Inside USD

Giving Students Supportive Bridge to Success

Monday, October 4, 2010

Phi Nguyen is scheduled to graduate from the University of San Diego in May with degrees in Communication Studies and psychology. Tears will likely flow in celebration of her accomplishment when it happens, but some, too, might fall upon reflection of her introduction to USD.

Nguyen was one of 26 participants in Student Support Services’ weeklong Summer Bridge program in August 2007. Nguyen, a first-generation student, knew few people when she arrived at USD, but her confidence soared in Summer Bridge. She made friends, met faculty, learned the rigor needed as a USD student, participated in fun activities and gained a true connection to the university.

“What’s special about Summer Bridge is the relationship, the bond, you create with a small group of people in one short week,” said Nguyen (pictured, center). “It sustains itself and continues throughout your college career. I still run into people who were in it with me and we’re all great friends. I love it.”

Student Support Services (SSS) runs two concurrent programs — USD’s TRiO SSS and USD SSS — and Summer Bridge, focusing on first generation to college students, low-income students, students with disabilities and underrepresented populations at USD, brings these students together to ease their transition to college.

The Institute of College Initiatives, which houses SSS in USD’s Alcala West building, is led by Cynthia Villis. A former dean of academic services and associate provost at USD, Villis was assigned by former USD Provost Frank Lazarus to examine TRiO programs more than 10 years ago. She attended conferences and visited other institutions to assess its effectiveness.

“From the beginning we were excited about SSS and the potential for helping students not being retained at USD and not graduating at the same rates. We’d lose them at greater rates than the ‘average’ student at USD,” Villis said.

Villis — a first-generation college student at the University of Missouri, Columbia — and a dedicated staff have worked tirelessly to provide support for students. Current USD students in SSS Bridge have been retained at a 96 to 100 percent rate.

“SSS, to me, is a voice for ‘Yes,’” Villis said. “There are a lot of obstacles for students, but no matter what they come across, an internal or external barrier, this is the group of people they can come to who will say ‘Yes, you can do that.’ It’s a circle of trust, a safe space.”

The TRiO SSS program recently earned its second five-year, $1 million-plus federal grant to assist 160 USD undergraduate students. Services through SSS include academic advising, one-on-one tutoring, FAFSA and financial aid assistance, grant aid, computer lab access, study skills workshops, personal counseling and opportunities to partner on cultural and social awareness activities with USD organizations.

Additional support from USD, notably Provost Julie Sullivan and Associate Provost Andy Allen, expanded opportunities for more underrepresented students to attend Summer Bridge in 2010. Seventy students, USD’s highest participation number to date, participated this year. Nguyen, a TRiO McNair Scholar, was busier in her third year as a bridge mentor, but she didn’t mind.

“I really do love USD and I want to help out any way I can,” she said. “I want to give back. I want to pay it forward.”

Those words put a smile on staff members’ faces.

“We’ve all overcome similar obstacles and know we can provide that for someone else,” says Sara Boquin, director of TRiO SSS. “We can help students find the resources they need. We show up every day with a sense of purpose in what we’re going to do and students feel that.”

Boquin went through an eight-week bridge program while at University of California, San Diego. She credits those she met there for helping her through a college experience hampered by financial aid constraints. Boquin said those memories helped when she organized USD’s first Summer Bridge itinerary in 2006.

Academic Coordinator Rachel Acosta ‘06 was a low-income student from Seattle when she arrived at USD and SSS didn’t exist. She earned a sociology degree and is in the leadership studies graduate program. “It’s an honor to be in this position. Students let us into their lives and we can be a bridge builder to all the different resources on campus. I enjoy building relationships and helping them unleash their potential.”

Freddy Delgado-Wong (MA, Counseling ‘10) has been involved with SSS experience since age 18. A low-income, first-generation undergraduate at UCSD, Delgado-Wong was a student staffer, mentor and summer coordinator. He was a graduate assistant for two years at USD and is now an academic coordinator. “I consider it my obligation to work and give back. I’m not forced to do it. I embrace it because it’s done so much for me.”

Anastacia Bonner ‘10 (BA/BS Industrial & Systems Engineering), the newest staff member, didn’t participate in bridge as a freshman. Her appreciation came from tutoring help she received through SSS. Hired after graduation as an academic coordinator, Bonner learned a lot. “Going through it for the first time I realized how much I missed out on and what a difference it makes in the students’ lives — and on mine. It changed my perspective on what students go through when they come to USD,” she said.

This year’s schedule included a movie/discussion night, a San Diego Padres game, a field trip to Balboa Park, a “Battle of the Sexes” male/female discussion and “Transition Issues,” where students are encouraged to talk about their personal situations. “You get to know people on a deeper level,” Nguyen said. “It’s really powerful and beautiful.”

Five USD professors, Esteban del Rio (Communication Studies), Mike Williams, pictured, (Political Science and International Relations), Eric Pierson (Comm. Studies), Alberto Pulido (Ethnic Studies) and Evelyn Diaz Cruz (Theatre Arts), each taught a class of SSS Bridge students per day and one class of all bridge students once during the week.

Freshman Violette Simon wants to study biology, go to medical school and become a pediatric surgeon. Bridge is a key she’s using to begin unlocking her potential. “Neither of my parents went to college so I had no idea what to expect,” she said. “Coming to Summer Bridge, being with people in the same situation, having a chance to talk to professors and knowing what’s expected in college and what to expect from the experience, socially and academically, really helped me.”
— Ryan T. Blystone
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