The COVID-19 pandemic has created disruptions throughout the education system, leading many to worry about how learning may have been undermined. Those worries are even higher for students making the big transition from high school to college.

On top of questions around being academically prepared, many college freshmen are going to be adapting to life on campus following a senior year marked by spotty in-person learning and social isolation.

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Officials at Portland State University are hoping to make that transition a little smoother with a new “bridge” program for incoming freshmen.

“For me personally, it’s not really about a loss of learning,” said Shoshana Zeisman-Pereyo, director of PSU’s Learning Center and coordinator of the Summer Bridge Scholars Program. “I think what COVID has really done is amplified and magnified the inequities that already existed within our education system.”

Zeisman-Pereyo said The Summer Bridge Scholars Program came to fruition in direct response to the pandemic.

“Back in February, the Provost came and brought together a couple of us and said, ‘You know, it looks like we have a real opportunity here to look at these incoming students, particularly freshmen, who have really had their education uprooted in the last year and a half,’” she said.

Incoming freshmen in PSU's Summer Bridge Scholars Program attend a kick-off event.

Incoming freshmen in PSU's Summer Bridge Scholars Program attend a kick-off event.

Patric Simon / PSU

The four-week program was initially open to all incoming freshmen that have below a 3.0 high school grade point average. But when it was clear the program was not going to be at capacity, it was opened up.

“Every single incoming freshman that was interested in the summer bridge was able to attend,” Zeisman-Pereyo.

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The program had a capacity for 500 incoming freshmen, and Zeisman-Pereyo said right before it started there were about 320 signed up. But, she said, she saw a lot of students, or “scholars,” change their plans, such as deferring college admission, due to increasing COVID-19 cases and the delta variant.

There are currently about 260 scholars in the program, the majority of whom are attending the program in-person and living on-campus, in dorms. Students participating in the program in person were required to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination or valid exemption.

The program includes coursework equivalent to up to seven college credits. Participating students are taking an “academic skills” course — aimed at helping with study strategies and adapting to college — as well as either a math or writing course.

They’re assigned a “peer mentor” — a current PSU student — during the program, and throughout the year. They will also work with academic advisors and tutors.

“One of the components of our summer bridge is actually really working with these scholars throughout the entire first year,” Zeisman-Pereyo said. “We wanted to make sure that those scholars coming in with a lower GPA don’t simply fall through the cracks — that we are providing that support upfront.”

Academic success is not the only goal of the program. Zeisman-Pereyo said it’s also to get students to feel comfortable on campus.

“I want our students to really feel like they belong here at PSU,” she said, noting that more than half of the summer participants are students of color.

Along with gaining college credit, Zeisman-Pereyo said they also have opportunities to participate in weekend and evening social activities.

As far as if the program “worked” in the end — if the program helps students feel more prepared to jump into fall term at PSU academically and emotionally, Zeisman-Pereyo said it will probably take more than the four weeks to know. But she said she’s already seeing successes.

“I can see some of it already happening right now,” she said. “You see the scholars walking together on campus. When you see them making those connections in real life … they’re craving that connection, and they’re getting it.”

Zeisman-Pereyo said there will be an “assessment plan” gauging how they did in the bridge program, as well as surveys throughout the year. Program staff wants to track things like whether the students continued using specific campus resources.

The program began this past Monday and will end on Sept. 17. The fall term starts at PSU ten days later.

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