Onboarding: Bridge Courses

October 6, 2020
Adaptive, Blog, Equity, Projects

The Onboarding Red House blog series orients all who are new to the Red House and its work. This week's onboarding post was written by Duncan Peacock, a Red House Senior Program Developer. Duncan introduces The Senior Bridge Courses , a series of 1-credit, pass/fail senior seminars that aim to help students gain personal and professional skills, reflect on their undergraduate experience, and engage in discussions about how to lead a meaningful and fulfilling life after graduation.

What does it mean to lead from what I believe? How can I practice wellbeing in my everyday life? What’s my story? And what do lessons on justice, creativity, and Freud have to do with my life after graduation? These are the types of questions seniors ask in the Bridge Courses as they prepare to graduate.


The Purpose of the Bridge Courses

In the Spring of 2017, the Red House launched the Senior Bridge Courses, a new design made to address student needs during a unique moment of transition and growth: graduating from college. In the courses, students reflect on the journey through their undergraduate years with an eye towards the future. The topics of Bridge Courses range from the personal to the professional, reflection to skill-building, academic to action. They attempt to build on the sparks of the previous three years and ignite the engine of lifelong learning. 

The courses have a different feeling and ethos from much of the rest of the curriculum by design. The name “Bridge” acknowledges the nature of the boundary space students face as they move from student to alum, and honors the fact that even after graduating, students will continue to learn, change, adapt, and seek guidance. All of the Bridge offerings are housed in the same subject code (“UNXD,” or University-Wide Cross-Disciplinary) in order to recognize them as a unified set of courses that do not belong to any one school or set of requirements but are available to students from across all schools and majors. The one-credit, pass/fail model changes up the pace and the tone from the rest of the curriculum, while shifting the incentive structure from grades and GPA to intrinsic motivation and real life application. 

A Design Rooted in Student Experience

In 2015, administrators learned of an emerging trend where, on average, one-third of seniors dropped to part-time status in their final semester; another third had enough requirements met that they were eligible to be part-time too, and only a final third of seniors were locked into full-time status to complete their requirements for graduation. We discovered this trend while examining the impact of AP credits on credit accumulation.

This led the Red House team to interview a slew of seniors about their perspective on the trend. Our questions asked students to describe: 

  • Why were they going part-time?
  • What uses of time did seniors believe were most valuable during that final semester? 
  • What kinds of opportunities would they engage if only they were offered by Georgetown? 
  • What had been missing from the rest of their education at Georgetown thus far but could be offered at this critical juncture in life?

Out of these interviews we gained three salient insights: 1) students were moving on from college but could use support to transition out with confidence 2) they were interested in putting a cap on their education through courses that met their curiosity and promoted reflection without pressure 3) they were looking for practical guidance on how to be an adult, personally and professionally. 

Learning about these student perspectives persuaded us to pilot the Bridge Courses in 2017 to offer intellectual stimulation; reflection on the meaning of their college years; guidance on how to take their education forward in a practical way; help facing the future. 

On the faculty side, the teaching staff over the years has represented all four schools and included a mix of tenured, full-time non-tenure-line, and adjunct faculty, advising deans, staff from centers across Georgetown, and a handful of chaplains, all from across Main, Law, and Medical campuses. They are faculty who want to focus on helping students develop self-authorship, practice applied learning and skill building, and provide more experiential learning to put education into the context of students’ unfolding life pathways.

What Makes Bridge Effective 

We brainstormed a range of possible models to serve the desires and aspirations of these seniors, and the end product had a few key features that are mutually reinforcing: 

  • the topics: the courses range in topics and help students develop frameworks about life decisions, hope, and citizenship, and build skills like how to telling personal narratives, connect spirituality and leadership, and incorporate lifelong wellbeing practices 
  • the structure: small classes, typically around 7 weeks long, one two-hour meeting per week for deep work, and worth one-credit. 
  • the timing: these courses come at a unique moment in a student’s pathway to degree and tend to the psychology of the moment. 
  • the incentive: they are opt-in, they are graded on a pass/fail basis, and they allow seniors to sample a range of subjects they didn’t have a chance to explore elsewhere with a low barrier to entry. The average course size is about 12 students. 
  • the humanity: the courses make the curriculum more attentive to the human need for guidance, contemplation, and encouragement in this special life transition 

This resulting design intentionally combines curricular and structural innovation to help seniors process their Georgetown education and imagine ways to carry its lessons and values into their futures beyond college. 

The Growth and Future of Bridge

We offered 6 courses in that first spring semester, expanding to 12 in Spring 2018, and then to 15 in Spring 2019. The 2019-2020 school year was the first time we offered Bridge Courses in Fall and Spring — with 19  courses in all — recognizing that some courses were even more helpful when provided earlier in the job search cycle of senior year, that some seniors graduate early, and that we could more effectively distribute opportunities over a year. The program grew from 72 students in 2017 to almost 250 seats filled per year by 2020. 

Evaluations, anecdotal evidence, and faculty feedback have confirmed that this kind of learning experience makes a real impact on the end of a student’s time at Georgetown. Many students report that their Bridge Course was one of the most meaningful, if not the most meaningful course they took at Georgetown. They appreciate that the faculty take an interest in and care for their lives beyond courses. They feel that the set-up of the courses empower them to reflect, integrate, prepare. And when done best, the courses help students learn how to engage the questions, practices, and relationships they will need far beyond the gates of Georgetown.