Vanessa Hernandez was preparing for college before she even fully understood the concept of higher education. When she was in second grade, she heard from a staff member at a local community center about a college readiness program for elementary school students and decided to apply.
“She just told me it was for me to prepare for college. I knew what college was, I knew it was higher education, but I didn’t really understand what it took to get there and how,” Hernandez said. “I was like, 'I want to go to college. I don't know what it is, but I want to.'"
She began receiving tutoring through PEOPLE Prep, the elementary school precursor to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s PEOPLE Pre-College Program for middle and high school students. In the years since, Hernandez has made her way through the PEOPLE programs and also joined AVID/TOPS, which is operated by the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County in partnership with Madison public schools to provide tutoring and college and professional resources to middle and high school students.
Hernandez, now a senior at Madison East High School, was the Boys & Girls Club’s youth of the year for 2021 and plans to attend UW-Madison in the fall. She has firsthand experience in how these programs prepare young people, especially first-generation and low-income students like herself, for college.
“The biggest thing it has provided me with is a platform to share my story and be a leader,” Hernandez said. “I have a new sense of confidence and leadership style that I’m using everyday.”
The Boys & Girls Club annually invests over $1.4 million into its college success programs, which serves a group that is between 85% to 90% students of color, low income and/or first generation. On March 15, it announced receiving an additional $750,000 through a continued partnership with American Family Insurance.
Programs like PEOPLE and AVID/TOPS are even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic, as students admitted to college now require continued support between receiving acceptance letters in the spring and enrolling in the fall. Seniors are in the thick of what Terrica Peyton, Boys & Girls Club’s manager of enrollment, calls “award letter season”: Most have decided which college feels like the best fit, but on top of logistical roadblocks and financial aid, they are also experiencing worse mental health and academic burnout than past years’ graduates.
In the University of Wisconsin System, individual campuses also offer short-term summer programs to meet campus-specific needs for admitted students. National programs last about two to eight weeks and often include housing, allowing students to adapt early to campus life and resources. But when the pandemic started last spring, System campuses transitioned many of these “bridge” programs to a virtual format, while canceling or delaying others until the fall.
To address the pandemic’s repercussions on academic success, the System will more than double the number of summer bridge students this year. The expansion is expected to cost at least $1.3 million — $100,000 per university, but with potential for additional funding based on a program’s scope, System spokesperson Mark Pitsch said.
Interim System President Tommy Thompson said in a news release March 10 that the state’s high school seniors have “demonstrated remarkable resilience” over the past year.
“As we return to a more traditional semester this fall and beyond, we need to build programs that will help all of our students find success, especially those whose academic progress was slowed by the pandemic,” Thompson said. “This expansion of our summer bridge programs will help position our universities to help students who need it over the next several years.”
Last summer, most universities conducted their regular summer bridge programs virtually and served 1,189 students System-wide. The new funding will support an additional 1,410 students, according to the release.
It is all the more urgent this year to provide individualized support to keep students on track, said Peyton, who works with nearly 200 seniors across four high schools. The pandemic forced Boys & Girls Club staff to “compete with the real world,” she said, as virtual learning and financial stressors at home made it harder to engage students and diminished aspirations for college.
“How do we communicate and continue to give them that level of support that helps them to understand that one, we’re still here; two, they’re still connected and, three, all things are possible?” Peyton said. “All the options are still on the table, and we just need to create a plan.”
UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Mark Mone welcomed participants to the System’s summer bridge summit on April 6 with a startling statistic. In a 2020 survey across nine public universities, over one-third of students reported major depression or anxiety disorders, about twice as high as in 2019: “This isn’t twice as high as a decade ago, or 20 years ago. This is a dramatic uptick.”
Anxiety and depression rates were higher among students of color and low-income, female and LGBTQ students.
“(The research) really underscores the seriousness and importance of meeting students where they are,” Mone said. “That’s one of the most critical components of summer bridge programs, to really help them in the socialization, the acclimatization, that is so necessary.”
Administrators and staff from across the System gathered to receive guidance on expanding and improving their bridge programs. Universities can apply the new funding to whatever programs they identify for expansion, Pitsch said.
For instance, UW-Milwaukee hosts specialized programs in addition to traditional summer bridge, such as its year-long, academic MKE Scholars scholarship. David Clark, vice provost for success, said the university plans to use the funding to implement a new approach with more versatility, allowing a single student to participate in multiple programs.
“At this point, we're focused on how we can best serve the student populations who could most benefit, which means balancing impactful programming ... with the flexibility students will need,” Clark said.
Summer bridge has always been just one factor in the transition from high school to college, which requires a balance of academic and social skillsets, Mone said. But in the wake of the pandemic, administrators must also consider new health and safety factors, from the logistics of masks and social distancing to resocializing students into in-person environments and encouraging vaccinations.
A year ago, high school seniors nationwide who were already adjusting to virtual learning lost access to in-person college readiness programs and internships. There was a drop in high school seniors’ completed financial aid applications and on-time enrollment, which the Boys & Girls Club hopes to address by increasing summer engagement and checking back in with last year’s graduates to promote delayed enrollment.
Hernandez and her peers were in the middle of their junior spring, when AVID/TOPS typically begins focusing on college applications with workshops on topics like essays and letters of recommendation.
“We’re so used to being in a room with other students and being able to engage and actually listen to the teacher in person,” said Hernandez, who said most of her closest friends are from the Boys & Girls Club. “The biggest struggle so far has definitely been mental health. My anxiety kind of got worse and I know other people went through depression or other issues, or just losing motivation because we didn’t really see hope.”
Nearly 70% of MMSD students, including Hernandez, will partially return to classrooms through a rotating hybrid schedule this month, and the district plans to offer in-person summer school for students entering grades K-9. The System also plans to conduct at least 75% of classes in person in the fall.
The summer will be a crucial time of transition, as schools return to a more typical bridge experience, but with the additional learning curves of post-pandemic readjustment. Bridge participants will be able to access all the resources and “the full experience” of their campuses, said Warren Anderson, the System’s senior equity, diversity and inclusion officer.
“We have a much better hold on how to navigate the pandemic,” Anderson said. “This summer is going to be one where lots of universities are getting back into the swing of things. They don’t have to worry about whether or not they have to jump right back into full academic life after COVID has caused such a disruption, but take some time to get back into normalcy.”
The University of Wisconsin-Stout anticipates that the increase in System funding will expand its Stoutward Bound bridge program’s capacity from about 40 to 60 students this year.
The program begins two weeks prior to the start of fall summer, but like many bridge programs, it follows students through their first years. They live in a multicultural living community, receive an early start in a for-credit, academic course in psychology as a “learning community” and move onto a speech course in the spring. Non-academic activities include peer mentorship with older students and workshops in notetaking, time management and leadership skills.
Housed within Multicultural Student Services, Stoutward Bound serves exclusively racial and ethnic minority students. It represents a self-selecting group of students with a wide range of backgrounds from socioeconomic status to ACT scores and hometowns, said Vickie Sanchez, student service coordinator at MSS.
Maisee Lor, a UW-Stout sophomore, works in the MSS office with Sanchez, reaching out to prospective students about the program. She participated in the program as an incoming freshman who was anxious about making new friends and navigating financial aid away from home for the first time.
“I tell them that I highly recommend Stoutward Bound because — even if you’re not too sure about Stout, or you’re nervous or not — at the end of the day you’ll always need help,” said Lor, a first-generation student. “Being on the program really helps, because you’re not the only person. … There’s other students also with you who have the same problems you’re having.”
For a program so reliant on in-person community building, the pandemic required new workarounds for the summer 2020 cohort. UW-Stout decided to host a hybrid, instead of fully virtual program, transitioning coursework onto an online platform called Canvas and gathering in smaller groups for activities.
Stoutward Bound served 30 students in 2020, down from 40 in 2019, which Sanchez said reflects both health and safety concerns and lower interest in a hybrid model.
“You’re trying to build community, and when you’re instilling social distancing protocol … that was a little more difficult,” Sanchez said. “We made our screen time a little bit more sporadic, but we do know that that’s been an issue even continuing on into the semester, that it’s just harder to engage because we’re doing things virtually.”
Students were still able to move in — on a staggered schedule — and live on campus, but much of the usual programming, such as a welcome luncheon or a group Walmart run, were absent from the schedule.
They participated in the annual student orientation in the Great Hall but moved outdoors for dinner. In place of a ropes course, they had scavenger hunts with small groups. They had game nights, but virtually. The psychology course took place in a classroom at 50% capacity, but “Navigate Canvas” and leadership classes moved online.
The program also went from two to four student mentors, which allowed them to oversee fewer freshmen in their respective small groups. Houa Yang, one of the four mentors, was unable to share with his small group the same experiences he had as a freshman.
“You can imagine the difficulties of not meeting, and doing that online is a challenge we had to overcome,” said Yang, a junior. “Some of the solutions I came up with were to keep the activities as entertaining as possible and to learn to break down barriers to create a friendly environment.”
Though increasing the number of mentors was initially for health and safety reasons, the decision ultimately allowed for more intimate connections. Sanchez said she hopes Stoutward Bound hopes to maintain the change even after the pandemic.
Stoutward Bound is currently recruiting students for 2021, which organizers hope will take place fully in-person. With the System funding, MSS director Mai Khou Xiong hopes to not only increase cohort size, but expand non-academic programming for students and hire additional staff.
“How do we engage them throughout their full time here?” Xiong said. “In the past, we focused really on that transition, so the additional funding will also allow us to expand for a longer duration of time to support the students in different ways.”
AVID/TOPS began in 2008 in a small classroom of 28 students at Madison East High School. This year, it served over 1,800 students through an ongoing partnership with the Madison Metropolitan School District, with nearly 20 staff members embedded across two middle schools, four high schools and local colleges and universities.
Seniors in the program attend a regular AVID/TOPS class period, where they receive academic and college prep support. While the class now takes place virtually, the content is largely the same: Students may work with peers on coursework or class projects during regular tutorial sessions or complete college applications and essays during the fall semester.
When the pandemic started, Hernandez was worried she would not be able to participate in any internship programs. Youth unemployment approached 25% nationally, compared to normal rates of about 8%, and Alex Gagnon, the Boys & Girls Club’s vice president of education, said it quickly became clear that employers would withhold internship opportunities.
But AVID/TOPS successfully moved many of its opportunities online throughout 2020, and Hernandez was one of over 140 students in the program to complete paid, virtual internships.
Hernandez, who plans to study psychology and one day serve minority students, worked on psychology research for her internship, presented findings to her peers and networked with professionals. She is currently participating in another youth leadership for social change program that prioritizes engagement and activism.
“Internships were one of our really key successes over the last year as we pivoted and innovated due to the pandemic,” Gagnon said. “We would provide curricula and best practices, mimic a real experience, but with immediate access that was completely safe.”
The Boys & Girls Club is widely accredited as an important feeder for minority students entering college. In March, UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank praised the organization for helping produce one of the most diverse freshman classes in school history.
Though internships will again be virtual this summer, Gagnon said some opportunities may take place in-person. College field trips were replaced with virtual panels and guest speakers, and tutors are available virtually 24/7 for real-time assistance with homework or college applications.
Low-income students and students of color in AVID/TOPS report higher cumulative GPAs and postsecondary enrollment than those who are not, according to data from an external evaluation with UW-Madison. Over the past year, the Boys & Girls Club also took steps to ensure that mentors were checking in with students.
“We would meet each Monday and go over my plan for the week. What am I going to focus on? What’s my goal and what’s one thing I need help on?” Hernandez said. “This definitely helped me transition. I didn’t feel so alone; I felt like I had support.”
During the pandemic, the Boys & Girls Club zeroed in on students in the key transition years of eighth to ninth grades, 11th to 12th grades and high school to college, Gagnon said.
In some ways, AVID/TOPS programming expanded over the past year, with virtual visitors from other cities and a wider range of resources. The pandemic “made the world a smaller place” for her students, Peyton said, but she still looks forward to being able to provide more individualized support.
“There’s a lot of magic that happens within the AVID/TOPS classrooms,” Peyton said. “We don’t take a cookie-cutter approach to supporting our students. We take more of a one-on-one approach … so when you take away that (in-person) element, it can become a lot more challenging to build those relationships.”
Beyond classroom adjustments, the Boys & Girls Club shifted its efforts over the past year to address food insecurity and other pandemic-specific concerns. It offered financial support for over 60 students who had to leave their dorms last March and created over 800 videos to address academic and extracurricular needs.
The organization plans to slowly transition into face-to-face opportunities this year, and the annual transition conference for graduating seniors will take place online in July with potential outdoor watch parties across Madison.
Campuses across the UW System are preparing for similar returns to regular summer bridge activities, not only back to in-person interaction, but to address the mental, financial and academic tolls of the pandemic. Its biggest priority is to get students physically back on campuses.
“What was very clear from President Thompson was that everyone who needed access to summer bridge programs would,” Anderson said. “By expanding access to the summer bridge programs, the students served there will be those walking up the stage in four years, because they had a program in 2021 after COVID.”
UW-Platteville’s bridge program traditionally serves about 50 students and saw a slight dip in interest last year, said Laura Franklin, executive director of diversity, equity and inclusion. With the new funding, it may reach up to 150 this summer, with the single session replaced by shorter sessions to facilitate in-person activities.
At UW-Milwaukee, the switch to virtual may have even made the program more attractive to certain students. It occurred virtually in the fall with 89 participants, in line with prior years’ attendances of 86 and 93 students, about 75% of which were students of color.
Clark, the vice provost, hopes to maintain the same priorities this year across UW-Milwaukee’s bridge programs, such as mathematics, financial literacy and introducing students to Milwaukee. Still, the increased funding is an opportunity to focus on specific disadvantages that arose during the pandemic.
“We’re looking at this as a special case that we’re hoping we can build into something that is ongoing, because we expect that students will have challenges based on the pandemic and maybe be a little behind for the next several years,” Clark said. “This is an opportunity to try out new things and develop best practices and see what works.”