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Off to a Good Start

Summer Bridge students kayaking

For most incoming college freshman, the word “intimidated” hardly covers how they feel on that first day of the fall semester. Not only do they have to contend with a massive college campus, they must also keep up with a whole new league of competitive classmates and rigorous courses.

A Summer Bridge student, however, is likely to have an entirely different experience. With six hours of college classes under their belt—and a built-in network of friends and mentors—they’re more than ready to start that first day of school with confidence and poise.

Summer Bridge students enjoying a day at the lake with new friends

This level of preparation is especially needed for high-achieving students from low-income or first-generation college backgrounds. These students are often unprepared for college and falter at the first signs of perceived failure, says Dr. Charles Lu, Summer Bridge director and executive director of the Gateway Scholars program.

Students pose for a group shot during a Summer Bridge seminar

“A lot of our incoming students think that they will thrive because they were ranked highly in high school,” Lu says. “Unfortunately a lot of times that doesn’t happen. We want to give them a taste of what college curriculum is going to look like, and the level of rigor the university expects them to be at.”

The five-week scholarship program, housed within the Longhorn Center for Academic Excellence (LCAE), helps students transition into college life by providing tuition, housing, food, books and a $1,000 merit-based scholarship for maintaining at least a 3.0 average during the second summer semester.

Expenses aside, students receive a wealth of resources from the program’s peer-mentoring, academic advising and tutoring services. Whether they need help passing a test, managing their time, or dealing with personal struggles, the supportive team of faculty and staff are ready to help. Funded by the Provost Office’s student success initiatives, the goal is to boost the university’s four-year graduation rate.

“The support we get from the Provost Office and the collaborations we have with our campus partners are amazing,” Lu adds. “It has made me realize how much people on this campus truly care about students, which I don’t think you get at every university.”

Students learning how to navigate the sprawling UT Austin campus before starting the fall semester

Lu attributes much of the program’s success to its strong team of peer mentors who want nothing more than to see students succeed. Many were Summer Bridge students themselves. This year, more than 60 former Summer Bridge students applied for a mentoring position—a number that more than doubled since the previous year. Lu said he was thrilled to see how the program is inspiring so many students to pay it forward.

“I believe our high-level staff really distinguish us from other programs,” Lu says. “We go through a very selective process in terms of choosing who is interfacing with our students. They not only have to be student-centered, they also need to have the skills and abilities to meet their needs.”

Students exploring Austin’s public transportation system

To illustrate the benefits of the program’s peer-mentoring offerings, Lu recalls one student in particular who came to Summer Bridge with a severe case of what appeared to be social anxiety. Although Lu and his team of faculty and staff couldn’t pinpoint the underlying problem, they were able to connect the student with the right people who could help him get through his first class.

“Luckily, we were able to pair him with the perfect mentor who had a speech pathology background, and we placed him in a class with a supportive and understanding professor,” Lu says. “Had he been thrown into the fall semester without Summer Bridge, frankly I don’t think he would’ve stayed at the university.”

As Lu predicted, the student ended the fall 2014 semester with a 3.8 average and he is now doing well at his customer-service job on campus. This is just one of the many examples of how Summer Bridge is helping students not only stay in school, but also get an edge over their classmates. Out of the 244 students who participated in the program in 2014, 88 percent ended the fall semester with a 3.0 or higher average. Collectively the 2014 cohort earned a 3.46 average during the summer semester and 99 percent returned to UT in the fall.

The numbers clearly show that the program has been making great strides toward increasing the university’s graduation rate since it was established in 2013. When asked about what he loves most about directing Summer Bridge, Lu says there’s nothing more gratifying than seeing students overcoming their struggles and surpassing their peers.

“I love what this program stands for,” Lu says. “Out of all my roles here at UT, this would have to be my favorite because I can see the direct effect the program has on these students.”