Last week, the planning committee for the new Summer Scholars program held two meetings, one in the Intercultural Center and the other in the Black Cultural Center, to announce the details of the program. The planning committee has obtained funding from the college for a three-year pilot program, and the inaugural session will take place this coming summer. Biology Chair Professor Amy Vollmer, English Professor Jill Gladstone, Program Director Professor Allison Dorsey, Deans Liz Derickson and Karen Henry, and others participated in the meetings.
The Summer Scholars program will be an academically intensive five-week preparation for 16 incoming students from underprivileged backgrounds who are interested in pursuing science, engineering, and mathematics degrees. Representatives from the planning committee emphasized that the program will focus on academics but also aims to prepare students for other aspects of life at Swarthmore.
The academic content will comprise three sections — one writing, one science lab, and one mathematics. The writing course will be headed by Professor Gladstone, the lab course by Professor Vollmer, and the mathematics course by Professor Cheryl Grood. Student mentors hired for the summer program will provide a supporting role across these courses.
In an interview with the Phoenix, Vollmer emphasized that these courses would not simply be condensed versions of existing college courses, but an original skills-based program designed to help students “learn concepts and build relationships within the academic community.”
According to the accounts of the planning committee members in last week’s meetings, the program’s roots trace back to 2010, when an IC-BCC coalition submitted a report advocating the creation of a summer bridge program to the Dean’s office. The report looked at the history of summer bridge programs at Swarthmore and other institutions, and collected survey data on students’ feelings regarding a potential program.
During the spring of 2013, the idea of a bridge program was revived by student activists who raised a wider set of concerns over racial justice on campus.
“Out of [the student actions] came a list of demands that kind of got shambled together,” said Laura Laderman ‘15, who was an activist at the time. “One of them was the creation of a summer bridge program referring back to this  report that many of the people who were seniors at that point had worked on, and had seen go to the administration and be disappeared.”
In the wake of spring 2013, the push for a summer program was picked up by faculty members, organized by Dorsey, who held discussions that summer regarding what a faculty-driven program would look like.
These faculty members researched bridge programs at peer institutions, especially those at Williams College and Haverford College. Vollmer noted that both programs are run by faculty members and are academically rigorous. “The first piece of advice they told us was, have a faculty member in charge of it. A faculty member in charge of it means the focus is going to be academic.” The planning committee also found that successful summer bridge programs emphasized skill acquisition, faculty guidance, and group-based study habits.
Over email, Dorsey wrote “The type of support we are most concerned with is academic support which will help students achieve their academic goals … helping students master new concepts, develop critical, analytical, and problem solving skills, and also learn how to study and work in groups as we are focused on building a successful cohort each summer.”
According to Vollmer, a faculty run program will provide not only academic rigor but also continuity. Faculty members, Vollmer pointed out, often follow a relatively linear career path and as a result spend a longer time at the college than most members of the administration. “We have a sense of history, in terms of what has and has not worked. And we have a sense of supporting students as part of the academic mission.”
But neither Vollmer nor Dorsey see the academic, faculty-driven emphasis of their program as limiting towards other important aspects of campus life.
“The faculty are not myopic about [academics]” said Vollmer “I envision creating assignments and facilitating group interactions that naturally build community … There’s something about going through five weeks of intensive work that allows you to have a common language and experience that is really palpable”.
Vollmer also made the point that students often use faculty they are comfortable with to connect to other forms of support on campus and that those are the types of student-faculty relationships that can form at the Summer Scholars program.
“I think it is the relationship that I have already had in the classroom that provides the comfort for the student to come in my office, and break down,” said Vollmer “I took them to the people who have the professional training, and those are the amazing people in the Dean’s office and the CAPS people.
Dorsey wrote, “It would be an error to presume that the focus on academic enrichment in the Swarthmore Summer Scholars Program is somehow in opposition to wanting the best for our students on all fronts.”
In reference to the future of the program, Amy Vollmer emphasized the importance of consistent funding for the program to thrive beyond the three-year pilot period. The planning committee believes that having a singular endowment rather than year-to-year funding efforts reduces the uncertainties that could undermine the program and faculty efforts supporting it.
Any future expansion of the program in terms of students enrolled or disciplinary focus, Vollmer argued, will therefore depend in part on the success of the pilot program, and on communicating that success to potential donors. “When you donate money, you want to get a return on your money. You want to have some assurance that you supported the right cause,” said Vollmer. At Friday’s meeting she said, “we need to start out small, and start out great.”
Overall, the representatives of the planning committee emphasized the opportunity for the Summer Scholars program to provide students with the tools they need to fully integrate into the college community. “We want to try to ensure that people don’t feel like they’re marginalized or there’s some sort of mistake as to why they’re at Swarthmore. The admissions office is amazing. They admit fantastic people. Everyone has gotten into Swarthmore legitimately, and deserves to have an incredible experience here,” said Vollmer “We know that some people don’t, and we’re trying to minimize that.”
At the Friday meeting, Dorsey put it simply — the goal is to make sure students feel that they are full members of the community.