The Bridge Scholars Program is adapting students to academic challenges by turning them into leaders

F or Rachel Locke, Georgia College was always at the top of her list for colleges. Graduating from a larger high school in Alpharetta, she was interested in the smaller and more intimate class sizes that GC offers. She applied to Georgia College before any other school, but by the time she’d received a letter notifying her that she’d been recommended to the Bridge Scholars Program, a summer transitional program required as a contingent of acceptance, she’d already been accepted at other institutions. “So, I’m like, I don’t know about this,” Locke said, “maybe they don’t, you know, really want me.” 

Rachel Locke and Annabelle Leister
Rachel Locke and Annabelle Leister

According to BSP Graduate Intern Jasmine Carter, this could not have been farther from the truth.

“Georgia College sees great promise in these students, and they have great potential," she said. "They just need some time to transition to what college is like.”

Many incoming students that GC is interested in, but who haven’t quite met the testing or GPA requirement, still have a shot through this intensive five-week summer course, in which around 130 students occupy the West Campus housing complex, Village 6, and go through a rigorous academic summer schedule with robust programming that focuses on academic success, diversity and inclusion, community building, and wellness. BSP Coordinator Dr. Hali Sofala-Jones added, “Bridge is actually a year-long residential learning community. The summer program is a big part of it, but we are unique in the country in that we have three dedicated semesters of support for Scholars. We also are a Residential Learning Community (RLC), which is a big deal because it shows our commitment to building a supportive community for Scholars to thrive.”

Bridge Scholars Program Video

Locke decided she would give it a shot, “Oh, but then the pandemic hits,” Locke said, “So now I don’t even know if Bridge is happening.”

This was the summer of 2020, when the Coronavirus pandemic was at its height and the uncertainty of the fall semester loomed large. Bridge students did live on campus, but with strict social distancing and courses mainly taught virtually. This summer, Locke decided to come back and be a Peer Mentor, as Bridge students often do because the five-week program draws them so closely together. That’s where she met Ellie Smith, an incoming mass communication major, and one of the students of the 2021 class of Bridge Scholars.

Smith went through a competitive interview process to become part of the BSP from Parkview High School in Lilburn, GA, a town much smaller than Milledgeville where she was coming to live away from home for the first time.

“It’s a lot of work,” Smith said, “because you’re doing a week’s worth of work in a day, so you have a week’s worth of homework you have to finish outside of class.”

“Even from a staff perspective, I still have close relationships with the students, and I live in the building so we grow close together, we know each other, we see each other in the halls, and we see the same faces every day. We lean on each other. We’re there for each other, and we have fun with each other. It’s like we’re in our own little world.”
– Jasmine Carter

The intensified course instruction is key to not only preparing students for the fall, but for building a well-bonded community in such a short period of time.

“Even from a staff perspective, I still have close relationships with the students,” said Jasmine Carter, who taught the Student Success course this summer, “and I live in the building so we grow close together, we know each other, we see each other in the halls, and we see the same faces every day."

"We lean on each other. We’re there for each other, and we have fun with each other. It’s like we’re in our own little world,” Carter said.

In addition to a student success course that runs Bridge Scholars through the gamut of strategies for taking notes, tests, and organizing their time, other courses can include Economics, Philosophy, Art, or any number of core classes featuring some of the best faculty on campus.

“I was surprised at how rigorous the classes could be,” said Locke, “It was a bit more intense than I thought. Of course, it makes sense that it would be challenging because it’s also somewhat of a last chance, you know? If you don’t pass, you don’t get in. But even then, it still shocked me.”

Dr. Hali Sofala Jones and her student leaders
Dr. Hali Sofala Jones and her student leaders

In addition to course work, the on-site staff and faculty hold around 12 social events that are all optional for the students so long as they attend at least four of their choosing.

“We have a program called ‘Sex and Chocolate’, which is a favorite for the students because they learn about sexual health, but they also get chocolate. We also had the big ‘Summer Splash’, where we had a water obstacle course and water slides,” said Carter.

This year, BSP also hosted outdoor parties, a talent show, trivia and painting parties, among several other events to keep students engaged outside of academic hours.

“It’s definitely not like camp,” said Smith, “this is the first time where you have to go out and buy your own groceries. You have to make sure you’re on top of your own schedule. You’re really in charge of your own life at this point. I’ve learned a lot about self-discipline, which has really helped. Living on your own definitely has some struggles you have to work through, but it also comes with a lot of plus sides, I’ve found out.”

Carter, who is getting her Masters of Higher Education and Student Affairs from the University of South Carolina, said that Georgia College’s Bridge Program is unique because it doesn’t require its students to attend Bridge courses alongside normal academic programming over the school year, which can be isolating for some students. Instead, the program runs from mid-June to mid-July and the BSP students who return for the fall semester come fully acclimatized to the college lifestyle.

“Bridge students go on to become Community Advisors. They go on to become orientation leaders. They go on to have on-campus jobs and get involved in organizations being top leaders in those organizations,” Carter said, “They go on to do those successful things that any traditional first-year student can go on to be, but they have those skills built initially in the Bridge Scholars Program that resonates with them and translates into further involvement. We already have rockstar students now that I can see becoming great leaders for Georgia College.”

Students like Ellie Smith and Rachel Locke, who are already demonstrating a set of fundamental values taken from their time within the BSP.

Jess Butler, an accounting major, who has served as Community Advisor for the Bridge Program for two consecutive years, is now the president of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Incorporated and has served as the Secretary for the Black Student Alliance on campus as well as an RSA before becoming a BSP Community Advisor.

“The GC1Y class, ‘Into the Wilderness’, most definitely helped me understand the aspects of being a leader,” Butler said, “Also the Student Success course on how to be successful in college helped me make a roadmap for how to navigate college for the next four years.”

During the summer, the college is not as empty as you’d think. All of the extracurriculars and academics and parties and student/ professor conferences are still chugging forward at lightning speed within the complex of Village 6.

“Because this is such a rigorous summer, students build time management skills, they build determination skills, and they have more grit,” said Carter, “They have more persistence than typical first-year students coming in because they’ve already built those things. That’s what the Bridge Scholars Program does.”