Building community, building leaders: 30 years of SAW

The beloved summer bridge program for first-year students marks a big milestone and looks to expand.

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Words by Sarah J. Stevenson, MFA ’04; Photos by Allison Rost

When Daisy Gonzales ’07 toured Mills as an incoming first-year student in the Summer Academic Workshop (SAW), she looked up at the list of campus leaders in the Student Union, turned to a classmate, and said, “That’s going to be me.” And she was right—she went on to become a peer advisor, then a SAW program coordinator, and, within a few years, Gonzales was president of the ASMC.

And now? She’s deputy chancellor for the California Community Colleges, the largest system of higher education in the country.

Not many new students display such a high level of determination and focus, but SAWblings or SAW sisters—as alumnae often call one another—aren’t typical first-years. For the last 30 years, they have enrolled in SAW the summer before their first semester on the basis of academic and leadership promise. The vast majority are women of color. All of them are first-generation college students. And many show that same drive to succeed.

Imagine arriving on campus not just a stranger to Mills but to the logistics of higher education: navigating classes and managing a rigorous schedule without some of the key support systems and resources other students may take for granted. But add in SAW—one of several bridge programs at Mills that gives incoming students the opportunity to adapt to campus before classes begin—and you have a recipe not only for success, but for excellence.

SAW students start their time at Mills with an intensive four-week academic program consisting of three or four mini-courses, or modules, covering subjects such as computer science; sociology; English; mathematics; and Race, Gender, and Power, a class focusing on social justice. Classroom instruction takes an intersectional approach, exposing students to new subjects as well as developing their skills in writing and other foundational areas.

“The main goal is to give students a real taste of what college-level work would feel like at its most stressful,” says Ajuan Mance, professor of English and ethnic studies and dean of digital learning. She has taught SAW modules for 20 years.

SAW alum “pod leaders” award certificates to incoming first-year students at the end of SAW 2019.

The program, which is free to enrollees, is a collaboration with the Division of Student Life, helping SAW students familiarize themselves with the campus; understand the resources available to them, such as the tutoring center and counseling services; and clarify their own needs and goals.

“We talk about [a number of] things: imposter syndrome, how to create your own community in a place that might be really different from where you came from, self-care, and how to manage a college schedule. How do you deal with time and planning? What are assignments like in college?” says Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Priya Kandaswamy, who co-directs SAW with Associate Dean of Students Lea Robinson. In short, the program fills in the type of knowledge that students with parents who went to college generally possess.

SAW attendees reside on campus throughout the four-week summer program, but it isn’t all work and no play. There are community-building activities during off hours, such as tours of Oakland, baseball games to cheer on the A’s, and other social events. Peer advisors, who are often former SAW students, also live in the dorms for the duration of the program and serve as “pod leaders” to smaller groups of mentees.

By the time their first semester starts, SAW students have already earned four credits and are well-equipped with the tools they need to succeed on campus—not to mention a cohort of SAWblings to provide support and community. The cohort continues to meet as a group once a week throughout its first year at Mills, as well as on an occasional basis after that.

This year’s participants attended a brunch held by the Alumnae of Color Committee and heard all about life at Mills.

“It’s an academically challenging summer program, but we come at it from the perspective that ‘We know you can do these things and we want to make sure that you feel supported so that you’re also able to do the very best work you’re capable of doing,’” Kandaswamy says.

Professor Emeritus of Sociology Bruce Williams, a mainstay of the program in the early 2000s, puts it this way: “One of the hardest things you’re going to do in your life is moving from not knowing how to be a college student at all to being a successful student.” But, he says, SAW students need someone in close proximity to maintain high expectations and believe in them to stay motivated and thrive.

And thrive they do: SAW alumnae frequently credit the program for their success at Mills. “Without that program, I probably would not have finished college,” says Gloria Rodriguez Banuelos ’93, currently a high school science teacher and STEM researcher. “I was a hard worker and a good student, but I just didn’t have a lot of experience outside my immediate culture and the city where I was born and raised.”

Daisy Gonzales agrees. “I grew up in foster care, and had I not survived the Summer Academic Workshop and had incredible mentors like Bruce Williams, I don’t think I would have been prepared to be at Mills College my first year at all,” she says.

That advance preparation can be critical not only in terms of practicalities, but also with respect to finding one’s place in the campus community. “[As] a first-generation person, to be in college already has hurdles that are recognized across the board without regard to what your nationality is, or your ethnicity,” says Jalila Bell ’98, an attorney in Brooklyn, New York. But, she adds, “Being at a predominantly white institution is culture shock. It was very, very difficult to build and maintain friendships in that environment.”

SAW gives participating students the time and space to start building a community of their own. “When we came in, I feel like most of our cohort identified as women of color and, [since we were one of] the bigger cohorts, that was what made it comforting,” says Lauren Bartlett ’12, who works at the Downtown Women’s Center in Los Angeles. Taigi Smith ’94, currently a producer for ABC News in New York, agrees: “The best part of the program was the friendships I made with friends that have lasted a lifetime.”

Trustee Sabrina Kwist, EdD ’17, who is a former co-director of SAW.

Kandaswamy refers to it as a “SAW family,” and she’s far from the only one who couches the program in familial terms. “They were my proxy for a family,” says Gloria Banuelos, “for that middle-class family that’s supporting their student to go through college.”

In addition, Bartlett says, “There was such a representation of folks of color and women of color—leaders of color—on campus.” She and others mention the invaluable advice and mentoring provided by Mance and Williams in particular—both of whom loom large in the memories of many program alumnae.

Williams was in a unique position to mentor SAW students as a first-generation college student himself. When he took over the SAW program in 2000, it had been operating for 11 years but was suffering from poor academic outcomes and insufficient funding—not to mention a lack of clarity of purpose something noted by early graduates of the program. “I remember thinking and feeling that I’d been brought into a remedial program of sorts with no warning,” says Taigi Smith.

Former President Janet Holmgren tasked Williams with resurrecting the program, and he redesigned it to include a much more robust academic component as well as a year-round support system. Rather than focusing on remediation, he modeled the new incarnation of SAW after an honors program to increase the number of African American students in STEM fields at Xavier University. As a sociologist, he also stressed the importance of social responsibility and respect for others: “How is it going to benefit the world if you become a top-notch student [yet] you have no orientation to becoming a citizen of your community of the world, or trying to make the world a better place?”

According to Carolina Salazar ’06, district director for California Assemblymember Bill Quirk, Williams inculcated in his SAW students the essential truth that what they had to say was valuable and that they should behave accordingly.

“I remember the first day of class. We had all been very shy… nobody had sat in the front row, and he gave us this amazing and powerful lecture about how people have fought so hard in this country to make sure that people of color are no longer in the back of the bus, and that we have the opportunity to be in the front row,” she says. “It’s a powerful message. It’s being present, being heard, having a voice, understanding that you’re a leader, that you have power in your voice.”

Salazar still considers Williams to be one of her ongoing mentors—and his advice still holds true: “To this day, when I go to presentations or something for work, I’m always in the front row, to the point where my staff teases me about it.”

It’s these lasting effects of SAW that are the most striking— SAW graduates cite the program as one of the key factors in their ongoing success as leaders and activists, not just during their tenure on campus, but long after graduation.

Students in this year’s cohort (above) enjoy the English module taught by Professor Ajuan Mance (below).

“Mills builds leaders,” Jalila Bell says. “I certainly see that, and I see us going in all these different directions and being really courageous about the paths that we take in our lives.”

Mance agrees. “We’re very proud of how the students have really internalized this notion that they are leaders—academically and in terms of student life,” she says. “Make no mistake: these students will transform Mills.”

Indeed, the program has had a profoundly positive effect on the Mills community over the years, particularly on the retention of women of color and first-generation students. And because of SAW’s role in grooming would-be student leaders, SAW students have also been vital in shaping the character of campus activities— including the program itself. During her time as a peer advisor and program coordinator for SAW, Daisy Gonzales helped revamp the slate of activities to include a community project, such as volunteer work with a local convalescent home.

“For many of them, it was the first time they had ever volunteered,” she says. “For us, as a strategy, it was a part of helping them understand that this is their new community—this is what it meant to be a leader that is embedded in their community—and it went hand in hand with the work that Bruce Williams was teaching in the sociology course.”

Current SAW faculty members, including Priya Kandaswamy, are well aware of how the student body has changed over the past 30 years, and how this has necessarily influenced the educational philosophy of SAW. “It’s a strengths-based approach,” she says. “A lot of times, people focus on what first-generation college students might lack, but we emphasize the tremendous contributions that these students make to our campus community.”

The wide range of life experiences that SAW students bring with them is an invaluable addition to a classroom discussion, provoking discussions such as how what’s being taught is relevant to the communities they come from, or how it can be taught differently so it can affect more people. “I think that makes for a richer classroom conversation, a richer engagement with the material, because—for them—it helps them connect their learning to their own life, and for the whole class, we’re all broadening our experiences by engaging with the way this material resonates differently with people from different groups,” Kandaswamy says.

The Summer Academic Workshop is still going strong in its 30th year, with a recent grant helping solidify plans for two cohorts next year. This is welcome news since SAW alumnae have high hopes for the program’s future—many of them emphasizing how much it was a formative experience for them as first-generation college students and women of color.

“It really impacted so many people’s lives, including my own,” says Lauren Bartlett, “and I hope that it can continue to be available for students to come and in the future.”