Building BRIDGES for underrepresented scholarship students


Image via University of Pittsburgh

The Pitt BRIDGES program connects scholarship recipients from underrepresented minority groups to the Pitt community.

By Martha Layne, For The Pitt News

When Andre Sydnor arrived on campus as a first-year, he didn’t see many other students that looked like him.

In fall 2017, 72.6% of the Pitt undergraduate population was white. But through the pre-orientation retreat BRIDGES, a mentorship program connecting underrepresented minority scholarship recipients with each other, Sydnor was able to feel a part of “a community within a community” at Pitt.

“Pitt is a huge school, but it’s sort of about, how can you find your people? How can you find the people that you want to be spending your time with?” Sydnor said. “And BRIDGES sort of helped me navigate some of that.”

Now a junior studying neuroscience and political science, Sydnor spends his time mentoring first-year students who go through the same emotions and experiences that he did.

The BRIDGES program invites students to the exclusive group via email and mail after they receive notice of their University scholarship. According to its website, the program works to “Build Relationships” between students, “Inspire Diversity” and “Generate Excellence in Scholarship.”

Pitt’s class of 2023 is one of the most diverse classes in the University’s history, with students coming from a variety of homes, cultures and backgrounds. Taking this diversity into account, BRIDGES aims to ensure that every student feels comfortable and has all of the resources that they need to succeed.

Perrin Jackson, the coordinator of the BRIDGES program, said in an email that Pitt created this program because research shows that a network of peers increases retention and graduation rates, as well as helps students feel more comfortable.

“The BRIDGES program helps our students create this network and connect them to meaningful experiences and relationships that can positively impact their Pitt experience and help them achieve their collegiate goals,” Jackson said.

First-year students have the opportunity to connect with a mentor of their choice, who can answer questions and connect them to the Pitt community. This year, there are 19 peer mentors from all over the country, ranging from sophomores to seniors. Mentors provide useful information to first-years through regular Pitt Stops — meetings where students in the program can ask upperclassmen mentors questions and provide feedback about their Pitt experience. In addition to Pitt Stops, mentors also host office hours in the Gardner Steel Conference Center.

Michaela Botes, a pre-dental first-year student studying biology, came to Pitt and the BRIDGES program this year from Doylestown, but is originally from Johannesburg, South Africa. Drawing from her own personal experience in high school and college, Botes said the biggest challenge for first-years from minority communities is feeling like an outsider.

“For the most part, for most of my life, you just kind of have this feeling of being a foreigner. So I think a lot of the time, it’s small things, like jokes in your language or things of your culture, that you miss a lot,” Botes said. “Even though the other people in that program don’t necessarily understand my language or anything like that, you just automatically bond over [feeling like an outsider]. What should be a negative thing really brings people together and makes it positive.”

The program’s first event of the year is the pre-orientation retreat, held the week before Welcome Week. Students attending the retreat move into their residence halls early and have the opportunity to explore campus and familiarize themselves with the City. Over the course of the weekend, students get the chance to get to know their peers, mentors and faculty.

Kendra Plummer, a senior studying psychology and anthropology, has been a BRIDGES mentor for the past three years and said the program designs events and spaces for students to feel connected to others and keep up their studies — scholarship recipients must maintain a 3.0 GPA each semester.

“Throughout the year we have things like study sessions on Sundays from 6 to 9, which is nice to have just a reserved space [in Lawrence Hall] since it gets kind of crazy during finals season,” Plummer said. “And then we also have different game nights, different events, just so they can feel connected, but also encouraging them to keep their scholarship.”

The program also hosts events such as conversation nights, field trips around the City and service projects. Currently, the program is running a school supply and toy drive for the Pittsburgh Grandview K-5 school.

While invitations are sent out to incoming students, the program is not exclusively for first-years. All events, with the exception of Pitt Stops, are open to qualifying upperclassmen. Several mentors noted that this has been a common misconception among students, which the program is trying to debunk.

Quincy Oberg-Erickson, a junior neuroscience and French double major and a BRIDGES mentor for two years, said the program focuses on pursuing success, regardless of what kind of background students bring to Pitt.

“It’s not even necessarily about them coming in with a disadvantage,” Oberg-Erickson said. “It’s just to make sure that they have an advantage coming in because we want students with minority backgrounds to succeed.”