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Concerns regarding Bowdoin Science Experience’s “hiatus”

May 5, 2023

This piece represents the opinion of the author .
Celeste Mercier

When I came to Bowdoin, I knew very little about college: what my classes would be like, what living in a dorm would be like or what my next four years would look like. With all these unknowns, it was comforting to hear that I would be sleeping in a dorm instead of on the floor of Farley Field House and that I didn’t have to spend several days outside with Maine mosquitoes. I was going to be taking part in Bowdoin Science Experience (BSE)—an orientation trip for first-generation, low income and/or students of color matriculants interested in science, math or technology. Recently, the 2022 BSE trip leaders received an email from THRIVE detailing BSE’s indefinite “hiatus,” citing low staffing and the prioritization of the Geoffrey Canada Scholars (GCS) program. In the email, it was suggested that anyone interested in leading an orientation trip should instead look to the McKeen Center.

BSE brought together students from all over the country and the world, united by our common appreciation for science, math and technology. We were each assigned a professor’s lab to work in during the program based on a survey we filled out prior to our arrival. These professors would also serve as our pre-major advisors. Over the orientation period, we hung out in labs with our advisors, ran experiments, attended a mock lecture with Associate Professor of Biology Anne McBride, got studying tips from Chair of the Baldwin Center for Learning and Teaching Eric Gaze and made ice cream using liquid nitrogen with Senior Lecturer in Chemistry Michael Danahy.

Maybe most importantly, we spent time with the trip leaders, most of whom were former BSE participants themselves. These upperclassmen served as a vital resource to many of us throughout the upcoming year as we navigated our first science courses, among other challenges. Many of these trip leaders also served as our THRIVE peer mentors, as BSE students were assigned BSE-associated peer mentors. BSE also provided participants work-study opportunities as research assistants in Bowdoin labs, often assisting senior honors students on their theses. The program was a much-needed orientation to life at Bowdoin, and an important introduction to many of the friendly faces that would support us over our college careers.

I did not realize the value of BSE until classes started and the real stressors of college came to confront me. At first, I found myself struggling both academically and socially; I spent significantly more time studying than my friends, only to feel like I was barely keeping up. Coming from a small, rural high school, Bowdoin was an immense challenge. However, I never felt discouraged in my science classes. Thanks to BSE, I found support from professors and knew more of my peers in my introductory science courses. Having these established relationships made me more likely to seek help, speak up in class and attend office hours.

I went on to be a BSE trip leader for two years, both in 2021 and 2022. In 2021, the first orientation trip cohort since Covid-19, the experience still felt true to its origin. Then, BSE was still largely conducted by faculty and staff in the science departments. However, when I was made head trip leader in 2022, the administrative components of the program had been fully taken over by THRIVE. The THRIVE iteration was a very different BSE than the one I had experienced. THRIVE altered the BSE agenda dramatically, ignoring feedback from previous participants. The BSE students no longer were able to meet with academic advisors or spend time in research labs, as engagement with faculty largely took the form of panels, not one-on-one interactions. I was asked to lead a faculty panel on very short notice, and though the advice from the professors was kind, thoughtful and considerate of the diverse backgrounds of BSE students, many students still felt distant from these professors. The panel could not replicate the time previous participants spent with their faculty advisor in the lab, learning how to run an experiment and realizing that professors are people who care about the success of their students. As many BSE participants are first-generation students, they often enter college with anxiety surrounding talking to professors, and the previous BSE events (like a barbecue dinner with professors) humanized the highly educated people that would be guiding them in their college education.

Furthermore, student leaders received minimal training and communication from THRIVE staff. BSE leaders struggled to keep incoming students organized as the daily schedule was not made accessible. This only added to anxiety and stress of the new students. As the head trip leader, I was not initially provided a list of allergies and was forced to sort out medical problems that arose with minimal assistance from staff. The select few faculty and staff contacted by THRIVE to assist with programming did their absolute best to welcome this new class of Bowdoin students, but the experience lacked the potential to truly connect with faculty and administration that so greatly benefitted past BSE students.

As the only students who can remember BSE in its original iteration graduate this Spring, I fear that the program will not be revived, or that those who do revive it will not know what made the program so valuable to students. As the THRIVE staff has almost entirely changed since last year, I hope that the new era will be better. Instead of letting important programs like BSE be forgotten, I hope that they can reinstate or even improve on the program that once existed. As THRIVE has redirected its attention to the GCS summer programming, it has let its other programs suffer. This is not to say that attention to GCS should be reduced, but rather that the multiple programs under the THRIVE umbrella should be able to exist to offer more underrepresented students support, especially during the critical period of acclimation to Bowdoin. Considering that Bowdoin is admitting increasing numbers of first-generation college students, THRIVE needs to critically consider how they will work to improve these students’ transition to college. As someone who has been a part of THRIVE as a student, peer mentor and BSE leader, suggestions and criticism from the students about programming have often been ignored.

Not having BSE this year will mean a cohort of Bowdoin students in STEM will struggle to find community and support in their classes and may take longer to feel like they belong at Bowdoin. Without the support I received through BSE and the faculty associated with the program, I might not be a neuroscience major. I might not have had the support to think that I could be a scientist at an elite institution like Bowdoin. Without BSE, Bowdoin might lose some of its best scientists—ones that could go on to make discoveries for the Common Good and continue to support underrepresented students in the field.

Jackie Seddon is a member of the Class of 2023.


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