Transitions program equalizes higher education, evokes mission of Sisters of Loretto

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The Sisters of Loretto opened Loretto College with the mission to “make education accessible to all.” More than 100 years later, there is no better example of this mission’s survival than Transitions, a program built to prepare conditionally admitted students for college rigor at Webster University. 

“I liked that these students came in under the gun with an expectation that they might not be successful, and oftentimes, they were very, very successful,” said Erin Bullerdieck, who was hired to develop Transitions. “That’s what I like. I like the underdog. And I like that we really kind of proved some of those assumptions wrong about who can be successful at a university.”

Transitions was imagined by three visionaries within the Academic Resource Center who were fierce advocates for student success; Barbara Stewart, Pat McLeese and Kit Maxwell. The program was specifically designed to support students on conditional status, sometimes known as academic probation. A student is ‘tagged’ if they enter the university with a C average or a lower grade point average out of high school, as well as for transfer students coming in with less than 30 hours of credits. 

Overall, the mission was simple: Give students who might be overlooked in the admissions process “an opportunity … and the support that they needed to be successful,” Maxwell said. “And that is what was in line with the Sisters of Loretto.”

In 2009, Bullerdieck took on the role of an architect, shaping Transitions into the program it is today, providing participants with resources like weekly academic counseling, support services such as peer tutoring and writing support, and more.

Christopher Whitmore was admitted under conditional status in 2014. While he earned good grades in high school, he struggled with standardized testing that left him with a low ACT score.

Despite being accepted to Webster on “academic probation,” he did well academically and adjusted quickly to college-level coursework.

Christopher Whitmore (left), shown here with Erin Bullerdieck, Shawn Bowers and Jeremy Coleman, is living proof of how a student-centered approach can transform lives. Contributed photo from Christopher Whitmore

“[Bullerdieck] was vital to my early success at Webster, but not because I needed someone to keep me on track with school. Erin was vital in making me feel at home in a new learning environment and in a new community,” said Whitmore, who moved to St. Louis from California to attend Webster. “Erin and the Transitions program created a powerful opportunity for me to thrive in school with the support of on-campus staff and my family from near and far.” 

Whitmore’s family took notice of Bullerdieck’s extraordinary care, which seemed to go far beyond academics – a testament to what Bullerdieck described as a “student-centered” approach to support, which, in many cases, included getting to know the families of students in order to provide what was necessary for success.

“My grandmother regularly mailed cards to Erin during holidays thanking her for supporting me,” Whitmore said. 

The numbers didn’t lie, either. During Bullerdieck’s time, the program contributed to closing the first- and second-year retention gap between fully accepted and conditionally accepted students, according to Bullerdieck.

On top of the ongoing support of Transitions, an innovative two-week summer bridge program called TAP (Transition and Academic Prep) was born by Bullerdieck, and was even used as a model for other universities in the area who were interested in Webster’s new approach to student support.

Because a reduced course load was one of the supports of the Transitions program, it ran the risk of further disadvantaging students with financial strife or first-generation college students. TAP was a step toward equity in education as students could receive up to two credit hours for participating, thus preventing them from falling behind or requiring more years to complete their degree.

“Without the program, it would have been very challenging to succeed in college, without having that knowledge beforehand that I got from TAP,” said Jasmine Ball, a first-generation student who participated in TAP in 2014. 

That “knowledge” provided by TAP included workshops led by people like Corey Hawkins, who started at Webster as an admissions counselor before moving into the Multicultural Center International Student Affairs Office as coordinator for minority students. Through both of these roles, Hawkins worked with Bullerdieck directly. In 2017, he stepped into Bullerdieck’s position when she moved on from the university.

“I can’t speak enough about how Erin really visualized the program, got it off the ground, and really built it into something that really became a model for other schools,” Hawkins said. “One of the things that I most admired about the program is that I knew that it had to have a leader of the program … who really cares about what students need in real time.”

Hawkins can be credited for the expansion of TAP from a seven-day to a two-week program. He left the role in 2020 to work for Fontbonne University as the director of student success, and has since moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, to work as a diversity coordinator. While reiterating the effectiveness of the program due to its student-centered approach, he points to the ample consideration of the student as a possible reason why the program has not expanded further.

“[Transitions] was a huge missed opportunity because it really could have developed into a monster,” Hawkins said.

“The numbers weren’t always ‘sexy.’ Maybe [a student] decided, ‘Okay, I don’t need to be at this school because maybe it’s costing me more than I’m willing to spend, or maybe it’s not the right environment for me, or maybe it’s the combination of both.’ And maybe they went to another school, where, in my opinion, we still did what we needed to do because they were successful enough to be able to transfer to another school, and they’re still enrolled. And so success in my eyes didn’t always look like that they graduated from Webster with a 4.0. And so that’s when I say that the numbers weren’t always sexy.”

Bullerdieck, Hawkins and Maxwell all emphasized how the program’s effectiveness depends on the crucial role of Transitions coordinator, a position now occupied by Lisa Haag. 

“What I appreciate about my role is how it gives me the opportunity to support students as they strive to achieve their academic goals,” Haag said.

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