Swarthmore Summer Bridge Program

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Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

On Friday, the Summer Scholars committee met with students and alumni in the Intercultural Center to discuss the pilot Summer Bridge Program, which will start this summer for the entering Class of 2019. The main purpose of the program will be to acclimate sixteen first-generation, underrepresented, or low-income identifying students to Swarthmore’s academic climate in the span of five weeks. Currently, this committee is comprised of Professor of History Allison Dorsey, Chair of the Biology Department Amy Vollmer, Director of Writing Associates Program Jill Gladstein, Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs Liz Derickson, Dean Karen Henry, and Associate Professor of Mathematics Cheryl Grood.

Professor Dorsey began the meeting by explaining the background of this program. During the spring of 2013, the Dean’s office resurfaced a report from 2010 that researched at length various summer bridge programs across the nation. Dorsey took interest in the student’s initiative to create such a summer program for Swarthmore, but when she requested for interested students to come by her office to have a discussion, she got no response.

“I learned two things from this experience,” said Dorsey, “One, students were very interested in helping out. And two, students were attracted to other shiny objects.”

Instead, when Dorsey conversed with Professor of Physics Frank Moscatelli after the initial interest meeting, she discovered that other faculty, mainly STEM professors, echoed the same sentiment and desire to aid this demographic of students.

After appealing to the provost, the program was finally approved last fall, two days before Thanksgiving. The pilot program will run for three years; running each summer from the last week of June to the first week of August. Students selected for this program must stay on campus all five weeks, and the College will cover all travel expenses. The program will be STEM intensive — with a lab, writing, and math course among other academic focuses. The bridge program aims to teach students how to think, read, and write at the level demanded by an elite academic institution like Swarthmore. Classes will run from 9:00am to 5:00pm, five days a week with a tentative one-day break in the middle. The committee was adamant that rather than having a focus on social life, the program will follow a regimented structure with a strong focus on academic acclimation.

“This kind of immersion is meant to be severe, but we’re not doing it in a severe way,” Vollmer said, “We’re throwing them into the deep end, and there will be a lot of floaties. It isn’t sink or swim at all.” The committee will hire student mentors, lab assistants and resident mentors who will focus on aiding the incoming freshmen throughout the program.

Vollmer cites that Swarthmore’s summer bridge program is built upon the successes of various similar program. Results of other bridge programs has shown that a strong emphasis on academics through group activities and team building proves to be most successful. Vollmer said, “It is our intention to use the strong focus on academics and introduction to the culture of Swarthmore to enable the development of important connections among and between students and other campus constituents.”

Even though the academic work done through the program will not be transferred as a credit, Vollmer assures that class content will be interesting and engaging. Citing Obama’s recent endorsement for a massive $1.2 billion funding for antibiotics research and the general intrigue around the subject, Vollmer plans to conduct a course on antibiotics, a topic not covered in the notoriously difficult Bio 001 course at Swarthmore. The course will not be a cakewalk, as she wants to bring the bridge students up to full speed with the rest of the incoming freshmen.

One important feature of this program is the face time students will get with the people who actually run Swarthmore. “The connections the students will make with the campus faculty will complement the intense academic bridge program,” Derickson said.

Noting specifically that some students may not have the know-how to approaching and building relationships with faculty and staff, Derickson pointed out that during all activities — whether hiking through the Crum, busing to Washington DC, or simply having lunch on Parrish Beach — the bridge students will be joined by staff from the Financial Aid office, alumni working near Philadelphia, and other professors on campus. Saturdays will be reserved for exploring the Tri-State area, and a potential excursion to New York.

While this form of edutainment is positive for learning, Dorsey asserted that too much exposure to stimuli would cause nothing to stick. Vollmer reinforced that the goal of this program is to allow students to feel like they’re part of the academic community on campus.

“We don’t want students to feel like they’re at the edge of the academic field at Swarthmore,” Vollmer said, “If you’re accepted to Swarthmore, the admissions officers know that you have the capacity to do the work. Students should never feel like they don’t belong here.”

While this program is STEM-focused, the committee stressed that by no means is the program limited to just STEM students. A member of the audience, who is a first-generation college student, said, “I started off my Swarthmore career as a CS major and ended up switching to sociology after two years. I knew that I could find a job as a CS major, but I knew that I would be happier if I switched.”

Vollmer agreed and said, “I wouldn’t teach biology at a liberal arts university if I thought STEM was the be-all and end-all. I would rather go to a large research university.”

She also pointed out that her students now do jobs that did not exist when she taught them, signifying that the liberal arts education is not a pre-professional step in one’s career. Rather, the committee collectively sees the liberal arts as a way of thinking that gives students a foundation to tackle any problem.

“We can’t read the future; our responsibility is to prepare you for a future that you can’t predict,” Vollmer said.

SOLIS is excited for this program and is willing to aid students and faculty in any way. Cat Velez ’17, co-founder of SOLIS, said, “This is a wonderful program. I’m definitely applying to become a mentor.”

Students who wish to be updated about the program should email Prof. Dorsey, inquiring specifically about the Summer Scholars program.

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