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The Summer Bridge: How an Immersive First-Year Experience Can Increase Belonging for Underrepresented Students

In July 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, a cohort of sixty-three first-year students agreed to participate in an intensive summer program at Vassar College about a month before the start of the fall semester. Over the next three weeks, the students participated in Summer Immersion in the Liberal Arts, a program established in 2019 to help new students transition from high school, feel a sense of belonging at Vassar, and engage with the liberal arts.

At many colleges, summer “bridge” programs like ours accept and admit students based on perceived limitations (e.g., lower test scores) or deficits (e.g., concepts such as “unprepared” and “unready”). At Vassar, we recognize that students’ assets, experiences, and feelings of belonging are major contributors to their engagement and success on our campus.

Informed by research on student belonging and perspectives from critical race theorists, the summer immersion program is designed to support groups that have been historically underrepresented at liberal arts institutions. Almost all summer immersion participants are first-generation or low-income students who qualify for the federal Pell Grant, and many are students of color.

Below, we share survey responses from 212 first-year students, including thirty-six students who participated in the summer immersion program and 175 who didn’t participate. Our findings suggest that summer bridge programs that focus on student assets, knowledge, and experiences can make a powerful impact on feelings of belonging and support.

Summer Immersion Students Feel a Strong Sense of Belonging at Vassar

Overall, the first-generation and low-income students who participated in Summer Immersion in the Liberal Arts reported significantly higher levels of belonging than first-generation or low-income students who did not participate (see fig. 1). More than three-quarters (78 percent) of summer immersion students agreed or strongly agreed that “this community is a good place for people like me to learn and develop,” compared with just 44 percent of first-generation or low-income students who did not participate. Similarly, summer immersion students were much more likely to agree or strongly agree that “people at Vassar respect the perspectives of my home community” (69 percent compared with 44 percent) and were nearly three times more likely to agree or strongly agree that they see themselves “as an important part of the college community” (35 percent compared with 12 percent). Across these three measures of belonging, summer immersion participants reported similar levels of belongingness as students who did not qualify for the Pell Grant and did not participate in the summer program.

Figure 1. Sense of Belonging for First-Year Students at Vassar College

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Summer Immersion Students Expand Their Support Networks

Our findings also show that summer immersion students have greater access to the college’s support systems than first-generation and low-income students who did not participate, with similar levels to their non-Pell-eligible peers (see figure 2). These summer immersion students were more likely to say they know professors, administrators, and peers “who are willing to help me” than Pell-eligible students who did not participate (although the differences were not statistically significant). Nevertheless, when compared with their non-Pell-eligible peers (64 percent), summer immersion students (81 percent) were significantly more likely to agree or strongly agree that they knew professors who were willing to help them. Summer immersion students were also twice as likely to know administrators that were willing to help them with their educational journey (49 percent compared with 24 percent).

Though longer-term assessments are needed to see the full impact of our summer bridge program, preliminary results suggest that Summer Immersion in the Liberal Arts has a substantial effect on feelings of belonging and support among low-income students, first-generation students, and students of color. Redesigning summer bridge programs and other student support systems can encourage students—and their faculty—to draw on prior experiences and knowledge as assets to learning. Such work can be an important step toward aligning our institutional practices with the values of equity, inclusion, and transformative education.

Figure 2. Access to Support for First-Year Students at Vassar College

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Candice Lowe-Swift is associate professor of anthropology, Africana studies, and international studies, and Henry J. Molina is research and program administrator for the Engaged Pluralism Initiative—both at Vassar College.

The Summer Immersion in the Liberal Arts program is part of a campus-wide project, the Engaged Pluralism Initiative, that was established through a Mellon Foundation award in 2017. The photo above is included with permission of Vassar College.

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