways their previous experiences as workers, students, and caretakers contributed to their independent approach to schoolwork. For example, Participant E reflected on how their previous experience as a soldier influenced their drive to seek information out for themselves: “I go straight online. For everything, I just, we’re just taught to. I mean being in the military, we’re just taught to look for it, because if you go ask somebody they’re gonna say, ‘did you look here first?’” Participant P, another veteran transfer student, echoed similar sentiments: “I think my entire time in the Navy influenced that…I personally feel like I’ve just been more tenacious like when I want something, I need to know something, I’m gonna go figure it out.”

Others noted how their time exploring other areas of life changed the way they see the opportunity to attend university. When explicitly asked what strengths they thought their previous experiences had afforded them as a student, Participant G stated, “Time management. Um and what is really important in life. You know, I came back to school for me, but I’m sticking with it because of my kids.” This suggests a motivation for working through the difficulties of university life that many first-time, first-year students might not have quite yet. In addition, past academic experience gave transfer students confidence that they could complete their schoolwork. For example, Participant J noted that the difficulty of previous classes completed assured them that they could handle rigorous coursework at UNLV: “Because of the um accelerated class schedule that I had at [previously attended small liberal arts college], I was able to really succeed at um UNLV’s school of nursing because of the pace of back-to-back classes and really just, demanding schedules that I was like, ‘okay I got this.’”

Many students discussed reaching out to their professors if they needed assistance, but they also frequently said they would attempt every possible route before asking anyone for help. For example, when asked to consider where they would get help if they ran into an issue with a research project, Participant A said, “I mean [I would ask someone] if I really needed help with something or if it’s like some subject that I really didn’t understand. Um but if it was a subject that I really understand at least to some extent I would probably just seek it out on my own.” Participants expressed concerns about asking a librarian for help, sometimes noting that they felt that the struggle was part of the learning process. For example, Participant E stated, “They taught us the Quick Search but I kind of just play around with it just to get lost and then go back to the beginning. ‘Cause on the way you can learn it, I think.”

Students displayed acute self-awareness of their own information seeking practices and processes. Sixteen of the 21 participants used very specific language that signals familiarity with libraries (interlibrary loan, catalog, academic journals, database, specialized librarians, PsycNET, JSTOR, search parameters, keywords, WorldCat) and research (abstract, peer review, credible sources, citation mining, GIS, APA, MLA, Chicago). They spoke confidently about the places they would search, strategies they would use, roadblocks they would maneuver through, and decisions they would make. They also frequently shared that they preferred to conduct research on their own and navigate the resources for themselves. “I don’t really…I’m just, it’s my personality. I don’t want to bother anybody. But if I have to, I will,” noted Participant P. These self-sufficient approaches were repeated when they talked about navigating campus and institutional barriers more broadly. Students talked adeptly about the ways they seek out resources around campus.

Transferable skills

We asked students directly about skills they felt transferred with them from their previous experiences, but they also reflected on these throughout the entirety of the interviews. Discussing the strengths they gained throughout their lives was natural. They often mentioned ways their previous academic experiences in high school and other higher education institutions benefited them at UNLV. They also talked about using the context of their previous institutions to translate to something equivalent at UNLV. For example, Participant J noted, “I kind of just looked on the website and said like, ‘Oh you know, like I had a student center, student wellness center at my last school. I’m sure they have something here.’”

This extends to their academic information seeking. As a part of the survey, 82% of students said they had written a research paper where they found sources and cited those sources in a bibliography. During the interviews we found that these students are aware of how those skills can transfer to their new environment. Participant G stated, “I mean it’s probably gonna be a lot the same, you know, the process. Is there a library website here?” One student had actually received so much information literacy instruction that they expressed frustration at the repetitive nature of one-shot instruction sessions between institutions: “Literally I feel like almost every semester whether it’s here at UNLV or at my last school that we would always get the, you know, the library talk.” When asked directly how their previous experiences benefited them, Participant N stated, “I feel like I, well, I use all the resources there like I am here so I realize that universities have certain resources that you can utilize. I brought that here um. Basically my study skills that I learned there, I brought here and I’m tweaking a few.”

All interviewed students had previous and current work experience that could reasonably give them important time management, project management, research, and communication skills that would benefit them as college students. Those currently working ranged from “a few hours periodically here and there” to 50 hours per week with Participant H even commenting, “I’m not gonna have the privilege to take six classes and work 30+ hours like a week in the future. Like it’s a lot, I know it’s a lot.” Oftentimes the work directly connected to their area of study. One student had advanced GIS skills obtained through Navy training and was studying earth sciences. Another student worked as a tutor helping students research, write, and cite at their previous institution and was studying pre-nursing. One accounting major had experience working at H&R Block and one biology major worked at a physical therapy clinic.


Although our research was focused on strengths, we asked students about the challenges they faced at UNLV as well. Three themes emerged: dealing with institutional barriers, feeling like they don’t belong, and external demands on their time and energy.

As for institutional barriers, students struggled to get familiar with the campus and the resources available to them. Of the 21 interviewees, seven commented on having difficulty navigating campus size and resources and acknowledged they could have benefitted from additional guidance. For example, Participant F stated, “I mean, I definitely see the need for something to help transfer students. I mean, I kind of just winged it and I’m doing okay. I’ve been here, this is like my second year and I feel like okay now, but when I first got here like I was lost, I had no idea what was going on.”

Many of our transfer students were also non-traditional students in other ways and subsequently struggled to identify with other students and sometimes did not feel they belonged on campus. For example, Participant P reflected, “Yeah, I’m not 18. I can’t relate to any of this. Like a lot of these things are marketed to the average college student not affected by me. Like a 31-year-old dad. Like, I’m just gonna go to school and do my stuff and leave…” Participant P went on to say, “I relate more to like my professors ‘cause we’re in more like same division age group.” Students mentioned not spending much time building communities on campus. Participant G, when describing their daily life on campus, stated, “I go straight from the car to class.”

Many of these challenges intersected. For example, Participant C’s external challenge of being a parent is compounded by the institutional barrier of inaccessible and unaffordable on-campus childcare, “For transfer students or nontraditional students, you gotta think, we most likely have a family so why not open up your daycare and actually make it more affordable…Why is it so limited?…And that it’s so expensive? I mean, it’s more money than the one that is down the street. Seriously?”

Implications and a Call to Action

Transfer students are not less prepared than first-time, first-year students, as much of the deficit-oriented literature frames them. As they come to universities, transfer students have a variety of experiences that influence their ability to navigate campus, the library, and their various information needs. They are not significantly lacking in information literacy instruction compared to similarly credited undergraduate students, and they spoke confidently about the research process. While we recognize that confidence does not necessarily equal competence, many transfer students do have other experiences that help prepare them for academic information seeking and other skills important for academic success. Transfer students do face challenges when attending our universities, but they also have previous experiences that they draw upon to meet those challenges. They are motivated, self-assured, self-sufficient, and offer unique skills to their universities.

We believe transfer student outreach and engagement should be multimodal, with various points and levels of entry, and multi-formatted, including in-person and online. We should aim to create opportunities for students to feel like they are a part of the university, while also recognizing that campus community may not be as important to those who have robust social and family lives outside of school. As many transfer students are veterans, and the transfer veterans we talked to valued the Military and Veteran Services Center so highly, they will make a good partner for campus-wide initiatives. We also plan to connect with the academic advising and financial aid offices, as they work very closely with transfer students. We recognize the opportunity to collaborate off campus as well. Our findings echoed Richter-Weikum and Seeber (2018) and found that many students are using public libraries in addition to our own, so there is opportunity to work with them. We can also work more closely with our community colleges and other institutions in the area.

As for instruction, transfer students spoke with familiarity and confidence about processes and tools that we teach. Library instructors can use that experience to their advantage when designing information literacy activities. We should acknowledge the work our colleagues in community colleges and other four-year institutions are doing and build on it, as opposed to repeating basics. However, as not all transfer students have had these experiences, librarians must be flexible with any transfer-student-specific instruction and be prepared to scaffold the lesson up and down. Additionally, we should leverage student confidence navigating resources online to highlight similarities with academic research and offer multiple points of access for resources and services.

Our findings also suggest transfer student workshops or information literacy sessions should be focused on advanced skills. Not only are students likely to have received information literacy instruction before, they are often doing robust research in upper-division classes and would benefit from course-integrated, subject-specific instruction. In addition, individual librarians should ensure they are teaching various skills across their one-shot sessions and should communicate with one another what is expected to be taught at different levels. Each course has unique assignment needs and student expertise, and students rightfully grow frustrated at the repetitive nature of standardized one-shots. While not all students have received information literacy instruction, libraries can cover the basics in other forms, such as online video tutorials. As with all classrooms and teaching environments, it is important to be cognizant of the various levels of expertise our students bring and accommodate them all as much as possible. Finally, we should consider that many students that begin their academic careers at one institution will transfer out. We should therefore focus our instruction on transferable skills rather than needlessly institutionally-specific demonstrations.

We ask all those working in education to dismantle deficit thinking and instead engage their students with a strengths-based approach. We can acknowledge the needs of unique populations without diminishing the complexities of their lives. We can provide services and resources that address the needs of a student group without falsely simplifying them to their challenges. We can give them the skills to be successful in a traditional academic institution without believing that the traditional path is the best or only one. What might happen if libraries and universities more broadly stopped seeing students as a risk to their retention policies and instead as an opportunity to reimagine the academy?

Much gratitude to Eamon Tewell, our external reviewer, Kellee Warren our internal reviewer, and Denisse Solis, our publishing editor. This paper wouldn’t be what it is without your thoughtful questions, prompts, and insights and we are deeply appreciative. Thank you to Kevin Seeber for talking through this idea at the very beginning stages and inspiring us to purposefully avoid focusing on the deficit, to Melissa Bowles-Terry, Erin Rinto, and Susie Skarl for reading drafts and sharing your thoughts, to James Cheng for helping us ground our ideas in a methodology, and to the Mason Undergraduate Peer Research Coaches for testing our interview questions and offering your perspective. Finally, thank you to the amazing UNLV transfer students who shared their experiences with us. Talking to students is why we love our work and we appreciate you spending time letting us get to know you.


Coats, L. R., & Pemberton, A. E. (2017). Transforming for our transfers: the creation of a transfer student services librarian. Reference Services Review, 45(3), 485-497.

Folk, A. (2018). Drawing on students’ funds of knowledge: using identity and lived experience to join the conversation in research assignments. Journal of Information Literacy, 12(2), 44-59. https://doi.org/10.11645/12.2.2468

Hsieh, H.-F., & Shannon, S. E. (2005). Three approaches to qualitative content analysis. Qualitative Health Research, 15(9), 1277-1288. https://doi.org/10.1177/1049732305276687

Ilett, D. (2019). A critical review of LIS literature on first-generation students. Portal: Libraries and the Academy, 19(1), 177-196. Retrieved from https://preprint.press.jhu.edu/portal/sites/ajm/files/19.1ilett_0.pdf

Ivins, T. (2017). Guest editorial. Reference Services Review, 45(2), 242-243. https://doi.org/10.1108/RSR-04-2017-0007

Ivins, T. (Ed.). (2017a). Students in transition part I [special issue]. Reference Services Review, 45(2).

Ivins, T. (Ed.). (2017b). Transfer students and students in transition [special issue]. Reference Services Review, 45(3).

Ivins, T., & Mulvihill, R. (2017). An interview with Rachel Mulvihill and colleagues at the University of Central Florida about the foundations of excellence transfer initiative. Reference Services Review, 45(3), 415-420. https://doi.org/10.1108/RSR-05-2017-0018

Jacobson, T., Delano, J., Krzykowski, L., Garafola, L., Nyman, M., Barker-Flynn, H. (2017). Transfer student analysis and retention: a collaborative endeavor. Reference Services Review, 45(3), 421-439. https://doi.org/10.1108/RSR-10-2016-0069

Krutkowski, S. (2017). A strengths-based approach to widening participation students in higher education. Reference Services Review, 45(2), 227-241. https://doi.org/10.1108/RSR-10-2016-0070

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32(3), 465-491.

Lafrance, H., & Kealey, S. B. (2017) A boutique personal librarian program for transfer students. Reference Services Review, 45(2), 332-345. https://doi.org/10.1108/RSR-10-2016-0066

Lester, J., Leonard, J. B., & Mathias, D. (2013). Transfer student engagement: blurring of social and academic engagement. Community College Review, 41(3), 202-222. https://doi.org/10.1177/0091552113496141

MacDonald, A., & Mohanty, S. (2017). Personal librarian program for transfer students: an overview. Reference Services Review, 45(2), 346-354. https://doi.org/10.1108/RSR-10-2016-0071

McBride, K., Gregor, M. N., & McCallister, K. C. (2017) Bridging the gap: developing library services and instructional programs for transfer students at Appalachian State University. Reference Services Review, 45(3), 498-510. https://doi.org/10.1108/RSR-10-2016-0067

McCabe, F. (2018, April 11). UNLV receives gold rating as a military friendly university. UNLV News Center. Retrieved from https://www.unlv.edu/news/release/unlv-receives-gold-rating-military-friendly-univerUUsity

McCallister, K. C., Gregor, M., N., & Joyner, D. W. (2015). Librarians collaborate! Working across two- and four-year institutions to teach information literacy skills. Proceedings of the Association of College and Research Libraries 2015 Conference. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/acrl/sites/ala.org.acrl/files/content/conferences/confsandpreconfs/2015/McCallister_Gregor_Joyner.pdf

Moll, L.C., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & Gonzalez, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory Into Practice, 31(2), 132-141.

Morrison, K. L. (2017). Informed asset-based pedagogy: coming correct, counter-stories from an information literacy classroom. Library Trends, 66(2), 176-218. https://doi.org/10.1353/lib.2017.0034

Phillips, J. C., & Atwood, T. A. (2009). Transferring skills, transferring students: a call to academic libraries. College and Undergraduate Libraries, 17(4), 331-348. https://doi.org/10.1080/10691316.2010.525394

Picower, B. (2009). The unexamined Whiteness of teaching: how White teachers maintain and enact dominant racial ideologies. Race Ethnicity and Education, 12(2), 197-215. https://doi.org/10.1080/13613320902995475

Portelli, J. P. (2010, January). Leadership for equity in education: Deficit mentality is a major challenge in Fedcan Blog. Retrieved from https://www.ideas-idees.ca/blog/leadership-equity-education-deficit-mentality-major-challenge

Richter-Weikum, E., & Seeber, K. (2018). Library experiences of transfer students at an urban campus. Student Success, 9(2). https://doi.org/10.5204/ssj.v9i2.411

Rinto, E., Watts, J., & Mitola, R. (2017). The Mason Undergraduate Peer Research Coach program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Libraries. In E. Rinto, J. Watts, & R. Mitola (Eds.). Peer-assisted learning in academic libraries (pp. 64-80). Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.

Roberts, L., Welsh, M. E., & Dudek, B. (2019). Instruction and outreach for transfer students: a Colorado case study. College & Research Libraries, 80(1). Retrieved from https://crl.acrl.org/index.php/crl/article/view/16925/0

Sandelli, A. (2017). Through three lenses: transfer students and the library. Reference Services Review, 45(3), 400-414. https://doi.org/10.1108/RSR-10-2016-0074

Sharma, M. (2016). Seeping deficit thinking assumptions maintain the neoliberal education agenda: exploring three conceptual frameworks of deficit thinking in inner-city schools. Education and Urban Society, 50(2), 136-154. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013124516682301

Sharma, M. & Portelli, J. P. (2014). Uprooting and settling in: the invisible strength of deficit thinking. LEARNing Landscapes, 8(1), 251-267. Retrieved from https://www.learninglandscapes.ca/index.php/learnland/article/view/Uprooting-and-Settling-In-The-Invisible-Strength-of-Deficit-Thinking

Tate, W. F. (1997). Critical race theory and education: history, theory, and implications. Review of Research in Education, 22, 195-247.

Tewell, E. (2018, May). The Problem with Grit: Dismantling Deficit Models in Information Literacy Instruction. Presentation given at the Library Orientation Exchange (LOEX) Annual Conference, Houston, TX.

Tipton, R. L., & Bender, P. (2006). From failure to success: working with under-prepared transfer students. Reference Services Reviews, 34(3), 389-404.

University of Nevada, Las Vegas. (n.d.-a) Non-traditional students. Retrieved from https://www.unlv.edu/nontraditional

University of Nevada, Las Vegas. (n.d.-b) Undergraduate student profile-fall 2017. Retrieved from https://ir.unlv.edu/IAP/Reports/Content/UndergraduateStudentProfile_Fall2017.aspx

Valencia, R. R. (1997). The evolution deficit thinking: Educational thought and practice. Bristol, PA: Taylor & Francis.


Appendix A: Coding Frame Descriptions

  • Assets/Strengths
    Previous experiences such as life, caretaking, work that are reasonably likely to transfer to success as a student; not coding current challenges as strengths though they might also lead to concurrent learning experiences
  • Campus Resource Use (Non-Library)
    Using services or spaces such as the student union, academic success center, professors, etc – incl. Rebel Mail – UNLV only
  • Challenges
    Current Challenges

    • Institutional Barriers
      Issues on the part of the institution that serve as a barrier to student success ex. website difficult to navigate or lack of awareness
    • Outside Challenges
      Obligations or responsibilities that could reasonably interfere with student success ex. 3 children; time management challenges
    • Sense of Belonging
      Feeling unsure of one’s place in the university to the extent that it prevents awareness of, engagement with, or interest in services/resources
  • Daily Life
    Talking about day-to-day routines
  • Information Seeking Behavior
    Looking for information about anything – includes differentiation of format preferences; does not include seeking help from services

    • Academic
      Looking for information for an assignment or to study, etc.
    • Extramural
      Looking for information for their own interest that wasn’t prompted by an academic need
  • UNLV Library Experiences
    Experiences in UNLV Libraries

    • Services
      Anything with a person/service desk
    • Impressions
      Feelings or thoughts about the library
    • Resources
      Books, online resources, wifi etc
    • Spaces used
      Studying/group study rooms that don’t require a service desk
    • Wishes
      What they wish the library had
  • Previous Academic Experiences
    Pre-UNLV; includes impressions

    • Library
      All the subcategories of UNLV Library experiences but as one category – ex. impressions, spaces etc; includes online library website use
    • Non-library
      Experiences in the classroom, on campus, online education (not related to online library use)
  • Work Experience
    Includes military

    • Previous
      Label previous only if different from current
    • Current

Appendix B: Survey Questions

  1. What is your major? (comment box)
  2. Are you currently employed? (yes, no)
    1. (if yes) During the semester, I work on average 1-10 hours per week
    2. (if yes) During the semester, I work on average 11-20 hours per week
    3. (if yes) During the semester, I work on average 21-30 hours per week
    4. (if yes) During the semester, I work on average 31-40 hours per week
    5. (if yes) During the semester, I work on average more than 40 hours per week
  3. How much time per week do you spend doing the following activities on campus outside of class? (Options: No Time, 1-5 hours, 5-10 hours, 10-20 hours, more than 20 hours)
    1. Studying and completing classwork
    2. Working an on-campus job
    3. Socializing and hanging out with friends
    4. Participating in on-campus special events
    5. Utilizing on-campus resources like the Student Recreation Center or the Academic Success Center
  4. Are you a member of a student organization? If so, please list any and all organizations you belong to below. (comment box)
  5. What services have you used at UNLV? (Check all that apply)
    1. Academic Advising
    2. Academic Success Center
    3. Career Services
    4. Disability Resource Center
    5. Financial Aid
    6. International Programs (study abroad)
    7. IT Help Desk
    8. Jean Nidetch Women’s Center
    9. Libraries
    10. Military and Veteran Services Center
    11. Office of International Students and Scholars
    12. Student Engagement and Diversity
    13. Student Wellness and Recreation Center
    14. The Intersection (multicultural center)
    15. Tutoring
    16. Writing Center
    17. Other (comment box)
    18. None
  6. How frequently do you use a library (any kind)?
    1. Daily
    2. Multiple times a week
    3. Once a month
    4. Once a semester
    5. Once a year
    6. Never
  7. What libraries have you visited in the past six months? (Check all that apply)
    1. A library at my previous institution(s)
    2. Branch Library at UNLV (Architecture, Health Sciences, Law, Music, Teacher Development Resource)
    3. College of Southern Nevada (CSN) Libraries (any location)
    4. Lied Library at UNLV
    5. Nevada State College (NSC) Library
    6. Public Library
    7. Other (comment box)
    8. None
  8. What was the purpose of your visit(s) to those libraries? (Check all that apply)
    1. Borrowing items such as books, multimedia, technology
    2. Getting help doing research from library/university staff
    3. Socializing or hanging out with friends
    4. Special events
    5. Study space
    6. Tutoring
    7. Using technology (computers, printing, etc.)
    8. Other (comment box)
  9. Are you aware that UNLV Libraries has librarians available to assist you with research via in-depth one-on-one appointments? (yes, no)
  10. Have you written a research paper for a college course where you found sources to support your topic and cited them in a bibliography?
  11. As a college student, have you received information through instruction or online tutorials about any of the following topics? (check all that apply)
    1. How to cite a source
    2. How to find books
    3. How to identify differences between scholarly and popular sources
    4. How to find scholarly and/or peer-reviewed articles
    5. How to use scholarly and/or peer-reviewed articles once you have found them
    6. How to identify which sources to use for an assignment
    7. How to use other people’s ideas (avoiding plagiarism)
    8. UNLV Libraries facilities (can include tour)
    9. UNLV Libraries policies and services (printing, group study rooms, help desks, etc)
    10. Other (comment box)
    11. I have not received information about any of these topics through instruction or online tutorials
  12. What additional library instruction are you interested in? (Check all that apply)
      1. How to cite a source
      2. How to find books
      3. How to identify differences between scholarly and popular sources
      4. How to find scholarly and/or peer-reviewed articles
      5. How to use scholarly and/or peer-reviewed articles once you have found them
      6. How to identify which sources to use for an assignment
      7. How to use other people’s ideas (avoiding plagiarism)
    1. UNLV Libraries facilities (can include a tour)
    2. UNLV Libraries policies and services (printing, group study rooms, help desks, etc)
    3. Other (comment box)
    4. No thanks, I’m not interested in research skills training
  13. (if interested in additional library instruction) How would you prefer to receive library instruction? (Check all that apply)
    1. During class time
    2. Email
    3. Help desk
    4. One-on-one scheduled meetings with a librarian (research consultation)
    5. Online chat or text
    6. Online tutorials like YouTube
    7. Workshops
    8. Other (comment box)
  14. Overall, how satisfied are you by the UNLV Libraries’ spaces, services, and resources?
    1. Very satisfied
    2. Satisfied
    3. Neither satisfied nor dissatisfied
    4. Dissatisfied
    5. Very dissatisfied
    6. Does not apply
    7. Comments: (comment box)
  15. What additional spaces, services, and resources do you wish UNLV Libraries offered? (comment box)
  16. Would you like to be entered to win a $50 gift card to Amazon?

Appendix C: Interview Questions

  1. Tell me about your experiences before you came to UNLV: where did you transfer from, why did you decide to come to UNLV, what is your major?
  2. What are some of the most exciting things about being at UNLV?
  3. What are some of the most challenging things about being here?
  4. Walk me through a typical day when you’re on campus at UNLV.
  5. Walk me through a typical day when you’re not on campus.
    1. (if not specified) Do you work in addition to going to school?
    2. (if not specified) Do you take care of anyone in addition to going to school?
  6. When you first started here, how did you find out about services/resources available to you?
    1. (if not specified) Has that changed? How do you find out about services and resources now?
  7. Which services or offices do you use the most?
    1. (if not specified) Why do you use those particular services?
    2. (if not specified) What do you use them for?
  8. Think about a recent time you learned more about a topic on your own: a political issue, a scientific phenomenon, or how to fix/do something. Where did you go to learn more about it and why?
  9. Have you written a research paper for a college course where you found sources to support your topic and cited them in a bibliography?
    1. (if not specified) How did you go about getting information for that assignment?
  10. Tell me about the process you will go through the next time you are assigned a research paper at UNLV. If you needed help, where would you get it from?
  11. How did you use the library at your previous institution?
  12. How have you used UNLV Libraries?
  13. How would you describe UNLV Libraries?
  14. How is UNLV Libraries similar to or different from your previous institution’s library?
  15. Are you aware that the UNLV Librarians offer one-on-one research consultations?
    1. If yes, have you used that service before? Why/why not?
    2. If no, would you be interested in that service?
  16. What additional spaces, services, and resources do you wish UNLV Libraries offered?
  17. How did your previous experiences help you with your UNLV experience?

4 Responses

  1. Debbie Pattni

    As an advisor in the Academic Success Center at UNLV, (Thanks for the inclusion in your survey!) you address some common experiences that our transfer, readmitted, Veteran’s, and most non-traditional students experience. The UNLV Library is a great campus partner, and your focus on strengths instead of deficits aligns with my advising philosophy, “I also strive to focus on the students’ strengths as motivating them to find their own path to success (Schreiner & Anderson, 2005). Strengths based advising, learning, parenting, and mentoring is far more encouraging, and your article is one I will share with my colleagues!

  2. Pingback : Guest post: recent articles on information literacy research and practice – Information Literacy Website

  3. Pingback : Applying Counter-Narratives to Academic Librarianship – ACRLog