Summer Bridge Builds Community... and Success

Photo of a bridge made of toy blocks.
Rebecca A. Eckland

A group of high school graduates who are also first-generation college students login to a Zoom meeting at 1 p.m. to take part in an online discussion. It’s July, and these students are a part of TMCC’s Success First Summer Bridge program, an intensive dive into college preparation, which includes honing the students’ math, communication, study and impersonal skills... or, in other words, it’s an exercise in drawing their roadmap to success. Today, though, these students are in Launie Gardner’s Educational Psychology (EPY 101) class, and are logging on to discuss happiness, and how gratitude can foster happiness in our lives. 

Discussions like these are integral to Gardner’s classes, even the ones that don’t contain prescribed Zoom meetings. “Even in my asynchronous classes, we’ve started doing online discussions.  We started doing this because the students unanimously voted to hold these discussions live [instead of typing their responses out in Canvas.] It’s funny... I didn’t have enough time to set up a poll, and so I asked them to text me their preferences. And my phone just started chiming with messages of: ‘zoom, zoom zoom, zoom,’” she said.

Before the students attend Gardner’s live discussion, they will have watched a video that provides an overview of a research project in which people wrote letters to someone for whom they were grateful, and what impact writing that letter had on their own lives. “And so... we’ll look at ways we can build our own happiness. The textbook that we use in this class points out that 50% of our own happiness is dependent on our DNA, 10% by circumstance, and 40% by what we do with what we have,” she said. The discussion would precede a series of activities that would enable students to practice the mindfulness of gratitude that keeps overwhelming emotions from overtaking us. 

EPY 101 is an integral component of Success First Summer Bridge, which began on July 1 and will end on August 6. The program boasts impressive persistence rates among students who participate. The fall-to-spring persistence rate is 88% overall, compared to 69% of non-participants, and a fall-to-fall persistence rate of 72% overall, compared to 50% of non-participants. And even though this year’s Success First Summer Bridge looks different than in past years due to COVID-19 and our “new normal,” it is nonetheless giving students the skills they need to be successful in college and beyond.

Adding Up to Success in Success First Summer Bridge

Students in Success First Summer Bridge start their day by logging into their math courses. Math Instructor David Bridges said that this year, teaching online has given him a different perspective on the challenges that students face, and how he can help them to succeed. “One thing that I really enjoy, as an instructor [this year in the program, is that] I get to have a glimpse of my students’ lives at home. Whereas before, I might have sent a student home with a practice test and they came back and it wasn’t complete, now I can actually just pop into their break-out room in Zoom and I can see [that] every time this student sits down to do their work, their parents are talking to them. Or, they have a huge distraction with their pets at home. Or they are doing all their work on their bed. Things like that. It gives me a really great glimpse of what’s going on and how I can help,” he said. 

Bridges has used these insights to give his students directed advice: to do their homework at a desk (not in their beds) and to minimize distractions by reminding their parents that they are in a live conference, and have work to complete. Bridges, who finished his service with the Army in April, was also a first-generation student and is using his experience to help students in new ways. 

“I didn’t know anything about how to approach college, I didn’t know anything about any of the resources that are out there,” he said. “There’s almost a sense of admitting defeat if you have to go to tutoring as opposed to getting help with a hard subject. So whenever you need the extra help, students tend to think of themselves as lesser or not as accomplished or not deserving of being in a college class. I think what Summer Bridge does really, really well is exposing all of the students to these things [and] puts a huge emphasis on attending these programs, so that they actually understand what [these support services are,] how to go about using them, and how to make them effective in their college career.”

Bridges teaches Math Skills Center 80 and 85, and the self-paced nature of these classes typically led him to take more of a hands-off approach to student engagement. This summer, though, he’s added a short lecture component to his Math Skills Center classes that focuses on how to be successful in all subjects. It’s the support he knows will benefit the students, because once, he was in their shoes, too. “I struggled quite a bit as a math student... and I started in the Math Skills Center and worked my way up... So that made me wonder, what else isn’t being taught?  I’ve had a bunch of students tell me that they didn’t know how to be a successful student. No one had ever told them it wasn’t about sitting down and studying for hours. It was doing things like practice tests and studying effectively. They've never heard that 20 minutes of good study is better than 4 hours of mediocre study.”

Bridges’ approach is working: even though one student had to miss several of Bridges’ classes early in the program, he has not only completed Math Skills Center 80, but he will also complete Math Skills Center 85 in the fourth week of the six-week intensive program. “He’s really dedicated, and pushing hard,” said Bridges of this particular student. “When I talked to him, he told me that he was not overly dedicated in high school. So, this is a great achievement.”

Educational Psychology: Learning the True You

In the afternoon from 1-3 p.m. Success First Summer Bridge students attend EPY 101, a class that in the words of Instructor Heather Haddox “...can be tough, because students have to dig into their dirt.” Because the main subject of the class is one’s own self, Haddox said it’s not unusual for students to falter—at least at first. “The more you dig into yourself, the more you are going to benefit from this class because it’s about knowing and understanding yourself, and self-reflecting on your own thinking,” she said. 

Generally speaking, EPY 101 is a college-success class that targets both hard and soft skills. Students work on developing “hard skills” like note-taking, active reading, test-taking, and critical thinking. The course also helps students to hone their “soft skills” like emotional intelligence, communication, learning styles, taking responsibility and having a growth mindset—skills that are directly tied to student success in college. “Studies have shown it’s not the hard skills, and it’s not [a student’s] IQ that makes someone successful. It’s the soft skills, it’s the grit, the perseverance and the willingness to change and make adjustments when you’re off-course,” said Haddox. 

Students in EPY 101 can expect to make changes to their thought patterns, not just their actions. Haddox cites the example of several of her students who couldn’t set goals because they were afraid of failure. Because of the work in the class, they started to recognize that they were setting low goals because “...failure made them define themselves in a way that made them feel uncomfortable.  By re-framing failure as an opportunity to learn, instead of some sort of blanket statement that means ‘I’m terrible’—they can actually target those behaviors and thought patterns and actually move forward,” said Haddox.

EPY Instructor Cindy Owings, who also works as a school counselor for Lyon County School District, said EPY also helps students to face and address mental health challenges. “In school counseling, one the big issues we’re dealing with is the idea of trauma, and how much trauma people go through. Trauma builds walls in education, and we have to help students understand they can get over those walls,” said Owings.  “When students come up against a wall, they tend to feel like they can’t get over it or get through it. This course is about showing students they can persevere. Students need to know ‘You’re worth it’— and you just have to re-examine those old tapes in your head that tell you that you’re not really worth it. EPY helps students to rewire their brains for success.” 

Creating Community... Online

Students in Success First Summer Bridge typically form tight bonds and friendships with one another over the course of the program that, when offered in-person, also included a free lunch. Yet, despite the move to a completely online environment, instructors in the program say that students are nonetheless creating community, trading cell phone numbers and organizing online study groups together. 

EPY Instructor Ashley Brezina has noted that her students have become Canvas-experts thanks to the online learning environment. “They’re going to go into the fall semester already knowing how Canvas works, and how to contact student services if they need help,” she said. “These students might not have had the opportunity to learn as much about Canvas if they had been on campus.”  

In addition to introducing students to new technologies they will face in coming semesters, Success First Summer Bridge instructors are also harnessing the powers of these online tools to create new ways for students to interact with each other from the comfort of their own homes. “I think Summer Bridge is an example of how to do remote learning in an effective way,” said Haddox, who has started using an application called “Padlet” to supplement her classroom discussions. The application, which functions like a virtual white board, allows students to manipulate and change the location of a box that’s assigned to them on the screen. 

This technology appeals to kinesthetic learners, or students who learn by doing. During a discussion that explored how students handle conflict, Haddox would typically ask students to move around the physical classroom, to stand close or distant to “conflict.”  “[I used Padlet in a discussion] on assertiveness and conflict—how comfortable are you with it? Would you fight for your grade if your teacher gave you the wrong point scale? I put a little box in the middle of the tablet that said ‘I’m conflict.’ Then, students moved their little name closer to or farther from me. Then I asked them ‘What if I’m someone you love?’ And everyone moved, and everyone could see everyone [else] moving. Then I asked them, ‘what I was your mom? Your boss?’ Students could move away or close, and it’s fascinating for the class to watch their process,” she said.

This is one of many adaptations Haddox and other instructors have made to accommodate lesson plans and to develop the classroom community… online. “ As a teacher, you always have to be flexible with your strategies and not get in a rut of ‘this has always worked.’ We are learners, too,” she said. “This online environment has really reminded us as instructors that learning is a continuum.”

From this has come new insights about the importance of community, and the role it plays in student success. Just as students don’t learn in vacuums, the interaction between students plays as much of a role, if not more so, than the interaction of a student with his or her own instructor. What makes the Success First Summer Bridge program unique, even in the era of COVID-19, is that these connections within the student community are still happening. 

“I think it’s so important to build community at the college level,” said Gardner, who has taught for Success First Summer Bridge for three years, and only recently retired from a teaching position at TMCC High School. “We tend to think of college as a choice, and you’re this independent being, and you’re just going to go there to get exactly what you need and then you’re going to leave...but the thing about Summer Bridge is that, it really makes the students feel a part of something.” 

Thanking Donors

The Success First Summer Bridge program, which has served as a gateway to college for first-generation students for over ten years, supplies students with the opportunity to build skill sets vital to their continued success. Additionally, participating students receive financial support through a scholarship for their initial fall and spring semesters at TMCC. 

“I would encourage more donations to programs like this. When students feel like they are a part of a  community makes a huge difference in their success,” said Gardner.

The generosity of donors makes the Success First Summer Bridge program possible. This video thanks the following donors for their generous support: 

  • Nevada INBRE
  • Nell J. Redfield Foundation
  • Susanne and Gloria Young Foundation
  • U.S. Bank Foundation
  • The Bretzlaff Foundation
  • Wells Fargo Foundation

Applications for the 2021 Success First Summer Bridge program will open November 1. For information about program admissions and other requirements, contact TMCC’s Recruitment and Access Center at 775-673-8236.