It was the spring of her senior year in high school, and Gail Carr Williams (A.B. ’79) had no idea where she was going to college. “I did okay in high school,” she recalls, “but not great. My grades weren’t stellar. College acceptances weren’t knocking down my door.” But one afternoon a letter arrived that invited her to come to Rackham Hall in Detroit to talk to someone about admission to U-M through a new program: LSA’s Summer Bridge.

“My dad took me to the meeting,” she recalls, “My older sister Darnell was already at Michigan. She was very smart and studious, and, in my mind, the perfect fit for a school like Michigan.

"I often felt like I was riding her coattails,” she continues, “and maybe even living in her shadow. However, she always assured me I was just as smart as her, and that I needed to believe in myself as she believed in me." In the end, she accepted the offer and joined Summer Bridge’s inaugural class.

Building the Bridge

Summer Bridge was designed to help underrepresented students successfully transition from high school to U-M through a seven-week summer program. Completing the program, which includes three rigorous, credit-bearing courses, is a condition of their admission to U-M. Administered by LSA’s Comprehensive Studies Program, Summer Bridge was originally designed by staff from the Coalition for the Usage of Learning Skills—a group that arose from the Black Action Movement of 1970—and university administrators. Since 1975, Bridge has brought intensive academic preparation, individualized academic advising, community, and faculty attention to U-M students.

Carr Williams has clear memories of her time with the program. “I remember we went to see Jaws in the theater together,” she says, “and hanging out at the McDonald’s that had opened near campus. I remember the sense of closeness and the fun.”

In her role at Vanderbilt, Carr Williams focuses on sustaining relationships and creating opportunities to support university initiatives in line with U-M's: teaching, research, public service, and health care.
Photo courtesy of Steve Green

She also remembers herself as someone who lacked confidence in her ability to learn, and she remembers Summer Bridge as the time when that started to change. “I remember realizing it was a pivotal time for me,” she says. “I started to internalize my competence and talents. I began to think, ‘Well, maybe I do have these abilities.’”

It turns out, of course, she did. After graduating with a degree in political science, Carr Williams became a lawyer and now works at Vanderbilt University as the associate director of community, government, and neighborhood.

The Full Circle

Many parts of Carr Williams’s story would apply to the thousands of other Summer Bridge alumni whose lives were similarly changed by the program. From her vantage point as one of its earliest participants, she feels doubly connected: as someone personally invested in the effort to make campus more inclusive, and also as the beneficiary of work that others did for her.

“When I think about my passions, increasing access for all kinds of students and supporting those students is something I care deeply about. It’s isolating when you don’t see many people who look like you. I want to be part of those discussions and to join in the work that needs to be done to make campus more comfortable.

“I got that chance,” she continues, “and now it’s my turn to be the cheerleader. I think about the students who came before me, who protested to increase diversity and opportunities so students like me could come to a great school, and I think of the administrators who responded to the students’ peaceful and effective activism. I was so lucky.”

It’s a passion that, for Carr Williams, still feels personal. “With each opportunity I had, I know someone did something to create it for me,” she says. “When a kid gets a chance to come to Michigan with the best and brightest kids in America through Summer Bridge and decides to go and thrives, it’s super exciting.”

To explore related topics, please follow the links below: