San Marcos,
07:30 AM

Building Bridges Leads to Student Success

By Eric Breier

Denise Garcia can remember a time when she had to work to get faculty to participate in an open house for the North San Diego County Bridges to the Future Program.

But, as a recent open house showed, those days are long in the past.

Nearly two dozen Cal State San Marcos faculty members participated in this year’s annual Bridges Open House, which gave students from MiraCosta College and Palomar College an opportunity to tour labs and speak with professors.

Garcia is the principal investigator and biology professor Tracey Brown is the project director on the Bridges grant, which is a partnership between CSUSM, Palomar and MiraCosta. Funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, the program helps prepare underrepresented students for a seamless transition to a four-year university and a career in biomedical sciences.

There are Bridges programs throughout the country, but CSUSM’s is unique in that it is year round compared to the shorter summer stints that many other programs offer.

“We think getting students here several times a semester helps integrate them into a four-year institution and understand the culture and how things are done,” said Garcia, who is the associate dean for the College of Education, Health and Human Services.

The grant provides funding for 20 students – 10 from Palomar and 10 from MiraCosta – who each receive a stipend. Students meet with their site coordinators – Jim Gilardi at Palomar and Suzie Bailey at MiraCosta – every other Friday and participate in a variety of activities and seminars throughout the year.

Many will attend the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in Tampa, Fla., this month. The conference is an opportunity to learn more about science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, and also offers sessions devoted to writing resumes, polishing interview skills and applying to graduate school.

“There’s probably 1,000 graduate school recruiters there,” Garcia said. “It’s like a Costco warehouse of graduate schools. It’s amazing for the students. And it’s all underrepresented minority science students there, so they’re seeing individuals like themselves. It becomes a great support system.”

CSUSM’s Bridges program has enjoyed tremendous success with about 98 percent of participants transferring to a four-year university and about 75 percent of those students transferring to CSUSM.

Garcia and Brown said the Office for Training, Research and Education in the Sciences (OTRES), including staff members Rita Cooper and Celia Martinez, is instrumental in assisting with the logistics of the program and coordinating with Palomar and MiraCosta.

Many Bridges participants eventually move on to CSUSM’s programs for Maximizing Access to Research Careers-Undergraduate Student Training Research (MARC U*STAR) and Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE), which help “bridge” students to doctoral studies.

Garcia and Brown said their biggest challenge is helping the families of Bridges students understand the value of the program.

“It’s not just a challenge for our grant, but all sorts of grants,” Brown said. “A lot of participants are first-generation students, and they’re all underrepresented minorities. Even if the student themselves understand the benefits of graduate school and Ph.D.s or even bachelor’s degrees and how that will help them in their lifetime, the families, which is their support, don’t always understand it.”

Said Garcia: “They’re all very motivated and they’re all great kids. They just have outside commitments and pressures that we have to navigate very sensitively.”

The Bridges grant runs over a five-year cycle, and Brown said they are looking for ways to incorporate the families into the program for the next funding cycle. One idea is to hold an open house for the families of Bridges students.

The student open house has certainly been a big hit. Not only has it gained widespread popularity among CSUSM faculty, but it has shown students the research and lab opportunities available to them. It also allows students to connect with peers who have been through the program.

“Their peers say, ‘I was you two years ago. Look where I am now,’ ” Brown said. “They see that and it makes it more tangible for them.”

The program has had 11 students go on to complete their Ph.D. with another 13 enrolled in a Ph.D. program. It has also seen 24 students earn their master’s.

“The statistics show that it has been a huge success,” said Garcia, who was a first-generation college student herself. “We’re looking to write more grants to hopefully scale it up for students in other academic areas. The success is amazing.”