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‘World of Difference’

BC’s Learning to Learn Program a national model for helping students adjust to challenge of college

11/12/15
Dan Bunch
“Dan’s just a great resource,” says a student of Dan Bunch, director of the University’s Learning to Learn program. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

By Marvin Pave |Special to the Chronicle

Published: Nov. 12, 2015

Erika Kiyono ’09 knows what a sense of community and a dose of self-confidence can do.

Her freshman year at Boston College, Kiyono was enrolled in a writing seminar taught by Dacia Gentilella, who also teaches the Applications of Learning Theory course through the University’s nationally-acclaimed Learning to Learn Program.

“I was really struggling through the curriculum and I shared some of those challenges with Dacia, who recommended that I take the course,” recalled Kiyono, who has returned to campus as a Learning to Learn counselor. “Learning to Learn made a world of difference. It was my hub and had such a strong impact on me that I was an undergraduate teaching assistant for LTL, which is close to my heart.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about our students standing on their own two feet and then taking one step at a time. That’s what we hope for.”

Many of those steps lead to Learning to Learn Director Dan Bunch’s second floor office at 50 College Road, LTL’s headquarters since 2001.

Open to all students, LTL’s mission is to assist individuals who may face adversity in a challenging academic setting, including first-generation students, those with high financial need or others who may be physically challenged or learning-disabled.

Buoyed by a recently announced five additional years of federal funding through a Student Support Services Grant and the Ronald E. McNair Post Baccalaureate Achievement Grant, LTL is thriving. Ninety-five percent of students who have taken the Learning to Learn course graduated BC in four years; nationally, the six-year graduation rate for Student Support Services students is only 38 percent.

The high graduation rate for Learning to Learn participants is even more impressive in light of the fact that, nationally, only 54 percent of college students graduate. And many of BC’s LTL-trained students have gone on to pursue graduate studies – five members of the Class of 2014 alone are in doctoral programs.

The story of Learning to Learn’s success is not confined to Boston College. It is a national model that has been adopted by more than 100 colleges in the United States and designated as an Exemplary Program by the US Department of Education. According to the DOE, Learning to Learn is the only college-level program found to result in significant, long-term improvements in both college students’ GPAs and graduation rates.

Viola Clark ’16 became an academic assistant after her fulfilling experience with LTL. As a sophomore, Clark was having problems with time management and her grades were slipping, so she was encouraged to participate in Learning to Learn. The skills she learned have helped her manage life in the classroom and beyond, she said.

“Dan’s just a great resource,” said Clark, an applied psychology major at the Lynch School of Education. “Dan goes out of the way for you and you know he cares right off the bat.”

LTL’s director since 1987, Bunch remembers the days when the program was run as a drop-in center just a few doors away on College Road.

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“We want to be advocates,helping first generation students with a multitude of needs ranging from housing and financial issues to something as basic as finding them a personal computer,” says Learning to Learn Director Dan Bunch ’79, MSW’81.

“It was not that formal until we worked with the Psychology Department to make Applications of Learning Theory a three-credit elective course in 1983,” said Bunch, a basketball captain and three-sport athlete at Hayneville (Ala.) High School who was accepted into BC’s Black Talent Program, a precursor to his graduation in 1979 – the same year LTL was established on campus by former director Marcia Heiman.

Bunch’s path to BC took a significant turn shortly after he graduated high school. Bunch was interested in electrical engineering and enrolled in a vocational school in Kentucky, where two of his instructors offered some advice.

“They said they had observed me and my skills and that I was wasting my time and should go to college,” he said. “So I went home to Alabama, came to Boston to visit my sister who was at BC and got into the Black Talent Program.

“I might not be here today if not for that conversation back in Kentucky.”

Bunch is grateful for the college’s “across-the-board support and commitment to LTL,” and his conversations with Heiman, who is a consultant to the program. “She’s an incredible researcher and a confidante,” said Bunch.

Bunch earned his masters’ degree in social work in 1981 and was a graduate assistant with the then-AHANA Student Programs Office and a counselor for LTL. He was working in New York City when Heiman asked him to return as assistant director.

“In addition to the course, we wanted to – and still want to – be advocates, helping first-generation students with a multitude of needs ranging from housing and financial issues to something as basic as finding them a personal computer,” said Bunch, who resides in Hyde Park with his wife, Maribel Pomales-Bunch, a 1984 graduate who teaches high school in Boston.

One of LTL’s key facets is its College Transition Program, a two-week summer orientation for between 35 to 50 incoming freshmen that has been funded by BC since 2001.

“We work closely with the Office of Undergraduate Admission to identify students and we email them to tell them about CTP,” said Bunch, noting the commitment of his seven professional staff, five graduate assistants, seven undergraduate peer counselors and three administrative staff.

 “CTP created a community for me before I even started classes as a freshman and Dan Bunch was a mentor early-on,” said Philip McHarris ’14, who now is a McNair Scholar in his second year of doctoral studies at Yale. “Before meeting him I knew about him because some students at BC who went to my high school [St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, NJ] talked about him. LTL was my home away from home freshman year, and while I had faith in myself, Dan always raised the bar.”

McHarris said LTL “exposed me to a lot of learning tools like the best way to take notes or engaging with the text in an active way. I drew from the ones that applied to me, felt more organized and realized there’s no one way to learn.”

Students come to LTL in a variety of ways: referrals from other support or social groups on campus, from deans or faculty members, and according to Bunch, “word of mouth, a big factor.”

Two sections of no more than 25 students are offered each semester and are typically filled. The majority are freshmen, with a sprinkling of sophomores and juniors.

James Kale was a freshman when referred to Bunch through staff at Options to Education, a summertime academic enrichment experience under the direction of the Thea Bowman AHANA and Intercultural Center. Kale said LTL gave him a new perspective and taught him study habits that have carried over into his senior year.

“I never had classes with white students before and had no friends from the South Bronx who went to college,” he recalled. “But I felt comfortable in Dacia’s class. We shared the same demographics and backgrounds. To this day, I still see Dan at minimum once a week. His impact on me and on BC has been huge.”

Earlier this year, Bunch was honored with the Boston College Community Service Award for actions that exemplify the Jesuit spirit of service to others. He was also recognized by former students, who set up a Facebook page filled with comments thanking him for making a difference in their lives.

“The first time I saw it,” he said, “I had tears in my eyes.”