Avanza Summer Bridge Program Empowers, Supports New Students

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Dominican University of California’s inaugural cohort of Avanza Summer Bridge students gained a head start on their academic journey with a series of virtual and on-campus programming designed to enhance academic skill sets and strengthen the students’ sense of belonging at Dominican.
The Avanza Summer Bridge program was developed to provide accompaniment, a community of belonging, and direct access to campus resources for students who are entering their first year at Dominican, says Dr. Lindsey Dean, La Vida Dominican Director. Its curriculum and programming centers the interests and cultural wealth of those who identify as Latinx, Black, Indigenous, first-generation, and students of color.
Following a virtual launch, the eleven student participants spent their first week on campus attending classes and meeting with faculty, staff, and peer mentors in order to explore the many aspects of the university’s signature experience, the Dominican Experience, while also understanding how to navigate the higher education landscape as a student of color and/or a first-generation college student.
Through the Dominican Experience, all students receive personalized coaching; build meaningful relationships with professors, staff, and community partners; pursue self-directed work; and create digital portfolios to highlight their academic, personal, and professional accomplishments. In recent years, Dominican has earned national recognition for its strong outcomes in terms of student social mobility, student retention, and student graduation rates.
Avanza is funded by Dominican’s $3 million La Vida Dominican Minority Serving Institution grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Education to improve educational outcomes for Spanish speaking students. The grant will support Dominican in expanding undergraduate programming and introducing new initiatives to increase first-year and transfer enrollment and improve retention and graduation rates for Latino students.
The name Avanza, which means to move forward/advance, was selected by Dominican students who follow La Vida Dominican’s Instagram.
“What makes the Avanza program a unique experience is its prioritization of the cultural wealth of its students, offering empowerment and support as they embark on their higher education journey,” says Lily Servin, La Vida Dominican Program Coordinator.
“With many participants being first-generation college students, the program strives to create a welcoming environment that celebrates their unique backgrounds. As a first-generation student myself, I understand that embracing these identities fosters a stronger sense of belonging.”
Avanza, Servin adds, also provides an opportunity for students to see themselves represented in the leadership and professional staff who share similar identities.
“Beyond academic preparation, Avanza initiates conversations about family relationships, support systems, and imposter syndrome to address the emotional and social aspects of students' lives,” she says. “Avanza stands as a transformative experience that honors diversity, empowers students, and prepares them not only for academic success but also for personal growth and self-discovery in higher education and beyond.”

The students also participated in a two-unit course titled “La Lucha Sigue: Educated, Proud, Powerful.” The course was designed and taught by Dr. Lucia León, Assistant Professor of Latino Studies and Social Justice and La Vida Program Chair and Faculty Lead, in order to introduce students to Latinx, Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) scholars and their tools to expand an understanding of BIPOC students and communities in the United States.

“By centering BIPOC students’ experiences, and the activist and academic efforts to expand educational equity, students will reflect on their lived experience, community and social justice,” says Dr. León.

Students also participated in daily Integrative Coaching sessions designed and led by La Vida Integrative Coaches Josue Castillo and Melinda Martinez-Becker. In the fall, the students will enroll in the Navigating College course with these same coaches, establishing continuity and connections with both the cohort and the La Vida team.

Additional sessions oriented students to campus support, including services and programs offered by Student Affairs, Global Education, the Health Center, Financial Aid, Accessibility and Disability Services, Counseling Services, Library Services, the Diversity Action Group, and the Honors program. Students participated in a series of “registration parties” with faculty and staff assisting students with the sometimes daunting process of registering for a class.
Workshops included math/science study skills & exploration, art, a writing session taught by graduate students in the MFA program, and a session on wellness. A student/alumni panel introduced the incoming students to various opportunities and meaningful experiences of continuing and graduated students. Communal lunches, dinners, and activities were shared by Avanza students, as well as staff and members of the La Vida team to create a casual and welcoming atmosphere and begin establishing connections from the start. All of this was followed by an outing to San Francisco and a celebratory dinner on the last day of the program.
La Vida Dominican program is able to build upon the strong, pre-existing foundation of Dominican’s signature program, the Dominican Experience. Student experience, identity/ies, culture, family, and community are at the heart of La Vida,” says Dr. Dean.
La Vida benefits the campus as a whole through enhanced professional development offerings for faculty and staff. Sessions will focus on community assets and cultural wealth, and aid in supporting best practices for cultivating a sense of belonging on a campus that strives to honor its Minority Serving Institution designation.”
Avanza does not end on the last day of the summer bridge program, Dr. Dean adds.
The La Vida team will hold monthly meetings to continue to build programming, check in about student progress, offer updates on each area of the Dominican Experience and how the Faculty Fellows are working with La Vida students on the integration of each component into their college career. Lunch gatherings with students from the Avanza cohort will ensure that student voice continues to guide the development and success of La Vida.
“Year-long programming that is culturally relevant and grounded in the spirit of communing with one another will invite students, families, and community partners to film screenings, musical performances, and celebrations on campus such as Día de los Muertos,” Dr. Dean says.
“As we continue to build La Vida, our assessment efforts will expand to include direct outreach to family members to see how they, in addition to our students, can feel more connected to our campus community and what systems of support we can establish to aid them as they navigate the journey of being a parent or caregiver of a college student.”
Students in the program include graduates of San Rafael High School, Los Altos High School, Terra Linda High School, Leadership Public School (Richmond, Oakland and San Francisco campuses), San Mateo High School, Roseland University Prep, Gilroy High School, and Cristo Rey De La Salle East Bay High School.

Move-in day for all Dominican students is today, August 16, followed by Orientation 2023.

Photograph: Avanza students visit San Francisco.

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