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Summer Bridge Scholars make ‘tremendous start’ in their Northeastern experience

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Traveling more than 3,000 miles to attend Northeastern University, Noah Babcock said the Summer Bridge Scholars Program was just what he needed.

Babcock, 18, from San Francisco, California, who will be studying mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering, said it was important for him to participate in the program to get adjusted to the Northeastern environment and become comfortable being far away from home.

“It felt like a good way to make connections before school,” Babcock said. “We had a bunch of really cool events, and a lot of team building experiences, which is really helpful for people who are just getting into college.”

While some Northeastern first-year students are still carelessly enjoying the summer before embarking on their college careers, about 260 new students gathered on the Boston campus to partake in a unique opportunity provided to them by the university—the Summer Bridge Scholars Program.

This program, established in 2002, gathers first-year students who come from historically underrepresented populations and helps them prepare for their next four years at Northeastern. This year it ran from July 26 through July 29.

About 260 students from 30 different states, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., as well as a student from India, spent this time learning about the courses they will be taking, exploring the campus and, most importantly, meeting new friends. It was also the first year when first-year students from all colleges participated in the program in person after the COVID-19 pandemic forced the organizers to conduct the program online in 2021.

“That is just a tremendous start for them. They build a community that is very supportive and that is one of the key goals of it,” said Rachelle Reisberg, assistant dean of Engineering Enrollment and Retention at the College of Engineering and director of Women in Engineering. 

Two speakers standing on a stage clapping
Northeastern University President Joseph E. Aoun (right) and Richard Harris, associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion and director of NU Program in Multicultural Engineering, greet students during the
Summer Bridge Scholars Program welcome session at the Blackman Auditorium on July 26, 2022. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The program focuses on enriching the experience of first-year students, Reisberg said, and prepares them for some of the academic challenges that they will certainly experience.

Leila Curtis, 17, from Long Island, New York, who will be studying ecology and evolutionary biology in the College of Science, enjoyed talking to peer mentors and future classmates. She was especially impressed by a chemistry professor telling them during an academic preview session about the intensity of the class they will be taking and the importance of taking notes and being prepared.

The first Summer Bridge Program started with just 11 first-year students set to attend the College of Engineering in fall 2002, said Richard Harris, associate dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and director of Northeastern University Program in Multicultural Engineering.

Harris, Reisberg and other colleagues developed the one-week-long program based on the existing research that identified the importance of building community among individuals who are historically underrepresented in colleges and universities.

“As we developed that one-week model, we realized the importance of the intensity and the intentionality of what the students will get exposed to,” Harris said. 

They set out to create a memorable and, to some degree, intensive experience that would help students bond well beyond that one week. The organizers of the program had to secure funding support from corporations, alumni, donors and grants from the National Science Foundation.

The students engaged in activities that exposed them to leadership development, team building, cohort relationships development and academic course previews. They met with their future faculty and connected with peer mentors willing to guide first-year students through what their journey at Northeastern would be like.

“It is very intentional and the friendships and the relationships that it creates, I’ve heard time and again from the alumni, are lifelong connections,” Harris said.

man standing at lectern
Richard Harris, associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion at the College of Engineering and founder of the Summer Bridge Scholars Program, addresses the first-year students during a welcoming session at the Blackman Auditorium on July 26, 2022. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

In 2015, the College of Engineering institutionalized the program and made it a budget line item. The College of Science joined the Summer Bridge Program in 2016. In 2021, qualifying students from all colleges could participate in the Summer Bridge Program online.

“For me, the best part is being able to engage students in a way that they feel comfortable, that they are true authentic selves around us,” Harris said. “These students have just as much if not more capacity to be successful.” 

This year, besides college-specific academic preview sessions, participating students got introduced to the John D. O’Brien African American Institute, the Latinx Student Cultural Center, the Asian American Cultural Center and the LGBTQ Resource Center

“That provided an opportunity for the students to have a holistic exposure but also address their intersectional identities as it relates to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity,” Harris said.

Students also went on a tour of the Museum of Science for a social, but still educational and informative, experience. 

Over the years, some of the Summer Bridge Program scholars have become Goldwater scholars, Truman scholars, Fulbright scholars and Rhodes Scholars.

The program’s team has tracked the Summer Bridge scholars’ academic progress and found a correlation between their participation in the program and their further academic success.

“We were able to determine that the Bridge students who came in with on average a lower GPA at that time and a lower LSAT score actually outperformed the non-Bridge students who had a higher LSAT and GPA,” Harris said.

“Watching the growth of the students throughout the week is really incredible,” said Luis Frias, associate director of Diversity Programs at the College of Engineering and program manager of the Summer Bridge Program. “The majority don’t know each other. But by the end of the week, just seeing that sense of belonging that really has formed, a sense of family that grows throughout the program, that is what really always brings it back to me.” 

The program’s team has worked for many months on this year’s university-wide Summer Bridge Program, Frias said, pulling staff and faculty from different colleges and programs all across the university and developing a plan. Six subcommittees focused on logistics, programming, curriculum, marketing, training peer mentors and so on.

Overall, the organizing efforts involved close to 50 people.

“It is not in their job description, but they join us because they’re really passionate about this work. They really want to have a positive impact on students,” Frias said.

group photo of summer bridge scholars implementation leadership team
Summer Bridge Scholars Program implementation leadership team, from left, back row: Michaela Modica, William Rangel, Luis R. Frias II, Alex Cabal, Richard Harris, Martin Dias; front row: Melissa Hagerstrom, Kelliann Henry, Claire Duggan, Rachelle Reisberg and Linda Ayrapetov.

The program was completely free for the students, Reisberg said.

“We do appreciate the university funding of this,” she said. “No way this can happen without the commitment made at the university level.”

Although the Summer Bridge Program ended on Friday, the wraparound support of the participants will continue in the fall and spring semesters with different events, Frias said.

The Summer Bridge Program team keeps its scholars engaged with workshops, speakers and social events, helping to foster their growth, both from an academic and holistic wellness standpoint, Frias said.

Peter Siccardi, who participated in the Summer Bridge Program in 2017 and was one of the peer mentors to the first-year students this year, said that he always had a familiar face in each class he has taken because of the Summer Bridge Program. Harris, Reisberg and others have always supported him and helped find a tutor whenever he needed one.

“Going to the Summer Bridge Program, in my opinion, is the reason that I’m going to be graduating in the fall with an electrical engineering degree,” Siccardi said. “I don’t think that I would have made it this far in my degree program if it wasn’t for the support networks, and the general overall help that I’ve received from being a part of this program, both from the peers that I’ve made, and the friends that I’ve made in the program, but also from the administrators and staff here.”

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