Rethinking Smith’s Bridge Program

Photo by Asrie KarMa ’16, Contributing Photographer | Graduates of the 2012 Bridge program attend a reunion this past fall.

Photo by Asrie KarMa ’16, Contributing Photographer | Graduates of the 2012 Bridge program attend a reunion this past fall.

Dominica Cao ’18
Contributing Writer

Smith College’s Bridge Program has been around for 45 years now. In an effort to “bridge the gap of familiarity between the old and the new,” the program does a great job of helping students find a home at Smith. Bridgees – the name for the students who participate in the program – have a chance to find mentors, friends and resources. And yes, many people are grateful to the program, as evident by the positive testimonials found online and in person from Bridgees. But the Bridge program’s largest shortcoming is in its foundation: it only accepts first-year and transfer students of color.

I acknowledge that the activities during this pre-orientation help students explore identity, culture and heritage. However, the Bridge program does not celebrate cultural diversity as it advertises; it instead celebrates racial diversity. To celebrate cultural diversity, we have to take into account all students who have different experiences, values and beliefs – yes, we also have to take into account white students.

The Office of Multicultural Affairs’ website states that the office’s purpose is to shape “a strong community among students of color while promoting an understanding of cultural diversity for the Smith community as a whole.” But, if our welcoming message to incoming first-year Bridgees is that fostering a cultural community devoid of white students is more important than being a part of the Smith multicultural community, then there is an obvious fault in the program. Moreover, how can we promote cultural diversity for the entire Smith population if we eliminate white students from this learning experience?

What I find most disturbing is that the Bridge program claims to be an experience that will help make participants’ “first year at Smith College a success.” So are we claiming that to not participate would lead to failing freshman year? Why are only students of color guaranteed this success as opposed to the entire entering class? If the Bridge Program’s main purpose is to facilitate the transition from another institution to Smith, then why are we assuming that only students of color need additional aid? The eligibility requirements neglect any of the needs that white students may have. Students also in need of a Bridge program are those who come from families of low socioeconomic status and students with disabilities.

Students with parents who have a lower socioeconomic position based on income, education or occupation do not come to college equipped with as many resources as those from wealthier families. For the white students in this position, there is no additional aid to help ease the transition to college. The Bridge Program offers many presentations that cover the importance of leadership and having access to these many seminars would be extremely helpful to students who do not come from families with high socioeconomic status.

According to the Smith’s Office of Disability Services, approximately 500 students – 20 percent of Smith College undergraduates and graduates – identify as having a disability. Surely their transition into college would not be as easy. I wonder: why is there no Bridge Program for these students?

Instead of looking at Smithies as individual students with individual needs, we are categorizing them into specific categories as determined by outer appearances. These categories can be geographical, biological or – in the case of the Bridge program – racial. I am not calling for an elimination of the Bridge program but rather for a reconsideration of its purpose. If Smith wants to help incoming first-years have a smooth transition into college, we cannot prioritize students of color above everyone else or assume that only students of color have difficulties adjusting to a new institution. If Smith wants to be the pioneer it claims to be, it must look at its students as individuals with individual needs.

23 Comments

  1. I’m not sure if you know this but for the first few weeks in the fall there is the assets program for smith students with disabilities where we met once a week and disscussed stratagies on how to navigate smith while having a disability. so smith does have resources for that.The point of bridge is help students of color adjust to life on a predominantly white campus and to allow students of color bond and meet. While yes I think there could maybe a seperate program for low income students which would be great and helpful. but it should not take away from bridge, it should be seperate. don’t take away from minorities because you feel not included maybe instead start something else which would strenghten our community instead of taking away from our community.

  2. People of color need a program to ensure success because they have faced and continue to face oppression and disadvantages that undermine their ability to succeed. The fact that white students aren’t invited to the bridge program doesn’t ‘ensure they won’t succeed.’ It reflects the privilege and greater chance of success they have as a result of their race.

    Your point about disability is more complex but ultimately you’re derailing a racial equality program to talk about the needs of disabled students. In my opinion, this is inappropriate and reflects an inability to think intersectionally. I encourage you to learn more, seek mentors, and listen to more voices in your community. If you care about supporting disabled students you need to care about disabled students of color and every member of your community.

    Sincerely, a white able-bodied student with mental illness.

  3. Not to toot my own horn, but you might find my thesis project (2013) on Smith’s residential system quite illuminating. Read it, then let us all know if you still feel like we should “rethink” the Bridge program.

    https://dspace.smith.edu/handle/11020/24100

  4. A note to Smithies, Fellow Bridgees and those who’ve been part of college transition programs as such…

    Honestly, this is a a disheartening reality that many of our ethnic and cultural counterparts experience. While their is some truth regarding the trauma and social anxiety all low-income students experience upon entering a college campus, our socio-historical realities and drastically different. Bridge is a program beyond the integration of “the old and new” – it is a transition program that helps soften the blow of the racial disparities existing across all college campuses in America. What is even more heart-wrenching is their unwillingness to sympathize with the struggles of the oppressed. This program is a very small dose of what students of color, and low-income, need to overcome years, decades and centuries of oppression. While Smith should appreciate students for their individual assets, they must also learn to support students through their collective struggles (as they have for women through the existence of Smith as an institution). For an institution that serves a common purpose, opening doors of opportunity for women (a historically oppressed group) it is hypocritical to propose the potential of non-exclusionary programs such as Bridge on our campus. As Smithies, we more than anyone, must join the fight to support programs that uplift disempowered groups, rather than strip them of the resources that provide them with equal footing in the context of a world built upon disproportionate privileges based on race, gender, religion, etc. AND a socially constructed understanding of humanity.

    In solidarity,
    A Latina
    A Proud Smithie
    A Proud Smith Alum (’13)
    A Proud Bridge Alum (’09)

  5. Although I certainly think there could be more done for low-income, first generation college students, Bridge is an important program at Smith for students of color. If the college wants white students to learn more about cultural diversity, the college could create an anti-racism program for white students.

  6. This opinion peice is poorly researched and crafted. Perhaps an inquiry into the Office of Multicultural Affairs could have been done for perspective since the Director of Multicultural Affair, L’Tanya Richmond and her interns are very accessible and love connecting with any student who has questions or needs anything her office can facilitate. There are also many Bridgees and Bridge Leaders who are current students who are more than happy to discuss their experiences and why they think Bridge is or isn’t important.

    That being said, there are many narratives one can find in the Smith archives where students of color have spoken either directly or tangentially about the Bridge program. Consider looking into the Weaving Voices Monologues where students have documented their experiences for the purpose of context and history.

    It is important to keep in mind that many Bridgees and Bridge Leaders are themselves low income, disabled on axes of physical disability and mental illness, of various documentation statuses, etc. Many commenters before me have mentioned intersectionality and it is key.

    While the Sophian is a school newspaper, it is important to keep in mind that there is a lot of similar ignorance in the community about even what the program is or does. Articles like this are harmful and put the conversation on Bridgees and other students of color when they are just trying to live their lives and be a student, especially leading up to finals.

    The ignorance keeps the conversation basic and topical. A common question is whether or not Bridge Pre-Orientation is “racist” which lacks any understanding of how race and opportunity work in U.S. PWIs. Even anecdotal evidence is rich with information and insight, as long as one is willing to put in the work to inquire and engage.

    Perhaps a good place to really chime in and engage is to ask questions about funding and why the Office of Multicultural Affairs is forced to do so much work with so few resources. The department does key work on campus that administration loves to claim but will not support in any meaningful ways. You’d be amazed at how institutional funding and access to space will inform this conversation.

    For transparency, I am a class of 2015 alum, former OMA student intern, 2011 bridgee and two time Bridge Pre-Orientation Leader. My opinions expressed above are my own and not representative of any of my peers or the Office of Multicultural Affairs or its director, for the record.

    Eddie M. ’15

  7. Also let’s talk about consent and whether the Bridgees in the picture are okay with their image being used in an article questioning the program… How was the image obtained?

  8. I have so many thoughts that I cannot begin to articulate. I wish the person who wrote this piece did more to research the program or the history of program attendees. If it wasn’t for the connections I built throught the Bridge program and beyond, I would’ve been a transfer student. Softening the blow of what became reality was a necessity. This opinion piece just disappoints me.

    Bridge 06′

  9. I participated in a similar program at Brown – however we called the mentors Minority Peer Counselors and they lived in each of the dorms with students to be a consistent resource around the clock. We also had Women’s Peer Counselors, and a host of other RPCs that served as a resource to our students. Clearly Brown, as does Smith, sees the importance of such roles on campus in ensuring successful transition and campus life. Your inability to recognize the necessity of such programs and willingness to destroy a structure placed to support minorities is exactly the mindset of self- centered white privilege these programs are meant to protect, shield, and support our minority students from when entering into predominately affluent white institutions. I suggest you dig a litter deeper – possibly actively reach out to those involved in the program as opposed to chipping away at its foundations from the outside.

  10. This piece is poorly informed and ignorant.

  11. This piece was painful to read. Not only because of how the author misrepresents the Bridge program mission, but also because it reminds me of my own internalized racism as a teenager.

    Growing up East Asian American, the racism you experience is often different from how “real” racism is portrayed in movies and in media. Instead of being perceived as dangerous and threatening, you are seen as meek, passive, and productive– a Model Minority. Growing up being treated this way (as an “almost” equal citizen), it’s very common (and easy) for Asian Americans to grow up thinking that racism isn’t real and that there may not be a need to have safe spaces exclusively to people of color, especially when you are not surrounded by a community that addresses or tackles racism.

    It’s important to note here that the author is a POC. Let the author’s misguided and skewed perception on the critical importance of safe spaces for POC on campus be evidence of the dire need to have more conversations on race and sharing the stories of those around us. When there is no space to have a dialogue on our experiences, it’s impossible for us to see the discriminatory practices that are determine to marginalize POC. An op-ed piece like this is directly correlated to lack of dialogue and systematic layers of discrimination.

    That being said, as a former Bridgee (’09), I am eternally grateful for the program and the Director of Multicultural Affair, L’Tanya Richmond. L’Tanya’s infinite patience and loving attitude towards the students made it possible to have discussions about race in healthy and productive ways. The Bridge program not only helped me with my own confidence and self-awareness, but introduced me to a community that helped me make sense of my Asian American experience.

    – E

  12. I am a Smith alum of color with a disability, who did not attend Bridge, but I saw the advantage that my of my peers who did attend Bridge gained. From their attendance they were not exactly “prepared” for the challenge that being of color on a majority and historically white campus would pose, but unlike those POC who did not attend from the start they had mentors and a support network to help them when faced with these challenges. Unlike first gen, low income, or those with disabilities the systemic racism that new students of color may end up facing head on, sometimes for the first time in their lives is traumatizing. Without such a program these students are likely to be paralyzed and likely to fail or drop out. It is an experience that I greatly wish I had had a peer of color to relate to when it first occurred to me my 1st year.

    While I agree similar programming is essential for low income, first gen and disabled students the purpose and need for Bridge should not be dismissed. The author here ignores the multiple identites of individuals and the complexity around programs that would identify and group individuals in these other categories. Moreover, does the author know if other groups have identified wanting such programming? If it is wanted why criticize the current existing program?

    I find it extremely ignorant of the article’s author not to have researched and considered the history, and purpose of Bridge at Smith, particularly considering the current nationwide movement on college campuses highlighting the desperate need for similar programs, inclusion of POC, and recognition of the systemic racism that is ingrained in the academy.

    This article alone is evidence of the continued need for Bridge. The only change I might suggest would be a diversity training program for a broader audience, including white students.

    -V

  13. Bravely written, especially given the climate at Smith.
    “We cannot prioritize students of color above everyone else or assume that only students of color have difficulties adjusting to a new institution.” – not what many want to hear, but it’s the truth.

    • Okay, but you missed the point of what past commenters have said. You’re agreeing to a statement that undermines the needs of students of color in a predominantly white and very much still oppressive institution (AKA Smith College). Your “truth” is misguided. I suggest you research on why programs like Bridge needs to exist or read past comments to inform yourself on why I’m saying your comment is misguided. Again, students of color were never prioritized at Smith, never. We are given some opportunities but most of the resources go to white students who make up the majority of this institution. Is it really the truth?

      This opinion and that single statement you’re pointing out are not something people don’t want to hear, it’s something that people are ashamed of because a POC with so much internalized racism decided to say something ignorant and damaging. No one is trying to hide from the truth, like your statement is implying. People, including myself, are tired of hearing statements like this and having to justify why they need programs like Bridge.

      Please reevaluate the “truth” you’re congratulating, because it is, once again for emphasis, ignorant and misguided.

      • Angie, you are misguided. As an ’11 alumna, I can say that Smith is without a doubt one of the most inclusive spaces and its culture goes out of its way to make students of color welcome.

        What do you mean most of the resources go to White students? Do you mean resources for ALL students, that ALL are welcome to participate in? Last time I checked, there were no designated all-white clubs or or organizations at Smith and everyone of any race can join. Bridge, of course, does discriminate based on race.

        I agree with Liz that the author is extremely brave to write this article. It is very outdated for Smith to still be segregating its students based on race, which is exactly what the Bridge program is. It encourages students of color to commune with students of color upon first arrival at Smith and does not promote diversity.

        Smith is one of the most progressive and open-minded colleges in the country. If you really think that oppression is a major issue there, then you face a very rude awakening upon graduation.

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