Last year, more than 4,000 first-year students enrolled in LSA. Some came from high schools that offered every AP class; others had to drive more than an hour just to take the ACT. Some students graduated in a class of 40 students; others ran track on a team that was more than twice that big. Some students came from families with multigenerational ties to U-M; others are the first members of their families to attend any college anywhere. Each of these students arrived on campus with different histories, backgrounds, and aspirations, but they have one thing in common: They all have a chance to thrive at U-M.
The Comprehensive Studies Program (CSP) is one vehicle on campus that makes this possible.
“We serve the most underrepresented students in the U-M community,” says Dwight Fontenot (M.S. ’86, M.S. ’87, Ph.D. ‘93), associate director of CSP. “They are students who come from working-class backgrounds, from under-resourced high schools, and from very small schools. They are the first in their families to go to college. In the last few years, we’ve also seen an increase in the number of students who come from the Upper Peninsula. You can’t point out a group of U-M students and say they’re CSP,” he says.
When CSP students arrive on campus, one of the first things they do is meet the advisors who will work with them until they graduate. CSP students meet with advisors three or four times each term, and choosing courses is just the beginning. Advisors ask how students are adjusting, what they want to learn next, what clubs they might join, and if they need help planning for graduate school. “CSP advisors try to get a holistic view of our students’ lives,” says Fontenot.
Conversations with CSP advisors might include test taking, career development, or completing the right financial aid forms at the right time. “A lot of what we’re doing,” says Fontenot, “is modeling building relationships, which is what you’re supposed to get out of college.” And given the closeness of CSP students and alumni, what they’re doing clearly works.
That aligns with the experiences of CSP alumna Cherish Thomas (’09, M.S.W. ‘11). “To be frank,” she says, “without CSP I would not have graduated. If people only knew how many times I ran to the CSP office in crisis. They taught me to be resourceful, and how to ask for help. They helped me build relationships with others. CSP helped me bridge the space between opportunity and accomplishment.”
In addition to advising, CSP offers 100- and 200-level courses across multiple disciplines that are structured to give students more access to professors and additional feedback. The courses—which range from physics to economics to Spanish—offer extended office hours and longer class sessions. The courses cover the same material as non-CSP courses, but they’re structured differently. Professors might check over homework or offer weekly quizzes to help students assess their understanding. They’re designed to make students proficient in the course material and in the courses themselves.
Timothy Wiggins (’07) recalls a CSP math class in which the professor pressed him to record every step in solving a problem—regardless of the final answer—in order to be able to assess his logic. “It was intense,” he said, “and we battled quite a bit because I frankly didn’t see the point.
“However, one day I did it and saw a flaw in my process. That skill and discipline turned out to help me tremendously—in the class, as a law student, and, later, as an attorney.”
CSP also administers the University Summer Bridge Program, an intense, seven-week program that helps students who need more support transition from high school by strengthening their academic foundations, introducing them to resources on campus, and giving them a chance to acclimate before other students arrive in the fall. Bridge students take three credit-bearing courses: a math class, a writing class, and a first-year CSP seminar. They live together in one residence hall, and they are encouraged to stay on campus even on the weekends to experience the social life of Ann Arbor. The Bridge Program will welcome its 40th class this year, a class whose members will be the latest additions to a group of more than 10,000.
Dyan Jenkins-Ali (’90, M.H.S.A. ‘93) was one of those students. Coming from the tiny town of Maybee, Michigan, she says, “My difficulty wasn’t so much finding my way around campus. It was figuring out the language: What is a TA? What are office hours?
“In Bridge,” she continues, “my advisor said things like, ‘You have an exam? What did you do to study? Next time you go to your professor’s office hours, what part of the material should you ask about to make sure you understand?’” After Jenkins-Ali completed the Summer Bridge Program, she entered the LSA Honors program. “That really boosted my confidence.”
Though the successes and accomplishments made by CSP alumni are easy to track and measure, some of the program’s most significant and lasting effects are a little harder to quantify. Says Thomas, who grew up in foster care and, in turn, became a social worker who works with kids in foster care today, “I think my experience with CSP helps others see that college is a real option.”
“CSP allows students at U-M to break social barriers,” says Jenkins-Ali. “Everyone wants to feel included, and it’s tempting to just remain comfortable in your own culture or ethnic group. But it’s important for those of us who were not part of the majority to find mentors who were different from us and helped us grow.”
Lester Spence (’91, Ph.D. ‘01), a professor of political science and Africana studies at Johns Hopkins and a frequent commentator on National Public Radio, is more succinct. “If I could boil down the impact of CSP on my life into six words, they'd be: I wouldn't be here without it.”