Pictured above is Ellis at far right, with students in the BRIDGE’s first cohort in Spring 2013.
WHEN A STUDENT in Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was trying to save money by living in a substandard apartment near campus, her friends knew exactly what to do: Go to Brian Ellis, the college’s associate dean for undergraduate and graduate programs, for help. Ellis directs BRIDGE (Building Relationships in Diverse Group Experiences), a program that he started at LeBow in 2012 as a way to improve outcomes for its minority undergraduate students.
With the help of BRIDGE funding, Ellis arranged for the student to complete the remainder of the term in the campus residence halls. “The level of support and engagement here almost blows me away—
the strength of this program is that we’re one big family,” Ellis says. “But we also mean business. The goal is for everybody to graduate.”
Ellis was first approached in 2011 by Drexel’s vice provost, who realized that retention rates for underrepresented students lagged behind those of other student groups. The vice provost asked Ellis to design a
program at LeBow to improve these outcomes, because the business school enrolls such a large percentage of minorities at the university.
After looking for similar programs at other universities, Ellis discovered the Illinois Academic Enrichment and Leadership Program (I-LEAP) at the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of
Illinois in Urbana–Champaign. “There, I saw a community that offered extensive advising support. I-LEAP’s project manager was a mother figure to the students. Its ‘secret sauce’ was identifying someone who would be a support system and offer guidance,” says Ellis. “I wanted to replicate that to the best of my ability.”
With that in mind, he built BRIDGE to provide not just a set of programs, but a sense of family. Sometimes that means helping students through crises—after a student broke his leg playing basketball,
BRIDGE’s program manager stayed with him at the hospital until his parents could arrive. Or, sometimes it means providing them with ongoing moral support—after discovering that students valued talking with their families around the dinner table, the program introduced monthly Sunday dinners. Ellis also looks for ways to help ease the burden of students’ supplemental educational costs, such as by providing them
with access to a textbook sharing library.
BRIDGE is based on four pillars of interaction: academics, financial literacy, social engagement, and community service. Students attend workshops related to success within the first two pillars. They also make visits to the offices of corporate partners such as Comcast, KPMG, and Johnson & Johnson. Each year, BRIDGE also sponsors 15 to 20 students on a field trip to other regions of the U.S.—such as California, Oregon, and Washington state—to visit companies outside the area.
In addition, BRIDGE students are encouraged to apply to Students Tackling Advanced Research (STAR), a universitywide student scholars program intended for students who have just completed their freshman year. Those selected complete research projects in their fields of study. This year, five BRIDGE students were accepted as STAR scholars.
Students also engage in community service activities. During spring break, they volunteer with local soup kitchens or Habitat for Humanity; and during the summer, they serve as counselors for Camp Bridge, an on-campus summer camp that hosts 25 students from west Philadelphia middle schools.
BRIDGE isn’t mandatory, so each summer Ellis and his staff contact incoming freshmen to let them know about the program; they also contact upper-level students to remind them of what BRIDGE has to offer. In addition, student ambassadors from the program participate in panels and at open houses where they talk about their experiences to prospective students and their parents. At the end of each year, LeBow sponsors an event that highlights BRIDGE students’ accomplishments.
BRIDGE now serves about 120 students and attracts 20 to 25 students each year. In 2016–2017, the program included its first group of seniors, so the college created the Senior Series. At these events, BRIDGE veterans speak to younger students about skills they’ve learned related to professional development, such as financial planning or applying to graduate school. One student delivered a program about women in business, while another discussed “dressing for success.” Says Ellis, “This is one way we set our seniors up to be engaged alumni.”
The one thing BRIDGE students don’t do? Live in an on-campus living and learning community (LLC) dedicated to the program. “The college has many LLCs, but we didn’t want BRIDGE students to live together or take classes together as a cohort,” Ellis explains. “We want to expose them to other cultures.”
BRIDGE’s first group of seniors achieved a 90 percent on-time graduation rate from LeBow’s five-year co-op degree program. That rate surpasses the graduation rate for Drexel’s general student population, which stands at around 70 percent. Ellis hopes these and future BRIDGE graduates will return to become mentors for other participants.
Ellis now faces two primary challenges. The first is finding a sustained source of funding. While alumni and corporate partners so far have been generous with donations, Ellis says that it’s his “life’s mission” to get the program endowed.
The second is to scale the program across the university. “People across campus have asked me to talk to them about BRIDGE, and I share what we’ve done. But if we scale it, I want there to be a commitment. I want to make sure we do it right.”