Over the course of the last several decades, higher education has become the main symbol of and platform for upward social mobility. Within that same time period, access to higher education for underrepresented students has remained low and new barriers have been added in the form of sharp increases in the cost of attendance at colleges and universities across the country. While financial barriers have traditionally been a significant hurdle for underrepresented students, history has shown that coping with the climate of a college or university campus has been a clear source of problems facing underrepresented students once admitted to an institution of higher education. At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, racially charged events such as the Mill House Incident in 1970, the racial riot after Game 7 of the 1986 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Mets known as the Southwest Incident or the racially motivated attack on a Resident Assistant in 1992.
Each of these incidents unearthed the hostile environment underrepresented students faced at the University after overcoming serious obstacles to earning a spot as a student at the University. With the recognition of the difficulties and disadvantages underrepresented students face in the admissions process as well as on the University’s campus, a dedicated network of students in the fall of 2005 made the decision to actively pursue an avenue to level the playing field for underrepresented students. Not only did specific events such as the Southwest Incident and the 1992 attack of a Resident Assistant motivate these students but also a shift in the admissions policies at the University. In 1996, the University made the decision to deemphasize race in the in the admissions process which resulted in a drop of ALANA freshmen admission rates in the years that followed this decision. The drop in the admission rates of ALANA students coupled with the other known hurdles, the network of students drafted a proposal for a program titled “Low Income Access Outreach” Program.
The “Low Income Access Outreach” Program was proposed after conducting extensive interviews with students, faculty, staff, administrators and community members and would be funded with $185,000 from the Student Government Association. Based on the feedback from these interviews, the network developed a proposal for a student-to-student outreach project designed to increase reciprocal relationships between the UMass campus and local communities. The goal of the “Low Income Access Outreach” develop and provide direct resources to increase pathways to higher education for local community members. Additionally, members of the program would engage in policy evaluations and advocacy designed to effect long-term, systematic enhancement of the University’s outreach efforts and its accessibility to underrepresented students.
After releasing the first proposal, another draft was put forth by the Race and Economic Justice Task Force of the Student Center for Educational Research and Advocacy (SCERA). Although the goal of the new program was largely unchanged from the first proposal, the language in the latest proposal stressed the need to create “bridges between UMass students and working class communities” (p.1, “Student Bridges” Pilot Program Proposal 3/30/06). The shift in language represents the one for the core aspects of what is now known as Student Bridges: to develop and maintain a mutually beneficial relationship between UMass and the local communities. This proposal was ultimately introduced to the Student Government Association. The Student Government Association made the decision to provide $100,000 in funding for the “Student Bridges Pilot Program”. Once the funding was obtained, students worked tirelessly throughout the summer of 2006 to ensure that Student Bridges would be successfully implemented in the fall.
Student Bridges was fully operational in September of 2006 and in just two short months, Student Bridges was granted independent agency status by the Student Government Association. The new status of Student Bridges allowed the organization to obtain its’ own office space, increase funding, and to expand the organization. After 6 years, Student Bridges has continued to carry out its mission, work in conjunction with the Holyoke and Springfield communities, and provide support to students in the UMass community.