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Picture of Candace Young, a Purdue graduate student in the Department of Animal Sciences who participated in the summer 2020 Bridge Program and is continuing with the extended program. Candace Young, a graduate student in the Department of Animal Sciences who participated in the summer 2020 Bridge Program and is continuing with the extended program.

November 18, 2021

Bridge Program now supports, welcomes students beyond the summer

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Although the final steps around the fountain and across the stage at graduation may be small, earning a graduate degree can be a giant leap for many students.

The Graduate Bridge Program offers a community, professional development, mentorship and support for underrepresented minority students. The program has expanded and now spans from the summer before a student’s first year through their second year to help get them through the critical period when graduate students are likely to withdraw from their program.

“I want students to know that you are not alone, and together we are more successful than when we are on our own,” said Julius Eason, senior manager in Purdue University’s Office of Graduate Diversity Initiatives who leads the program. “Now these resources and mentorship will be with students up to two years, and students can join at any point within this critical period.”

Studies have shown the first two years of a student’s graduate studies to be the most critical to their successful completion of the degree. According to a 2015 paper by the Council of Graduate Schools, half of underrepresented minority students who withdraw from their doctoral programs do so within the first two years.

“Programs like this are essential to students,” Eason said. “Studies have shown that those who participate in programs like Bridge are far more likely to successfully complete their degree.”

The Graduate Bridge Program now offers social activities, professional development workshops, panel discussions, financial support and one-on-one guidance throughout the first stages of a graduate student’s experience.

“Leaving the undergraduate environment can be intimidating and even overwhelming,” Eason said. “Our program helps alleviate these feelings and reduces the stress load of these students. Through community, mentors and professional guidance we aim to reassure their research identity, and let them share this academic experience with other students who may be feeling similarly.”

Candace Young, a graduate student in the Department of Animal Sciences who participated in the summer 2020 Bridge Program and is continuing with the extended program, knows how it feels to question oneself.

“Imposter Syndrome is real,” she said. “I was a little hesitant to come to the Midwest and out of my element. Being with others like me and seeing others like me excel helped me get over that insecure and uncomfortable feeling.”

Joel Abdel Mercado-Reyes, a graduate student in the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology, said such support is helpful throughout a student’s time in graduate school.

“The program provides an initial point of contact that is extremely helpful with the many situations and struggles we encounter and are not necessarily prepared for,” said Mercado-Reyes, who is completing his master’s degree and participated in the summer Bridge Program in 2018. “It is not just at the beginning, anything can happen at any point of a graduate career.”

Young faced the additional challenge of starting her graduate studies during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I wanted to come to Purdue right away to get acquainted, but the pandemic changed my plans,” said Young, who participated in the program virtually that summer. “Even being online, the program really set me up and gave me a jump start into graduate school. It equips you with skills you will need but don’t necessarily learn as an undergrad, like getting into the mindset of not just retaining information, but applying your knowledge to research.”

Mercado-Reyes said the program allowed him to get a head start and set up before the semester started.

“Bridge was a great experience as you get to meet many people, get used to life around campus, get used to research life,” he said. “It was especially helpful getting financial support before getting our first paycheck to allow us to have some padding to survive and set up, if you are relocating like I was.”

“Because we don't have a myriad of other things to think about during the summer before we begin, we get a better feel for how things work and can take better advantage of the info provided,” he added.

A specific advantage of the online program was learning how to give an online presentation, Young said.

“I had never done an online presentation before, but we all had to give presentations as part of the program and we were all participating remotely,” she said. “Now, as a teaching assistant, I have to give online presentations every day. So that experience was tremendously helpful. But for me, Bridge also showed what I didn’t know, but that it is okay because in time I would learn those things. I don’t need to stress. I have the time and the resources to gain those skills.”

The Graduate Bridge Program workshops are offered in small groups and cover topics including personal finance, how to perform a literature review, creating a personal development plan, giving an elevator pitch, writing assistance resources at Purdue, and health and wellness.

The program has steadily grown from 3 students in 2015 to 13 in 2019, with a dip during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. In 2021 the program had its largest cohort with 23 students from eight colleges across campus. Approximately 80 percent of participants are pursuing a doctoral degree.


Photo Caption: In 2021, The Graduate Bridge Program enjoyed its largest cohort with 23 students from eight colleges across campus.

The expanded program also includes an emphasis on mentorship, Eason said.

“One mentor cannot fulfill all needs, so we are encouraging students to seek several mentors,” he said. “We are setting up events to facilitate mentorships from faculty beyond a student’s research team, and with multiple peers. We also want students to know they can come to any of us, we will listen, and if it is beyond our scope we will direct them to the many resources the university offers to support different needs. You only need to ask.”

The Graduate Bridge Program aligns with Purdue’s Equity Task Force initiatives to better address the need to increase underrepresented student enrollment and success in graduate school. An October 2020 report by the Council of Graduate Schools showed that while there has been an overall increase in enrollment of underrepresented minority students in graduate school, students from minority demographic groups, including Latinx, Black/African American, Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander, and American Indian/Alaska Native, remain substantially underrepresented in the graduate student population.

Mercado-Reyes’ research focuses on plant responses to drought. He plans to pursue a doctoral degree and research career related to climate change and ecosystems for non-profit organizations.

“I’ve always had an affinity for the forests, beaches and rivers around us, and I was surrounded by these great natural resources most of my life,” he said. “This attachment has driven me to want to protect or restore them.”

During her time as a graduate student, Young discovered she is allergic to gluten, and she connected with a faculty member in food sciences. This connection, in combination with her experience in animal nutrition research, led Young to adjust her focus. She now plans to pursue research on chronic digestive disorders using animal models.

“I was on a path to become a zoo nutritionist, but through this experience, I found my passion and I now know exactly what I want to do,” she said. “I plan to continue my graduate education and earn a PhD in human nutrition after my time at Purdue.”

Whatever their passions and however unique the journeys, Eason hopes the Bridge program and Office of Graduate Diversity help support students through a challenging transition and prepare them for success.

“I know these students will impact society through positive change in their own community and in the world,” Eason said. “They are passionate, enthusiastic and driven. I’m just along for the ride.”

Applications to join the Graduate Bridge Program are available here.

Source: Julius Eason, 
Writer: Elizabeth Gardner,


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