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The Game Changers

Credited as the most diverse community on U-M’s campus, the LSA Comprehensive Studies Program provides students from underrepresented backgrounds the support and space to thrive.
by Brittany Smith

If you ask any student in LSA’s Comprehensive Studies Program (CSP) at the University of Michigan what makes it unique, the word that would probably pop up is “community.” 

For third-year sociology and social work student Rhianna Womack, the community CSP offers is one of the reasons she has succeeded academically and socially at U-M. She had some familiarity with U-M because her older brother also attended, but she still found it challenging getting acclimated to college life. CSP helped her overcome those challenges.

“The community—students, staff, everyone—works together to understand the needs of students,” Womack says. “Whether it’s planning a social event or providing resources for scholarships, that community-building is so important, and it definitely helped me."

Through her involvement with CSP, Womack is now on track to succeed in a career in social work. She recently was accepted into U-M’s accelerated Master of Social Work (MSW) program thanks in part to guidance from one of her supervisors in CSP’s peer mentor program, who is a graduate of the MSW program. 

“I was able to ask her about MSW, bounce ideas off her, get helpful tips,” says Womack, a Detroit native. “CSP also has professional events that I was able to attend, like how to prepare for an interview and how to get your resume together. So CSP has also been helpful on the professional side as well.”

A Lasting Legacy

Founded in 1983, CSP is an LSA-based unit that provides academic, social, and financial support for students, and focuses on leading the national standard for anti-racist, inclusive, and accessible education. While the program was founded nearly 40 years ago, CSP has roots that run deep within the university and was born out of grassroots student activism.

Its origin story dates back to 1964, with the launch of the Opportunity Awards Program, an initiative to recruit and retain Black students during a time when there were few on U-M’s campus. In 1970, the Black Action Movement strike (BAM 1) led to the creation of the Coalition for the Use of Learning Skills (CULS). That program launched the Summer Bridge Scholars Program, which was designed for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) students who begin their U-M career in the summer term to prepare them for academic success in the fall term. By 1983, the Opportunity Awards Program and CULS merged to form what is now the Comprehensive Studies Program.

"From its inception, the Comprehensive Studies Program has been a trailblazer in how we as a university can transform undergraduate education and be intentional about creating an equitable and inclusive student community," said Anne Curzan, dean of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts at the University of Michigan. "CSP Scholars are some of the best and brightest at the University of Michigan, and exemplify how a diverse campus and academic excellence are inextricably linked."

The program has a dedicated support network who work closely with the students throughout their journey at Michigan. Its flagship Summer Bridge Scholars Program welcomes more than 300 students each year. The program gave second-year economics and organizational studies student Mateo Brown a sense of familiarity. Coming from a high school in Denver, Colorado, where 85 percent of the students identified as BIPOC and 90 percent qualified for free or reduced lunch, Brown found a home away from home. 

“Bridge gave me a sense of comfort. The people in my classes are the type of people I went to high school with,” says Brown. “Being at a PWI [predominately white institution], it can feel overwhelming at times, because you’re around people who have much more [academic] experience and money than you do. Being in the program allowed me to feel comfortable to talk about those things.”

“I appreciate and acknowledge the amount of intention CSP brings to supporting students,” says Brown. “CSP, especially the staff that runs Bridge, has done an amazing job of encapsulating everyone. No matter what experience they bring, their identity, their background, they provide guidance and help push students in the right direction.”  He credits CSP with providing a space that is inclusive to all students, and taking a proactive and holistic approach to enhancing their college experience. 

CSP students have access to smaller course sections, mentors, workshops, tutoring services, interactive programming, and more. One of CSP’s newest initiatives is helping students reduce their need to borrow student loans. 

Making An Impact 

Launched in 2021, this initiative came about through a partnership between CSP and the LSA Scholarship Office to address one of the country’s most pressing issues impacting millions of students across higher education: student loan debt. CSP scholars often take out loans in order to attend U-M and, in turn, accumulate life-altering debt. With this initiative, CSP is focused on tackling a national issue, but on a smaller scale. 

“To support recruiting and retaining a diverse student population means more scholarship funding must be directed to reducing or eliminating educational loans,” says Doug Fletcher, director of scholarship programs for the LSA Scholarships Office. “Allowing students to begin a career without crippling debt from educational loans gets them on the track of wealth accumulation and [helps] change the trajectory of their own and their family’s financial and socioeconomic standing.” 

In addition to taking on debt, students typically bear the burden of applying for financial aid. With Summer Bridge Scholars, for example, they begin school before the fall term. As a result, they are required to complete a large amount of paperwork with very little time to do so. That can be another stressor for students already trying to adjust to campus life and the academic rigor of college, ultimately discouraging some from even attending U-M. In the first year of the initiative, CSP and the LSA Scholarships Office replaced loans totaling more than $220,000 with grants for 57 CSP scholars. The goal is to increase that number. 

“We have to do something to support students in realizing the full economic value of their degree,” says Kierra Trotter, director of CSP.

“These are the top students in their communities, who’ve been accepted into the top institutions in the country. In order to encourage these students to come to U-M, we need to reduce the financial burden for this additional [summer] term.”  

Here, Now, and Beyond

For the nearly 3,000 students it serves, CSP is more than a learning community; it is also a space where they can be their full, authentic selves and receive the individualized support needed to thrive socially and personally. 

“Just having that community to support you, to be your backbone, has been helpful,” says Madeline Zerial, a third-year neuroscience student. “Here we have similar backgrounds whereas other places at U-M, you might be the only one who is from a low-income background or a person of color. There are people here who support and care for you.”

For Zerial, coming to U-M from an under-resourced high school in Redford, Michigan, was intimidating. Initially, she felt unprepared academically, but she believes CSP helped her overcome her imposter syndrome. She is now planning to attend dental school after graduation.

“From my first day of orientation, my advisors and professors in CSP have always looked out for me. I look to them for personal and academic guidance,” says Zerial. “They care in a different way and they understand where you’re coming from. They’re more understanding if you have learning gaps, and they know students come from different backgrounds.”

Today, 75 percent of CSP scholars are LSA students and 72 percent are from Michigan. While progress has been made in the presence of students from underrepresented communities at U-M, there is still a long way to go. Part of CSP’s mission is to advocate for educational and social transformation.

Nearly 40 years since its founding, CSP continues to transform undergraduate education for students. Through its various offerings and initiatives, such as reducing student loan debt, the program provides a space, a support network, and a sense of familiarity for hundreds of students each year. The program’s proactive efforts to build an equitable and inclusive community ensure these scholars can thrive while here and beyond.

“As long as students are marginalized, there will be a need for programs like CSP,” says Trotter.



Photo courtesy of the Comprehensive Studies Program. Videos by Natalie Condon.
Release Date: 03/09/2022
Tags: LSA; csp; LSA Scholarships; Anne Curzan