New WUSTL college-prep program aimed at local high school students

​Leah Merrifield is very excited about her latest role at Washington University in St. Louis.

As assistant vice chancellor for community engagement, she will be heading up a new pre-college program designed to help talented but underserved St. Louis high school students prepare for and complete a college education at a selective four-year college or university.


“The university sees this program as one of the next steps in our overall approach to working with local school districts and regional partners to help improve the St. Louis area’s college-degree attainment,” Merrifield said.

“I’m excited for young people who will have the access and opportunity that they might not have had. I’m glad to be a part of that.”

The ambitious program will bring its first cohort of 20 rising high school sophomores to the WUSTL campus for two weeks during the summer of 2014. The students will live in the residence halls and take part in college preparation activities, as well as life-skills and enrichment programming.

The students will return to campus for two summers, and those subsequent summer sessions will include credit-bearing academic course work. The program will maintain contact with the students and their families throughout the academic year, providing support, encouragement and college preparation guidance.

A new class of rising sophomores will be added each summer. There will be no cost for participants.

Research has shown a multiyear approach to college preparation for underserved students works best, Merrifield said.

“We will have multiple opportunities to engage the student, to help them understand the college application process and to further hone their skills so they not only get into a competitive school that fits them, but so that they also are successful while in college and attain their degree,” she said.

The program will draw from multiple campus resources, including faculty, Campus Life, the Institute for School Partnership, and the Office of Government and Community Relations.

The university also will work closely with KIPP Inspire Academy, a charter school, and St. Louis-area school districts to develop the program.

Rob Wild, associate vice chancellor for students, has served as the university liaison to KIPP since 2009.

“This past spring, the entering class of KIPP fifth-graders were promoted to high school,” Wild said. “It is my hope that some of these KIPP ninth-graders will choose to enroll in the program this coming summer, and that our program will represent an important part of our future partnership with KIPP St. Louis and other schools in the region.”

He said this initiative is the latest example of a WUSTL program designed to help first-generation college students get in and through college. Another such program is the federal Trio program for current WUSTL students.

Vicki May, executive director of the Institute for School Partnership, said the institute will be working with local schools and KIPP to identify and recruit students for the program, as well as providing general support and advice as part of the advisory team.

“The university is very committed to improving educational opportunities for young people in our region. This is a wonderful opportunity to expand our efforts toward this goal,” May said.

In Merrifield’s 17 years at WUSTL, she has worked with community leaders while developing and implementing several new programs in her roles as director of community relations, special assistant to the chancellor for diversity initiatives and executive director for academic-civic engagement. She said this new position will draw on those experiences, as well as her role as a founding board member of College Bound St. Louis, a program that helps high school students from underresourced backgrounds apply to and prepare for college.

“So, I bring that experience to it. I understand the landscape,” she said. “I understand the challenges as well as the rewards. To be able to bring that to the university and help the university create something for a population I care so much about feels really rewarding to me.”

“Leah Merrifield knows higher education and Washington University well and brings a career’s worth of experience to this new position,” Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton said. “Additionally, she has also long been committed to helping support first-generation college students, as evidenced by her recent board-level leadership with College Bound in St. Louis. I look forward to working with Leah on the successful development of this important Washington University initiative.”