Build the Bridge, Make the Change

NDSU’s Bison Bridge program supports first-generation, Pell-eligible multicultural students in making NDSU feel like a home away from home. Participants are paying it forward by building community on campus and beyond.

Story by Kayla Jones ’22, ’24 | Photos by Justin Eiler | April 16, 2024

As I sat around the table with my family at an NDSU Welcome Dinner for freshmen in the fall of 2018, I anxiously waited for the part where I would be on my own. Finally, the speaker encouraged the students’ families to “let go,” because we would be taken care of at NDSU and because he knew every single one of us could handle this journey. Unsure if I was scared or inspired, I chose to believe him.

I’m originally from St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri, but I made my way to Fargo, North Dakota, to attend NDSU because I wanted to experience a new area and I have family here. It felt like taking a big leap — but with a parachute.

My family in Missouri certainly had their concerns about me going to school so far away. As a first-generation, Pell-eligible student of color, my family knew that I needed additional support to attend college. Months prior to my first day on campus, my mother spent hours on the phone asking about resources, from “Who can she go to for support if she falls behind in classes?” to “Where can she find community on campus?” The academic stressors of college paired with the social adjustment weighed heavily on my mother’s heart and, secretly, mine too.

Then, shortly after my acceptance to NDSU, I received a letter inviting me to join Bison Bridge, a program established in 2013 to assist first-year multicultural students who are first-generation and/or Pell-eligible with the transition between high school and college.

Bison Bridge students are introduced to campus resources and participate in workshops and connection opportunities

Bison Bridge is a campus-wide effort. The week before classes started, my freshman cohort was introduced to a wealth of campus resources such as tutoring, TRIO Student Support Services, the library, counseling center, and more. We connected with the campus partners who presented as we asked question after question to alleviate our nerves. Each time, we were met with patience and a smile as they helped us learn more about NDSU.

“The goal is to build confidence so that students can navigate campus and find success,” Kaelen Napoleon, diversity and inclusion coordinator in the Office of Multicultural Programs, said.

Outside of learning about the resources NDSU has to offer, I spent time connecting with my fellow Bison Bridge participants through various workshops. My most memorable workshop included a guided conversation that helped each of us share our story. I recall feeling a sense of relief knowing there were others who had similar experiences and feelings about our future as students. That was the moment I knew that, if nothing else, I had found a community.

“My first and most consistent friends at NDSU were through Bison Bridge,” Frederick (Fred) Edwards ’18, ’21 said. “I’m thankful because it helped me get to know campus with other people who looked like me.”

Kaelen Napoleon, diversity and inclusion coordinator and Bison Bridge partner

After graduating with his bachelor’s degree in psychology, Fred earned his master’s degree in educational leadership and served as a graduate assistant in the Office of Multicultural Programs at NDSU. Today, Fred is the co-executive director of Umoja Inc. and a local changemaker and leader in the Fargo-Moorhead area.

Like Fred, I chose to continue my education at NDSU because I had found my home away from home. After earning my bachelor’s degree in psychology with minors in creative writing and women and gender studies in 2022, I went on to pursue my master’s degree in educational leadership because I felt there was great potential for increased programming in higher education focused on retention and access.

Bison Bridge was more than a chance to learn about the resources I have here — it was a chance to make NDSU my home.

- Kayla Jones

Bison Bridge relaunched in the fall of 2023 after a brief hiatus as part of the University’s strategic plan to support diversity, inclusion, and respect as well as student retention and access. Forty-three students were each awarded a $1,000 scholarship and received mentoring throughout the three-day pre-semester program which shifted into weekly mentoring meetings throughout the academic year.

Michelle Pearson, assistant director of Learning Services and Bison Bridge partner

“Programming was influenced by the needs that we currently see for our students,” Michelle Pearson, the assistant director of Learning Services, said. “Belonging, connection, resources, and academic and personal skills were all thoughtfully built and timed into programming to best help empower each student.”

Bison Bridge is supported by NDSU’s Office of Multicultural Programs, Learning Services, and the Office of Admissions. While working alongside Bison Bridge advisors and campus partners to develop new programming — including community-building workshops and campus tours — I was met with nothing but enthusiasm and helpfulness. I felt that same familiarity I experienced with campus partners as a freshman when I was the one asking the questions.

Bison Bridge helped me learn how to navigate my studies and the environment of higher education, but I also knew who I could reach out to if I ever needed help. Without a program like Bison Bridge, I wonder if I would have found my favorite study spot at the library, turned to the Career and Advising Center to continuously work on my resume, or met my lifelong best friend. Bison Bridge was more than a chance to learn about the resources I have here — it was a chance to make NDSU my home.

In May 2024, I will be graduating with my master’s degree in educational leadership. I hope to keep working in higher education to encourage, support, and implement more policies and programming like Bison Bridge that will create better access and retention for future generations of college students.

Kaelen says that she would love to see Bison Bridge become a two-week pre-semester program that includes early-move-in and a one-credit course that covers skills for studying, hands-on learning about specific majors, and more. Michelle imagines Bison Bridge starting as early as middle school and ushering students all the way through college.

Kayla Jones ’22, ’24 collaborated with Bison Bridge campus partners Kaelen Napoleon (center) and Michelle Pearson (right) during the program’s relaunch in fall 2023.

Bison Bridge is part of a bigger vision that puts students first. Growing the program gives me hope for more access for first-generation students, increased retention, and a greater sense of belonging campuswide. I can see the effects of Bison Bridge already at NDSU. Students find themselves in Kaelen’s, Michelle’s, and my offices to catch up, say hi, and take a break from the stressors of college. They are finding community here because of Bison Bridge.

I once needed a home away from home, and this program gave me that. To pay it forward, plus more, means the world. I am so grateful to be a part of it.

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