Incoming freshmen get a head start on college

Bridge Scholars program helps incoming freshman get acclimated

As a high school senior Gabbi Maldonado received an unexpected answer to her application to Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville. It was neither an acceptance nor a rejection. Instead, it was an invitation to participate in the school’s Bridge Scholars program.

“I had never heard of the program and at first I wasn’t keen on giving up my summer to start college early,” she said. “But I had applied to the college without seeing it, so I decided to go for the interview.”

Maldonado loved the campus and found everyone she met to be friendly and inviting, so she decided to accept the invitation.

“It was not only the best choice I could have made; it was the best summer of my life,” she said.

Georgia College began the Bridge Scholars program in 2006 after the University System designated the school as the state’s public liberal arts college.

“Student demand started to increase and admissions became more competitive,” said Erin Weston, coordinator of the Bridge Scholars program. “We noticed that some students weren’t getting accepted even though we could tell that they had the qualities and characteristics to become good students.”

To give those students a little extra help, administrators started a summer residential program that would help students make a successful transition to college. Students who interviewed and were selected for the program would take three college classes in the summer after their senior year of high school. If they passed with a “C” grade or better and were active participants in the program, they would be admitted to Georgia College in the fall.

“We started with 60 students and this year, we will accept 131 students into the program. It has proved to be a great success,” Westin said.

Bridge Scholars  live together in on-campus housing and continue  that arrangement during their freshman year. The program begins in June with all participants  taking a four-day, one-credit academic boot camp.

“That course teaches them study skills, test-taking strategies, time-management skills, (and) how to use campus resources and talk to faculty,” Westin said.

That course is followed by  two three-credit core courses, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, for the next five-and-a-half weeks. Peer mentoring and tutoring are available, and there are social activities, speakers, workshops and community service projects on the weekends.

“We divide the students into five cohorts who will take classes together, but we deliberately house members of different cohorts together in apartments of four students each,” Westin said. “That way every person knows 30 other students from his cohort. It helps to build community, and these students usually form strong bonds.”

Maldonado, who recently completed her freshman year at Georgia College, said  she realized that she would never have met some of her best friends without the program.

“I’m an early childhood education major and my classes and path is very different from that of most of my Bridge friends,” she said. “We all do different things on campus now, but when we come back to the dorm at night, we still do things together. We call it the 'Bridge family,’ because we are tight-knit.”

Maldonado is grateful for the time-management skills that helped her get through the rigorous summer schedule.

“It helped me to learn how I study best. You’re doing a semester’s worth of work in five weeks, so you have to learn to use your time wisely,” she said.

Maldonado, who has taken 16 to 17 hours each semester of her freshman year, joined a sorority and also serves as a school ambassador, giving tours to prospective students.

“This program really taught me the dynamics of what college is like, and just getting to know my professors and where everything was on campus was a huge asset,” she said.

When Maldonado leads campus tours she encounters other students who have been invited to the Bridge Scholars program. Some of them view it negatively.

“I can tell them the positives about the program,” she said. “They’ll start college with seven credits under their belt. They’ll make good friends, have fun and get to know what college is all about. If they’re HOPE-eligible, the summer tuition is covered .”

While some students initially think that an invitation to the program means  they aren’t good enough for regular admission, what it is really means is that the school sees high potential, Westin said.

“Students start out resenting giving up their summer, but I’ve yet to meet one who didn’t enjoy the program,” she said.

The retention rate for Bridge Scholars who enroll in the fall is 98 percent.

“We’ve noticed that their leadership participation is higher and that these students are comfortable on campus and know how to bond with faculty,” Westin said. “Last year’s senior class president started as a Bridge student."