DePaul Bridge Program Allows Adult-learners To Transition from Chicago City Colleges

Like many community college students, Diane Bonner, 61, works full time and has a family. So when she took an extended break from school to take care of family issues, she received a phone call.

Dr. Anghesom Atsbaha, director of DePaul University’s Adult Bridge Program, called to check in.

“He said, ‘Is your vacation over? I have a class starting next week, and I expect to see you there,’” Bonner recalls. “My friends were saying, ‘I’ve never heard of a professor calling a student.’ He didn’t ask me, he told me. There’s a difference. He pretty much told me my vacation was over.”

DePaul’s Bridge program has been helping adult learners make a smooth transition from Harry S. Truman City College to the four-year university for the last 15 years. Its unique approach to instruction, student advising and financial aid has made it a success with traditionally underserved populations of Illinois. The program prepares students in the city college setting until they are ready to transition over to DePaul, allowing students to take classes at the two-year Truman College, taught by both Truman and DePaul faculty, while earning credits toward a bachelor’s degree from DePaul’s School for New Learning. The program also provides intensive academic, professional and personal advising that follows each student until they have successfully crossed the bridge and received their degree from DePaul.

Atsbaha has been working with the program since its inception in 1993. He says the idea for the program grew out of the fact that traditionally there was little support and guidance for adult students who were attempting to transfer from a community college to a four-year institution.

“Getting them in the door is not good enough. Students need help beyond providing them with an application,” says Atsbaha.

Atsbaha, or “Dr. A” as many of his students call him, is the driving force behind the program. He works 15-hour days meeting with prospective students, advising current students and teaching Bridge courses.

His impact is felt throughout the program. Bonner says that she has been on track ever since that phone call and is set to transition to DePaul in September. 

Atsbaha believes in taking a proactive approach.

“You have to maintain personal relationships and follow up,” he says. “You don’t wait for them (students) to call you.”

It was a co-worker who told Bonner about the Bridge program and encouraged her to meet with Atsbaha.

“She said, ‘You’ve got to meet this man. I’m telling you, he’ll help you get through school.’” Bonner says she is glad she followed her colleague’s advice. “It has been a wonderful, challenging and enlightening experience. You learn about yourself and accomplish things you didn’t know you could achieve.”

The Bridge program aims to instill in its students the value of lifelong learning, says Harold Santamaria, 35, who after participating in DePaul’s Bridge program earned his bachelor’s in career and technical education and automotive technology in 2007. He has since been accepted into the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to pursue a master’s in education.

“DePaul really promotes continuing education. Dr. Atsbaha told me to at least take a class each semester because before you know it, you’ve completed another degree. He would say, ‘There’s always more to learn,’” Santamaria recalls.

Adult students face a different set of challenges than traditional students pursuing a four-year degree directly out of high school. Many Bridge participants have spent years in the work force and many traditional higher education programs don’t give credit for life experiences. DePaul’s Bridge program allows students to incorporate their life and work experiences into their academic programs by giving credit for work experiences that demonstrate they understand and can apply the curriculum in the real world.

“I don’t think I would have ever been able to get a college degree without the Bridge program,” says Agnes Payne, 60, a 2000 DePaul graduate. “The nontraditional education was a plus for me. It allows you to demonstrate learning from other career and life experiences.”

Because courses on the Truman side of the Bridge are team taught by both Truman and DePaul faculty, Payne says it allows for an easier transition to the four-year institution. “You just assimilated into the DePaul environment so easily,” she says.

The program provides a unique financial incentive to students as well. While on the Truman side of the Bridge, students pay Truman’s community college tuition while earning DePaul credits. “Tuition on the Truman side was very helpful. When you bridged over it was less of a financial burden,” Payne says.

Not only are Bridge students learning from the experience of having two instructors teaching a course together, but also the team-teaching method allows faculty from both institutions to learn from each other, says Atsbaha.

Students spend eight weeks taking courses at Truman and eight weeks at DePaul each semester. Students work on their own timetable and complete the program at their own pace. According to Atsbaha, DePaul has at least five Bridge students receiving their degrees each year and has graduated 70 over the last 15 years.

The program celebrated its 15th anniversary in January with the Bridge Summit, which brought together alumni, faculty, administrators and staff to discuss the program’s achievements. The summit, titled “Reaching Out and Reaching Up — A Day of Reflection,” allowed Bridge graduates to share their life journeys and talk about how the program has changed their lives. Awards were also given to those who have made the program a success. Atsbaha was one of three award recipients.

Charged with a commitment to diversity, program administrators are now planning to expand the program to all the city colleges of Chicago. Together, Black and Hispanic students make up about 50 percent of participants, 31 percent and 19 percent respectively. Eastern European students compose about 11 percent of enrollees, and African students are the next largest group at 8 percent. Among other immigrant groups, Asian students compose nearly 5 percent of participation, and South Asians make up about 6.5 percent of enrollees.

The Bridge program offers every student in need of financial assistance a scholarship.

“We also meet directly with our financial aid partner to find out what other loans, grants and scholarships they may qualify for. No incoming student has been denied a scholarship,” says DePaul spokeswoman Deborah Snow Humiston.

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