This summer marked the seventh consecutive year that Kinesiology Professor Jared Russell, Ph.D., has hosted the Future Scholars Summer Research Bridge Program. The program began with the intent of increasing the cultural and ethnic diversity in the College of Education’s graduate programs, and sending scholars of color into the academy. The program, by any measure, has been a spectacular success.
“We’ve done really well with the program,” Russell said. “The only drawback at this point is that most of these scholars have come into the School of Kinesiology, whereas the intent is for the program to benefit all units of the College. Now that we’ve got the program rolling I hope we can recruit more students for other academic areas.”
The program began in 2010, when Russell reached out to faculty at his alma mater, Morehouse College (Atlanta), which has its own undergraduate Kinesiology program. He also established relationships with Spelman College (Atlanta), and Albany State in South Georgia. These are three of the state’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
On these visits, Russell talked to promising undergrads about Auburn University as a place to do graduate work and conduct research. To his surprise, few had ever heard of Auburn, much less considered coming here.
“It took some time to get the word out about the wonderful opportunities at Auburn University but now we have solid relationships with a number of HBCUs in the region,” Russell said. “The COE has multiple academic programs that have recruited graduate students from diverse backgrounds. Consequently we now have a critical mass of ethnically and racially diverse students in the College. So that’s been a huge stride forward and has helped our Bridge students feel more at home, particularly when they eventually enroll in graduate school here. A network of support has already been established with faculty, staff, administrators, and especially students. But we still have much work to do.”
Russell pointed out something that former Auburn president Jay Gogue said many times: most students who come to Auburn already have a strong Auburn connection. And that usually means a family member.
“No doubt that family history, feelings, and connections help make Auburn great and contribute to our distinct character,” Russell said. “But many of our program applicants are first-generation college students, and even fewer have done research. It’s not like our Bridge students aren’t welcomed by the University community, because they are. But it’s a real culture shock to come from small institutions in major metropolitan areas such as Atlanta, Los Angeles, Charlotte, and New York City onto what for many of them is a huge campus with very little ethnic and cultural diversity. The ‘change in scenery’ takes a little getting used to.”
Back to the future
In the program’s first year, ten students enrolled in the Summer Bridge program. Six of those students went on to enroll in graduate school here. Over the years, Russell said, approximately 80 percent of the Bridge students end up coming here to graduate school.
“Of the approximately 30 or so students who have enrolled here from our Bridge program, every single one has gotten at least a Master’s degree, with a few now pursuing the doctoral degree,” he said. “And that’s one reason so many of these students are in Kinesiology – we have a one-year Master’s program. Most Master’s programs take longer than that. Students understand that they can receive a quality educational experience, professional development, and preparation for their future careers in a relatively short amount of time.”
After his initial success in Georgia, Russell’s recruiting territory expanded to Tuskegee University and Alabama State University, both close to Auburn. He expanded the program again to include students from Tennessee State University in Nashville, Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, and North Carolina Central in Raleigh. A recent Kinesiology doctoral grad, Desmond Delk, is on the faculty at Langston University in Oklahoma, so students have started coming from there. And the program is well-known within the ranks of the American Kinesiology Association, which has led students to Auburn from as far away as the University of California – Fullerton.
“As our Bridge students graduate and enter the academy and profession, they act as ambassadors for the program,” Russell aid. “So each success can lead to another success. Dr. Mary Rudisill and I set a goal to graduate ten doctoral students from the program in ten years. We are on track to meet and in fact exceed that goal, thanks in no small part to her leadership and dedication, and her visibility as past president of the American Kinesiology Association. All of this speaks to the preparation and support for these students by the COE, the School of Kinesiology, and the University in general. This is a model that works well for everyone involved.”
Student run, faculty directed
The six-week program, which runs from mid-May until the end of June, is as much about preparing students for the rigors of graduate studies as it is about conducting research. The students are in class every day, and work with faculty members on a research project they select themselves, but there is also much more going on.
“A lot of it is socialization,” Russell said. “We talk about how to apply to graduate school, and how to find ways to fund graduate study, which is a major challenge for most students in general. We emphasize the soft skills, including professional, business, and social etiquette. We explore the best ways to approach professors and office hours and grade discussions. And we engage in multiple service projects by assisting in outreach activities held by the School of Kinesiology every summer.”
All of these activities involve current graduate students, and most sessions are actually designed and implemented by past Bridge program participants.
“We say that our Bridge program is student run and faculty directed,” Russell explained. “The majority of the graduate students working with the program have been in the Bridge students’ shoes so they can relate. Students have a much better sense of what other students want and need than do faculty members. So these mentors can be frank with our Bridge students. They’ve lived the graduate experience.”
And the work starts long before the Bridge students arrive on campus.
“Our Bridge program mentors review the applications, conduct Skype interviews with applicants, and ultimately provide me with a list that states the strengths and drawbacks of each applicant, with recommendations about who should be admitted. We always have far more applicants than we admit every year, and pretty much everyone we admit eventually chooses to come to Auburn for graduate studies.”
Isolation for traditionally underrepresented students is a real issue at Predominantly White Institutions (PWI), so the mentors help them understand that graduate school is a collaborative venture. The mentors help encourage socialization and becoming part of the larger Auburn University community.
“On our last day, graduation day, each Bridge student makes a presentation of the area of research they focused on, but a large part of this exercise is helping them experience what it really means to make a research presentation to a large, live audience. I’d say that academic readiness is not the issue with these students. They’re bright and energetic. The Bridge program seeks to ease the transition and social adjustment of the students so that they are confident in their abilities to succeed as graduate students.”
Funding remains an issue
The cost of the summer program is approximately $5,000 per student. Much of that funding comes from an annual gift from the Charles Barkley Foundation. Russell very much wants to expand the program to include other units in the College, but funding remains the sticking point.
“The real challenge is to support their graduate studies, via assistantships or fellowships, once they choose to enroll at Auburn,” he said. “Funding is an issue for any graduate student. As part of our recruitment and retention efforts we work to provide that critical support so the student chooses Auburn over other institutions.”
“We now have a critical mass of diverse students in the College of Education,” Russell concluded. “The infrastructure is really in place to allow the program to take off and be implemented in a number of academic programs, but we are just not sufficiently capitalized for a significant change in the number of students who would be able to participate. However, we have very, very strong support from College of Education Dean Betty Lou Whitford, Graduate School Dean George Flowers, School of Kinesiology Director Mary Rudisill, and the College of Education’s Development Office. We wouldn’t be at this point without them. So the goal now is to continue to work and develop the means to build a sustainable college-wide program. And we’re working on that every day.”