Bridges to a Brighter Future is a comprehensive college access program for Greenville County, South Carolina high school and college students with strong potential from low-income, high-challenge homes. Beginning in 1997, the program's ambitious mission is to break the cycle of poverty and low-educational attainment by equipping students with the tools and support needed to finish high school and successfully graduate from college. Bridges accomplishes this mission by engaging students in an intensive seven-year program beginning after ninth grade and ending with college graduation. Bridges to a Brighter Future includes three components: summer programming, Saturday College, and Crossing the Bridge.
Students attend a four-week summer residential program on the Furman University campus for three consecutive summers, participate in a year-round monthly academic support program called Saturday College, and successfully transition to college through Crossing the Bridge, a college retention program. Bridges to a Brighter transforms students' lives by promoting academic success, self-confidence, resiliency, leadership, and character.
Students are nominated in ninth grade by their classroom teachers or guidance counselors. Each student undergoes an intensive selection process, including a thorough application and individual interview. Approximately twenty-five students are selected each year based on their needs. These new candidates join two classes of eleventh and twelfth grade students totaling approximately 75 students participating in the high school component. After high school graduation, students continue in Crossing the Bridge through college graduation, for approximately a total of 125 students served annually through Bridges to a Brighter Future.
Beyond need, students must meet three core criteria: low income (eligible for free or reduced lunch), B grade point average, and a clean disciplinary record.
Since 1997, 100% of program graduates have graduated from high school or earned diploma equivalency and 95% of the program graduates eligible to enroll in college have enrolled in either college or the military. As a result of these impressive program outcomes, The National Summer Learning Association awarded Bridges the 2009 Summer Excellence Award, a highly selective award given to outstanding model programs in the United States. Bridges to a Brighter Future was also awarded the Reader's Choice Award by G-The Magazine of Greenville and the Diversity Leadership Award by the Upstate Diversity Leadership Awards Program. In April 2012, Bridges to a Brighter Future was featured as one of the top effective college access programs in The Educational Policy Institute's, A Blueprint for Success: Case Studies of Successful Pre-College Outreach Programs. Bridges to a Brighter Future was also featured in Essence Magazine (May 2010), on the U.S. Department of Education television program, Education News Parents Can Use (June 2009), and the SCETV radio program, Speaking of Schools (2006, 2010).
When we interviewed Shanda for Bridges to a Brighter Future, she was very shy, quiet, and insecure. But she had big dreams. Despite exceptional challenges, she continued to strive towards better things. Shanda attended five different elementary schools and was held back a grade because of her family's constant movement. She was taken into DSS custody and lived in a foster home and later with her grandmother. Her mother got her back when she began middle school. Both of her older brothers have been in jail and her mother often took what little money they had and lost it gambling. The only father figure in Shanda's life was a man who dated her mother on-and-off for several years. While Shanda was in middle school, he was often in the home and helped to provide support and security. However, when Shanda was in high school, he was sentenced to jail for several years for theft. During her junior year, he was released from jail and was in and out of her home. He left one day after a fight and never came back.
One morning in the fall of her junior year, Shanda woke up on the day of a big chemistry test and found her mother throwing all of her stuff in garbage bags telling her, "You are 18 now; I don't have to take care of you." She had to go live with her Aunt until her mother's irrational and radical behavior began to improve. In the spring of her junior year, Shanda went on the Bridges Spring Break College Tour. One of the colleges on the tour was Berea College in Berea, KY. Shanda instantly fell in love with the college and determined it was where she wanted to go. During her last summer in Bridges, she took the college planning class where she worked tirelessly on her college application and essays with our staff. In fall 2011, Shanda was signed up to take the ACT. She lived five miles away from the testing center and Shanda's Aunt was supposed to take her to the test that morning. She never showed up and Shanda ended up walking 5 miles to the testing location. She arrived late and upset and did not do very well on the test. Her dream was to go to Berea College, but her score was not high enough. We helped her sign up to take another test and this time, the Bridges director picked her up to take her. She was happy after the test and thought she did well. We were all disappointed when her scores came back and they had only slightly improved. The Bridges program arranged for Shanda to receive free ACT and SAT test preparation counseling from a consultant for six weeks and drove her to each session. She re-took both the SAT and ACT for a third time. After the third attempt, her SAT score was high enough to be admitted to Berea College! Even in all of her success, her senior year did not end without drama. Shanda was selected to be one of the special speakers at her graduation to give a motivational speech. On the day of her graduation, her Aunt drove Shanda and her mother to the graduation ceremony. Her mother and Aunt argued during the entire drive because they didn't have enough gas to get to graduation. The argument ended with her mother saying, "Just turn the car around, Shanda and I are going home." The drama subsided and they made it to graduation and Shanda's speech was incredible!
After attending three consecutive Bridges summer programs and Saturday College, Shanda's confidence, leadership, and vision continued to grow. Last summer, Shanda worked in the Bridges office and prepared for college. She participated in our Crossing the Bridge transition program which gave her the tools, skills, and knowledge for college success. As part of Crossing the Bridge, a Furman staff partner volunteered to be her college buddy. This person took her shopping for college and purchased all of her dorm supplies. Shanda did not have transportation to get to college, so the Bridges assistant director volunteered to take Shanda. Bridges donors paid for the trip from South Carolina to Kentucky and the assistant director served as Shanda's surrogate parent for orientation weekend. As of late August 2012, Shanda is beginning her first week of classes at Berea College. She has already been accepted to the gospel choir and emerging scholars program and we are so excited to see how her life will change through higher education.