Gatepost Interview: LaDonna Bridges, Associate Dean of Academic Success and Director of CASA
By Nadira Wicaksana
What is your background?
I grew up in a pretty small town in the Ozarks, and I had a very basic high school education. I went to Northwestern University in Evanston, near Chicago, where I was an undergrad at the Medill School of Journalism. I picked that by going through my counselor’s guidance book that had the top schools for journalism because I had gone to a journalism camp in Missouri my junior and senior years of high school. I applied to all of those without having any sense of what I was applying to. No one could understand why I chose to go so far away at the time. I did an interview with Northwestern and my parents took me to visit the campus. It was so gorgeous. I was so impressed – I called my mom at lunch every day to see if a fat envelope arrived, because a fat envelope at that point meant that you’d been accepted.
After undergrad, I went into public relations and spent 15 years doing public relations writing for health care marketing and advertising. I did a medical call-in radio program with a physician co-host, which was so much fun.
Then I moved to Massachusetts, where I started to re-career. I was able to do really well in my last role in the last big hospital chain I worked for, but this was a very daunting market for me. I had two children. I had no idea in the world how I could duplicate my former job, so I took a little time, re-careered, and got a master’s degree in student personnel administration in higher education from Springfield College. I also got a master’s from Kansas State in advising administration, and then a certificate of advanced graduate studies. I started my doctorate shortly thereafter at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. I finished my Ph.D. in higher education leadership in May.
What I like about my background is that it’s not linear and I try to say that to students – your first career inclination might not be your last career inclination, and when I think about all the changes I’ve done in just 12 years of higher education, I’ve really found a home here.
There are also a lot of similarities between higher ed and healthcare. Physicians are like faculty, administrators are administrators, patients are like students. It’s all service-related.
Why did you decide to go into academic student assistance?
I find that academics are really at the core of the student experience. You want to make sure that someone is taking care of their student affairs and academics. All of these things are working in tandem, but if a student doesn’t do well academically, they don’t get to be on campus to enjoy all the other things that we have to offer. The opportunity to work at that level of academic success is very exciting for me. I love working with our faculty. They want students to succeed and they are willing to go above and beyond all the time for students. When I work with a faculty member to accommodate a student, it’s a rare day that they’re not going 100 percent. I feel like I have this really wonderful opportunity to work with great faculty and really help students realize their academic potential.
There are a lot of things that students face. It’s never simple. It’s never straightforward. It really is about taking the time to understand where there are barriers to their success and trying to the best of our ability to uncover those and work through them. That’s what I love about this job and about working in CASA – the opportunity to help students and work with the faculty I do.
What has been your greatest accomplishment and what has been your greatest challenge?
I look at how we’ve grown. I started the academic success peer tutoring program years ago with two academic success peer tutors, and now we have 15 or more employed in that capacity. We did not have supplemental instruction when I started. We’ve gone from five classes to now supporting 35 different classes and hiring over 40 students as supplemental instruction leaders. Those are huge growth opportunities. We have the Diverse Scholars program here, a great opportunity that started just a year and a half ago. We partner with local school districts and bring in students with developmental learning disabilities to audit a class. These are students who would never otherwise enroll in college and now they’re attending a college campus and feeling like a part of it. It is a wonderful effort.
The disability services have to keep up with its demands. When I started, there were about 350 students registered with our office for services. We have doubled that in 10 years, though we haven’t doubled the staff. The needs are greater with each student population. But to be able to manage that with a small, but incredibly competent staff, I feel a great deal of pride in that.
Do you have any advice for students?
You don’t have to have everything figured out always. Life is not a straight line. It’s more like a slinky. It expands, it contracts, it goes up and down stairs in a weird way – and if students could just remember to be flexible and to not think they have to have everything figured out, I think that would be really beneficial for them.
And take advantage – don’t be afraid to come and ask, don’t be afraid to seek the assistance that may be available to you. We can be creative – there are so many offices that help in finding creative solutions for students.