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Q&A: Dr. Erin Wheeler of College Beyond describes a simple, but powerful model to support student success


Dr. Erin Wheeler started her undergraduate studies with a passion for research and on a mission to cure AIDS and cancer. But as a Black student, she often wondered why she was the only person of color in high-achieving academic circles. This curiosity led her to research the cognitive skills that help students persist and succeed in college.

As Executive Director of College Beyond, Wheeler brings this same curiosity about helping students from low-income homes, as well as Black and Latinx students successfully persist and graduate. College Beyond is a New Orleans-based college success organization that serves as, “the connective tissue between students, families, high schools, and higher education.” Coaches guide students through the academic, social, and financial transition from high school success to college graduation.

College Beyond’s primary partner is the University of New Orleans. But with ten universities in the greater New Orleans area, Wheeler is hoping to expand College Beyond’s partnerships to include more institutions.

Wheeler is the author of Geaux Wiser: Secrets to College Success, a guide to helping students adopt a growth mindset that yields optimal success in college, life, and career.

Kresge connected with Wheeler to learn more about College Beyond’s model and how supporting student success has evolved during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kresge: What drew you to a career in college success and student support?  

Wheeler: I’m from the little town of Amite, Louisiana. There, I was always the one minority student among a group of white students that was involved and doing well academically. I would ask myself “How did I get here?” This led me to question what makes a good student successful in her studies.

When I started my bachelor’s degree at Southeastern University, I was probably one of ten Black students to start the biology program. Only four students of color finished. Back then, I wanted to cure cancer and AIDS. I enjoyed research but knew my passion was tutoring, teaching, and programming. So, in graduate school I researched self-regulation and the cognitive things that help students prepare for college. I was interested in strategies that go beyond test scores and grades.

That launched me into the world of student success. I soon realized there are huge systemic reasons why students don’t get through college. I was, and still am, curious about what we can do in the first year of college to make sure students are ready.

I went on to serve as assistant provost at Kentucky State University. I oversaw the student success infrastructure, including TRIO programs and tutoring. At that time, the school lacked a system for supporting students once they were admitted. In 2015, the retention rate was 45%.

It took a lot of work to change the culture among some faculty who viewed our students as deficient. I worked to get support services out of silos, bridge gaps between policies and procedures, and ensured there were no gaps between admission, transitions to the second year of school, and through graduation.

That journey strengthened my resolve for student success. By the time I departed Kentucky State, the retention rate was 68%.

Fast forward several years, I was recruited by College Beyond to serve as executive director.

Headshot of Dr. Erin Wheeler
Dr. Erin Wheeler, executive director of College Beyond.

Kresge: How does College Beyond support the success of New Orleans students?

Wheeler: College Beyond is the only homegrown third-party organization in the New Orleans. We are independent and small enough that if a student needs something out of the ordinary, we can fulfill that need. We know the space well and know the students even better.

Our primary partner is the University of New Orleans and are working on a pilot at a second institution.

We connect with students at a point of admission. Our students are eligible for Pell grants and come from the surrounding seven parishes, but there is no formal application to join College Beyond and receive our supports.

Those supports include book stipends and incentives to complete monthly coaching sessions. Those incentives come in the form gas gift cards or Dining Dollars. We also offer grocery store gift cards. If a student ever runs into an emergency, they can access our emergency fund.

While we are working directly with students, we are also in communication with their parents and families at various points throughout the semester. We obtain the student’s consent to contact their parents and keep them updated about key milestones. Those updates come in the form of reminders about midterms, the FAFSA application and other things to help support their student’s success. Communication with families goes two-ways. If they have questions, we respond.

Our model is simple, but powerful. Our students and families know that someone is there to answer their questions and is advocating for their success.

Kresge: How has supporting students evolved throughout the pandemic?

Wheeler: We were fortunate because our model is based on building trust. We found that trust can be built over the phone, in person, and online.

Orientations and other meetings that normally happen in person were done virtually. Luckily, we have not seen any difference in engagement among our students. In fact, our 2020 cohort was nearly filled by early summer. In past years, we have reached capacity (100 students) in mid-August. This proves that students recognized the importance of our program and committed quickly.

Despite offering our students the option to meet with coaches in person, all chose to meet virtually instead.

With more students learning from their homes, we saw an increase in requests for support with technology and tools to improve productivity at home such as printers, hotspots, even desks so they could complete their schoolwork somewhere other than their bed. We encouraged our students to be honest about what they needed to survive this very crazy time. Their attitudes and determination taught all of us a lot about resilience and their will to continue their studies.

Last spring when we surveyed our students to learn more about their needs, the most common response was, “emotional support.”

Kresge: How does College Beyond offer emotional support to students?

Wheeler: It’s simple. Our model is very student centered. Each time we connect with our students, the only thing on the agenda is whatever goal they shared during the previous coaching session. We are holding them accountable for that goal and centering our conversations on what the student wants to accomplish.

We should toss the term “traditional student” out the window. We should just say “student.” Our students are increasingly dealing with many different responsibilities. That is the norm. They are taking care of little brothers and sisters, contributing to their households financially, or they may be parents or are married. They may have a baby on the way, be dealing with homelessness, housing insecurity, domestic violence, or abuse. These are the things just about any adult would deal with and our students are doing this while pursuing their education.

Emotional support has meant our coaches are helping students process the things going on in their lives. The coaches are not solving problems for students. Instead, they help students validate their own solutions and provide helpful options.

I think of this as a form of trauma intervention. That kind of support is important here in New Orleans, a city that is among the highest in the nation in reported cases of PTSD. Many of these students were babies born just before, during, or just after Hurricane Katrina. Many have also lost brothers, cousins, and friends to gun violence.

Kresge: College Beyond is participating in a Kresge-funded pilot designed to help students access mental health resources in partnership with the Cowen Institute at Tulane University, MetaPro, and a few other local partners. What prompted your interest in that pilot?

Wheeler: College Beyond helps ensure students have everything they need to be successful. That is not always about simply giving students money. Instead, it’s about providing access to what wealth represents. Wealthy people have access to the services they need to be well including healthcare and therapy. The pilot, which allows students to connect with mental health resources through their phones, is also very convenient. During conversations with coaches, it is easy to encourage students to get connected to the MetaPro app and access supports. For many, that is much easier than scheduling yet another appointment.

Kresge: You’ve chronicled your learnings about student success in a book. Please tell us about that.

Wheeler: Geaux Wiser: Secrets to College Success was written for first generation students, students of color and students from lower income homes. It was designed to teach students about how to maximize their college experience. As a first-generation college student, I could not ask my parents for guidance about what to expect in college. This is the book I wish I had as a student.

Part two is coming out this spring. Live Wiser: The Ultimate Guide to Adulting Post Grad, is designed to help new graduates.  It includes many of the skills and lessons we discuss with our College Beyond students as they prepare to graduate and transition into the workforce. Life skills and insights about building wealth, not skimping on medical insurance, and saving for retirement, for example. These are tips to help boost socio-economic mobility.