A bridge to equity?

This semester, I was asked to co-convene a task force on establishing an interdisciplinary summer bridge program for incoming students at our institution. There are several anticipated outcomes of the program, but the essential goal is to increase academic preparation, persistence, and belongingness for students who are Pell-eligible and first-generation (read: primarily black and Latinx students from low-income families).

I am so grateful for the opportunity to do this work, but it is complicated work, particularly because ours is a predominantly white institution (PWI). In this post, I’d like to describe some of these complexities and discuss one way I have started thinking about how the administrative work of developing this program relates to equity.

There are pervasive national and institutional narratives about incoming students’ writing abilities. As they always have been, these narratives tend to be rooted in deficit models of literacy.

  • At our college in particular, there is a concern that incoming students don’t have the experience with writing that they need in order to be academically successful. (They don’t know how to write more than 3 pages. They don’t know how to research. They don’t know how to plan and sustain longer projects. They don’t know how to read academic texts.)

  • Students who are seen as struggling or failing in this regard often come from local high schools that are predominantly minority-serving.

Access, equity, and belonging

  • My very brilliant colleague, Nancy Chick, pointed out at one of our task force’s recent meetings (and I will paraphrase poorly here) that a bridge program may increase access to our college/to post secondary education, but if there are not continued structures of support and mentorship, it will fail to increase equity.

  • I have so many thoughts and feelings about belonging. (I mention some of them here.) But this bridge program work has made me wonder if there is a danger in trying to signal belonging to students of color when the institution itself does not yet provide the safety and security for these students that should accompany authentic belonging.

Bridge as a metaphor

  • The idea of a bridge program is that it provides an easier crossing from high school to college; it facilitates moving from one stage to the next.

  • An underlying assumption, though, is that there is some kind of gap that has to be traversed. There are connotations of precarity, possible peril, and linearity (a bridge gets you from point A to point B—simple as that).

  • The bridge is a useful metaphor, but maybe not the best one for this situation.

So, that brings me to the question of how to navigate the task of developing one of these programs at a PWI. Here’s the compass I’m using at this point:

What if we approach this program from the perspective that the gap we need to attend to is the one within our institution, rather than in these students’ skills or level of academic experience. The deficit is within us; what needs to be bridged in this case is our college as a white space on the one hand, and the possible future in which we function as an anti-racist organization on the other.

In establishing this summer program (maybe as a kind of emerging leaders program?), we can offer these students—who have been and continue to be excluded from full participation in our institution in a variety of ways—some strategies, tools, and experiences that will enable them to lead and to change our institution.

I do not want to imply that the burden of transforming the institution falls on students of color; the work of undoing and unraveling white supremacy is the work of white people. Rather, I want to suggest that there are exciting possibilities in leveraging academic program design to amplify the voices, perspectives, and experiences of black and brown students.

I have never developed a high school-to college bridge program. My contributions to this work are rooted in my expertise in writing center administration, my research on “non-traditional” student populations, and my experience with teaching writing. I am hopeful, but nervous. And I believe that it is possible to leverage our institutional, administrative positions to contribute to equity. We’ll see how it goes.

Finally, if you are interested in learning more about research on bridge programs, here are some interesting sources:

  • Ashley, M., Cooper, K., Cala, J., & Brownell, S. (2017). Building better bridges into STEM: A synthesis of 25 years of literature on STEM summer bridge programs. CBE Life Sciences Education, 16(4).

  • Brady, A., & Gallant, D. (2021). STEM bridge program: Underrepresented minority students’ perceptions of Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation program impact. Journal of College Science Teaching, 50(6), 57-62.

  • Cooper, K. M., Ashley, M., & Brownell, S. E. (2017). A bridge to active learning: A summer bridge program helps students maximize their active-learning experiences and the active-learning experiences of others. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 16(1), 1-14.

  • Covarrubias, R., Gallimore, R., & Okagaki, L. (2018). “I know that I should be here:” Lessons learned from the first-year performance of borderline university applicants. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 20(1), 92-115.

  • Grace-Odeleye, B., & Santiago, J. (2019). A review of some diverse models of summer bridge programs for first-generation and at-risk college students. Administrative Issues Journal: Connecting Education, Practice, and Research, 9(1), 35-47.

  • Greer, C., Chi, C., & Hylton-Patterson, N. (2020). An empirical evaluation of a summer bridge program on college graduation at a small liberal arts college. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 1-15.

  • Gonzalez Quiroz, A., & Garza, N. R. (2018). Focus on student success: Components for effective summer bridge programs. Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, 17(2), 101–111.

  • Harrington, M., Lloyd, A., Smolinski, T., & Shahin, M. (2016). Closing the gap: First year success in college mathematics at an HBCU. The Journal of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 16(5), 92-106.

  • Sablan, J. R. (2014). The Challenge of Summer Bridge Programs. American Behavioral Scientist, 58(8), 1035–1050.

  • Swift, M., Bowers, L., McDonald, E., & Walter, A. (2019). An explorations approach to summer bridge at a selective liberal arts college: One path toward equalizing student success. Journal of STEM Education, 19(5), 46-64.

  • Windrow, V., & Korstange, R. (2019). Maintaining high-impact bridge programming at scale. The Journal of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 19(1), 29-40.

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