How the Community Scholars Program reimagined students’ 2020 summer experience

Georgetown University’s Community Scholars Program recently welcomed a new cohort of 70 incoming students to its summer bridge experience, having reimagined the program for an environment shaped by COVID-19. The five-week, virtual program seeks to center the lived experiences and identities of Community Scholars—most of whom are the first in their family to attend college—to ensure that students thrive in their transition to Georgetown.

“So much of these students’ high school experiences were disrupted. That compounds the importance of summer bridge programs in this moment, both on the pre-college and college level,” says Charlene Brown-McKenzie (C’95), director of Georgetown’s Center for Multicultural Equity and Access, which includes CSP. “We knew we needed to pivot—and pivot quickly.”

Building on a 50+ year foundation

For almost 52 years, CSP has promoted social justice by enrolling and retaining a more racially and socioeconomically diverse student body.

In a typical year, Community Scholars—who come mostly from under resourced schools and are selected for their academic achievements, personal initiative, and service—travel to campus for the five-week academic experience during the summer before their first year. Scholars reside together; take two credit-bearing classes at Georgetown; attend orientation workshops; and interact with professors, advisors, campus partners, and each other in order to form bonds and become acclimated to the university.

Related: Community Scholars Program celebrates 50th anniversary >

Once the regular academic year begins, the program supports its students throughout their Georgetown careers with advising, mentoring and personal counseling, study groups, workshops, and seminars. Community Scholars have a 92 percent graduation rate, which far exceeds the national average for first-generation students, and a first-to-second-year retention rate of 98 percent.

Related: Pursuing the Dream—the Legacy Continues >

A virtual home for Community Scholars

When Georgetown announced on March 27 that all summer course offerings would take place virtually, CSP leaders set out to flip the program to a virtual space utilizing design thinking. “We asked ourselves, ‘How might we offer CSP in a virtual platform by leaning into the challenges of an online environment while still cultivating community and a sense of belonging, helping Scholars build academic skills and confidence, and facilitating students’ transition to an elite predominantly white institution?’” says CSP Director Devita Bishundat.

“We considered, ‘How will Scholars engage with our program, and what are their needs? What insight do we have from past experiences that can help us develop an inclusive program that meets our goals?’”

Having decided to move both the curricular and co-curricular components of CSP to a virtual environment, program leaders communicated the shift to students with care, understanding that many of the Scholars come from communities where the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact.

Pivoting courses and programming

CSP leaders knew it would be crucial to have curricular and co-curricular offerings designed to meet the needs of a diverse student population through inclusive pedagogical practices. Georgetown’s deep expertise in educational innovation was a key asset in translating a program focused on community, belonging, and shared identity to a virtual space, says Brown-McKenzie. “We had a team saying ‘How can we do this right? If we can get this right for this community, we can get this right for the rest of Georgetown.’”

CSP felt it could ensure greater mentorship and support this summer if program faculty had experience working with first-generation, low-income students in the past. Led by Dean of Georgetown College Christopher Celenza, Senior Associate Dean Thom Chiarolanzio, Vice Dean of Faculty Soyica Colbert, and Assistant Dean Javier Jiménez-Westerman, Georgetown College mobilized quickly to recruit five instructors who were familiar with CSP and committed to the program’s values and the overarching Jesuit values of academic excellence, community in diversity, and social justice.

These instructors were able to offer four courses that fulfill university core requirements, as well as a math course intended for pre-med/science students and students in the business school. Factoring in six sections of the university writing course, a total of 11 instructors agreed to pivot their course design to create an academic experience that, as always, would be rigorous and supportive, giving Community Scholars a running start in their Georgetown journey.

Meanwhile, in developing co-curricular programming and activities, the CSP team prioritized both academic outcomes, like goal setting and intellectual curiosity, and psychosocial outcomes, such as developing self- and resource-awareness, building social capital, and managing stress. Those informed a range of modules and exercises pertaining to study skill strategies, building relationships with faculty, mental health, online learning tools, identity development, wellness, financial literacy, and self-care.

Working closely with the staff at Georgetown’s Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS), CSP worked to build out its program on the Canvas digital learning platform, taking care to map out a daily schedule that didn’t lead to Zoom/screen burnout for students. The team emerged with a new virtual home built especially and intentionally for the CSP Class of 2024. (They also chronicled this journey—visit the resulting StoryMap to learn more.)

Ensuring incoming Scholars have what they need

In addition, CSP has worked to ensure that incoming Scholars have everything they need in order to be successful as first-year students at Georgetown. Recognizing that some students did not have the devices and internet accessibility needed to fully engage in summer programming, CSP partnered with Georgetown’s Office of Student Financial Services and University Information Systems to secure laptop grants and send WiFi hotspots, focusing on each student’s needs. 

Ultimately, program leaders delivered a range of personalized support, helping each student manage details ranging from course registration to books, supplies, health insurance, skills inventories, and more. The process required careful orchestration of multiple campus partners and offices.


Financial Aid and COVID-19

Charlene Brown-McKenzie, director of Georgetown’s Center for Multicultural Equity and Access, and Missy Foy, director of the Georgetown Scholars Program, discuss the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on students who rely on financial aid.

Creating a virtual community

When they’re on campus, Community Scholars interact with teaching assistants, residential advisors, program staff, and a whole host of campus offices that are ready to help students succeed. In an online environment, those interactions change, but the virtual format offers Scholars a chance to engage with the university in a much broader way, Brown-McKenzie points out. 

“They’re not moving across campus in the same way, so we’re bringing campus to them,” she says. Scholars have been assigned to six different small groups led by community advisors, have a “high-five” buddy check-in daily, and work with a faculty or staff mentor. 

Engaging CSP families

In reimagining the CSP summer bridge experience, CSP leaders also saw an opportunity to engage with families in a new way. “If we were not impacted by COVID-19, we would have brought these students to campus to be fully immersed in this experience away from the family unit,” notes Brown-McKenzie. “But now, they are learners in the context of their home and communities—and that may be a multi-generational household, or one where they live in a communal space, or a situation where they have work and childcare responsibilities. It may be a household where college-going is not the first salient priority at this time.”

To foster a college-going environment, CSP has launched a five-part Community Scholars Virtual Family series. The sessions, held every Saturday, cover topics like learning in a hybrid environment; financial aid, scholarships, and student financial literacy; and the value of experiences outside the classroom.

Ultimately, Brown-McKenzie says, Georgetown wants Community Scholars to emerge feeling empowered to succeed. “We want them to understand that they deserve to be here. Georgetown is a stronger institution—a true community in diversity—because they are here.”

Learn about our summer-long initiative, 90 Days with Georgetown, and how our extraordinary community is coming together to support Georgetown students, meet the array of student financial needs intensified by COVID-19, and fulfill the university’s teaching and research mission.

Topics in this story
, , ,

Next Up

4 ways to improve the community college transfer pipeline

As the pandemic upends college plans and magnifies racial disparities, higher education leaders say it is more crucial than ever to strengthen community college students’ path to an affordable four-year degree.