Bridges to a Brighter Future gives students permission to learn, grow, and reach their full potential.
When Bridges to a Brighter Future’s Director Carrie Silver describes the work the organization does, she sums it up this way: “I think the best thing we do is give students the permission to be amazing.”
And this philosophy has yielded amazing results. Bridges to a Brighter Future is a nationally recognized comprehensive college access and success program for high school and college students in Greenville County, South Carolina. Bridges is designed to not only expose students to college, but to address and eliminate the personal, social, and cultural barriers that often prevent low-income and first-generation students from achieving college graduating from college. The students who complete the program, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, have enjoyed great high school and college success. A full 100 percent of program participants have graduated from high school, with 92 percent entering college or the military directly after graduation—a considerable achievement, particularly given that nationally just 54 percent of students from similar backgrounds achieve such a feat. Furthermore, 96 percent of Bridges students graduate from college on time. The comparable national average is 39 percent.
The root of this success comes from the program's ability to help “students whose potential outdistances their resources,” Silver explains.
“Some of the challenges that our students have faced include a parent who's been incarcerated, somebody in the household struggling with addiction, and being in foster care,” she said. “Our students do have challenging backgrounds, yet they still strive for something bigger and better. They just don't know how to get there. That's where we come in.”
Bridges first comes into students’ lives when they’re in ninth grade, after they are identified and nominated by teachers to apply to the program based on the potential they demonstrate and their desire to create a better life for themselves—even though they don’t necessarily see the exact path that will get them there.
“You're not necessarily going to know exactly what you want to do in your future, but we look for some commitment to doing something after high school that's going to advance their life. We look for some sort of recognition that they’re definitely going to graduate high school, which we help them do of course, and that they want to discover something more,” said Silver. “We also look for leadership potential, so maybe they've already had positions or done things that show their leadership or maybe they just have a desire and don't know how to get connected.”
And when students are accepted, they get the opportunity to connect—with Bridges, with each other, and with the college experience. To help facilitate these connections, they participate in the summer program, which is held at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, where Bridges is housed. There, they get the opportunity to bond and learn about the college experience together—allowing them to not only hear about college, but really see themselves in that environment. In order to do this, Bridges allows students to participate in classes and recreational activities, as well as just roam around campus to see what living there is like.
“Being able to see themselves there is huge in their vision of their future,” Silver said.
The rest of the time, Bridges helps students prepare for this future by providing tutoring, one-on-one counseling, college planning services, and assessments that help them choose colleges to apply to and the right majors to pursue. In addition, students get help filling out admission and financial aid applications.
After Bridges’ students enter college, the organization provides each one with a laptop and helps them access the services they may need if they’re having academic issues. But classroom performance is not the only thing Bridges is concerned with—the program also strives to engage students in a holistic way, which includes addressing their mental health if necessary.
“We look at the whole person. The students we serve come from trauma—high poverty is trauma in and of itself—so we don't just look at the academic readiness, but also making sure that the student is empowered to take control of their future. That's a huge thing for us and we try to continue that once the students are in college, so during their first semester, they get a visit on campus,” said Silver. “That's partially because you can get a text from somebody that says ‘I'm perfectly fine’ with a smiley face emoji, but when you see them in person, you get the full detail. We make sure we know what's going on underneath the problem, so mental health issues are things we really do address. We have instances where we'll go to a college campus and help a student enroll in mental health counseling so they're not alone.”
In addition to providing academic and emotional support Bridges also ensures students are not alone financially. The program offers scholarships ranging from $1,500 to $5,500 per academic year—and the group is committed to increasing these amounts to better position students to focus on their education without relying heavily on college loans.
“We just finished a strategic planning process and determined four main goals for our future so we make sure we're focusing on the students and their needs. One goal is focused on helping students thrive in higher education with as little debt as possible,” Silver said. “The scholarship piece is a big piece and we have relationships for sustained support. A really big future goal is building community engagement and promoting a culture that values diversity and lifelong learning.”
Kenya McCullum is a freelance writer based in California.