Anacia Sessoms recalls what it was like in 2021 to be an incoming freshman at Montclair State University. After months of remote and hybrid learning, “I was excited to meet new people from different countries, different towns, different states,” she says.
To get an early start on her college experience Sessoms enrolled in Montclair’s summer bridge program, which was introduced and supported by COVID-19 relief funding to help address learning loss and college preparedness caused by the pandemic.
Three summers later, Sessoms is a peer mentor in the Summer Bridge Scholars Program, now an integral part of Montclair’s summer early and pre-college experiences. With about 200 incoming freshmen earning credits and getting used to the college routine, this summer featured a new model with residential and commuter options, including hybrid learning.
Sessoms, a Visual Arts major, relishes her role guiding the new freshmen. It’s been a full-cycle moment, she says, especially by “being a voice for people who feel they don’t have a voice and having an impact helping students who come to me for advice.”
The Summer Bridge Scholars Program has been modeled after the successful Summer Academy of Montclair’s Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF), which saw another 140 incoming scholars getting a jump-start on college, earning credits and taking part in a host of co-curricular activities, including learning about financial literacy, career development, community service and leadership development.
“With all of the touch points that we create and develop, by the end of the five-week summer program, the scholars are fully connected to the community, and they’re ready for the fall semester. When the fall semester starts, they’ve made those connections to make that transition a lot easier,” says Assistant Provost for Special Programs, EOF and Academic Success Daniel Jean.
“I call it the training wheels,” added incoming EOF scholar Kerany Motino, “because this summer program gets you in the habit of waking up early, taking classes and doing the work.”
Montclair students graduate at a higher rate than the national average and more than 70% of EOF scholars, many who come from under-funded school districts, graduate within six years. EOF Director Rahjaun Gordon attributes this to the quality mentoring, tutoring, resources and advising the scholars receive beginning with the Summer Academy when they are able to take six college credits for free.
“These students do have resilient backgrounds. A lot are first-generation college students so they don’t have a reference to what college is going to be like,” Gordon says. “However, once we build community and show them that they belong here, and once we tap into letting them know that they are chosen for a reason, they typically buy into that at high rates. It’s almost like the scholars come to realize, ‘I didn’t think I was going to be here, but I have this organization and this group of people who are telling me and constantly reminding me that I can do this and are supporting me along the way. It’s almost like I have no choice but to live up to my full potential.’”
EOF‘s adage, “Finish in Four” is inspiring, says Courtney Theodule ’23. Theodule says she took those words to heart, completing her degree in Jurisprudence, Law and Society, as part of the combined BA/MA 4+1 program offered at Montclair (she’ll spend this academic year completing her master’s in Law and Governance). “I took summer and winter courses to make sure I would finish in four on the road to graduation. That’s what EOF prepares you for – they prepare you for graduation day.”
At her own Commencement ceremony, Theodule’s family was overcome with emotion as she joined her sisters Robine Theodule ’17, ’20 MBA, and Ashley Theodule ’18 as EOF and Montclair alumni. “When you’re first-gen, you strive to make a difference, to make your parents proud. We have to keep this going for generations to come,” Courtney Theodule says.
This year’s EOF Summer Academy piloted a financial literacy program, the Live Richer Academy developed by alumna Tiffany “The Budgetnista” Aliche ’02, author and personal finance educator who was recently featured in a new Netflix documentary, Get Smart with Money.
Aliche highlighted the importance of knowing, understanding financial matters like financial aid, loans and interest rates, and taught the students, no matter how humble their beginnings, that they have more potential then they realize.
The Summer Bridge Scholars Program, which ends August 10, provides students with a variety of courses at a discounted rate across all of Montclair’s schools and colleges. A separate track was available in a Health Careers Program that prepared highly motivated and academically capable students from financially and educationally disadvantaged backgrounds for admission to health professions schools (medical, dental, optometry, podiatry, osteopathic and veterinary) and other careers in the sciences and health.
A key takeaway from all of the summer programs is understanding the full gamut of resources that Montclair has available, everything from counseling, the dean’s office, financial aid to academic support.
“What I notice is a lot of freshmen come in the fall to any college or university and there are so many things available, but they don’t tap into them sometimes until it’s too late,” Gordon says. “At Montclair, we put those services in front of them, exposing them to a lot of these offices early on and getting them more comfortable talking to the professionals in these offices, knowing the locations and realizing that this is a resource they have all four years.”
Peer mentor Tim Orlando, a junior Political Science major, says, “It’s stuff that as a college student, even myself, you take for granted a little bit and you don’t realize how important, how valuable these resources the University offers are. So that’s the importance of it and we try to touch as many offices on campus as we can. We’ve given these freshmen the tools that can benefit them throughout their academic years.”
You may also like: