Bridges program straight shot to success

National Institutes of Health funds program

A new five-year, $1.3 million Bridges to the Future grant from the National Institutes of Health will help Seward County Community College students continue their studies to earn bachelor’s degrees at Kansas State University. 

Already, SCCC graduates make up nearly half the Bridges students enrolled in the K-State program.

“The Bridges program has given our students critical support system as they navigate an academic world that’s completely new to them,” said Dr. Todd Carter, Vice President of Academic Affairs at SCCC. Before moving to the executive team at SCCC, Carter served as a biology instructor, division chair, and research director. During that time, he worked closely with K-State to help establish the Bridges to the Future program, which started in 2004, at SCCC. 

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Bridges Cohort at K-State, summer 2016.

More than 20 SCCC students have utilized the Bridges program to pursue higher degrees at K-State. For example, SCCC alum Obdulia Covarrubias graduated K-State in 2015 with a degree in Biochemistry.  Covarrubias pursued her research in the Plant Pathology department, ranked number one in the nation.  She received a National Science Foundation Fellowship to pay for graduate school and is currently in her second year in the lab of Dr. Stefan Bossmann as she works toward her Ph.D. in Chemistry.

Covarriubias’ journey is exactly what the program aims to facilitate.

The purpose of the Bridges to the Future grant is to increase the number of underrepresented students with baccalaureate degrees in the biomedical and behavioral sciences and to set into motion pathways designed to increase the number of graduate and medical degrees in those fields, said John Buckwalter, dean of the university’s College of Human Ecology, which is overseeing the grant.

“The grant makes possible critical resources that can provide a successful path for Bridges students to begin their postsecondary pursuits at Dodge City Community College, Garden City Community College and Seward County Community College in Liberal for two years, followed by matriculation to Kansas State University,” Buckwalter said.

At SCCC, microbiology instructor Myron Perry serves as the on-campus coordinator for the Bridges program. A researcher himself, he says the opportunity for first- and second-year science students to log higher-level lab experience is rare and valuable in a community college setting. 

“Getting the students that real-world research experience on the same par as what you would experience at a four-year university — that’s excellent,” he said. “It keeps them on track with freshmen at four-year universities.”

“Participants in Bridges to the Future can join an established, highly successful, undergraduate research program, Developing Scholars,” Cortez said. “The Developing Scholars Program supports students academically and personally through providing seminars, workshops, lab experiences and research internships to help students explore their options in biomedical and behavioral sciences. Through the Bridges program, students are prepared to succeed in graduate school and establish thriving professional careers.”

While this is a fresh version of a pre-existing program, Kansas State University has sponsored 104 students through past NIH Bridge grants. Three-quarters of those students have already graduated with others still on the path. Of those students who have earned bachelor degrees, nearly 40 percent have pursued professional or graduate programs. Some of these students have gone to medical school, optometry school, chiropractic school, dental school and veterinary college. Others have taken their academics to the national arena and earned a highly competitive NSF Fellowship, a Goldwater Scholarship, a Phi Kappa Phi Graduate Fellowship and an internship in a Harvard lab. 

“Bridges to the Future has an 11-year history here at K-State and provides a well-established pathway for students transferring from southwestern Kansas to K-State’s Developing Scholars Program,” Cortez said. The Bridges program supports students by building relationships with them and their families while at the community colleges. The students and families are then invited to visit Kansas State University, where they can become familiar with the larger campus, support staff and students who have matriculated through the program.

“These students are often first-generation, have never been away from home, and for them to go from, for example, a very traditional Mexican home where the older daughter is expected to stay home to take care of mom, to college — that really changes the dynamics of their life, the dynamics in their home life,” Perry said. “The key factor is for the parents to see that it’s possible for their children to do this.”

Cortes said that process creates a new, supportive community. 

“We have established long-standing relationships with families in the Liberal, Garden City and Dodge City areas, so when they attend the annual Developing Scholars Research Symposium in the spring, it is a celebratory reunion,” she said. “We know that families, students and staff, both at the community colleges and at K-State, have all worked hard to make Bridges to the Future the success that it is.”

“If I had that kind of opportunity when I was going to school, my life would have turned out completely different,” said Perry. “I would probably be working in a research lab someplace.”

As it is, the Bridges program offers Perry the opportunity to continue his own research projects while overseeing students’ forays into the world of scientific research. He also relishes the success stories that result. 

“Our students from the past have proven they have the ability to actually participate and excel at the highest levels,” he said. “Obdulia Covarrubias not only has an opportunity to get her PhD, she’s had the experience of working with the NSF and the NIH. That’s a great example of how far and wide you can go.”

Then there are the students who come to class each day in Perry’s lab. They’re not just soaking up microbiology facts and figures — they are learning how to function as professional researchers. 

“When I went to see the poster presentation from my three students this summer, it kind of blew me away,” he said. “Seeing their maturity from the last time I saw them in class at SCCC to presenting at K-State, — how they changed and turned around, learned to function effectively in academic research culture — that’s tremendous.”

SCCC Bridges coordinator and microbiology instructor Myron Perry, left, talks with students during a lab demonstration during the 2015-16 academic year. 

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