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Bridges to the Baccalaureate student Cosmo Weldon from Onondaga Community College works in the lab with Professor of Chemistry C.J. Zhong.
Underrepresented students gain research skills in supportive environment
July 1, 2014Tweet
If the Bridges to the Baccalaureate Program is meant to help underrepresented students transition from community colleges to four-year baccalaureate programs in the biomedical and behavioral research arenas, Binghamton University can most assuredly claim success.
With 18 students from three partner schools – Westchester, Monroe and Onondaga community colleges – attending Binghamton this summer for five weeks of research, the number of Bridges participants over the last 15 years now totals 278. But the success is more clearly told through graduation rates.
“We have phenomenal graduation rates,” said Bridges co-director Lisa Savage, professor of psychology. Of participants in Binghamton’s program, 88 percent transfer to a four-year college. With the national graduation rate hovering around 50 percent, and Binghamton’s graduation rate for its general student population at about 72 percent, Bridges students who attend Binghamton’s program and then go to any U.S. college for their bachelor’s degree graduate at a rate of 85 percent. Of those students, the ones who transfer into Binghamton do even better – 95 percent of them graduate with a bachelor’s degree, the vast majority in a science-related field. “And these are all underrepresented kids,” Savage said.
In fact, the program is so successful that its funding was recently renewed to the tune of over a million dollars over five years. One of our renewal goals is to try to get more participants to transfer to Binghamton. ”We’re also planning a celebration in the fall,” said Di Lorenzo. “We’ve had consistent funding of millions of dollars. We’ve got med school grads and PhDs to our credit. When they come to Binghamton it’s the first time they’ve ever been away from home. We do an amazing job.”
The success of the program, said co-director and Professor of Psychology Patricia Di Lorenzo, hinges on the relationships developed by the co-directors and the 11 faculty mentors with faculty and students from the community colleges.
The majority of minority students who attend college start at a community college, said Di Lorenzo. “In this other system, they don’t have the support financially or within their family to say ‘How do you deal with transferring to a big university?’ Students from low economic status, when have a blip, their families say ‘Maybe you should come home.’”
“When our students have a glitch, we want to hear about it,” said Savage. “Here they also have a support network from other students who have been through it.
“We track them down because we don’t want to lose people or have them drift away,” Savage added. “And we also have the Bridges study room as a resource for them – that’s a critical aspect for them. There are two computers and the room is stocked with textbooks. There is a sense of community.”
“We use that room for group tutoring and so it’s an intensive hands-on for these kids because they’re at risk,” said Di Lorenzo. “Obviously the numbers show that we do an excellent job. And it really changes their lives. The summer research experience most of all.”
The research and active learning for students is one aspect of the program, as they work alongside researchers. The community-building component is what the co-directors believe is the foundation for the program’s success.
“We have such a hands-on program that is just designed for them and fosters community,” said Di Lorenzo. “We have bi-weekly lunches, and a one-credit course. We also see every student multiple times during the semester.”
“There are a lot of things we work on when we have them to ourselves,” said Di Lorenzo. “We have lunches and discussions during this course, asking them imagine what it’s like to have a life as a scientist.
“When they think of their careers, they think of nursing or working as a therapist or something they’ve come across,” Di Lorenzo added. “Some who are really bright think only of med school and can’t imagine being a scientist. But many are called and few are chosen. Most applicants don’t go to med school and still have long and happy lives. One student whose dream was a medical degree and to go back to his country to help his people, isn’t going to make it into med school, but our job is to convince him that’s okay.”
“We’re helping him find other careers where he can be effective and still deal with health issues in his home country,” said Savage. “There are so many things he could do that would help him realize his dream and our job is to have these students imagine doing something else besides their narrow view of their futures. If you fail at being pre-med, that doesn’t mean you fail at everything.”
Both research-intensive in their fields – Savage focuses on animal models of memory disorders and the neurobiology of memory and reward, and Di Lorenzo studies the neural code for taste in the brainstem and temporal coding of sensation – the co-directors are equally invested in the Bridges program. “This is something that we do. It’s not our main mission but because we really believe it in strongly as a way of giving back,” said Di Lorenzo.
“Pat and I go to the community colleges every spring to discuss the program and why students should consider it,” said Savage. “Many listen and that’s when they think about this. We sit down for questions and answer anything they want to know about it.”
“They think ‘This sounds interesting and I think I want a science degree,’” Savage said. “But they’re thinking in the short term and ‘This will tell me a little about what goes on in science beyond the classroom.’”
“There’s something in them that thinks this is an opportunity,” said Di Lorenzo. “They think, ‘I’m interested in science, do well in it and enjoy it and want to check out.’”
“When we’re there we also show pictures of people they know who are now scientists and enjoying themselves in the summer,” said Di Lorenzo. “We have a Facebook page and post pictures, and really in the last few months have really ratcheted it up. We even posted selfies at community colleges and at spring orientation did a group picture. People are joining in and we’re going to see if have the resources to do something online for kids who don’t come here to still be linked in.
“We’d like to keep them in the community without having to pay for a course, if you have an evening a month where there is a chat room or something,” Di Lorenzo added. “We’re trying to create new ways to connect people who have been part of the program, and even others who haven’t, trying to increase populations in the biomedical sciences.”
Selection of the students for the program starts with numbers. “They have to have good grades and have taken some science already,” said Di Lorenzo, “but the most important part is an essay. Why are they interested? We read those. We rely heavily on our community college partners to screen the applications and make recommendations, and for the first time this year had to reject students because we had so many applications.”
In addition to the connections made with student participants, and the research experiences they leave with, the Bridges program works with faculty from the community colleges from the start, holding workshops on different topics each year. “Our community college partners announce the workshops to their faculty and any who wants to come does,” said Savage, with about 14 to 18 faculty attending each year.
“We rotate the workshops every year and try to find something new,” Savage added. “This year we decided to do something different by bringing in external people, so this year’s workshop will be by a Binghamton alum whose passion is undergraduate laboratory development in neuroscience, Raddy Ramos.”
Ramos, who worked with Savage as an undergraduate at Binghamton, went on to earn his PhD at the University of Connecticut and is now on the faculty at New York Institute for Technology. He and his wife, Phoebe Smith, an associate professor of math and natural sciences at Suffolk County Community College, co-presented “Neuroscience Education at the community college level” on June 26, and the students presented their work in a poster session on the final day of the Bridges program – June 27.
With assistance from the program and the Harpur Dean’s Office, all of the parents come to the poster session,” said Savage. In fact, Di Lorenzo likens the day to a red carpet event. “They’re like movie stars,” she said. “They get all dressed up and are very proud.”
For the majority of the students, the poster session means the end of their Bridges experience, but about 25 percent of them will stay on for an additional three weeks to work with their mentors. “Those are the kids who are really into it,” said Savage. “They get a taste for research so we extend it for kids whose family and academic schedules fit that. Some of them didn’t process the idea of wanting to stay and then they’re here and realized they want to stay.”