January 2022: Wide Angle

BRIDGES Program Provides Community for Underrepresented Student Groups

The Building Relationships, Inspiring Diversity and Generating Excellence in Scholarship (BRIDGES) program provides a community and peer network for students from underrepresented student populations who are recipients of University of Pittsburgh grants or scholarships.

“First-year students are invited to a pre-orientation retreat to get to know each other and get acquainted with campus a bit early. They then can sign up for a peer mentor, who they meet with regularly throughout the term,” explains Kayla Banner, the program manager and outreach coordinator for BRIDGES.

“Our Peer Mentors are sophomore, junior and senior BRIDGES Scholars. We also offer four sections of a BRIDGES-specific First-Year Programs course to further help acclimate first-year students. We work to continue engaging students through all four years by offering workshops and programming like a Graduate School Fair, Financial Aid Seminars, and the Growing Series, a partnership with Pitt EXCEL and the University Counseling Center,” Banner explains.

Patrick Mullen, director of the Dietrich School’s Office of Undergraduate Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity (OUR), said it's important for BRIDGES-eligible students to know that communities of their peers support them.

“BRIDGES is a student-driven program, which seeks to respect students’ ideas and work with them to build a close-knit community. Underrepresented students are not a monolithic group. It is essential Pitt recognizes this, and listen and learn from the experiences of students who identify as part of underrepresented groups, particularly learning decisions the University can make to provide stronger support that resonates in an authentic way with students. BRIDGES endeavors to be one source of support for underrepresented students, and, in doing so, it prioritizes listening to students,” Mullen says.

Initially developed to increase retention of students from underrepresented groups and to provide community and a place for mentorship for scholarship recipients, BRIDGES has expanded over time to include grant recipients, which increased the roster significantly.

“We have also worked to be more collaborative with other units on campus that work to support students. Collaborations with Pitt EXCEL, the Swanson School of Engineering’s entity to support students from historically underrepresented backgrounds, and TRIO/SSS, an organization that supports first-generation students, have been significant in connecting students to resources in recent years,” Banner says.

In addition to providing a peer mentor and a place to connect with other students, the BRIDGES program ensures that participants are aware of and connected to a variety of resources across the University including the Financial Aid Office, the University Counseling Center, Career Services and other offices.

“By building a peer network, students are also exposed to on-campus jobs, research positions, student organizations and other opportunities that their peers expose them to,” Banner adds.

“BRIDGES Scholars who have participated in our pre-orientation retreat have expressed that is the first place they found friends on campus. Many of them go on to room together and share many other valuable experiences. Students have also expressed that their peer mentors have been integral to their success, and they keep in touch long after their official mentoring relationship is over,” Banner says.

Kendra Plummer, an alumna of the BRIDGES program, agreed that the BRIDGES community has been valuable to her.

Says Plummer, “For me, being a part of the BRIDGES program felt like a family, a safe space on Pitt’s campus to navigate not only being an underrepresented student but also a scholarship recipient. Various BRIDGES programs, as well as insightful discussions with previous mentors, provided me with organizational and interpersonal skills that I still utilize in professional post-grad spaces today. My experience mentoring, in addition to my personal experience as an underrepresented student, only fostered my career goals to be a resource for marginalized communities as I plan to continue my studies in the field of psychology.”

Kendall Johnson, a Pitt senior and current BRIDGES mentor, said: “BRIDGES has provided a space for me to meet and engage with other motivated students that look like me, something that I often don’t get in my classes. BRIDGES has also provided ample resources to ensure that I am able to succeed academically and beyond undergrad. Being a mentor has allowed me to share and gain information and resources from other mentors as well as mentees. It has also helped with my sense of belonging at Pitt, as the BRIDGES community is very supportive of one another to help us all achieve our goals.”

“College can be isolating for every student,” says Banner. “Black and brown students at predominately white institutions (PWIs) face another level of isolation. When sitting in a lecture hall of 300 students and only a handful of them look like you, it can be easy to feel like you do not belong there. Creating an environment and community of students who can relate to these feelings is essential to maintain the overall well-being of these students.”

Mullen is looking forward to watching the BRIDGES program grow in the future. “Students have incredible ideas for new programming, and the staff who support BRIDGES are interested in working with the students to develop their new ideas, whether that takes the form of mentorship, advising or anything else that supports student success,” he says.

Banner agrees. “I would like to see the program grow to support all Black and brown students, regardless of their University scholarship or grant status. All students should have at least one place on campus where they feel like they belong, and I think that if we had a larger capacity, we could be that place for more students.”

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