Bridge to Success scholarships supported students in need during COVID-19 crisis

In an effort to bolster support for students experiencing financial hardship due to the COVID-19 crisis, the UW–Madison School of Education established the Bridge to Success scholarship program.

The first round of applications, for students taking 2020 summer term courses, supported 367 scholars and distributed $1.34 million in support. These scholarships were made possible, in part, by a generous estate gift from Glen and Janet Lillegren Gustafson and the Impact 2030 Morgridge Match. The program also received support from the UW–Madison Graduate School.

“I want to express my sincerest gratitude to the generous donors who made the Bridge to Success summer scholarship program possible,” said Aaron Kinard, who was pursuing his bachelor’s degree in education studies and history, in the summer of 2020. “I am truly humbled to be a recipient of this scholarship and I appreciate your support towards achieving my goals.”

Adds Kinard: “As a first-generation college student, my journey has been a long one. After starting at a community college, I eventually found UW–Madison, where I have been challenged academically and guided with the care that I longed for. This scholarship will allow for my academic journey to continue. By receiving this scholarship during these trying times, I’m able to continue to pursue my education without a heavy burden on my back.”

Trang Diem
Trang Diem, who was pursuing her master’s degree from the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, was awarded a Bridge to Success scholarship for the summer 2020 term.

With the pandemic continuing, a second round of scholarships were granted for the fall 2020 term — with 502 awards going to students, worth $1.04 million.

To be eligible, a student’s primary academic plan/degree home had to be in the School of Education, and they had to have been experiencing financial hardship due to the COVID-19 crisis.

The vast majority of awards ranged from $500 to $5,000, although students who demonstrated additional need were considered for further funding.

“I am deeply appreciative of this support from School of Education alumni and friends, and especially for your empathy and dedication to help students in these challenging times,” said Trang Diem, who was pursuing her master’s degree from the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in the summer of 2020. “The financial assistance provided will be of great help to me in paying my summer educational expenses as my daughter and I are facing the financial hardship brought on by COVID-19. This scholarship will allow me to concentrate more of my time on studying.”

Student check-ins lead to Bridge to Success program

When the World Health Organization announced the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic on March 11, 2020, it set in motion a series of rapid changes at colleges and universities across the nation.

Within a week, local, state, and national agencies were taking steps to slow the spread of the virus, causing significant disruption in the lives of most students and their families. On March 17, 202, Chancellor Rebecca Blank announced that all UW–Madison courses were being moved to online and alternative delivery modes from March 23 (the day classes were to resume following Spring Break) through the end of the semester.

The School of Education quickly transitioned more than 400 courses and 2,500 students from face-to-face to virtual instruction in less than two weeks — all while its employees shifted to telecommuting.

It was enough to make anyone’s head spin.

In an effort to gather information on how students were handling all of this, the School of Education launched an ambitious Community Wellness Check-in project.

Under the leadership of Lesley Bartlett, a professor with the Department of Educational Policy Studies, a team of 10 faculty and staff created the initiative to connect with all undergraduate and graduate students during a three-week period in April 2020. There were four primary goals of this work: to provide human connection and emotional support; to provide students with information about resources; to identify students who were experiencing significant need in the areas of connectivity, emotional well-being, academic concerns, and financial hardship — and offer them the chance to connect to a “student help team”; and to document challenges faced by students so the School could develop policies and garner resources to help meet students’ needs.

First, nearly 200 faculty and staff from across the School contacted 2,653 degree-seeking students from their departments who have their primary major within the School. Initial contact was made via email, followed by a short (10-minute), voluntary telephone call to discuss items such as: adequacy of access to internet and devices needed to complete coursework; potential delays in progress toward graduation due to the COVID-19 virus; financial and/or food insecurity concerns; and requests for additional information or support from the School.

Callers then logged each student conversation via a survey, noting students who requested follow-ups. Members of the Wisconsin Evaluation Collaborative, housed within the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, then analyzed the data and trends, and prepared a report on the Community Wellness Check-in project.

According to responses collected, many students reported that their summer employment had been canceled during a period when there was already widespread and high levels of unemployment, leaving them uncertain as to how they would support themselves through the summer. The survey indicated that 17 percent of School of Education domestic students requested information about financial supports or food insecurity — while that number jumped to 46.5 percent for non-citizens. Similarly, while 13.7 percent of white students requested information about financial supports or food insecurity, students of color were much more likely to request this same information, including 27.2 percent of American Indians, 23.6 percent of Asians, 29.5 percent of Black students, and 33.7 percent of Latinx students.

In addition, more than a quarter of students reported they were unsure or already knew that they will need to extend the length of their academic program to graduate. This was especially the case for international students and graduate students.

“The information that we collected from the wellness check-ins certainly confirmed what I think we all knew — the pandemic has created financial need for our students as well as caused some students to extend their time to degree,” says Francesca Rodriquez, a strategic program coordinator with the Dean’s Office who was a member of the School’s Student Help Team that designed and supervised the Community Wellness Check-in project. “The check-ins also showed us that international students and students of color were often disproportionately affected by COVID-19.”

While some schools and colleges emailed students information and surveys, the School of Education is believed to be the only college or school on campus that made such an extensive effort to check in with its students during the spring semester. As a result of the survey, all students across the School were emailed a curated list of sources of support, including through the financial aid office. The School also learned about its students’ access to quality internet, how they experienced their courses, and what supports they want going forward — information that has been utilized to help plan for the summer and fall semesters, and beyond.

In an effort to further support students experiencing financial hardship due to the COVID-19 crisis, the School established the Bridge to Success scholarship program.

“Our goal was to make sure our students had the resources they needed to continue their academic program and make progress this summer,” says School of Education Dean Diana Hess. “It was interesting to see the Community Wellness Check-in project learn where our students most needed help — and then work hard with our financial strategy team, the UW Office of Student Financial Aid, and with our generous donors to deliver this scholarship support.”

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