St. John’s College Launches Pritzker Promise Program

October 28, 2020 | By Abdullah Mirza (SF20) and Les Poling 

St. John’s College launched the inaugural Pritzker Promise Bridge Program this summer.

In summer 2020, St. John’s College launched the inaugural Pritzker Promise Bridge Program. Taking place on both campuses—virtually, this year—the program aims to prepare new Johnnies for St. John’s by helping them develop academic skills and study habits, providing guidance and support, and building relationships with faculty and peers prior to the opening seminar. Funded by a generous grant from Board of Visitors and Governors member Karen Pritzker, the program is the first of its kind at St. John’s: a cross-campus initiative explicitly aimed at equipping Pell Grant recipients and underrepresented incoming students with the tools, skills, and resources they need to succeed at the college.

The program arose in response to feedback from Johnnies past. According to Santa Fe Dean Walter Sterling, surveys have shown that graduating St. John’s seniors leave the college with predominantly positive feelings about the Program. They say the college provided them with the experience they wanted; they also report favorably about the relationships they formed with faculty and the college community in general.

However, half or more of graduating seniors also said they didn’t feel academically prepared when they arrived at the college, and more than half said that they gave serious thought to leaving the college at some point during their St. John’s career. The numbers are higher for underrepresented groups, including students of color, international students, and Pell Grant recipients. The bridge program is specifically designed to counter the factors that these students struggle with and increase retention through various workshops led by faculty and staff.

A Bridge to the Community

The inaugural bridge program had a similar structure on each campus, with sessions focused on different aspects of life at the college. St. John’s in Santa Fe opened up this year’s programming to all incoming freshmen—a result of the unique challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic. However, certain sessions were still reserved, such as the “Work Study Basics, Financial Literacy, and Time Management” session for financial aid recipients and first-generation students, and “Putting Down Roots,” a session for international students. In Annapolis, meanwhile, the program was open exclusively to eligible incoming students, with sessions including “Welcome to St. John’s College and the Summer Scholars Program” (a general overview of St. John’s and the bridge program offerings); “Work Study, the Career Services Office, and Managing Your Time” (an introduction to federal and college work study, finding a campus job, and student employment); and more.

“This was about engagement,” says Danielle Lico, executive director of campus health and wellness in Annapolis. “Engagement with the community, and engagement with each other—in the spirit of trying to build a ‘bridge’ into the community for incoming students.”

While many sessions had a pragmatic focus, others aimed to introduce students to the academic side of the college. As Caroline Randall, director of admissions in Santa Fe, points out: Johnnies come to the college from all over the world, but few are coming from schools with the same academic culture as St. John’s. “Some of our students are nervous about seminar-style classes or the amount of reading expected, or about certain subjects,” she explains.

Additionally, the remote start to the fall semester produced some anxiety for incoming students over building relationships and connecting with classmates and tutors—which can make an enormous difference when it comes to adapting and thriving in the Program.

“The bridge program is the perfect answer for these concerns,” Randall says. “It was the perfect year to start this program, and I am excited to see how it will develop going forward.”

Tutor Kathleen Longwaters—who led a math and a seminar session in the Santa Fe program—noted that in this new virtual environment, developing connections with students is crucial, especially for incoming Johnnies who have not yet experienced life in the St. John’s community.

“For students who are coming from varied backgrounds, I think it will be wonderful for them to have an opportunity to stretch their legs a bit in a setting where they might feel more at home,” she suggests, noting the unexpected pressures that can arise from diving into the Program with no preparation.

In addition to academics, the bridge program aimed to spotlight mental health. Dr. Heather Lopez, senior staff clinician and administrative lead in the Annapolis Counseling Center, led a session titled “Taking Care of Yourself,” which was an overview of mental health resources and self-care mechanisms for incoming students. In her session, Lopez stressed the importance of self-advocacy, seeking help, and managing the ups and down of the first semester at St. John’s—all of which she considers vital for all incoming Johnnies.

The Life of the Mind

On both campuses, the bridge program aimed to meet the expectations of new Johnnies. Students generally attend St. John’s because they’re attracted to the one-of-a-kind vision of the college; an idea Sterling had in mind when he led a session titled “The St. John’s Experience: Why become a Johnnie? Why do the Program?” The readings included remarks he delivered at the 50th anniversary of the Santa Fe campus in 2014; his LA Times op-ed on the positive impact of the international students at the college; and a recent Albuquerque Journal op-ed penned by outgoing Associate Dean of the Graduate Institute David McDonald, which explored the unexpected success of online seminar-style classes during the coronavirus shutdown.

Sterling invited participants in his session to read the opening pages of the latest iteration of the “Statement of the St. John’s College Program,” a 30-odd page document which outlines the mission and project of the college. In that respect, Sterling sees the bridge program potentially playing a “traditional” role at the college; one that helps “our students think deeply about the St. John’s experience before they are arriving on day one, [so] that they're really trying to own that intentionally and equip themselves for it.”

Annapolis Assistant Dean Nathan Dugan also led a session on St. John’s academics, titled “Life in the Classroom.” Dugan focused his session on preparing incoming students for some of the specifics of the classroom experience, normalizing the type of learning that occurs at St. John’s, and setting the foundation for incoming students to build up “academic resilience.” The thinking behind the session was to directly confront the statistics referenced by Sterling: specifically, that 50 percent or more Johnnies felt academically unprepared for the rigor of the Program. Dugan believes that the first couple weeks of seminar can have an overwhelming effect on freshmen.

“It’s not that incoming students aren’t prepared,” he notes. “It’s more their own initial experience of participation in class that’s the problem.” Oftentimes, he explains, students who attended college prep high schools and the like arrive to St. John’s with more familiarity with the reading list—something that can make students who didn’t have the same high school experience feel like they don’t belong. It’s that sense of belonging, or lack thereof, that Dugan intends to curb with the bridge program. As he points out, a student’s preexisting knowledge of Program books has no bearing on becoming a Johnnie. “We’re accepting people who are qualified to be at St. John’s.”

For that reason, Dugan felt certain, while designing the “Life in the Classroom” session, that incoming Johnnies didn’t need any kind of academic “training.” Instead, by familiarizing incoming students with some of the challenges commonly faced by new students—and by introducing them to some of the ways Johnnies are able to thrive in the classroom, especially after the first couple weeks—Dugan hoped to help first years enter the fall semester with a bit more reassurance.

“Being able to quote Shakespeare or Nietzsche on the first day of class—that is not what’s important here,” says Dugan. “What’s important is that you can ask a question.”

In many ways, the programming described by Dugan and Sterling prompts students to consider overarching, timeless questions of the college. At the same time, the Pritzker Promise program helps the college pursue strategies that meet immediate challenges. For example, in addition to the informational and academic sessions, the Santa Fe bridge program segues with the existing freshman advising program—pioneered last year—which pairs freshmen with a dedicated faculty advisor for their first year. Though faculty advising at St. John’s has traditionally been a process that happens organically, Sterling thinks programs like this one can only help the existing culture. He also believes that in the future, the results from this and similar projects—such as the Board of Visitors and Governors’ recent efforts around diversity and inclusion—will be experiences to learn from that will fuel conversation among the faculty and college leadership.

Looking Forward

This year, the Santa Fe Bridge program was facilitated by Nanette Phillips, who joined the Santa Fe staff this summer as the student support coordinator. Previously, she worked with high school students at United World College in Montezuma, New Mexico, and was a freelance writer and outdoor educator. She looks forward to tweaking and improving the bridge program moving forward, as the college is planning to continue the Pritzker Promise for future incoming classes.

According to Phillips, similar “bridge” and peer-mentoring programs have been successfully implemented at many other colleges and universities. She points to studies demonstrating that such initiatives have been shown to lead to better academic outcomes; she sees the St. John’s bridge program as part of “the initial stages in what will be more robust structures for minoritized students” at St. John’s in the future.

Lico agrees about the benefits of bridge and peer-mentoring services. “There’s generally a lot of value to implementing programs over the summer that provide support to students, whether they’re new, incoming students or continuing students. There’s a lot of evidence to support [it].”

In future years—with the stability of ordinary, in-person learning—staff and faculty in both Annapolis and Santa Fe look forward to making the Pritzker Promise Bridge Program as effective as possible. In Santa Fe, where program participants had the chance to engage in an inaugural seminar, tutor Kathleen Longwaters hopes to eventually include a session on Greek, one of the more difficult subjects for incoming students. In Annapolis, meanwhile, Lico anticipates the program growing more nuanced and intentional to meet the needs of its intended population—a process that can only serve to further help new Johnnies.

But even with the historic circumstances of Fall 2020, the program was able to achieve its most important goal: helping incoming Pritzker Promise Scholars feel more prepared for the four years ahead.