Non-Native Freshmen Get a ‘Bridge’ to the College Experience

Posted: July 23, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Bridge program students
Instructor Sonja Knecht-Hoshi, center, hands out an assignment to help students in the summer Bridge Project navigate services in the Johnson Center.

By Dave Andrews

A group of incoming freshmen will be much more prepared — and much less intimidated — for their first semester at Mason than many of their peers. And for all of them, English is not their first language.

Already on campus this summer, the newcomers are enrolled in the Bridge Project — a program run by Mason’s English Language Institute (ELI) that prepares non-native English-speaking freshmen, who have strong academic records from Virginia high schools but limited English skills, to become successful college freshmen.

Of the 14 students in this year’s class, four grew up in China, four are from Vietnam and three hail from South Korea. The remaining three grew up in Bangladesh, Iran and Turkistan.

Reading, Writing and Vocabulary

During the intensive five-week program held each summer on Mason’s Fairfax Campus, the students work on their academic reading, writing and vocabulary skills for three and a half hours a day, five days a week.

In addition, to smooth the transition to campus life, the students are assigned to familiarize themselves with Mason and its resources. Most recently, the class went to the main student union, the Johnson Center, where the students were split up into groups and had to learn where to make photocopies, research discount availabilities at the computer store and even find out the cost of a bagel and a cup of coffee.

students in Bridge program
Jenny Xu and Long Nguyen are participating in the Bridge Project this summer.
Photos by Evan Cantwell

Most of the students have already completed an English as a Second Language program in their high schools and graduated with high GPAs and enthusiastic recommendations from their teachers. But academic skills oftentimes do not reflect language skills, according to Melissa Allen, Bridge Project coordinator and core instructor at ELI.

“The Bridge Project started after the Admissions Office kept seeing transcripts with high SAT math scores and high GPAs, but with low verbal scores,” says Allen. “The program helps these students overcome potential communication problems when they start classes at the university level.”

As one of the most diverse universities in the nation, and one that draws a large number of gifted high schoolers, Mason is an appropriate home for the program. Each summer since 1992, the Bridge Project has helped 15 to 20 students get a leg up on the college experience.

The program instructors grade students in reading, writing and the resource workshop. Students must successfully pass each course to complete the program as a final step before being admitted to attend Mason in the fall. Though the instructors ensure the program is challenging with a curriculum full of essay writing, journal keeping and article summarizing, most students pass without difficulty, Allen says.

“Not only do the students develop stronger English skills by the time they begin classes in August, but they’ve also formed a network of supportive classmates, teachers and other contacts,” Allen says. “They also learn their way around campus to avoid the beginning-of-semester disorientation that many freshmen experience.”

Alumnus of the Year

Sung Lee, a Mason alumnus who received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 2002 and a master’s degree in systems engineering in 2006, is just one of the Bridge Project’s many success stories.

After completing his undergraduate program, Lee knew that to get the career he wanted he would have to get work experience in addition to a master’s degree. Ultimately, he decided to do both at the same time.

Now a systems architect for Lockheed Martin, Lee was named the Bridge Project’s 2007 Alumnus of the Year. Lee, who came to the United States from South Korea when he was in the ninth grade, credits the Bridge Project with helping him cope with the demanding courses and more complex language he encountered in the classroom.

Sung Lee
Sung Lee
Photo courtesy Sung Lee

“The first semester is the most important [for incoming freshmen] to become acquainted with the campus and to get used to the challenging classes,” Lee explains. “After completing the Bridge Project courses, the strategy I developed was to not overload my class schedule, as many freshmen tend to do. This allowed me to keep my focus and maintain a good GPA.”

From his experience, Lee suggests that students look ahead and think strategically. They should think about who they want to work for and in what position. And they should make sure to develop the skills the employer will want to see. Some day, Lee hopes to be the CEO of his own engineering firm.

The Bridge Project is one of the many support services designed by ELI to help students transition to college life in the United States. Mason’s ELI was established in 1981 to provide quality instruction that develops language and academic skills, as well as cultural awareness essential to its students’ success.

Write to at