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For Ryan Dosumu-Johnson, a summer research experience made possible by a community college bridge program opened his eyes to a career in science.
This spring, Dosumu-Johnson faced an altogether different kind of choice: enroll in the joint M.D./Ph.D. program at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), or accept admission to the tri-institutional program at Weill Cornell Medical College, Rockefeller University, and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
Clearly, school suited him just fine.
Dosumu-Johnson's story offers a lesson to educators as they search for the next generation of scientists: don't forget community colleges.
A handful of educators have built “bridge programs” between community colleges and four-year institutions. The Bridges to the Baccalaureate program that steered Dosumu-Johnson toward a Ph.D. is based at the University of California, Irvine, and includes an undergraduate summer research program at the university. It's one of dozens of similar initiatives administered by four-year colleges and universities to help community college science students successfully transition to four-year institutions.
The funding for such programs comes from organizations, including HHMI, the Virginia-based Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). These institutional programs are experimenting with different formulas to see what it takes—in addition to financial aid—to find and nurture future scientists among the ranks of community college students.
Teasing apart the winning components of these endeavors is no simple task. The strategies and goals are as diverse as the students, who often are from groups underrepresented in the sciences. But lots of close attention and advising for the students, plus a hands-on research experience, appear to be essential. And for students like Dosumu-Johnson, these efforts are well worth the investment.
“The range of student talent at community colleges is extraordinary,” says Chris Craney, director of undergraduate and sponsored research at Occidental College, a four-year private college in Los Angeles. In the mid-1980s, Craney, a chemistry professor, started a summer research program at Occidental for community college students interested in science. Over the years, he drew from a variety of funding sources, including HHMI. He says some of his best students transferred to Occidental via the research program.
“It tapped a talent pool that's often overlooked,” he says.
Two-year colleges have long been undervalued in two significant ways. First, they lack federal support. Although community colleges serve nearly half the undergraduates in the country, the federal government provides them with less than one-third of the funding that it gives public four-year colleges, according to a report released in May by the Brookings Institution.
Photo: Mark Harmel