When officials at New Mexico State University (NMSU) at Las Cruces wanted to partner with community colleges, they were able to tap into a National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded program entitled, "Bridges to the Future: Associate to the Baccalaureate Degree Program." The goals of the NMSU Bridges Program--dubbed "Bridges to American Indian Students in Community Colleges Program"--are twofold: to increase the number of American Indian students pursuing baccalaureate degrees in biomedical sciences after transferring to 4-year institutions, and to increase the number of these students participating in biomedical research.

Since its inception in October 1992, the NMSU Bridges Program has emphasized American Indian student development and recruitment at five community colleges. The participating institutions include three tribal colleges--Diné College in Shiprock, New Mexico, Crownpoint Institute of Technology (CIT) in Crownpoint, New Mexico, and Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona--and two state community colleges, UNM-Gallup of Gallup, New Mexico and San Juan College in Farmington, New Mexico. Collectively, these institutions serve about 5,000 American Indian students from three major tribes--Diné (formerly called Navajo), Jicarillo Apache, and Ute--and four pueblos: Acoma, Zuni, Laguna, and Jemez.

With the nearest community college partner being 337 miles from NMSU and the farthest 447 miles away, NMSU faculty mentors have had to do a lot of traveling to get the program going. But it's been worth it, since their dedication has prompted many community college students to stay the course and complete their B.S. degrees.

Program Goals

The aim of NIH's Bridges Program is to help community college students make a smooth transition to 4-year institutions. NMSU shares this central objective, but it has tailored the program to fit the needs of our local community college students. The NMSU program seeks to improve the competitiveness of American Indian students for entry into graduate schools by identifying, enriching, enhancing preparedness, and helping them to move on to baccalaureate degree programs in biochemistry, molecular biology, chemistry, biology, animal sciences, plant sciences, and computer science. The program aspires to transfer 70% of summer research participants to B.S. institutions and to have 50% of the transferees graduate with a B.S. degree. Our program includes:

  • A seminar/lecture/workshop series held at the community colleges during the academic year introducing students to biomedical-related research opportunities at NMSU via presentations by NMSU researchers (who also serve as summer research mentors and academic advisors after students transfer to NMSU).

  • A two-and-a-half-day orientation program held at NMSU to prepare students for research experiences at the institution.

  • A 10-week summer research program in which students conduct full-time research with NMSU faculty.

  • Summer opportunities for community college instructors to conduct research or curriculum development projects at NMSU.

Important Academic Tools and Survival Skills

Regardless of whether students start out at a community college or at a 4-year institution, writing and communication skills are vital to success. Most of the American Indian students joining NMSU from our community college partners speak a native language, or have lived with families that speak native languages. A high percentage of them have had poor English instruction in school, and English is a second language. So NMSU advises them to complete a college composition course and a college English literature course at the community college level before they transfer. For those students who participate in our Bridges summer research program, summer enrichment workshops--including formal instruction in science writing skills and oral communication skills--are mandatory. Students are required to present oral research summaries periodically throughout the 10-week summer research experience.


Glenn Kuehn, left, works in his laboratory with Ph.D. candidate Don Benn. Photo courtesy of Darren Phillips.

Our Bridges program devotes a large amount of time and effort to providing advice to American Indian transfer students to help them survive in academia. The transition from a reservation culture to a competitive academic environment is often difficult, and if a student is unprepared for the transition, failure is swift and certain. The following eight topics are discussed in workshops for students intending to transfer.

  • Identifying resources on campus early

  • Taking care of basic needs

  • Developing a study plan and sticking with it

  • Knowing your professors and classmates

  • Learning the value of study groups

  • Forming a new home and community

  • Planning home visits, recreation, and "mental breaks"

  • The central importance of persistence

  • Transferring to NMSU NMSU maintains a Web site including information for students intending to transfer to NMSU, such as: Which credits will transfer? What courses are needed to finish the B.S. degree? NMSU does not require a specific set of coursework for transfer. Rather, transfer admissions criteria are based on the quality of past performance. Community college students must have an overall GPA of 2.0 on a scale of 4.0 after completion of at least 30 credit hours of coursework. Moreover, any student who has completed a high school degree with a grade point average of 2.5 out of 4.0 and an ACT composite score of 21 may be automatically admitted to NMSU.

    A student does not have to earn an associate's degree to transfer to a bachelor's degree program in the state of New Mexico, but they are encouraged to do so. Approximately half of the American Indian students who participate in our Bridges Program do not complete an A.S. degree before transferring. NMSU officials believe students who transfer with A.S. degrees are more likely to complete the B.S. Students who don't complete introductory courses at their community college are likely to suffer academically because after transferring, classes are larger and access to instructors and opportunities for out-of-lecture assistance are less frequent. Our institution recommends that students intending to transfer from a community college to NMSU in the basic biomedical sciences should complete as many of the introductory science and mathematics courses as possible before transferring. A full year of organic chemistry is taught at the community colleges and students should complete this sequence before transferring, although few students do.

    Identifying Success

    Determining whether the NMSU community college partnership is meeting its objective is an important part of the program. While Bridges participants are still attending community college, program officers track students' progress until they complete their associate's degree and transfer. Once these students transfer to NMSU, the Office of American Indian Programs continues by maintaining and continuously updating the records of all enrolled American Indian students. Currently the list contains more than 250 students.

    For the past 13 years, NMSU and its community college partners have helped American Indian students participate in research projects and receive baccalaureate degrees. The program has seen 58% (114 of 195 total) of program summer research participants transfer to baccalaureate degree programs and 47.5% of those transferees graduating with B.S. degrees since 1992. Thus far, 12 students have earned master's degrees, three have completed doctorates, and eight students are currently enrolled in doctoral programs. These are vastly improved successes compared to the record that preceded the advent of the Bridges Program.

    Glenn Kuehn is a Regents professor of biochemistry at New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, New Mexico. He may be reached at gkuehn@nmsu.edu.