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Academic Transitions program helps students succeed
Lori Bolden McClaind, assistant dean of academic transitions, helps students adjust to the rigors of college.
As a public high school student from Harlem on a college tour organized through the REACH program, Danielle Taitt had little difficulty deciding on the place she would call home for the next four years of her life.

“Lehigh was my first choice – really my only choice,” said Taitt, who also visited the University of Pennsylvania and University of Richmond. “As soon as I got here, I felt like I belonged here. Nobody could talk me out of it.”

But as a first-year student with her sights set on a degree in biochemistry, it wasn’t long before Taitt started to feel overwhelmed with the academic rigor she encountered.

“I was certain about the major and I knew that I wanted to be a forensic toxicologist, but my first semester here completely flipped that around,” she said. “I really struggled.”

It was just a few days into her Lehigh experience when Taitt was contacted by Lori Bolden McClaind, assistant dean of academic transitions, an office focused on proactive outreach and support to various student populations as a way to promote their academic and personal success at Lehigh.

“She set up an appointment for me to come in and talk about my experience here, and it was great – I really felt like I had someone to support and guide me here, someone who wanted to help me succeed,” said Taitt. “I just kept making appointments and talking with her about what I was struggling with. She was a really good person for me to talk to.”

McClaind helped Taitt with study skills and time management issues, encouraged her to meet with professors, and helped her prepare for her visits to stay on top of her coursework.

“If it weren’t for her, I don’t think I could have made it here,” she says. “I really don’t. It was such a different experience for me that I really needed that support.”

Mid-way through her second semester, she still has a long-term goal as a career in public health, and is considering majoring in Lehigh’s Science, Technology and Science program.

Taitt says she feels “so much better, so much more confident and much less stressed – I know I can make it here.”

Invested in student success

The Academic Transitions program was developed during the 2011-12 academic year to help students like Taitt and others who might need support.

Who are those students?

McClaind says that they could be students with any number of backgrounds or circumstances that have the potential to impede their success: first-generation college students, students of color, student-athletes, or individuals who are dealing with personal issues, health problems, or life circumstances.

“And their needs could be just as varied,” says McClaind, who served for several years in the Office of the First-Year Experience and who saw first-hand the adjustment issues many students struggle with.

“Sometimes,” she adds, “they just need someone to touch base with to make sure that they are on track. As with any community, there is an enormous psychological benefit in knowing someone is there to help, and who is really invested in your success.”

During its initial year, McClaind and her staff focused on 83 first-year students to monitor, mentor, and provide support. She also worked with a university-wide committee to launch a pilot Summer Success & Aid program to support academic success and degree completion.

Through the Summer Success & Aid Program, McClaind and her staff worked closely with 40 students during summer sessions in 2012. The average GPA for those students who earned credits was 2.82 for the two summer terms combined. And among participants, virtually all noted in surveys that the program was a valuable experience, that it motivated them to complete their degree, and that it gave them more confidence in their ability to succeed academically.

The Academic Transitions program is an outgrowth of a series of conversations focused on retention and the graduation gap among under-represented students and majority students.

“We wanted to really look at what it is about our environment where some students thrive and others don’t,” she says. “And we also wanted to find a way to reach those students who could benefit from additional resources, but who are either reluctant to tap them or don’t recognize how those resources can be an important piece to their success. Our goal is to be more intentional, rather than reactive and waiting for the problem to pop up.”

The process typically involves an initial meeting with students to learn more about their needs and understand their circumstances. At that meeting, a plan is often set up to ensure regular contact with McClaind and to connect the student with resources that could include academic assistance, development of life skills, stress management, or time management.

The ultimate goal for her students, she says, is not only success at Lehigh, but success in their lives beyond Lehigh.

“College is fertile ground for students to learn more about themselves,” she says. “It’s very gratifying for me to be a part of that growth process, especially as they navigate the experiences and opportunities along the way.”