BRIDGE Program: 25 Years of Success

“I have reaped the benefits of attending BRIDGE. When I walk in to work, I’m not just another engineer. I have years of leadership skills that have stemmed from BRIDGE.  It helped me.  It helped us, on the journey to becoming engineers. BRIDGE opened up so many opportunities for me, and I’m grateful for all of them.”

Melissa Jacques
B.S. Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science & Engineering, 2010

On March 21, the School of Engineering celebrated the 25th anniversary of the BRIDGE Program, an intensive, residential summer preparedness program for entering freshmen from populations traditionally underrepresented in engineering, who have been admitted for the fall term.  Before an audience of more than 100 accomplished BRIDGE alumni, industry friends and administrators, five BRIDGE alumni and others shared their memories of this pivotal program and its extraordinary impact on their educational and career accomplishments.

Dean of Engineering Mun Y. Choi welcomed attendees and recognized members of the audience representing Travelers, General Electric and Pratt & Whitney, who provide valuable sponsorship for the BRIDGE Program.  Praising the program, he spoke of the passion and high level of achievement that characterize members of the BRIDGE community, from the students and alumni to the program administrators.  He remarked that he is eager to expand the program to increase the number of underrepresented students who can benefit from the experience.  Dean Choi then introduced ceremonial host and alumnus Tilton L. Hughes (B.S. Mechanical Eng., ’73), who attended UConn at a time when few minority students were enrolled and who built a distinguished career with IBM.  Hughes, who had traveled to Storrs from Austin, TX with his wife Gloria, was accompanied by his mother, Virgie Hughes and six other members of his family who live in Bridgeport, CT.

Hughes shared memories of his years as a UConn engineering student, touched upon his career journey with GE and IBM, and offered today’s students advice on how to achieve success.  Among the points he emphasized was, “Know yourself.”

Hughes said “Just because you grew up in a certain neighborhood doesn’t mean you’re not capable of doing great things. All of us are capable of doing great things. We have to believe in ourselves and know that no matter what obstacles, we’re capable of achieving.  When I look across this room, I see greatness.  I see people who are going to do great things.  I see that somewhere in this room is the next great idea.”

Another core message Hughes shared is that “Believing in yourself isn’t enough. It doesn’t get the task done. You need to be disciplined, have excellent time management skills and develop self-control.” He urged students to focus on their studies, not partying, during their years at UConn.

Hughes observed that across a 40-year career, it is important to be flexible.  He remarked that when he graduated from UConn, GE offered him a job.  It required that he complete a rigorous rotational training program in different locations and plants.  “Well, when I got up to Schenectady, NY there was 39 inches of snow on the ground. And I said to myself, ‘Is this really some place I want to go?’  I thought: How bad could it be? It’s just a two-year assignment.” He accepted the assignment and lived in snowy Schenectady before being transferred to the nuclear energy division in sunny San Jose.  He later joined IBM, which, he noted, “Gave me the opportunity to travel throughout the world. Keep your mind open for opportunities.”

Continuing with his advice to students, Hughes named teamwork, networking and giving back as critical keys to success. “Must learn to work well with others, don’t underestimate the leverage of the team. Help your fellow BRIDGE members, volunteer, mentor, and tutor. No one gets it done on their own!”

Reflecting on his 10 years with the BRIDGE Program, Engineering Diversity Director Kevin McLaughlin spoke emotionally of the impact the program has had on underrepresented students.  “It’s been a remarkable 10 years for me. Before I got involved with BRIDGE, I thought it was a fantastic idea.  But it was through being with the students, teachers, and all of us that help the BRIDGE program that I began to see its transformative nature.”

“I’m extremely proud of BRIDGE students, for some pretty obvious reasons,” he said, noting that the graduation rate of BRIDGE participants underscores the success of this student cohort.  For students who engaged in BRIDGE in 2006, he said, the graduation rate was 80 percent; for students who participated in BRIDGE in 2007, the graduation rate had improved to an astounding 92 percent.  McLaughlin also noted the outstanding volunteerism and leadership of the BRIDGE students, which has contributed to the success of many School of Engineering outreach activities as well as the student body.

Testaments

Five current students and alumni who participated in BRIDGE shared their insights about the impact of the program. Each described a deep relationship with the program that began the summer before the freshman year and continued as the students became tutors, teachers, mentors and even scholarship donors.

Atinuke “Tina” Oyeniya, who attended BRIDGE in 2006, was introduced by her brother, BRIDGE ’08 graduate Sunday Oyeniya, who will graduate in May with his B.S. in Mechanical Engineering. Tina Oyeniya (B.S. Civil Eng. ’10) works as a project engineer with Hamilton Sundstrand and is pursuing her MBA at UConn.  Initially, she said, she was unenthusiastic about spending much of her summer on campus. “I got a letter telling me I had to attend BRIDGE.  I was very upset, because I already had a paying internship lined up that summer. I called Kevin [McLaughlin] and proceeded to tell him that I could make it through the degree program without BRIDGE. After 15 minutes, he convinced me that I had to participate, and he was right. The BRIDGE experience was wonderful. The first week of challenges included things like building bridges, building robots… doing things I never thought possible. We learned that with teamwork, we could achieve anything.”

Like most BRIDGE alumni, Oyeniya remained closely involved in the program throughout her undergraduate years, but she decided that wasn’t enough.  “That summer after I graduated from college, I thought, ‘What was important to me?’ It was BRIDGE, which helped me accomplish a lot. And I thought, ‘I’m supposed to give back.’ So I started a scholarship. And every summer the Oyeniya Scholarship is given to one student” enrolled in the BRIDGE Program.  She also contributes her time with a new program, ManyMentors, aimed at helping underserved students to excel and realize their dreams.

BRIDGE ’07 graduate Gustavo K. Contreras (B.S. ’11) who earned dual degrees in Electrical Engineering and in Computer Engineering, also spoke of his experience. Contreras is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Computer Science & Engineering.  During his undergraduate years, he was deeply involved in several engineering societies and served as president of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. He also participated in the Honors Program and received scholarships while pursuing his degrees.

“The reason so many BRIDGE students lead the student societies is due to the influence that BRIDGE has had on us. BRIDGE is not a leadership camp, but it pushes us to make a contribution to the societies,” he remarked, adding “BRIDGE is about making yourself better, it’s about taking control of your life, taking control of the challenges.” (Read more about Contreras here and here.)

Melissa Jacques (read 2008 profile), a 2010 graduate (Mechanical Eng. and Materials Science & Eng.), was a lightning rod for charitable activities during her years with the UConn chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE).  She was an advisor, former chapter president, and founder of the society’s annual Thanksgiving Food Drive and Basket Delivery event. As a senior, she was selected the Outstanding Senior Woman for the School of Engineering.

Reflecting on the importance of the program, she said “BRIDGE brings hope to those minority students who are determined to further their education at UConn. There are many things about college that can be confusing, such as being away from home, making new friends, not knowing what to expect in the working world. However, as a BRIDGE student, I had the edge.  I knew first-hand what the work load was like. I knew my campus, I had BRIDGE study partners, textbooks for my freshman year, and I had an extended family that cheered me on:  the Engineering office staff and my fellow BRIDGE mates. For me, BRIDGE was a blessing. It was a gift; a major catalyst that influenced my goals in life.”

She continued, “What I remember most about BRIDGE was that encouraging feeling of looking across the classroom during Chem class – Kevin was teaching the class – and seeing all my fellow BRIDGE mates working together towards the joint goal of becoming engineers. Some of them will be the first in their families, not just to become an engineer, but to obtain a college degree…We all had the same passion.  We encouraged each other, built each other up during those trying times. I would not be where I am today without the support that I received from my fellow BRIDGE students. With the hope that BRIDGE gave me, I held my head high as I walked across the stage on commencement day.”

The next speaker was Lyndon Charles, Jr. (B.S. ’06), who attended BRIDGE in 2001. After earning his degree in Biomedical Engineering, Charles completed a master’s degree in Materials Science & Engineering and then began doctoral studies in Biomedical Sciences at the UConn Health Center involving the biomedical aspects of bone regeneration.

He said, “BRIDGE dramatically increases the chances of students who may typically become discouraged and might not otherwise finish the engineering degree program.  And it does so by a little acronym I would like to introduce, CPR: Community, Preparation and Responsibility.”

CPR, he explained, sets the stage for students “not to fail, for you to continue, persevere, and gain a degree in engineering.” Charles spoke of the supportive community associated with the BRIDGE Program, from Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Education & Diversity Marty Wood and McLaughlin to the support staff, BRIDGE tutors and fellow students.  “In terms of preparation, BRIDGE is a grueling program,” he said, adding, “For me personally, I don’t know what would have happened to my career in the School of Engineering if I had walked into C++ my first year without the preparation of BRIDGE. Coming from the Caribbean [where his high school installed computers just his senior year] I had no exposure to computing.”

Returning to his CPR theme, Charles said, “BRIDGE gives you a sense of responsibility. Not just for yourself and your academic excellence. It gives you a sense of responsibility in the sense of being your brothers’ and sisters’ keeper.” He concluded “This is something that will stick with you, stick with us, for life.  At the end of my college career, I realize that BRIDGE was the single most important event helping me to succeed.”

Power to Inspire

The final speaker was senior Stephany Santos, who will receive her B.S. in Biomedical Engineering in May and then continue her studies at Milan Polytechnic, in Italy before returning to UConn to pursue her Ph.D.  Santos has been a dedicated contributor to the BRIDGE Program: she has tutored students in chemistry and computer programming, served as a BRIDGE residence hall director, supervised a corps of tutors, and taught the MATLAB programming class.  She has also served as co-president of the UConn Engineering Ambassadors.  Like Oyeniya, Santos felt compelled to help other students who have followed her in the BRIDGE Program: in 2010, she and two friends pooled their summer earnings to support a $2,000 scholarship for a needy student.

Inspired by her BRIDGE experience and the singular community at UConn, Santos chose to express her sentiments in verse.  Her original poem appears below.

Engineers are not supposed to be good with words…
Dazed, lost, and blindsightedly concerned,
With their research, projects, and dissertations,
Calling for countless hours of dedication,
Only to be inundated with too much information,To the point just before being deemed absurd…

And from what I heard…
Engineers are supposed to be driven by design
The desire to perfect an already straight line
Only to say “I was able to redefine”
Orthodox into indispensable and top of the line
Revolutionizing a new era for the entire world.

Yet here I am, trying to break the mold
Verbose, eloquent, and unforetold
An engineer with dreams and plans to unfold
All because in my past someone once told
Me.
That I was only a woman.
Destined for six things like an unlucky omen.
The first is that I was to be passive and supine,
Knowing my place in the shadows behind.
I was told never to laugh loudly to make people look my way,
And never to initiate a head-turning parley,
Because that’s not what women are supposed to do
So it was in my best interest not to stray from view

Someone once told me I was only a woman,
Destined to become my second omen
To mature into a mother, nurturing and proud
Level-minded and stern, and never without
An answer or suggestion; a superwoman at best
Never enough hours to allow her to rest
A doctor, a teacher, or a nurse for a career
But never to become an engineer…

Today I stand, three years ensuing
Fighting the battle and still pursuing
To be against all odds and follow my heart
And be a productive member of society, doing my part.
I wouldn’t be here though, if it weren’t for one man
Kevin McLaughlin and the rest of the BRIDGE clan
These were the people that believed in me
And became my unofficial UConn family
Staying up late we were each other’s inspiration
When times were rough we were our own motivation
Because when the people around you share that passion and pride
It’s no wonder we all work hard to grow and strive

I am no longer the girl I was in 2008
Shy, and in the shadows, but happy as I wait..ed
For the world to be handed to me, doors to open, and opportunities to unfold
And they did, but it wasn’t until this program that I learned to be bold
I learned about working alongside others, but most importantly
I learned about the characteristics that define me as me

I will not be labeled a minority, or a woman, or even an engineer
I am simply a person whose dreams have become clear
I want to change the world one step at a time
And it was this program, BRIDGE, that’s allowed me to shine

~ Stephany Santos (B.S. ’12)

 

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