The Valencia College Alumni Association has created its own spinoff – the Association of Bridges Alumni.
On Feb. 26, more than 50 people attended a kickoff reception for the new Bridges alumni chapter. The newly formed alumni chapter honored former Bridges to Success director John Stover by naming a new scholarship for him.
The John Stover scholarship will be funded by donations from Bridges alumni. But the Valencia College Alumni Association gave the first donation – a check for $500, presented by Alumni Association president Zia Ansari.
“Talking to John Stover always reminds me of the heart of the Bridges program,” said Dr. Joyce Romano, vice president for student affairs. “It reminds me that Bridges is a covenant and a promise that we keep to our community.”
Bridges to Success was founded in 1987, and originally was designed to increase recruitment and retention of African-American students. Today, the Bridges to Success program accepts about 400 new students each year, promising each student a “full tuition and book” scholarship. The program admits low-income students who are determined to be capable, but at risk of not succeeding in college. Priority is given to African American and Latino males, first-generation college students, and others who have identifiable risk factors such as homelessness, parental incarceration, foster youth or unemployed parents.
Since its inception, more than 2,000 students have graduated and earned a degree at Valencia. One of those graduates is Jennifer Mezquita, who works at Valencia’s West Campus.
Mezquita, who has been asked to serve as founding president of the Bridges alumni chapter, graduated from Dr. Phillips High School as a first-generation, low-income Latina. Statistically, she said, experts would probably expect her to get pregnant and drop out of high school or college. But Bridges helped her excel.
“I was not an excellent high-school student. I wasn’t at the bottom; I was in the middle,” Mezquita said. “My experience with the (Bridges) program was wonderful. I felt at home. I felt I had a department I could connect with and feel supported by. I knew that I had a family away from home that I could come to, ask questions, ask for support, resources and mentors.”
On hand for the opening event was Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, who helped start Valencia’s College Reach Out Program, which later evolved to become the Bridges program. “I consider the Bridges program one of my children,” Thompson said.
The event also brought out recent Bridges alumni, including Laury Toussaint, who earned her A.A. from Valencia in 2012 and will graduate from UCF in May 2015 with a degree in health services administration.
Like many at the reception, Toussaint, who is planning to go to graduate school and later join the U.S. Navy, looks back on her Bridges experience fondly. “It was really fun,” she says, particularly the college trip that Bridges students took to Washington, D.C. with stops in North and South Carolina. “I met a lot of people. And we attended a lot of workshops that – even though they were mandatory – I really enjoyed.”
For 2010 Valencia graduate Tara Nelson – who’s now preparing for graduate school – the most important lessons from the Bridges program came from the mandatory community service that Bridges students are required to perform.
“The best thing about Bridges – though I didn’t appreciate it at the time – was all the community service they made you do,” Nelson said. “I got to experience things I would not have at that age.”
Indeed, echoed Mezquita, the community service is part of the key to Bridges’ students’ success. “It was wonderful to be able to give back to the community,” she said. “During my own educational journey, not only did I have to be a good student, but I also had to be an example for others. But that’s a tall order to meet.”
Now Mezquita hopes her fellow Bridges grads will unite under the umbrella of this new alumni chapter – and serve as mentors for future Bridges students, while also serving Valencia.
One of the first to sign on was Eddie Coleman, who graduated from Valencia in 1991.
Coleman, who graduated from Jones High School, recalled that he was determined to go to college, but didn’t know how he would pay for it. He interviewed for a scholarship at Valencia – and though he didn’t receive that scholarship, the interview opened doors for him. An anonymous benefactor stepped forward and privately awarded Coleman a scholarship.
“I still do not know who that was,” said Coleman, who graduated from Valencia in 1991 and then went on to graduate from UCF, “but that led me to say, ‘I’m going to pay that forward.’ “ Seven years ago, Coleman – who’s now president of an Orlando software company called WavaTron — created a scholarship fund for Jones High School graduates who are entering the Bridges Program. .
“Don’t forget this program,” Coleman warned his fellow graduates. “This program motivated us to continue and strive.”