Building Bridges

Before pre-orientation even starts, the Bridge to Liberal Arts Success at Tufts (BLAST) and Bridge to Engineering Success at Tufts (BEST) freshmen have learned their way around campus, taken two classes, and made a whole cohort of new friends.

“Without this summer I would have been completely lost,” said freshman Anna Rodriguez, a BLAST student.

Both programs are free and geared toward first-generation college students or those who may need more support in their transition to college. This typically means low-income students who attended underserved high schools. They live on campus from the last week of June through the first week of August and take two classes to prepare them for college academics. BLAST students take European History and either Biology or Math, and BEST students take Physics and Math, which are common prerequisites that help students adjust to the caliber of work expected at Tufts.

Freshman Adrian Portela, who is in BEST, said he appreciated the chance to adjust to a college routine. “It was very eye-opening to what college is going to be like. It was very helpful because even though the scheduling isn’t the same [during the year], we were able to gauge how difficult college courses were going to be and take two of the harder courses that we’re going to have to take within freshman and sophomore year and get them out of the way,” Potela said.

In addition to coursework, the programs focus on introducing students to resources like the Career Center, Financial Aid, and the Academic Resource Center as well as building a community of support for the next four years. “You find out about resources that are open to all students but [that] not all students know about because they don’t know how to look,”Rodriguez said. By the time the summer is over, BLAST and BEST students know how to navigate the many new facets of college life.

Throughout the year, students participate in mentoring and tutoring. They also have access to an enrichment fund to help them purchase things like software or plane tickets for study abroad. The amount varies slightly year to year, and the money is reserved for expenses outside of books that are necessary to participate fully in academics.

Associate Dean Robert Mack, the BLAST Director, summed up the program, saying,  “I think most of what we focus on with BLAST and the reason why we have it is about cultural capital. It’s about transitioning to university and giving students the opportunity to feel like they have a space, someone to go to if they have questions, resources they’re not going to have if they’re at home,” Mack said. “That’s why we are so involved in our students’ lives, because we serve as part of that process.”

Mack and his BEST counterpart, Dr. Kristen Finch, become important mentors for the students in their programs. This means helping students with everything from renting off-campus housing to filing taxes. “I think being able to have a go-to person has been really beneficial for the students. Even if I can’t answer the question, they know that we can look up or direct them to the way to get to the answer. We have their back, and support them whether it’s academically or socially, I think we do a really good job,” Finch said.

Students in the program are there to support one another as well. “BLAST brings people from all around, but you also meet people you can relate to,” Rodriguez said.

To pick students for the program, Mack and Finch work with the admissions office to find students that are qualified in terms of SAT and ACT scores, but who are first generation college students or whose high schools did not offer AP classes. For BLAST specifically, students must be part of a high school-to-college bridge program like QuestBridge, which is designed to help low-income students prepare for and apply to competitive institutions.

“What we really look at are…the students who maybe in their essays, or when they talk about their personal lives or their backgrounds, are really identifying that they may come to this university and benefit from a community of direct support right away,” Mack said.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the program is that students’ acceptance to Tufts is contingent on their participation in BLAST or BEST. Some see this as implying that the students are admitted under the assumption that they are unprepared and must catch up to be ready to be a Tufts student. They argue that because many of the participants are students of color, this further contributes to the racial and socioeconomic divides at the university.

For many BLAST and BEST students, however, the offer swayed them toward Tufts. “I was a little nervous, but BLAST ended up being the reason I chose Tufts,” Rodriguez said. “It was in competition with Boston University and Northeastern, but BLAST made it the winning school.”

There are 26 students in the BLAST cohort this year and 13 in BEST, which is over 50 percent of the first generation students in the Engineering Department. Both programs have had 100 percent retention rates and the entire first graduating class from BEST is currently employed. People are still left out, however, and part of the challenge for Tufts is finding ways to support all of its low-income or first-generation students. Finch emphasizes the importance of the Center for STEM Diversity, which offers its programs to anyone interested in STEM and meets with students from all backgrounds.

Ruben Stern, the Director of the Latino Center, has worked with many BLAST and BEST students. He wants to make sure that students are able to integrate into Tufts beyond the programs. This means making sure that they are not isolated as well as expanding the discussion about class on campus, something he feels would benefit all first-generation students.

“People from different class backgrounds have a very difficult time communicating and trusting each other. My concern around that is what are we doing for the rest of the university to prepare them to deal with these differences? I know that there are a lot of students of color doing a lot of work around identity, social justice and race, and there are a number of white students and privileged students who are doing that, but I know there are a lot of other students who are not engaged in that,” Stern said. “This kind of stuff shouldn’t be for only a few students.”

BEST and BLAST have grown quickly since they were founded in 2010 and 2012 respectively. Mack and Finch hope to see this trend continue, along with the success of their students, making the program an example for other institutions to follow and hopefully proving that Tufts can support its low-income and first-generation students.

Art by Sarah Kotis.

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