Reflections from the bridge: a conversation with Overtoun Jenda in celebration of the Summer Bridge Program’s 25th anniversary
This year, the College of Sciences and Mathematics, or COSAM, enthusiastically celebrates the 25th anniversary of its Summer Bridge Program–a four-week, summer program housed in COSAM’s Office of Inclusion, Equity and Diversity that assists incoming freshmen from historically underrepresented groups majoring in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields with academic preparedness and social support to excel within the academic rigor of the COSAM curriculum.
The success and longevity of the Summer Bridge Program can be attributed to COSAM’s diversity efforts and goals–as the nation has moved toward creating a more robust STEM workforce, COSAM’s student population should reflect the diverse demographics of our state and country, and students should be provided tools to succeed in STEM during their time at Auburn and beyond. The goals remain the same as they were in 1997 when Professor Overtoun Jenda started the first Summer Bridge Program with thirty-five incoming freshmen.
Jenda, Auburn University’s assistant provost for special projects and initiatives, came to COSAM in 1988 as a professor of mathematics. As the only Black faculty member in the department, many historically underrepresented students would stop by his office for mentoring and advising, and as word of mouth spread, he often advised upwards of 40 students.
Because of this experience, in 1994, Professor Larry Wit asked him to lead a federally funded grant program at Auburn, the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, or LSAMP. LSAMP began with ten students and provided scholarship funds to increase the number of traditionally underrepresented individuals pursuing STEM.
Following the success of LSAMP, Jenda submitted a proposal and received funding for graduate students to provide tutoring to undergraduates taking entry-level courses in mathematics, chemistry and physics, and in 1994, this effort was formalized into COSAM’s Drop-In Center.
Through the drop-in center, Jenda observed that although students were highly talented, some struggled with the transition to college after coming from underserved high schools. In 1997, with the support of Wit and Stewart Schneller, who was dean of COSAM at the time, Jenda created the first Summer Bridge Program and ran the program until 2006, when he became Auburn’s chief diversity officer.
“Dean Schneller had a wonderful leadership philosophy,” recalled Jenda. “When the Summer Bridge Program started, he told me to focus on recruiting high school students and leading the program and that he would take care of the funding.”
In addition to research and teaching duties, Jenda spent his time traveling to high schools across Alabama, visiting with counselors and recruiting students for the new program.
The goal of the program was to give students a head start on their college experience by emphasizing academic preparedness, time management skills and providing a trial run at math and science courses, career awareness activities and networking opportunities.
Some of the hurdles of the newly established program included finding the best structure, learning how to mentor students at varying academic levels and adapting to unexpected changes. During one of the first programs, all campus cafeterias closed one weekend, so Jenda said they switched gears and prepared homemade food for the students.
At the first Summer Bridge graduation ceremony, Jenda recalled that students not only invited their parents, but their entire families showed up in celebration, and they soon ran out of space and chairs. He observed that Schneller, with a huge smile on his face, saw this as a wonderful problem to have, recognizing that families were just as enthusiastic about the program as the students.
“Dean Schneller’s passion for the program was so evident, and the best part of my time at the university was spent working for him,” said Jenda. “Working together, it was amazing the things we were able to do for historically underrepresented students.”
Throughout his tenure leading the program, Jenda observed it grow in size and scope, noting that after the first four years, it was clear the program would continue as participant numbers increased. They began reaching out to corporations to help sponsor program activities. With a common goal to fulfill the needs of many students, Schneller and William Walker, former dean of the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering who later served as provost and president of Auburn University, worked together in support of the College of Engineering establishing its own Summer Bridge Program. Both colleges now combine Summer Bridge into one, four-week program, yet participants complete different activities based on students’ majors.
For Jenda, the most memorable parts of the program have been the opportunities to talk with parents and listen to students give personal testimonies at Summer Bridge graduation ceremonies each year.
Jenda has seen the goals of the program come to fruition, as students who were involved in the Drop-In Center or graduated from Summer Bridge are now making contributions to STEM fields–a full-circle moment showing the program has created educational pathways to STEM careers that have impacted the workforce.
“James Goosby attended community college and later transferred to Auburn as a junior engineering student,” said Jenda. “He came to the Drop-In Center and later served as a counselor at Summer Bridge. James is director of business technology planning and strategic initiatives for Southern Company Services and has remained in touch over the years, even serving as one of our advisory board members.”
There are numerous others from the program making workforce impacts–like Kelly Taylor Young, who has worked for the CDC and now a manager at Tennessee Valley Authority, and Kristalyn Scott Lee, vice president for administration and liaison to the Board of Trustees at the University of Montevallo.
In addition, these graduates have a willingness to give back and remain involved with Auburn’s diversity efforts.
“Many who were involved with the drop-in center or Summer Bridge Program remain active in supporting the university,” said Jenda. “Through the program, they were familiar with Auburn’s campus as they began their freshmen year, so they became natural leaders on campus. Now, they help us with alumni engagement and want to help spread the word that Auburn has programs to help students succeed.”
Jenda has observed that over the past 25 years, programs like Summer Bridge have created the biggest impact on student retention and GPA–creating institutional transformation in terms of raising student expectations and demonstrating student success.
“When the drop-in center started, Auburn students were asked to maintain a 3.0 GPA for a tuition waiver,” said Jenda. “However, the expectation for historically underrepresented students to obtain a tuition waiver was to maintain a 2.2 GPA. The establishment of the drop-in center and the Summer Bridge Program changed those expectations and showed that historically underrepresented students can come in, succeed and increase their GPA.”
Jenda has also observed an increase in the number of Black students coming to Auburn, stating that institutionally transformative programs like Summer Bridge and the Minority Engineering Program that came out of the establishment of the drop-in center were helpful in increasing enrollment numbers.
Moving forward, Jenda would love to see Summer Bridge double in participant numbers, and he is ready to help where needed. The announcement of the newly-created Institute for Strengthening Pathways and Research Knowledge in STEM, or the SPARK STEM Institute, presents an opportunity for Jenda’s office to become more engaged with school systems to help recruit historically underrepresented students.
In 2020, Jenda received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring, recognizing those who have made significant contributions to mentoring and thereby, support the future productivity of the nation’s STEM workforce.
Upon receiving the award, Jenda remarked, “For me, mentoring provides immediate rewards because at the end of each day, I can go home and say, ‘I made a different in someone’s life today.’”
The sustained success and life-changing impact of the Summer Bridge Program can be traced back to Jenda’s mentoring philosophy, along with ongoing support of COSAM leadership, collaborative efforts with other colleges, high schools and organizations and the involvement of program alumni wanting to share their success stories and give back to Auburn.
The 25th anniversary of the program marks an exciting time to contemplate its history and importance, while celebrating its continued trajectory to transformative success by equipping the next generation of STEM leaders to positively impact our nation’s workforce.
In recognition of this momentous occasion, COSAM will host events throughout the 2022-23 academic year. Additionally, there is an initiative to raise $1 million dollars. These funds will be used by the COSAM Office of Inclusion, Equity, and Diversity to support initiatives such as creating an endowed professorship, providing study abroad opportunities, and expanding scholarship availability for deserving students. To learn more about the celebration and to donate, please visit the 25th Anniversary website.
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