“It was the highlight of my summer,” exclaimed Estefy Hernandez (‘21), eyes alight with excitement as she talked about the summer program where she worked for six weeks. It isn’t your ordinary summer camp; the BRIDGE program allows students to work “amidst diversity and different thinking, different backgrounds,” Hernandez told the Record. “It made me more open to think.” The ability to think critically and to open one’s perspective to different life experiences are two main goals of the BRIDGE program.
The BRIDGE program, which stands for Building Roads to Intellectual Diversity and Great Education, is a pre-college program that provides academic, spiritual and leadership training for academically excellent, first-generation college-bound, low-income and minority high school students. It is a free, two-year program located at Wheaton College that allows a select number of students from the Chicagoland area to experience life for a month each summer in a residential, private academic institution.
The idea for the BRIDGE program was first conceived by then EVP of Community Diversity, Veronica Ponce (‘08). She had participated in a similar pre-collegesummer course at Stanford when she was in high school, and she decided to propose the idea to Wheaton’s Student Government board in February 2006. In a 2007 Record article about the emerging program that was implemented in 2009, Ponce talked about her inspiration for the initiative, saying that “almost all California state colleges and private schools have some kind of summer program … the idea seemed normal to me.”
Wheaton already had a pre-college, science-based program in the 1990s called Project S.O.A.R, but it was funded by the Hughes Medical Foundation, which prohibited Wheaton College from attaching a specific Christian significance to the curriculum. Project S.O.A.R. was also unsuccessful in its attempt to recruit low-income students to Wheaton College. Then-Provost Stan Jones summed up Project S.O.A.R. in the 2007 Record article: “It did not help us advance our progress in the area of diversity on campus.” Unlike Project S.O.A.R., BRIDGE was a source of much excitement for Jones and the Wheaton Admissions Department who hoped that the program would allow more interaction between urban communities and Wheaton’s campus.
The purposes of the program, stated in the 2005-06 proposal document, were to prepare Christian, urban high school students from low-income areas for college, to positively affect the partnering communities through outreach projects created by students and to increase cultural and economic diversity through recruitment. Doing so would “help Wheaton College better represent the diversity of the Church.”
The application process is rigorous; former BRIDGE student Valeria Pineda (‘18) told the Record in an email exchange that the first application step involves an essay, numerous recommendations from teachers and pastors and a high school transcript. Students who are selected for the next application step must prepare a community outreach presentation, group interview and individual interview.
Each year, around 20 students are admitted into the program and become part of the BRIDGE family. These students enter the BRIDGE program during the summer of their sophomore year in high school and complete the program in two summers. In their first year, students take four individual, week-long classes. This past summer, the courses offered were Coalition Politics and the Rhetoric of Rap with Dr. Theon Hill, Chemistry with Dr. Angela McKoy and School and Society with Dr. Mark Jonas.
Additionally, they take a writing course, taught by Dr. Alison Gibson, who told the Record in an email that she “designed it as a course that would support and prepare them for the writing assignments that were assigned in the discipline-specific weekly courses.”
These classes help the high school sophomores learn time management and how to function well with a rapidly moving, intensive course load.
During their second summer, students take a month-long Sociology class with Dr. Kim, a Wheaton professor in the sociology department. Two assessments, a group paper and a presentation of that paper are all requirements of the advanced Sociology class.
They are also able to take a professional development class that helps them create and present a community outreach project. If they complete the full program, they receive a minimum of 6,000 dollars in scholarships to Wheaton College, which provides many of the students with the chance to attend college.
Pineda, who was a student in the program from 2012-13, added that the BRIDGE courses alsohelped her with the process of applying to colleges. “As a first-generation college student,” she told the Record, “the BRIDGE program guided me throughout the college application process and throughout my years at Wheaton.
They provided workshops to complete FAFSA, provided insight and help with financial aid … revised our college application essays.” Without the BRIDGE program, Pineda says, she would most likely have never attended a four-year private college as a freshman.
Ultimately, Pineda returned to the program as a mentor and teaching assistant (TA) in the summers of 2017 and 2018. There are three different areas of leadership in which college students and other leaders can be involved: residence life, teaching assistance and coordination of a part of the program, such as spiritual life coordination.
She told the Record that her favorite part of her time in BRIDGE was how all the participants became a family.
“My closest friends are BRIDGE who I did the program with, and my mentors were former staff,” she stated.
“The BRIDGE program creates a space in which we can be vulnerable, accepted and cared for.” As a student TA who had gone through the program herself and stood in the students’ shoes, she felt immense pride as her second year students presented their papers for Dr. Kim’s sociology class. She described herself as “extremely privileged to be there alongside them as they worked on their papers.”
However, not every student leader has had experience as a student participant in the BRIDGE program. Estefy Hernandez (‘21) heard about the program from a friend during her freshman year at Wheaton College. She decided to join as a residential assistant (RA) and spiritual life coordinator for the first-year students. This involved going to their classeswith them, reading their materials for homework assistance and mentoring a group of four girls.
She told the Record that she learned from the classes just as much as the students, especially one entitled “Coalition Politics.” “I learned that systemic racism is still something that exists today and something that we need to work on. There are still people being oppressed by discrimination and by poverty,” she said, passionate in sharing her newfound discoveries.
“It was very eye-opening to see how fortunate we are and how that’s not fair for other people that are just born into a system where they are immediately looked down upon.” Coalition
Politics helps students learn that they have a voice and that they are the mouthpieces for their underrepresented or overlooked communities, and Hernandez credited this class with allowing her to realize that she had a choice to speak out for these communities as well.
In addition to her role as a student counselor, Hernandez was in charge of coordinating devotionals and weekly worship nights and sermons, which contributed to the spiritual dimension of the program.
She mentioned that a specific group time called “community building” was key to helping the students feel accepted and allowing them to grow together as a spiritual family. “There was so much diversity, so much uniqueness, so much difference, but we grew from that,” she told the Record emphatically. “There was something really special we did and that was listen. Not everyone takes the time to do that. And so that was a time that we specifically set apart to listen to each other where the students, for the first time some of them, were able to be heard.”
Although the students come from all kinds of backgrounds, incomes and ethnicities, they can bond in the shared experience of being empowered, perhaps for the first time.
Even so, BRIDGE students that attend Wheaton after completing the program do experience difficulties that no amount of empowerment at BRIDGE can remedy.
Jenny Soberanis Arreola (‘19) mentioned that for her as a Latinx woman, it was hard for her once she transitioned into Wheaton. She noted that “BRIDGE” was a great stepping stool, for lack of a better word, into Wheaton culture specifically.”
Yet while she was prepared academically, spiritually and professionally she still becomes frustrated with the lack of Latinx representation at Wheaton. “For BRIDGE,” she told the Record in an email exchange, “there seemed to be a lot of Latinx representation, but at Wheaton anything that has to with race seems to be literally and figuratively black and white, which is a step in the direction, but often times it seems like it’s a ‘one and done’ step.”
According to Gibson, the interaction between BRIDGE high school students and Wheaton College students during each summer goes a long way to promote diversity at Wheaton. “The program shows the BRIDGE students that Wheaton College, though majority white in its student body, is committed to supporting students who are racial minorities,” she noted.
Wheaton College students often serve as the RAs and TAs for the summer courses, and the BRIDGE students get to see the diversity of race, gender and class that is present at Wheaton. The faculty that teach the courses at BRIDGE are also a resource for BRIDGE students who decide to attend Wheaton.
The true mission of the BRIDGE program is to empower students with the chance to grow in confidence, intellectual experience, professional skills, time management tools and spiritual engagement. The BRIDGE program is more than a summer tutoring session: It is a life changing time of growing in one’s own identity.
As Hernandez told the Record, with hand gestures to emphasize every word, “BRIDGE is a program that promotes diversity and promotes difference and hears your story and doesn’t force you to fit a mold but
encourages you to be you.”