Building Bridges for the Future

IMG_4105

Leaning against the rails of Argo Hall.
Looking out onto Revelle plaza and hearing the laughter.
Singing together in a circle of friends.

These are just a few memories alumni vividly recall from Summer Bridge—an experience that changed their lives forever.

Every summer, the university’s Office of Academic Support and Instructional Services (OASIS) hosts Summer Bridge, a program that transitions incoming UC San Diego undergraduates into the university not only academically, but socially and culturally. Summer Bridge students learn to navigate the educational system, as many of them come from underserved and educationally disadvantaged communities. The program began in 1978 with just 30 students, as a way to empower them to be successful at the university. Now in its 38th year, Summer Bridge brought in 190 students in August 2015. A once-in-a-lifetime experience, students gain perspective, confidence and ultimately a sense of belonging on this 1,200 acre campus.

The year-long transition program begins with a 4-week residential component in August, continues throughout the academic year and ends in June. During the 4 weeks in August, participants live on campus, earn 8 units of college credit and develop a higher level of academic skills and abilities—more than $3000 of value completely free of charge. Students also utilize and familiarize themselves with important campus resources, such as the financial aid office, Cross Cultural Center, Student Health Services and more. Aside from academic benefits, students enjoy a beach trip, dance, talent show, cultural programs and many other opportunities for recreation.

Ironic to its name, Summer Bridge doesn’t stop in the summer—after access comes retention. The program continues into the academic year to ensure that freshmen reach their academic potential and enjoy positive involvement on campus. Students are assigned an Academic Transition Counselor (ATC), who mentors them and follows their progress throughout their first year. Students also participate in an OASIS Living/Learning Community (OLC) that holds weekly seminars consisting of study sessions and other bonding activities. Additionally, Summer Bridge students are expected to enroll in tutoring each quarter that corresponds with the courses they are taking.

Agustín Orozco, Muir ’93, now the assistant director of OASIS, is an alumnus of the Summer Bridge Program himself. A former Associated Students president, Orozco had always envisioned a career in politics, but took a different path when he realized the large public scope was not for him. “I didn’t know if I was prepared for a public life and the responsibilities that came with it,” says Orozco. “It was a lot of pressure and I was only 21.” It was then that Orozco looked into his other interests, and realized he had a place in student affairs. “I wanted to reach another audience in a different way—a more intimate way. With this program, I feel like I’ve had the opportunity to do that with students.”

While students see Summer Bridge staff like Orozco as role models, the students also inspire in turn. “I see their resiliency,” says Orozco. “These students have a lot that they struggle with and I sometimes forget that.” Orozco recalls an inspiring story of an earlier Summer Bridge student: while she worked hard to maintain good academic standing at the university, she also held the responsibility of going home each summer to help her family with their farm. “She used lots of muscles picking crops. But here, she was using a different muscle: her brain.”

Despite all that takes place during Summer Bridge, Orozco has no doubt that the most rewarding part is the connections made. Bonds formed in the single summer often extend past undergraduate years; some alumni even attend each other’s weddings. After graduating, Summer Bridge alumni maintain these relationships through the efforts of the OASIS Alumni Council, which engages alumni and expands opportunities to support, network and mentor current Summer Bridge students. At an annual Summer Bridge event, Cultural Treasures, students are able to hear alumni speak about their Summer Bridge experiences and the doors the program opened for them. Orozco says this Summer Bridge event is one of the most valuable experiences they offer. “A lot of these students realize these alumni are just like them. They say, ‘Hey, you’re like me! If you can do it, I can do it too.”

Chair of the OASIS Alumni Council, Christopher Murphy, ERC ’04, is also a Summer Bridge alumnus. “I can definitively state that Summer Bridge was absolutely instrumental in my personal and professional growth and success,” he says. Murphy is now focusing his efforts on launching a formal alumni mentor/mentee network for current Summer Bridge students in the fall of 2016, as well as a monthly newsletter. The first newsletter highlighted Summer Bridge alumni from each decade, including alumna Lydia Zendejas, Marshall ’94.

Zendejas credits Summer Bridge for strengthening her potential and leading her to her dream career as an academic advisor at UC Santa Cruz. “My first year in college was the toughest,” Zendejas says. “I experienced all the usual transitions and self-doubt of a first-generation college student. If it hadn’t been for the relationships I built with my mentors, peers and OASIS staff I may have left UCSD my first year.

“I have a vivid memory where Agustin, a.k.a. Augie, was trying to convince me to attend a leadership workshop. I said to him, ‘I’m not a leader’ and he replied ‘What? Yes you certainly are a leader’. It was motivation and support like his that gave me that extra boost in self-confidence to finish my first year and ultimately, college.”

Zendejas now coordinates her own summer bridge program for incoming underrepresented engineering students at UC Santa Cruz. “I love my work and feel honored to pay it forward,” Zendejas adds, exemplifying the exponential benefits Summer Bridge can make in a life and the lives of others. Leaders carry the impact of the program wherever they go, so while the program is only one year long, the sense of success and community lasts a lifetime.