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A program started in the 1970s to help Black students adjust to life at the University of Michigan — a predominately white institution — has become increasingly white itself in recent years.
The Summer Bridge Scholars Program grew out of Black student activism at the University and was created for Black students. But in recent years, white students made up the largest portion of the program’s participants, according to Kierra Trotter, director of the Comprehensive Studies Program.
To Black students like LSA sophomore Rhianna Womack, a Bridge participant in 2019, the changing demographics of the program are disheartening.
“Having something made for you because of all of the historical … discrimination, but then seeing that one thing being taken away or being limited, it’s pretty messed up,” Womack said. “It’s something that a lot of white students even don’t understand.”
Established in 1975, the Bridge program emerged from the efforts of Black student activists in the 1960s and 1970s. Students held protests demanding that the University increase Black student enrollment to 10 percent — a goal that administration never achieved.
As a result of these and other protests, Black faculty fought for the creation of programs like the Comprehensive Studies Program and Bridge that focused on Black students’ education and transition into the University. The programs were initially created “to give students—primarily in-state minority students from inner-city high schools—an opportunity to attend the University of Michigan during the summer to achieve a solid academic foundation for success in the fall term.”
State law prohibits colleges from taking race into account in the admissions process. Michigan voters approved Proposal 2 in 2006, which prevents state entities, including the University, from giving individuals “preferential treatment” based on their “race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin.” The United States Sixth Court of Appeals later overturned the proposal, but in April 2014, the appeal’s court ruling was reversed and the U.S. Supreme Court determined the law was constitutional.
Though the University was prohibited from considering race and ethnicity when accepting students into CSP following the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the proposal, Black students still made up the largest proportion of Bridge students. But for unclear reasons, in 2018, the demographics shifted, marking the first year white students made up the largest racial group in the program.
As the program becomes increasingly white, some are calling out the demographic shift on social media. In a post on @blackatmichigan, an Instagram page that posts submissions from Black students, alumni, faculty and staff at the University, “a fed up Bridge kid” said they were angered by the falling percentage of Black students in Bridge.
Changing Demographics in the Comprehensive Studies Program
The University’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions places selected applicants into one of two CSP programs over the summer: the CSP Summer Program or the Summer Bridge Scholars Program. The two programs have moderately different requirements, but “the intent behind both is the same,” according to Trotter. In 2020, there were 310 people total between the two programs, according to the University’s Office of Public Affairs.
According to Public Affairs, Bridge was composed of 47.4 percent African American students and 18.7 percent white students in 2016. Those demographics changed to 21.6 percent African American and 39.8 percent white in 2019. White students made up the largest racial group in Bridge that year.
CSP combined Bridge and CSP Summer in 2020 due to COVID-19, Trotter said. This summer in the combined programs, Black students made up 27.3 percent of students and white students made up 36.7 percent, once again making white students the largest racial group in CSP.
According to Trotter, first-time, first-year students and transfer students are eligible to be admitted into the program. Students told The Daily the University said the program was mandatory in order for them to attend the school in the fall. If students are not initially admitted into the program by OUA, they can also apply for CSP affiliation later on, according to Trotter.
Erica Sanders, director of undergraduate admissions, said her office does not consider race and gender in the application review process for CSP, in compliance with Michigan state law.
According to Sanders, the department looks at the entirety of a student’s application and considers many aspects of their background to determine if they should be in CSP.
“Information shared in the student’s application materials indicated the program would provide a positive impact on her transition to the University of Michigan campus community,” Sanders said.
Art & Design sophomore Nicholos Daniel, who participated in CSP Summer in 2019, said the University must begin changing whom it accepts into the program.
“They need to reevaluate who gets admitted to the Bridge program and who doesn't get admitted,” Daniel said. “This program is made for minority Black students. So to see majority white students attending the programs made for Black students, that’s an issue within itself that needs to be addressed.”
Some Black students said they felt less comfortable in the program as the number of white students has overtaken that of Black students. Womack said she found herself changing her behaviors because she was afraid of being judged by her white peers.
“Even just picking out what you eat, you don’t want to relate to any stereotypes,” Womack said. “That’s something that I shouldn’t have had to do, but it’s definitely something that’s always on my mind. Just noticing who’s around me, what they might be thinking, definitely because of my race and just how I wore my hair, just lots of things.”
Inside the Bridge and CSP Summer Experience
Many Black students said they felt CSP benefitted them both academically and socially. Daniel said Bridge gave him the tools he needed to feel prepared for the University.
“For me, it definitely was beneficial, just because I am a very energetic, outgoing person and it definitely did help me get used to college,” Daniel said. “It helped me in terms of adjusting and getting to know the do’s and don’ts and where to go for certain resources and stuff.”
Other Black students required to participate in the program did not find it as helpful. LSA junior Rochelle Sims, who was in the CSP Summer Program in 2018, said she did not understand why the Office of Undergraduate Admissions placed her into CSP because she felt like her high school prepared her for the University.
“I feel like they want Bridge to help you transition into college life, and I didn’t think I needed that,” Sims said. “In the fall, I didn’t use CSP programs or anything like that, and I did fine, I aced my classes and everything … I just felt like it just got me familiar to the campus and some of the resources that the University had to offer.”
Rackham student Michole Washington, a former CSP math instructor, said while programs like CSP Summer and Bridge can be beneficial in helping some students of color transition to college, the University should not assume that because a student is a minority, they automatically need additional academic support.
“In my research right now I’ve been wondering … what is happening in these Bridge programs when you’re saying, ‘Oh, this is for Black students,’ and you’re just assuming that all Black students are at the same academic ability?” Washington asked.
Many Black students, regardless of their background, agreed that the program should increase the number of Black faculty members teaching the courses. Five students told The Daily they had either one or no Black instructors during their program.
According to Trotter, in summer 2020, 25 percent of the Bridge faculty identified as Black.
Daniel said he and many of his Black peers had trouble relating to the way one of his white instructors spoke about transitioning to the University.
“They were talking about … adjusting to college as if I came from this home where I had a mom and a dad in the house where we had decent income,” Daniel said. “Like it was plenty of people who kind of felt uncomfortable because they did not fit the criteria that (the teacher) was talking about when it came to adjusting to college.”
LSA junior Makazhia McGowan, who was in Bridge in 2018, had a Black instructor for math, a subject she said was not her strong point. She said she appreciated how her instructor was able to connect with her and help her improve.
“If I didn’t have at least one Black instructor, I probably would have went insane,” McGowan said. “It just makes it easier to ask questions when there’s someone from the same background or of similar background because they tend to understand you more.”
Trotter said CSP does not use race as a factor in its hiring process and clarified that while Black faculty are represented more in CSP compared to the University as a whole, the program has work to do and will be reviewing its faculty recruitment practices.
“It is important to us that all of our faculty and staff create an environment that is conducive to learning and welcomes students to bring their full selves to the learning experience,” Trotter said. “For this reason, we require our faculty across all disciplines to employ inclusive teaching practices.”
Lack of Transparency with CSP Admissions
Sims said she was frustrated that she was not told why she was admitted into the program.
Her white classmates from high school, who had the same grades and test scores as her, got into the University without having to do a CSP program, according to Sims, making her feel like the school thought she was not as prepared as her white counterparts.
“I don't know if offended is the right word – but I was like, ‘How do I fit into this program? Am I just here to meet a quota? Just tell me that,’” Sims said. “Because I do come from an underrepresented community, but I don’t come from a family with low education.”
Trotter said the program’s leadership hears students’ concerns and is working hard to promote clarity and transparency in the application review process.
“After seeing the (Instagram) post, the leadership of CSP began discussing how we can answer students’ requests for transparency and accountability,” Trotter said. “There is a lot that we cannot control, but we can make sure we answer students’ calls for support and advocacy, and even be proactive and answer the call before it even comes … CSP students can expect an increase in two-way communication in the form of letters to and from the community, community forums and more.”
‘False Hope’ in Bridge and CSP Summer Program
According to the undergraduate admissions office, 3.98 percent of the 2019 fall undergraduate class was Black.
Many Black students told The Daily that, regardless of their experience in Bridge or CSP Summer Program, they did not feel prepared for the overwhelming demographic shift they faced stepping into their classes freshman year.
“(CSP) has definitely exposed me to different types of people, but it in no way prepared me for the fall,” Sims said. “When I got to the fall, for lack of a better word… it was like a white sea.”
LSA sophomore Taneisha Spiller, who did Bridge in 2019, said she did not feel welcome in her classes. According to Spiller, people shied away from sitting next to her and were unresponsive to her attempts to be friendly.
Washington explained that an unfortunate aspect of CSP is that it can give students skewed expectations about the rest of their college experience.
“One of the saddest things about Bridge is that it sometimes feels like we’re setting them up,” Washington said. “Like we give them this experience that’s meant to be unique and to build this community and give them different academic resources that we’re aware are not offered by the University regularly. So when they get into their fall semester, it’s going to feel like some false hope was given because we did set them up and it’s kind of a pretty rainbow cloud environment in some way that wasn’t reality.”
Trotter said she and CSP recognize how students feel and are there to help students through these experiences.
“In Bridge, Black students make up approximately one-third of the population,” Trotter said. “In fall 2019, Black students made up 4 percent of the undergraduate population. My response to what Black students are saying is, it’s not your imagination and you are right. I feel that is important to say because minoritized communities are often made to feel like they are being too sensitive or that they are not the expert of their own experience.”
She said the CSP community will always be there to provide Black students with support.
“We are rooting for you, and we will move mountains to help you be successful,” Trotter said. “We need you in the fight. We know you can do it. But if the burden gets to be too heavy, please lean on us and allow us to share the burden.”
Washington said CSP could always do more, but ensuring students feel welcome when entering school in the fall is not the program’s job: It is the University’s responsibility, too.
“Why is it the program’s responsibility to give these students tools to fit into your way of thinking of how these students should exist in the University, which is already very white male normative?” Washington asked. “Why is it that the University isn’t formed in a way that’s already inclusive and welcoming for these students so that they don’t feel that drop?”
Trotter said she recognizes incoming Black students have faced a great amount of loss like missing out on senior year milestones, the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color, anti-Black racism in the spotlight and most recently, the death of Chadwick Boseman. Regarding the Instagram post on @blackatmichigan, she said she understands the pain and frustration felt by that student and other Black Bridge participants.
“I don’t care how accurate the student’s post is,” Trotter said. “What I care about is the meaning behind what they are saying. Black students have lost so much, and I believe this student is saying that it feels like they are losing Bridge, too.”
Daily Staff Reporter Parnia Mazhar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.