Each of these strategies celebrates the cultural wealth of the Black and brown students, their families and their communities. By centralizing racial equity practices in our work, all students will succeed at higher rates.
As a non-native English speaker, Cecilia De Oliveira understands how students could view their cultural diversity as an educational hindrance. That’s why she is thrilled to see Bridgewater State University using a state grant to change that false assumption.
“It’s music to my ears,” said De Oliveira, a native Cape Verdean Creole speaker who serves as director of equity interventions at BSU. “Diversity is an advantage, but sometimes it’s looked on as a disadvantage.”
The $150,000 higher education innovation grant helps BSU develop a way to formally recognize biliteracy skills. It also expands a successful college transition program and advances the work of the Leading for Change Racial Equity and Justice Institute, a collaboration of 30 colleges and universities led by Bridgewater. The grant facilitates the institute’s efforts to evaluate existing campus practices with a goal of creating equity-oriented action plans.
“Each of these strategies celebrates the cultural wealth of the Black and brown students, their families and their communities,” said Dr. Sabrina Gentlewarrior, vice president for student success and diversity. “By centralizing racial equity practices in our work, all students will succeed at higher rates.”
Programs funded by the grant also advance state Higher Education Commissioner Carlos Santiago’s racial equity goals.
To learn more, we spoke with several faculty and administrators leading the BSU-specific programs.
The Summer Bears program, which begins in the months before a student’s first fall semester, eases the transition to BSU for those with lower high school GPAs.
“It’s a soft introduction to what college is like,” said Dr. Jessica Birthisel, an associate professor of communication studies who teaches a public speaking course in the program. “It’s also a class where you get to know each other. People tell stories about their lives, their heroes and their struggles. Students often bond with each other.”
The course will now also help students to home in on their college major and connect their studies with successful careers. They will learn how a college education is key to supporting themselves, their families and their communities.
“It is our hope that introducing career development at an early stage will help students remain in their degree program and persist to graduation,” said Career Services Assistant Director Katie Vagen.
Summer Bears, which will serve about 150 students this year, is also expanding to include an introductory English class offered in the fall and supported by the Academic Achievement Center. Students will participate in book discussion groups led by BSU employees and meet with peer writing mentors. Those people become important points of contact for the students, said Dr. Lee Torda, an associate professor of English.
Massachusetts’ Seal of Biliteracy is awarded on high school diplomas or transcripts to students who are proficient in English and a second language.
Now, BSU, which runs dual enrollment and early college programs through which high schoolers take university classes for college credit, is working through logistics so it can award the seal. Administrators are also exploring whether the seal itself can count for college credit.
While students could earn the seal by taking foreign language classes, BSU officials aim to ensure it also honors language skills acquired naturally from students’ families and cultures.
"It's threaded through their life experience and educational experience,” said Dr. David Crane, dean of the College of Continuing Studies. “We want to recognize that and celebrate that.”
The recognition, De Oliveira said, “gives you a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose.”
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